‘Lovecraft Country’ Star Jurnee Smollett On Blood Memory And The Upside Of Being Underestimated

‘Lovecraft Country’ Star Jurnee Smollett On Blood Memory And The Upside Of Being Underestimated

06/19/2021

Jurnee Smollett has earned some of the best notices of her career for Lovecraft Country, HBO’s hit supernatural limited series. She stars as Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis, a young African-American woman drawn into an occult odyssey through the segregated and virulently racist America of the 1950s. Malevolent white people, some involved in strange, mystical activities, and bloodthirsty beasts pursue Leti and her traveling companions, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), across 10 episodes of supercharged action. HBO may order a second season, which would once again put Leti through the wringer.

DEADLINE: What was your reaction when you first read the script?

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JURNEE SMOLLETT: Number one, after reading it, I lost sleep. I felt such an overwhelming desire to play Leti. There was such a fear that there would be anyone but me playing that. And I don’t really have that sort of reaction usually to roles. I’ve been doing it so long that I’m able to trust what’s meant for me is meant for me. And with Leti, it just felt like I was so called, that I lost sleep and had real anxiety over whether or not it was going to come my way.

We actors are crazy in that way. I was so struck by the show, writ large, and that what [creator] Misha Green and [EPs] Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams are doing felt so disruptive and that they were providing such a compelling counter-narrative to this very dominant narrative within film and TV and within this genre space.

My mentor Alfre Woodard talks about the idea of finding the eyes of the character. How does your character see the world? And Leti sees the world through the eyes of the abandoned child. Interestingly enough, I’m blessed because I don’t have that relationship with my mother, but I had it with my father. So I understand it. I understand what it’s like to feel estranged from a parent, only to then lose them for a second time through death… So, I connected to Leti in a very deep way.

DEADLINE: It’s a very physical role. There’s a line towards the end of episode 1 where you tell Atticus, “I was all-star track in high school.” And then we see that—there’s a scene where you are sprinting to keep ahead of these horrible monsters.

SMOLLETT: I tend to approach my characters in a very physical way, in general. The physicality is very important to me in small ways and in big ways. So, the posture, the walk, the way someone sits or stands is very thought out. But you get the information of, okay, she’s a former track star, “You better get your ass on a treadmill, Jurnee!” [laughs]. It was pretty simple, because she would have the muscle memory. Not only would her muscles kick into gear because of the muscle memory, but the actual fear that is propelling her forward, it is life or death. The stakes cannot be higher for this woman, so that just brings out another element of a real primal gear. I did train physically with my trainer, Jeanette Jenkins. We did a lot of strength training and I had just had my son. So, coming into the pilot, I had a bit of “mom bod” insecurities.

What was fun about that scene is they propped the camera on the back of a tractor. The DP and the director were like, “We’ll go slow to start and, don’t worry, we won’t leave you too far behind.” This is what one of the camera operators was telling me. It’s so awesome to be underestimated. It’s my favorite thing, because it fuels me. I was like, “Okay, all right, great.” I know the first take, I ran so fast that I actually bumped into the cameras.

DEADLINE: The costumes for your character are spectacular. And they say something very important about Leti. I understand you were quite involved in making those choices and working with the designer.

SMOLLETT: I love the element of building the character in collaboration with all the different departments. And in this case, Dayna Pink, our brilliant costume designer, was such a lovely collaborator. We exchanged probably thousands of images back and forth for inspiration for Leti. And it was exactly that—it was an extension of Leti’s armor. It was not about vanity as it was, for so many Black women during this era, an extension of their dignity, right? The second I step outside the house I am representing my race, I am pushing my race forward. Post the Civil War, there was such a spirit of dignity within the Black community, in every aspect—education, occupation, family. Speech was important, how you dress was important because the idea of pushing your race forward was of prime importance in the community.

It’s something that is so beautiful to me. I’ve talked about this before how growing up, hearing stories of my grandmother. And even though my grandmother cleaned the homes of white folks in the South, she was a beauty queen. She was the first Black Ms. Galveston. And she would go to work every day and clean their toilets and their kitchens, with lipstick on and her hair done and her dress perfectly pressed because she wasn’t going to allow them to rob her of her dignity. There’s a great quote by Eleanor Roosevelt where she says, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And I think about my grandmother, is that she was not going to allow them to make her feel inferior. And so I thought about that with Leti and this is her armor, it’s not vanity. It is an extension of her dignity.

DEADLINE: You’re a very spiritual person. I was wondering how difficult it was over a period of months to be immersed in such creepy and occult material?

