When it comes to Jurnee Smollett’s body of work, it’s obvious that she isn’t stuck in a time warp. At 23, Smollet is a far cry from that N’awlins baby who left an indelible mark on ‘Eve’s Bayou’ and her cinematic turn in the ‘The Great Debaters.’ Her crusade against HIV/AIDS in Africa proves that. Nowadays, the native New Yorker spends time in Austin, Texas, in character as a small-town high school gem on the return of the football drama, ‘Friday Nights Lights.’ ESSENCE.com caught up with Smollett to talk football, family fighting, and HIV/AIDS in Black America and Africa.
ESSENCE.COM: So ‘Friday Night Lights” has been resurrected. Were you already a fan?
JURNEE SMOLLETT: Absolutely, when I went in for my audition I got to read with Peter Berg, who is such a ball of energy. After that, I really understood how great the minds of those who work behind the scenes are. No doubt the show has the greatest crew and writers.
ESSENCE.COM: You star as Jess Merriweather. What’s she about?
SMOLLETT: (Laughs) She’s a small town girl who attends East Dillon, a neglected high school whose football team is really bad and they lack resources like uniforms and such. But they slowly get going, and she’s there to cheer them along and eventually joins the drill team to help them out. Jess has a lot on her plate and she is a joy for me to play just because I can really relate to her. She’s that family oriented person who’s trying to do a lot; working at her father’s BBQ shack, doing her homework, and helping to care for her three little brothers because her mom passed away. And, she loves football.
ESSENCE.COM: How did she develop an affinity for the game?
SMOLLETT: Well, her father is a former football player but he hates the game and it drives an awkward wedge between them. He even forbids her to date any athletes, but she ends up in a complicated, love triangle.
ESSENCE.COM: We love it! So, Jess has options and she’s playing the field. You have four brothers in real life, do they try to intimidate your suitors?
SMOLLETT: (Laughs) Fortunately, I have not given my family too much stress when it comes to dating. What’s funny is that my brothers used to tell me that I could not bring a football player home. I have no idea why, you’d have to ask them. But yeah they’re protective and will definitely ask me where I’m going and with whom. We’re all very close.
ESSENCE.COM: Family are lifelines. You have extended your family across the Motherland with your HIV/AIDS activism.
SMOLLETT: I’m on the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund and Artists for a New South Africa. I have been involved with the organization since I was 12. We’re a bunch of artists dedicated to raising awareness to issues affecting our world. Dealing with HIV/AIDS in Africa, as well as domestically, is one of those issues. I’ve traveled to the continent several times and recently the State Department sent me to Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa to conduct workshops on self-empowerment, assertiveness and disease education. You’d be surprised how many still don’t know about the different ways you can contract AIDS. I had one high school senior in the States who didn’t know that you could contract AIDS from oral sex.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s your stance on health care?
SMOLLETT: The CDF works on domestic policies that affect all children and right now we’re just trying to make sure that every child is covered in this health care battle. We should at least make sure that every child has access to health care. I love people and I can only hope that I can help make someone else’s life better through my acting or my volunteering. That’s food for my soul.
Tune in to Direct TV 101 Network’s “Friday Night Lights” on Wednesdays, at 9 PM E.T.