When it was announced last year that Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas had tapped a relatively unknown Jodie Turner-Smith to star in their film Queen & Slim, playing opposite Daniel Kaluuya, fresh from his Oscar-nominated role in Get Out, the Internet began chattering about the striking British-Jamaican actress. Some remembered Turner-Smith from her star turn as Melantha Jhirl in SyFy’s Nightflyers and her appearance in Zayn Malik’s “Pillowtalk” video. But in Queen & Slim, directed by Matsoukas, written by Waithe from a story by James Frey, the actress is poised to make her mark as a leading lady.
In the flick, there’s a scene in which Turner-Smith glides slowly into frame after her uncle’s girlfriend-—played by Pose’s Indya Moore—takes out her braids so as to be less recognizable to the authorities chasing her. At Turner-Smith’s arrival, the audible gasp from the audience at an early screening dispelled any notion that the actress was someone who would shrink into the background. When the film hits theaters on November 27, viewers won’t be able to take their eyes off her.
Turner-Smith has a powerful presence. A captivating beauty whose sultry energy makes her a scene-stealer, she’s thoughtful when speaking. And while she began her career playing a siren on HBO’s True Blood and popped up in projects like TNT’s The Last Ship, it was only a year ago that she caught our attention in the adaptation of the George R. R. Martin novella Nightflyers.
“The fact that I was cast in a show to play a female lead and I’m the dark-skinned Black woman with short hair, it’s so incredible,” she said of that series. “The part was a confidence boost as well. It just gave me a little bit of wind beneath my wings to really go and make this my own.”
It was Waithe’s written word that drew the 33-year-old to the role of Queen, a rebellious lawyer turned renegade on the run. “I fell maddeningly in love with the script,” she says, still buzzing from a recent attendance at the Burning Man Festival and preparing to have a relaxing birthday. “And Melina is a force to be reckoned with. Honestly, I don’t think anybody’s f–king with her.”
Though she appreciates being in the capable hands of Matsoukas, who directed Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and Waithe, who’s the only Black woman ever to win an Emmy for comedy writing, Turner-Smith still cannot believe she’s the chosen one. “All these powerful women are doing this project, and I was like, How do I get invited?” She lets out a slight laugh before confessing earnestly, “Honest to God, I’m terrified.”
Queen & Slim follows a couple on the lam after a traffic stop leaves a police officer dead. The pair flee Cleveland, heading south. Following a sneak peek of the project during the 2019 Essence Festival, Waithe shut down comparisons with Bonnie and Clyde by explaining that she was more inspired by Set It Off’s exploration of what happens when Black folks must fight their way out of a corner.
“I just wanted to turn the tables a bit, where we keep breathing and the oppressor doesn’t,” Waithe says. “I want to give voice to all the nameless, faceless men and women of color whose lives were unjustly taken by police officers, who didn’t make it home.”
The film also offers an intentional display of Black love as feelings blossom between Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. “It’s definitely not lost on me how beautiful that is to see, for the world and also for our community,” reflects Turner-Smith. “Often, it’s the other way around, and what we see glorified as the standard of beauty is a woman who looks a little bit different than I do. And so to get to be in that position, to get to play Queen, to know that there will be little Black girls who look like me, who will see the film and be like, Oh my God, look, somebody who looks like me—that makes me feel really awesome.”
Her costar Kaluuya attests to Turner-Smith’s star wattage, which makes it nearly impossible to hang out with the actress without people stopping her on the street. “In some places, people would stop her and say, ‘Wow, you’re beautiful.’ I’ve never really seen that happen before. She just has that magnetic quality, and she brought all that majesty, and it’s just a joy to see.”
Same, Daniel. Same.
Sydney Scott (@sydneymscott) is ESSENCE’s assistant entertainment editor.
Photographer: JD Barnes (jdthecombo)
Production: Natalie Gialluca (@nataliegialluca)
Prop Stylist: Nicholas Faiella/Art Department (@nickbot)
Styling: Ade Samuel/The Visionaries Agency (@adesamuel)
Hair: Hair by Larry Sims/Flawless by Gabrielle Union/Forward Artists (@larryjarahsims)
Makeup: Allan Avendano/Dior/SWA Agency (@allanface)
Manicurist: Thuy Nguyen/Ocean Nail Supply/SWA Agency (@thuybnguyen)