Jurnee Smollet: From Child Star to Leading Lady

You probably remember wide-eyed Jurnee Smollet from her unforgettable role as Eve in the film Eve's Bayou ten years ago. Now the Tinseltown veteran is all grown up-and has her first on-screen love scene to prove it. She recently sat down with Essence.com and shared why her new film, The Great Debaters, produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Denzel Washington, is such an important story, how she successfully sidestepped the struggles many child stars face and what Denzel told her is never easy.

Essence.com: Congrats on the film. You all did an amazing job! So how did you get involved in the project?
Well, Oprah was in on the film for ten years, I think [Denzel Washington] was involved with it for five years. I was given the script two years ago and I was fascinated. Not a lot of people knew about this story, including Denzel. The script was so intelligent and showed a side of American history that we rarely see -Black people being scholars and intellects.

Essence.com: That is very true. That's why you need a Denzel and Oprah to put their name on it. So when did you find out you got the part?
I was in South Africa a year ago when Denzel wanted me to come in for a table reading. I couldn't make it . A few months later the producers called on a Friday night and said ‘Denzel wants you to come and read this Monday.'

Essence.com: Whoa, so we know you were like, ‘It's Denzel, I'm there!'
Of course! I had read as much as I could about this story so I would be prepared when the opportunity presented itself. I just knew that they were trying to get the film done and when they did, I wanted to be a part of it. I didn't think he even knew about me and it turns out he did.

Essence.com: Yeah, we've all watched you grow up. This film reintroduces you in a big way. Has it been a struggle to be taken seriously as an adult actor?
: Not a lot, other than people saying ‘Oh My God, I can't believe she's older.' I didn't face the typical obstacles where they don't hire you.

Essence.com: Do you think that is because you've had mature, emotional roles even as a child, like in Eve's Bayou?
I think that helped, there's something people see in me, I don't know what it is. (Laughs) Adults have always told me that I lived here before. I did what I was passionate about. My mom instilled in me at an early age that ‘look, you're doing this because you want to do it and anytime you don't want to do it, you can stop.'

Essence.com: So, in this film you have your first love scene. How did you feel about that when you read the part?
That scene belongs in the film and wasn't something just to shock people. It shows the love connection between these two characters. But it was uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.

Essence.com: As director and an actor, did Denzel give you any advice for it?
He just told me, ‘Look Jurnee, those things are never comfortable no matter what. I've done many and they never are.' He was really, really sensitive to it. And right there the whole time directing us and telling us what to do.

Essence.com: So how was it having him not only as a co-star but also the director?
Well he's always present and a very hands-on director. He had his hands in everything, from the songs to the wardrobe to the script. So for him to be able to meet all those different challenges, I was in awe. Because he's an actor, he's a collaborator and he directs you the way he would want to be directed. He would be the first to say, ‘Well what do you think?' and still maintain a leadership position.

Essence.com: I can only imagine what it was like filming the scene where you all witness a lynching.
Yeah, filming it, doing the research for it. It was tough. I studied the book Without Sanctuary. It was very disturbing. These people would take pictures of the lynchings and put their children by the bodies. This picture was then put on postcards and sent to relatives across the country like, ‘Hey look what we did.' There was not a thing called justice. It just didn't exist.

Essence.com: Yeah, it was tough just watching it on film.
This was a tool used for fear. It worked on some, but on a lot of others it did not work. The ones it didn't work on were the ones [portrayed] in this film. What didn't kill them made them stronger.

Essence.com: Exactly! So your character in the film is based on an actual woman who joined the all-male debate team and definitely used her voice, right?
Yes, and I want people to know about her, Henrietta Wells. She's 96 and became like my grandmother. I first met her on the phone right after I was hired for the role.

Essence.com: Did she actually have a relationship with one of the debaters?
No, that part was fictional. It was so hard to tell her about the love scene. She kept on saying, ‘I didn't do that!' Samantha is fictional but without Henrietta there would be no Samantha.

Essence.com: So true. So, what's next on your list?
You know (points to bag of scripts on the floor) I'm reading a lot. My mother raised me to be very selective. I don't feel like I have to meet a certain quota of how many films I make a year. It's gotta be something that is challenging. I want to work with great filmmakers.

Essence.com: What will surprise people to know about you?
I'm a choco-holic. I like dark, dark, chocolate. The darkest you can buy.

Essence.com: So that also extends to your taste in men?
(laughs) Actually, yeah, that's true.

Photo Credit: David Lee/TWC 2007


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