SMOLLETT: It was one of the more intimidating aspects of the show. I’m a fan of the genre, but I have watched the documentary about The Exorcist and seen, okay, there were a lot of unexplained things when they were shooting that movie! I did go into this aware of the realm that we were playing in. Our heroes are engaged in a spiritual warfare and, listen, racism is a demonic spirit. So, I had a lot of rituals. I always approach my characters in a very spiritual way, but this one definitely required a deeper level of spirituality and just feeling like one needed to be covered not just within the [scope of the series], but also beyond, and trying to shed myself of Leti, of the spirits. The story’s very ancestral, it’s very ancient. And there were moments that I absolutely knew that I had to surrender to the spirits and allow myself to be used in that way. It’s too mystical to actually talk about.

After we wrapped, I cut all my hair off. It was like, I need to figure out a way to purge myself of Leti. And that was one of the ways that I thought would help me do it. One of my [acting] coaches, she talks a lot about this idea of blood memory. I, coming from a rich heritage of being black and Jewish, absolutely know what it feels like to have my blood memory activated—real visceral connection to the suffering of my ancestors. And so when I step into characters like Leti there are moments that you can feel it just vibrating inside of you. But I think it’s a part of my instrument. It’s not something I talk about a lot.

DEADLINE: I read that Misha is working on a second season of Lovecraft. How do you feel about that? Anything you can tell us about whether you’re on board?

SMOLLETT: It’s above my pay grade. It’s so funny about being an actor, we’re told where to go, what to do and have very little say about it. But, yeah, I love playing Leti. I love the show. It kicks my ass. When we wrapped season one, I thought there is no way in hell I could ever step back into this world and yet now I’m like, oh, I just want to go back. And I have no idea what Misha’s planning. All she’s told me is that it’s bold and unlike anything that’s ever been on TV, but we haven’t actually been picked up for season 2 yet. I know as much as you know, man, honestly.

I have no doubt if, and when, there is a season 2, whatever Misha plans will for sure be disruptive. She has such a gift for using the art of storytelling to illuminate the humanity of Black folks in a way that feels disruptive and fresh at the same time, but also uniquely familiar. Lovecraft is a family drama at its heart. Each family could relate to these family members. It’s a very challenging task to make something so uniquely familiar in this way. I remember watching Parasiteand thinking, wow, he [director Bong Joon Ho] is bringing us into a world that feels so unique and fresh, and yet feels so familiar at the same time. That’s really storytelling.

DEADLINE: You mentioned having your son Hunter not long before starting work on Lovecraft Country. How old is he now?

SMOLLETT: He’s four-and-a-half. He was just a baby on the pilot. I was still nursing.

DEADLINE: He’s probably a little too young to think there’s anything out of the ordinary for his mother to be on TV. Do you have a sense of what he thinks about mom playing other people, or is it too early at this point?

SMOLLETT: It’s interesting, though, kids are natural artists. They’re natural actors, they’re natural storytellers. He’s in his room all day long, creating little stories with dinosaurs. He made his first movie actually the other day here in quarantine [in Vancouver]. He was the director and Uncle Jojo was the DP—my oldest brother shot it. He set up all his dinosaur action figures and created a battle. And the film was called Dino Kings. And we had the world premiere in the living room. We had popcorn. He’s very familiar with what I do because growing up on sets, he watches me work, he watches the monitor sometimes—when it’s a scene he can actually watch. This is his life, this gypsy life is going to be part of his life in a very intimate way.

I remember Episode 4, it was the museum episode where Leti, Atticus and Montrose break into the museum. And there was a big alligator. My character opens the door and he wanted to be in that scene! It’s the cutest thing. Misha had a video of me holding him during rehearsal and I’m saying the lines as Leti, but I let him do all the action. And when I think back to that, I think it’s so beautiful. Because Jonathan [Majors] and Michael [K. Williams] are there and they’re totally in it with us and we’re in character, and he’s just on my hip.

DEADLINE: That’s so cute. Well, it sounds like you have another actor or director in the family.

SMOLLETT: If he would ever do anything in it I think he’d be more of a director or writer because he’s such a leader. He’s such a boss.

DEADLINE: You mentioned being on set in Vancouver. What are you shooting?

SMOLLETT: I’m shooting Lou with Allison Janney. It’s a film for Netflix, reuniting with my Lovecraft Country boss, J.J. Abrams. He’s producing. It’s an exciting thriller in which I enlist the help of Lou, Allison Janney’s character, after my daughter goes missing. And we have to pretty much track the kidnapper through the woods. We just had the table read over Zoom yesterday. It’s so great! I can’t wait to get in the mud with this woman. I’m such a fan of her work. It’s going to be very special.

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