Previously Known For: Full House and Friday Night Lights
|Currently Known For: True Blood and Underground|
“When I was younger, I really struggled with confidence. You go through those awkward, dorky, geeky stages and growing up in the industry amplifies all that…” Describing herself as “blewish” as a reflection of her Jewish father and African American mother, Jurnee Smollett has set herself apart from many child actors of the 1990s as she effortlessly made the transition into an award-winning leading lady with performances in hits like Friday Night Lights, True Blood, and Underground. So, how exactly did she make the transition? Smollett attributes it all to her family as the fourth of six performing siblings well-versed in the business. Born on October 1, 1986 in New York City, it wasn’t long before Smollett followed her sister and brothers into acting as she made her debut in 1992 on an episode of Out All Night.
Shortly after her television debut, Smollett joined Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on Full House where she played Michelle Tanner’s best friend, Denise, a character who Smollett also played on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. In 1994, she joined her siblings—Jazz, Jussie, Jo Jo, Jake and Jocqui—on ABC’s short-lived sitcom, On Our Own, before making her feature film debut at 10 years old opposite Robin Williams, Diane Lane and Jennifer Lopez in Jack. In 1997, she joined the talented Samuel L. Jackson in Eve’s Bayou and truly set herself apart as a rising star with a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Child Performance and a nomination at the NAACP Image Awards. Adding in credits in Selma, Lord, Selma, she joined Bill Cosby on his sitcom, Cosby, where she earned another two NAACP Image Awards for her work from 1998 to 2000.
Shortly after her television debut, Smollett joined Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on Full House where she played Michelle Tanner’s best friend, Denise, a character who Smollett also played on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. In 1994, she joined her siblings—Jussie, Jo Jo, Jake, Jocqui and Jazz—on ABC’s short-lived sitcom, On Our Own, before making her film debut at 10 years old opposite Robin Williams, Diane Lane, and Jennifer Lopez in Jack. In 1997, she joined Samuel L. Jackson in Eve’s Bayou and truly set herself apart as a rising star with a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Child Performance and a nomination at the NAACP Image Awards. She followed up with performances in Selma and Lord while joining Bill Cosby on Cosby where she earned yet another two NAACP Image Awards for her work from 1998 to 2000.
Still in her teens when she wrapped up Cosby, Smollett appeared in Beautiful Joe but found more consistent work on television with credits in Ruby’s Bucket of Blood and popular series like Strong Medicine, ER, Wanda at Large, House and Grey’s Anatomy. Then, just as her career seemed to dwindle, Smollett made a huge comeback in 2007 when she took home an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress for her work opposite Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. Once again back in the spotlight, she was cast as Jess Merriweather in the primetime drama Friday Night Lights in 2009 and spent two seasons on the show while playing Lisa Tyler on The Defenders. After a brief cameo in The Mob Doctor in 2012, Smollett found another regular role, this time on the fantasy horror series, True Blood.
Amid her growing success on television, Smollett also caught the attention of Tyler Perry who cast her as Judith in his 2013 film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, where her experience on the film empowered her to take on more serious roles as she discovered her growing confidence. That shone through even more in 2016 when Smollett fought hard and won the part of Rosalee, a house slave in the period drama Underground.
“The script was just incredible,” Smollett said of her first impression of the series. “I was really skeptical about the project in general, initially, before my agent gave me the script, because I wondered how they could do this year after year as a television show. But, when I read it, I was really blown away by the writing and the originality and the fact that this story actually hasn’t been told. The Underground Railroad, which is the first integrated civil rights movement, is a part of our history that not a lot of us know about. And it’s actually a very empowering side of our history. Rosalee is a very complicated character and you don’t get scripts like this often. Women in general are not written roles that often that are this complex, so the chance to dive into that was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Immediately texting the director and telling him, “Look, there is no one else out there who could do this as well as me,” Smollett landed the part and spent the next two seasons sharing Rosalee’s story. “I understood her, you know? I understood the importance of not just playing her as meek and humble but also capturing the strength that she has inside of her,” Smollett said of embracing the role. “She eventually becomes someone she never thought she could be. And I just felt like I also understood her loneliness and the fact that she doesn’t fit in anywhere on the plantation. She feels like an outsider and envies the field hands, because at least they have some kind of camaraderie, some sense of unity, some sense of family. I felt like I was the one for the job.”
The 31-year-old Smollett was undeniably the one for the job and gave an incredible performance over the show’s two seasons before the WGN canceled the series in 2017. Even so, Smollett continues to look for strong female roles and, thankfully, has noticed a shift in the availability of those roles. “I’ve also noticed that people are more willing to open the roles up,” she says. “We’re still not there, but I fight for the roles that are not written black. That’s where my fight is, always. But it’s gotten better. And I think especially in television it’s gotten better. That’s why a lot of us are working in television: because the roles are there.”
Still on the hunt for her next big role, Smollett says she’s been incredibly lucky over the years because she always looks forward to bigger and better projects while remaining grateful and humble for what she’s earned. “I don’t look back a lot,” she says. “I’m so focused on feeling like I have so much more to achieve. I learned and grew in different ways on each project and each project pushed me in different ways. Rosalee pushed me physically the hardest I’ve ever been pushed, while simultaneously pushing me emotionally.” Leaving a lasting impression in Underground, we can only imagine what the future holds for the talented Jurnee Smollett!