The flood of Emmy nominations that Lovecraft Country received on July 13 quickly became a bittersweet moment for the series’ cast and creators. Just 11 days prior, HBO cancelled the supernatural horror drama from Misha Green, who adapted Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name for the small screen. But for Emmy nominees and co-stars Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, the series accomplished a lot in its short life, including strengthening their own resolve to make and share Black art. And, in exploring this country’s racist history, Lovecraft Country made history as the first TV drama to have Black performers nominated in the Lead Actor and Lead Actress categories.
As the impeccably dressed Leti Lewis, Smollett garnered her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama. An actor with two-plus decades of experience, including roles Friday Night Lights, Underground, and Birds Of Prey, Smollett helped anchor the show’s many heightened moments, guiding viewers through its genre fusion and narrative twists and turns. Leti’s elegant silhouette speaks volumes about the kind of person she is, determined to hang on to her dignity no matter what. But, as we quickly learn, she’s no mere fashion plate; Leti’s just as adept at fighting the horrors dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft as the more earthbound threats from white oppressors. The character is fueled by her strong ties to her culture, her renewed connection to her faith, and even, as Smollett tells us, her fears.
Lovecraft Country may have ended, but its fantastic style is a potent reminder of how astutely Black creatives can wield genre storytelling. The A.V. Club spoke to Smollett about the responsibility she feels as a Black artist, turning fear into motivation, the history she uncovered while researching her role, and the tender Lovecraft Country scene that made her cry.
The A.V. Club: First of all, I have to say that I found your story about how you got the news of your nomination very relatable. When your phone rang, you thought, “Oh no, somebody’s calling with bad news!” No one really calls anymore, so the assumption is, that it’s bad news!
Jurnee Smollett: Right? Isn’t that so sad? We’ve become so disconnected! But the truth of the matter is, my publicists know if I’m working to just lay low, because I’m trying to focus. That’s also the reason why a call just seems like I need to be on alert, because it’s like, “Y’all know I’m working. What’s going on?”
AVC: It turned out to be great news, but also bittersweet, because Lovecraft Country had been canceled before all the Emmy nominations came in. But when it was on, it was one of the most talked-about shows—every week, there was all this discussion online. Were you keeping up with all the social media conversation when the show was on?
JS: Oh yeah. You know, I don’t read reviews. But I do engage on social media, with the live tweeting. That was a lot of fun to do, to see the honest response in real time was quite an experience. I got such a kick out of the Easter eggs that folks would pick up on, and then go and put up a Wikipedia article about a little known fact. Or, there were folks who knew that Emmett Till’s nickname was Bobo and knew ahead of time that this little boy in our story was Emmett Till. So it was interesting to see how Lovecraft was capable of igniting such discussion among the community and how it stimulated this search for historical facts.
It’s funny, because I remember one of my closest friends Ahmir [Thompson]—Questlove—would text me every Sunday when he was watching it. And oftentimes, he’d end up watching it three or four times, the same episode throughout the week, because he would say that he would just pick up on something new every time. It goes back to the genius of our filmmakers, particularly Misha Green, and not wanting to spoon-feed the audience—not wanting to underestimate their intelligence, and not playing down to them, but playing up.
AVC: There are so many details to pick up on. As you mentioned, people even were breaking them out into articles, to help each other understand just what was unfolding on screen. Obviously, you did a lot of your own research. In preparing for the show, did you learn something that surprised you?
JS: You know, I wouldn’t use the word “surprise,” but yes, through my research, I think I deepened my understanding of what life was, day in and day out. And just how much it’s a testament to human will to triumph over that level of oppression, that you’re living under, when there’s an attempt to control every single element of your life. So, I read old books about sundown towns, I read books about segregation in public pools. When you just think about it, it’s like, “How do you segregate a pool?” I mean, you think about the fact that our folks had to just be so much better, in order to achieve greatness. You look at an Althea Gibson, and how brilliant she was as a tennis player, I mean, my goodness. I was inspired by the triumph of my people and the strengths. So yeah, I’ve read a lot… The Green Book, I mean, that someone would actually, in order to travel from point A to point B, need a guide in order to tell what places would feed you, allow you to just use the bathroom. I tried to understand the real specifics, and the details, in how someone had to navigate the world. Like Leti being at the intersection of multiple identities—being Black, being a woman in 1955 Jim Crow America. How do you do that? When every single step you take in pursuit of your happiness, in pursuit of your dreams, is challenged?
