Cultured Conversations: Jurnee Smollett Talks Lovecraft Country

Between Birds of Prey and starring in HBO’s critically acclaimed Lovecraft Country, it’s fair to say Jurnee Smollett is having a better 2020 than most of us. Given her bold and charismatic portrayal of activist Letitia “Leti” Lewis in the HBO original, it is no surprise that Smollett’s character has quickly become a fan-favourite of the series.

Lovecraft Country marks the second time Jurnee Smollett works with Misha Green.

In Lovecraft Country, Smollett teamed up with showrunner Misha Green, whom she previously worked with in Underground. The new Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams produced horror fantasy depicts the horrors of being an African American in Jim Crow America – a subject that is unfortunately relevant. Since its premiere, the HBO original has been praised for its unique take on Lovecraftian lore as well as its ability to use genre storytelling to dissect America’s history to reveal the systemic issues underneath it.

In this interview, Smollett opens up about her relationship with showrunner Misha Green, her love for sci-fi and horror, as well as the terrifying nature of racism.

What drew you to this project and why, how did you feel reading the script?

Misha Green’s previous project Underground starring Jurnee Smollett as Rosalee.

Underground​ had just been cancelled and they were still trying to find a home for it. I was aware of Misha working on this project and after she wrote the pilot, she just kind of casually sent it to me to read, just as a friend and I instantly missed her writing. At the time, I was fielding a lot of offers from other showrunners and just the first few pages made me truly just miss her style of writing and her brilliance. Then when we got to Leti in the script, the way she’s introduced, I mean, within the first few minutes, I was like, there’s no one that can play this role than me and why has Misha not talked to me about this role? [Laughs].

So I became obsessed, and by the time I finished reading the pilot, it was the thing that I was now losing sleep about. I was just so drawn to Leti’s spirit, she’s this buoyant woman, she’s somewhat of a disrupter and that has so many contradictions. She leaves her home in search of a home, and she’s desperately trying to be reborn and to shed her old self.

It’s kind of played with this feeling of displacement, which I can really relate to, as being a Black American, one does suffer from that feeling of displacement. It just was such an exciting project and this idea of flipping the genre on its head and reimagining it in such a bold way was very exciting to me.

You worked with Misha Green on Underground, what was it like working with her again on Lovecraft Country?

It was very exciting, we kind of have a shorthand with each other by now. When we initially worked together on Underground on the pilot, I couldn’t stand her and she couldn’t stand me, we hated each other and fought a lot, because we both have very strong personalities. Then once we got through that we learned each other’s love language and became incredibly close through the seasons. By the time we got on the set of Lovecraft, I just knew her voice so well, and she knows my process so well that it was just a very fluid experience.

Jordan Peele redefined the horror genre for the African-American in Hollywood.

Are you a fan of sci-fi and horror? How do you feel about this project as we don’t often get Black people at the forefront of these kinds of shows?

I mean listen, horror, sci-fi, thriller — these are genres that I grew up loving just like anybody else. I remember seeing The Silence of the Lambs when I was 10 years old at a sleepover my sister was having with her girlfriends and I slept over in the living room with them because I thought I was cool [she laughs]. And I remember Hannibal and just being struck by this ability to use terror in such an effective way. Yet it’s been a genre unfortunately that as an artist I’ve just felt shut out from. It’s not that I haven’t been offered the roles or had the opportunity to play in it but far too often it’s these genres that have just unfortunately erased us as Black artists. Often times, I would just be yelling at my agent, saying ‘I don’t want to be the Black chick that dies on page 33’ which unfortunately is how a lot of writers write our characters in these genres. So it was quite frustrating to feel shut out from something that I was a fan of. Also, I didn’t want to sacrifice my artistic integrity and do something that I didn’t feel creatively stimulated by.

Over the years, I’ve been quite excited by people like Jordan Peele. Now, seeing how Misha is just taking this and flipping this genre on its head and completely reimagining it in such a radical way in centering Black voices, in a genre in which we’ve been shut out from for so long is just thrilling to me, frankly.

Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country.

 Tell me what it’s like to work alongside Jonathan Majors, it felt like you both had a great bond.

We had nicknames for each other, ‘thunder and lightning, Atticus thunder Freeman, Letty lightning Lewis’. That’s my partner in crime. We really leaned on each other so much in the process. We just went in the flow with each other. Of course, you approach it with the understanding that this is a very hefty project that you’re taking on but honestly, you’re only as good as your partner. There was this real ferocity to push each other, it’s not like we spoke about it, it’s not like we decided, but I think we both felt it. And for me, he is phenomenal as an artist, it was a real joy to work alongside him.

The segregated United States of America in 1950s serves as a main theme for Lovecraft Country.

The show is centred in 1950s segregated America but often it feels quite current at times — what do you think of this?

​Well, I feel like this story is very ancestral. Essentially our heroes go on a quest to bring down white supremacy, racism is a demonic spirit. We see that in them being engaged in a spiritual warfare, and the stakes are so high and Lovecraft was a master of terror, but he was also a racist.

The unfortunate thing about the systemic racism that has existed in our nation since 1619, is that this show could have been released on any day, in any month of any year since 1619 and unfortunately, the themes we explore would have been relevant. Because we as a nation haven’t fully healed and confronted systemic racism and have yet to truly dismantle it. The unfortunate thing is that, yes, these themes are timely in our show, but name me a time that they wouldn’t be.

Letitia Wright in Lovecraft Country potrayed by Jurnee Smollett.

Leti was very independent and strong-minded especially for a woman in the 1950s, did you feel that resilience playing her? ​I definitely felt that I had to lean into exploring her defiance and her ability to disrupt. I was very much so intrigued by her. Her unwillingness, she makes an active choice to reject everything that her mother represented. Along with that, she’s also rejecting the societal pressures, or the societal ways that a woman should behave as a Black woman in 1955, she has that double jeopardy of being Black and female. There were women who were like her and it’s how we got a Lorraine Hansberry because she said, ‘no, I shall use my voice. I won’t ask for permission to do it’. It’s how we got an ​Althea Gibson​because she said ‘I love to play tennis. By any means necessary, I’m going to become the best’. We come from such resilient women.

That’s why I say the story is very ancestral because I know these women, this is my mother, this is my grandmother, this is my auntie. Growing up I heard stories about my grandmother, who was a beauty queen. She was the first Black Miss Galveston, Texas, and was a single mother raising four kids and clean white folks’ homes. But every single day, she would get up and with the dignity of any other Queen, she would get dressed and press out her clothes and make sure her hair was done and go to work and clean the homes of these families who neglected her. But she wouldn’t let them rob her of her dignity. And to me, growing up and hearing that about my grandmother, I think of how I approached Leti, she will fight, kick and scream to keep her dignity. And it’s just something that I admire so much about the DNA of the people we come from. It’s why we are here.

Lovecraft Country depiction of racism as a form of horror.

The monsters in the show are scary but one could say that the police and racism are monsters too — what do the monsters in Lovecraft Country symbolise to you?

​I can’t give away too much but I think what they represent evolves and changes. Racism is a demonic spirit and this level of terror in our nation, it’s not just fictional. It’s real. I for sure feel that. Yes, the monsters represent a number of things, but at their worst, they represent the worst in America. But I won’t give too much away because there’s a little bit of evolution with the monsters.

What do you hope people will take away when they watch Lovecraft Country?

​It’s so hard as an artist to tell anyone how this art should impact them because that’s the beauty of art. It impacts us all differently. However, I do feel that one of the common things that Lovecraft Country work is notorious for exploring is the dark secrets hidden in families. And that’s essentially what the story is — it’s a family story. And I think we will all find members of our family in the story.

Lovecraft Country premiered on 17th August 2020 in Malaysia, and continues on Mondays exclusively on HBO GO.