To be a TV veteran at 29 is a pretty unique feat, but Jurnee-Smollett-Bell really has been in the game long enough to warrant such a title. The actress, was just six years old when she landed her first TV spot.
Smollett-Bell, the fourth of six siblings—all performers in their own right (they even starred in a sitcom together)—got her big break playing Denise Frazer, Michelle Tanner's best friend in Full House. But it was in 1997 when she landed a huge film role that truly made her a figure to watch. Starring as the observant Eve in Kasi Lemmons acclaimed Eve's Bayou, Smollett-Bell was lauded by critics for her mature performance, all the more impressive considering she was acting alongside heavyweights like Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield. Since then, Smollett-Bell has continued to impress in several TV roles, most noticeably in Friday Night Lights as Jess, a tough high schooler who ends up shadowing Coach Taylor in the hopes of becoming a coach herself.
Despite having such an impressive resume, it's WGN America's Underground (created by Misha Green and Joe Polaski) that will most definitely make her a true household name. Smollett-Bell plays Rosalee, a quiet house slave at a Macon, Ga. plantation whose life suddenly takes a turn when she starts to fall for Noah, another slave who's keen on escaping. Just a few episodes in, Rosalee is immediately one of the series' most complex characters, wrestling with her passivity and her desire to make a better life for herself and those around her.
With Underground premiering on Wednesday, we got on the phone with Smollett-Bell to discuss her empowering, but challenging role as Rosalee, working in TV in general, and getting brother, Jussie, on the show.
How did you land this major role in Underground?
When I read the script I was really blown away by the writing. I immediately texted Anthony Hemingway, our director, this long text of all the reasons why I was his Rosalee. I was like, “Look, I’m Rosalee. There’s no other actress who could play her or do justice to her the way I can.” He just wrote me back and sent this picture of—it was a snapshot of the pitching portfolio he used to get the Underground job. Next to the name Rosalee was my picture.
No way. Wow. Did you even have to audition after that?
I still had to meet with some people, but I think it was ordained. I definitely feel that Rosalee was written for me to play.
What makes you identify with her so strongly?
She’s layered and multidimensional. On the surface she seems very shy. She seems like an introvert. The uniform they make her wear, it blends into the wallpaper—that’s not an accident. She doesn’t fit in the house. She doesn’t fit in the field. This question of do I run or do I not run was something that I was fascinated by. The courage and strength that that takes to make the decision to run—we could sit here in 2016 and be like, “Of course you run.” But it wasn’t that easy.
Obviously as a cast and crew you want to be mindful about what a period piece has to say about today. Was that something you were constantly thinking about while on set?
It was really my job to shed myself of this era and go back into that era. But, you can’t help but draw similarities. What’s unfortunate is that there are still so many wounds that were inflicted upon all of us and our ancestors during that time that we still haven’t healed from today. The systemic injustice that was created during that era, we still are dealing with, trying to bring down those systemic injustices today. Of course there’s comparisons you can make.
Looking at your career so far, you've flourished on TV. I was wondering if you find TV a better place than film in terms of the opportunities it gives?
There’s a lot of progress happening in TV. You have amazing shows like How to Get Away With Murder. You have people like Shonda Rhimes, Lee Daniels with Empire, and Jason Katims with Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. You have people behind the scenes writing complex women. For me it’s rare [in film] to find a female character that is not just set dressing. I read so many scripts and it’s not really exciting to just be the girlfriend. It’s not very exciting to go to work to just have your character’s identity being defined by her relationship with her male counterparts.
Going back to Underground, I wanted to know a little bit more about your research and what you had to do to prepare for the role.
Before we even started shooting I had two months of research that I had been doing. I began with the slave narratives from the 1930s. A guy from a writer’s project went to interview survivors of slavery. There’s these amazing first-person accounts of what it was like to be enslaved. There’s this book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Henry Louis Gates has this amazing documentary called Many Rivers to Cross. Henry Louis Gates is such a wealth of knowledge in himself. His work definitely helped me. Then the writings of William Sill, he kept a really great account of runaway slaves. He would ask them, “So tell me your story.” This was such a great moment in our history, the Underground Railroad. It made me really want to take pride in our history.
I don’t know if it was your doing, but how were you able to get your brother, Jussie, to guest on the show?
You know, I wish I could take credit for that. It’s funny. It was Anthony Hemingway. Anthony wanted Jussie to play another role in the show, but it didn’t work out with his schedule. Then episode three and four came along and he called Jussie and was like, "I think you would be perfect for this." I was just so excited to be able to watch him work on set and have this.
You guys screened the show at the White House. What was that like?
Incredible. It was incredible to walk in the room at the White House and see posters of all of our characters onstage. It was such an honor. It was a major moment for us. I remember thinking, “This is a wow moment. I don’t know how I’m going to top this moment.”
I was able to bring my mom. It was her first time going to the White House. It was such a proud moment for me.