AVC: In working with Misha Green over the last several years, you’ve certainly dug into this history. How would you describe your working relationship with her? What’s something that’s been key to the success of these shows you’ve worked on together, Underground and Lovecraft Country?
JS: I think Misha and I have such a fruitful collaboration, a collaborative relationship, due to a number of things. One, there’s a mutual trust between us. We don’t always agree. Honestly, we disagree quite a bit on things sometimes, but there’s a real, common hunger to seek the truth and just tell the truth. Finding your way there might be a bumpy road, but as long as we land on the truth, that’s the end goal.
I think with Misha, she pushes me so hard. She pushes all of the collaborators around her very hard. However, she creates such an environment in which you feel safe to fail, and try big, and to just be your most bold self. That’s all she wants from you, is to just be bold, just be audacious, and don’t be afraid to fail. Having done three seasons of TV with her, I feel like when I’m collaborating with her, I have a real soul sister whose opinion I trust, whose taste I trust. And I know at the end of the day, she and I just want to tell the best version of the story that we can. I think that’s what it is, it’s the trust. It’s the real transparency, and honesty, and the hunger to be bold and audacious, and not settle for the safe route.
AVC: You filmed Birds Of Prey and Lovecraft Country in quick succession. Though they were both physical roles, the physicality is distinct in each one; you’ve described Black Canary as being lean and kind of hard while Leti had a little more softness in her. You carry yourself very differently in these two roles. What were you trying to convey with Leti’s physical presence?
JS: There’s a real dignity that I tried to embody in Leti. With Black Canary, she was kind of going through a shrinking, almost, of struggling to use her voice—you know, having power that she was reluctant to want to own. So there’s a bit more of a… not a collapsed air about her, but she’s her own force, right? With Leti, I studied a lot of women of the ’50s: a lot of photographs, the way they sat was differently, the way they crossed their legs. Some crossed at their knee, some crossed at their ankles; it’s those sort of details that you just watch. Also, the clothes—I wore the undergarments, like actual undergarments, from the 1950s. And there’s girdles, but Leti was not wearing pantyhose. But all the undergarments actually change your posture as well, a really cinched-in waist makes you breathe differently.
I did the work with my teachers on that stuff, and just tried to find the physicality of the character, the very specific details that maybe no one is aware of, but you might feel it. There’s a lot of work put into it. It’s like the invisible work, that you hope no one actually sees, you know? Because that’s the thing, if it’s too loud, and too performative, then that sucks. So it’s about making those choices for the character, the truthful choices, but then also letting it go and just letting it be.
AVC: That reminds me of the reaction to Leti running in the premiere. There was this huge reaction on Twitter, where everyone was like, “That’s how you run from something!” She’s scared, but she looks determined, and she remains that way throughout the season.
JS: Well, one of the things about Leti is, she’s one of those rare folks who can turn her fear into ammunition. So she’s absolutely running for her life, I mean, the stakes couldn’t be higher. And it’s such a beautiful moment on the page—there’s this real, beautiful exchange between the two of them [Atticus and Leti], of her trying to protect him. Because he and the sheriff are battling over who’s going to go and get the car, and the sheriff has a gun. So she knows that if Atticus doesn’t calm down, that’s not going to turn out well for him. So she’s trying to cover him. And then there’s an exchange covering, that he does for her. It’s this real, beautiful dance that happens between these two characters. These two characters are already showing acts of love for each other in those moments. Then when Atticus says to her, “Fear’s not going to save us, you are.” Oh man, come on, that line. And Jonathan Majors delivered it like a G. That’s the ammunition that propels her, that fear that she’s capable of turning into ammunition. I didn’t really think that that scene would get that sort of reaction from people. But yeah, it was quite interesting to see the response online about it.
AVC: The finale is just as action-packed, with this big fight between Leti and Christina, who has been posing as Ruby. There’s this moment where Christina-as-Ruby says something that is just out of character for Ruby, and so many emotions cross Leti’s face, your face, as she realizes what’s happened to her sister. How did you prepare for that moment? It’s just a few seconds, but you express so much.
