Jurnee Smollett Is HBO’s New Fantasy Queen

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Photo Credit:ELLE Magazine (US)

The actress and activist battles racism and other demons in ‘Lovecraft Country,’ a new series from Misha Green, Jordan Peele, and J. J. Abrams.

of the same name,
Lovecraft Country
follows Atticus, a young black man played by Jonathan Majors, on a road trip to New England in search of his father. Smollett plays Letitia, Atticus’s feisty, forthright friend, who joins him and his Uncle George (played by Courtney B. Vance) on the journey.
Along the way, the three encounter a plague of monsters—some human, some supernatural creatures that could have been conjured by horror author H. P. Lovecraft himself. “Our heroes go on a mission to bring down these powers, which happen to be white supremacy,” Smollett says.
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Born in New York City, Smollett spent her childhood in New York and L.A., raised by a white Jewish father and Black mother who’d met through civil rights activism. One of Smollett’s earliest memories was of standing on a corner holding a protest sign after the police who’d beaten Rodney King were acquitted.
Around the same time, she was also becoming well known to a generation of television viewers as Denise in
Full House
, and Jordee in
On Our Own
(she starred alongside real-life siblings Jussie, Jake, Jazz, Jocqi, and Jojo in the latter). At age 11, Smollett won a Critics’ Choice Award for her title role in
; at 12, she volunteered for Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit that assists children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Full House
fans might recall Smollett’s recurring character as Denise, friend of Michelle Tanner (played by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen).
ABC Photo Archives
Getty Images
Smollett recalls a childhood of art, activism, and straddling the line between poverty and working-class. “Oftentimes, when we could afford to live in a certain neighborhood, we were the only Black family,” she says.
Jurnee Smollett (bottom left) starred in the 1990s sitcom
On Our Own
with her real-life siblings Jojo, Jussie, Jazz, Jocqui, and Jake. Also pictured: Ralph Louis Harris.
ABC Photo Archives
She drew from this personal history while working on
Lovecraft
’s third episode, in which her character renovates a large, rundown home in a white neighborhood with hopes of turning it into a boardinghouse—unleashing demonic forces in the process. “You cannot buy yourself out of systemic racism,” Smollett says.
Earlier this year, Smollett starred in
and in an episode of Jordan Peele’s
The Twilight Zone
.

She’s also been an active participant in the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter, and is a founding board member of Time’s Up.
Smollett (right) spoke alongside fellow actresses Rowan Blanchard and Alfre Woodard at the 2018 Women’s March in Los Angeles.
Chelsea Guglielmino
Getty Images
The actress hopes to raise Hunter, her three-year-old son with singer-songwriter Josiah Bell, with a similar drive to serve others. “I intend for Hunter to have a deeper understanding, a deeper consciousness,” she says. “We are ever-evolving and expanding as a society, and [we must] create space for every single person and every identity, ability, and gender identity.”
Smollett attends the
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
world premiere in London in January.
Gareth Cattermole
Getty Images
Aside from being “a terrific actress, [Smollett] is just electric and amazing to watch,” says J. J. Abrams, who co-executive produced
Lovecraft
alongside Peele, Misha Green, and four others. “She’s got an incredible strength, both on screen and off.” Green, who also serves as showrunner, met Smollett on their previous show together, WGN America’s Civil War drama
Underground
. Green says Letitia runs through Smollett’s veins: “At the end of the day, Jurnee happens to be perfect for [the role] because [she and Letitia] have that same vibe of the fight and the power of what it means to be a Black woman—and looking things in the face.”
Indeed, Smollett feels “a visceral, ancestral connection to the oppression of my people, but also a connection to the uprising—we are survivors,” she says. “[Letitia] believes in disrupting the system. It’s so bold, so audacious, because that era was bent on erasing us, but she will not be erased.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of
ELLE.
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