Jurnee Smollett Breaks Bad

The Emmy-nominated actress talks moving on and letting go of Lovecraft Country.

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Jurnee Smollett as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad'
Jurnee Smollett as Walter White from 'Breaking Bad.' Photographed by Olympia Okonmah.

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

From the age of just 10 months old, Jurnee Smollett has built an illustrious acting career, appearing in projects that define the American experience: Full House, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and True Blood, to name a few. Recently, the actress received critical acclaim for her performance as Leti Lewis, an uncompromising force to be reckoned with in HBO’s 1950s-set anthology series Lovecraft Country. The series, based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, draws from the science fiction tales written by the notoriously racist H.P. Lovecraft. Despite its immense popularity among viewers, HBO canceled the show just before it received 18 Emmy nominations, with Smollett earning a nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Not that she expected to be noticed by the Television Academy. “You don’t go into things like this with expectations, or at least I can’t,” she told W. “I’ve been doing it way too long to expect anything.”

Soon, she’ll appear in the Netflix thriller Lou, alongside Allison Janney and Logan Marshall-Green. And there’s been talk of a potential spin-off of Birds of Prey, the DC Comics movie, starring Smollett as Black Canary, whose vocal prowess is her superpower. Until then, though, the actress has been revisiting old performances from some of her most treasured actors, including Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

How does it feel to receive your first Emmy nomination?

I still can’t believe it. I got the call when I was in hair and makeup on the set of Lou, and I was like, What’s the bad news? [Laughs] But I screamed!

It seems that you and Jonathan Majors have made history as the first Black actress and actor to be nominated for lead acting performances from the same drama series.

I’m still trying to fact-check it, because it feels like it can’t be possible. This nomination is special for so many reasons. My Lovecraft family is real. That’s not just me saying that; I speak to these folks all the time. I’m incredibly proud of the art that we created together, and the literal blood, sweat, and tears that we shed to put this piece of art out into the world. And it feels so incredibly special to see the whole crew recognized too. The amount of nominations that the show got is mind-blowing. It’s humbling. I’m on cloud nine.

Smollett as Leti on ‘Lovecraft Country.’ Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?

I tend to not indulge in pride too much when it comes to myself. Obviously, I am incredibly proud of Lovecraft, but whenever I’m asked about my career in that sense, my mind always goes to the future. I’m like, Oh, I can’t wait for you to see this thing that we’re about to do! Lovecraft is so special. It was like an artistic haven for me. Leti is, for sure, one of the greatest characters I’ve ever had the privilege of playing. Just being able to play in the field that Misha [Green] creates. I call her a mad scientist, and I truly mean that. I don’t know where some of this stuff comes from that comes out of her brain.

Leti is one of the characters on television who could unequivocally be described as a badass. When you swing that baseball bat in episode 3, it’s very clear that you were putting a lot of physicality into the role. And you also, of course, were in Birds of Prey last year, another very physical role. Do you consider Leti a superhero of sorts?

Hell yeah, Leti fucking Lewis is a superhero! Absolutely. As were so many of the women of this time. My grandmother, Showtime, who I drew a lot of inspiration from in crafting Leti—she was a superhero. She went to work every day cleaning the homes of white folks who didn’t appreciate her and disrespected her, and she did it with dignity and maintained her womanhood, her Blackness. She raised four kids in the ’50s as a single mom. Tell me that’s not being a superhero!

I think we’re expanding what the definition of a superhero is. You ain’t gotta wear a cape to do extraordinary things. Most times, these extraordinary things are done by very ordinary folks. Obviously, I didn’t approach Leti thinking she’s a superhero, but I think in hindsight, one of the beautiful things about Lovecraft is that we get the opportunity to shine a light on and highlight the beauty in the mundane, the courage that our folks had, and have. We come from kings and queens. They weren’t knighted, they weren’t caped, they weren’t written about in textbooks. Their stories have been so undervalued and hidden in history, erased in history. We are now currently being told that we should not be talking about our stories in schools. These are the battles we are fighting. Being able to give voice to these stories is such a privilege. And hell yeah, Leti’s a superhero.

Why did you choose to portray Breaking Bad’s Walter White for the portfolio?

Bryan Cranston is one of my favorite actors. He’s such an antihero hero. [Laughs] He just raises hell. That was one of the shows I re-binged again, because it’s such good storytelling. He’s an ordinary guy who was driven by love and fear and a desire to provide for his family. Bryan’s ability to bring humanity to a character who does very questionable things is something that’s so inspiring to me as an actor.

Looking at the landscape of television, what have you seen evolve or change the most?

When I started, I was a baby, and it was the heyday of sitcoms, live audiences, and all that. I’ve had quite a bit of experience in TV, and I’ve been blessed to work with such great showrunners and creators. Jason Katims with Friday Night Lights, the way he empowered us to improv and take ownership of our characters. I called Jason one day about something in the script—I think it was a scene with me and Michael B. [Jordan]. I was like, “This isn’t working on the page,” and he said, “What would you do?” So I told him, and he said, “Go do that. You know a 16-year-old Black girl better than I do.”

Working with Misha [Green] on Underground, and then into Lovecraft, what’s so exciting for me is the ability to [play] an array of different, complex characters. We’re seeing so many great filmmakers in the TV space who are pushing boundaries and being given support and budgets to make something very cinematic. When I was a baby, it used to feel like there was such a difference between film and TV. There was an idea that one was prestigious and one wasn’t, and that’s totally changed over the past few decades. TV shows essentially are mini films.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

There was a point as a teenager when I wanted to quit, and I did stop for a while. I didn’t officially quit, because I loved it too much to actually do that. I think the advice I would’ve said to my younger self is to just quiet the censor. I wouldn’t change my route to here, because it made me who I am, and I’ve been incredibly blessed to work with such great actors and filmmakers, and take from those experiences and build my bag of tricks. The unfortunate thing about the business is that it can sometimes be very detrimental to young performers and artists.

Sometimes those voices can really get in your head. The judgmental side of this industry messes with your ability to create art. Those are the people who are not actually in the arena with you. I take constructive criticism or advice only from other artists, because if you are not in the arena with me, if you are in the bleachers and you do not actually know what it takes to get here, bye. A lot of the work young artists have to do coming up in this industry is quieting the censor and protecting the artist child, who is so pure and creates from such a pure place.

Smollett at the NAACP Image Awards. ABLC/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

What are you most looking forward to in your television career?

I don’t really categorize it in that way as like, my television career versus my career. I just want to play very exciting characters that stretch me, characters that scare me. I want to work with great filmmakers and creatives, whether that’s in TV or film or onstage. I’m just as heartbroken as the rest of the world about Lovecraft. I feel incredibly blessed to be in a place now where there are roles that I’m jumping into that I feel just as excited about.

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