JS: Oh wow, thank you. Those are some of the moments that are most challenging, but also so fun to play. Because it’s about playing the truth of it. The truth is that there’s so much going through Leti’s body, and it reverberates in a quick succession of thoughts. There’s the realization, the shock of that. But then there’s also the grief of, “What could have happened to my sister?” Your mind starts running towards the fear of what could, or did, happen to your sister. You’ve just got to think the thoughts of the character. That’s the goal with these moments, whether they’re words or not words, is what is the character thinking in that moment. I think part of the work of the actor too, is just not getting distracted, so that you can think the thoughts of the character.
So, what’s going through my head in that moment? I’m just trying to think how Leti would think—the devastation, all of it. But then also, you don’t have much time. That’s a thing that also happens in life. I remember when I got in a car accident years ago, with my mother and my two younger brothers. I was a kid. I became so calm. There’s also a fight-or-flight mode that Leti’s going into of, she doesn’t really even have the time to process all that information. Because now, standing in front of her, is her enemy, and she’s got to defend her territory.
AVC: The fight that follows was one of the many opportunities you had to do stunts. Do you particularly enjoy that kind of work?
JS: Oh, I love doing stunts. It’s one of my favorite things about the job. Being able to imagine, “How does a character react in a fight”, is something you don’t always get to play out. We had such a great stunt team and fight coordinator, and we just went for it. It’s those things that, you just got to go for it. It’s funny, because Courtney [B. Vance] would always make fun of me, because he’s like, “You just throw your body into it,” which I do. I don’t know, maybe one day I will learn how to not throw my body so hard into it, but for now, I don’t know how to do it any other way.
AVC: You and Jonathan Majors were so in sync throughout the show, and that really came through in Tic and Leti’s relationship. What, for you, was the moment that your collaboration clicked into place? And are you excited to work together again?
JS: That’s a good question. I don’t know that it was a moment; it was a succession of moments. You know, the first time I met him, I knew he was Atticus, and I said it to Misha. The very first scene we shot together was the moment that Atticus and Leti first speak together, at the car. And there’s just such honesty in Jonathan’s eyes, and I felt so blessed to have him as a scene partner. There’s so many scenes that stick out to me, so many moments. And, it’s small moments too, that may not be as obvious. There’s a moment in the church, in episode 10—it’s one of my favorite moments. Atticus is talking about wanting a lifetime together. And Leti has so much hope and belief in there being an “us” in the future. There’s just this moment where, I think our foreheads are pressed together, it’s just so beautiful and also heartbreaking, because we now know what ends up happening to these two characters.
I gotta say, when I watched that moment, where Atticus and Leti locked eyes and he’s dying, and Leti says, “I love you.” Ah, it made me cry watching it! That’s rare for me. I was like, “Aw, these star-crossed lovers.” I was so blessed to have such a generous scene partner in Jonathan. Of course, I would work with him again.
AVC: When I spoke to Jonathan Majors a few weeks back, I asked him about the role of Black art and Black storytelling when there are so many concerted efforts to cover up the very real history of this country. He said that it just makes him want to tell these stories more, to make more of his art. Do you feel the same motivation, when you see all these attempts to hide this reality?
JS: You know, art is powerful. There’s power in the narrative form, right? I was reading this study last night; research shows that when people watched an emotional movie or scene together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronized. And I just thought about how powerful it is, for us as artists, to create art, and how essential it is, for us as a society, to receive art. It’s funny, you mention Jonathan, but he had sent me this James Baldwin speech a while ago on the integrity of an artist. In it, James Baldwin talks about how it is this force you didn’t ask for. It’s this destiny you must accept; it’s a responsibility. And if you don’t lie, it’s not only your glory, and your achievement, it’s almost our only hope, as a society. Because artists can tell, and only artists have told, what it is actually be human. It’s the artist’s privilege and job, to illuminate humanity, right? And so, abso-fucking-lutely! I mean, the erasure of Black Americans throughout our history—the erasure of our history—is nothing new. Being unwilling to teach the truth of our history is not new. I am so encouraged and inspired by artists who are bold enough to just tell the truth, to tell our stories, and absolutely, I feel inspired to continue doing the same thing. Because I do agree with James Baldwin, that it’s our only hope.