Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Performer: Jurnee Smollett
The Series: Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country is a series that defies any singular definition because it’s a mixed-genre piece that fuses drama, sci-fi and horror with more than a smidge of socially relevant commentary.
It’s filled with monsters, yes, but it is really the monstruous behavior of a certain segment of White America that fuels the “Lovecraftian” stories from deceased author H.P. Lovecraft. From this, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (played by Jurnee Smollett) is born into a twisted world that shows the plight facing black people in 1950s Jim Crow America as they encounter white supremacists whenever they stray off the beaten path – and in many cases, even when they stay on it.
When we first meet Leti, she’s crooning with a bravado at a moment in time where she’s unafraid of letting her spirit shine in plain view. But, as we soon learn, demons lurk in the shadows as Leti will soon find out when she tags along on a road trip with Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to search for Atticus’ missing father.
Without spoiling things, it’s safe to say Leti goes full badass when she does everything from evade a gun-toting troop of good ol’ boys in a car chase – to outsmarting racist police whose more murderous instincts get derailed in the darkness at the hands of an otherworldly creature.
Truth be told, these “fictitious” stories have one too many parallels with the modern-day world.
As an actress, Smollett proves herself to be a vibrant and relentless force of nature, who excels at embodying the fearless Leti, more than once coming face-to-face with things not of this world.
Her ability to kick this role’s ass – and the people she encounters while playing it – is especially evident in episode three, when Leti’s optimism in buying a ramshackle Victorian mansion for her and her sister is quickly replaced by the haunted horrors that occupy this house with a history.
But does Leti back down? No, no, no. She’s undaunted in fighting the forces that wish her dead – and that’s before she spearheads the eviction process for the ghosts living within her four walls. Through it all, Smollett gives a surefire performance as a bold and brave woman fighting the demonic forces of humanity – when she’s not hellbent on defeating forces from hell.
A full day’s work for an actor, for sure.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the work of the 33-year-old Smollett, know this to start: the actress got her SAG card at age 3 not long after doing a campaign for diapers at 10 months old.
Soon after that, Smollett landed her first recurring role on the ABC sitcom Full House at age 4. The part had been written for a young white girl according to this piece in The Hollywood Reporter, but she won it. It wouldn’t be the first time that her talents became undeniable.
Having grown up in a family of child actors (one of which is Jussie Smollett, the Empire actor accused of staging his own hate crime early last year), Jurnee has accumulated an assortment of memorable roles over a career that has also led her to turn down a slew of more cliched roles.
After Full House, Smollett starred on a family sitcom that with her five other siblings called On Our Own (1994) that lasted just a season. Then, at age 10, she played opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Eve’s Bayou (1997) before going on to star in The Great Debaters (2007) with Denzel Washington, amongst other roles.
That when Smollett’s current streak of success began – in the form of some of the more popular roles you may remember her from. For instance, she played Jess in Friday Night Lights (2009-2011) and a vampire rights activist in HBO’s True Blood (2013-2014) – before landing in Underground (2016-2017), the popular slave-uprising drama that ran on WGN. It’s also the stop where she first met eventual Lovecraft Country showrunner, Misha Green.
As a testament to what can happen when you do good work and form a connection with a show creator (even though their relationship was reportedly rocky at first according to the THR piece), Smollett eventually went on to win the role of Leti Lewis after “literally losing sleep for months” while waiting for the offer. Oddly, after shooting the Lovecraft pilot, Smollett managed to squeeze in the role of superhero Black Canary in the Suicide Squad spinoff, Birds of Prey (2020).
As for what’s next, Smollett (a life-long social justice activist who’s been to a protest or two of late) is destined to keep her star rising in Hollywood, whether or not Lovecraft Country gets renewed. It will be a pleasure to see the heights to which this highly gifted actress will soar.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.