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Jurnee Smollett: Things You Might Not Know About The Actress

Literally for her entire life, Jurnee Smollett has been performing in the limelight and breaking boundaries. Her first breakthrough role was at five years old alongside Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, as Michelle Tanner's best friend, Denise Frazer, on "Full House" — a role which was initially written for a white actress, but under her mother's encouragement, Smollett tried out for the part anyway. Since then, she's continued playing transcendent and provocative roles alongside other legendary stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington, and under the direction of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Kasi Lemmons. 

Thanks to her tight-knit and supportive family, Smollett has a passion for community service and social activism, in addition to an instilled love of film and the performing arts. Being a human being and artist who is so busy dedicating her time to others, it's difficult to believe she's also able to sustain an active career. From meeting Nelson Mandela while on service in South Africa, to trudging through sweltering swamps in corsets, here's some fascinating fun facts about Jurnee Smollett you might not know.

An old soul

Jurnee Smollett's love of acting was instilled by her mother, Janet, whom she credits in an interview with Backstage magazine for exposing her children to classic films from an early age, as well as being her primary acting coach. Janet demanded quality when her children chose to perform, even for simple, at-home performances. She must have done something right, because all six of the Smollett siblings became child actors who later developed successful careers as performers and entrepreneurs. 

Smollett's stagecraft has such a broad depth of field and powerful resonance, it's mind-boggling to consider that she lacks a formal acting education. As a child, her deep level of profound intensity was remarkable to the older, more seasoned actors and crew she worked with. At the tender age of 10 years old, she was cast in "Eve's Bayou," an R-rated Southern Gothic drama centered around mature themes like infidelity and murder. 

This was rather heavy material for such a young actor, and director Kasi Lemmons shared with The Hollywood Reporter how brilliantly young Smollett took on the role: "There's nothing indulgent about Jurnee's acting, ever — there's never a moment where you don't believe her." While continuing her conversation with "Backstage," the actress revealed another time in her career when a big-name director was impressed with her innate talent. While filming "The Great Debaters" in 2007, Denzel Washington engaged her in continual conversations about her character, often asking thought-provoking questions such as, "Well, how would you do it? How would you say it? Trust your instincts."

She's a math wiz and master negotiator

Parents of child actors may be tempted to push their children into projects strictly for monetary gain, but that wasn't the case with the Smollett family. Smollett recalled to The Hollywood Reporter how her mother enthusiastically supported her decision to act, but discouraged taking roles which might conflict with the family ethos of empowerment and positivity. She'd often overhear Janet on the phone with her agent, telling him, "I don't need to make money. My daughter's not doing it." 

Smollett continued, "But that was my mom's mentality — 'I will not pimp out my children' — and I'm grateful for that." Janet even declined an offer for Jurnee to have her own Disney show, an opportunity which would traditionally be viewed as the equivalent of the child acting jackpot. Partly as a result of these admirably high standards, the Smollett family struggled financially when Jurnee was a child. 

The situation was exacerbated when her parents divorced in the mid-90's, a time when Smollett also took on additional responsibilities around the house — as she explained to The Reporter, when she was 11 years old, she took over the family bookkeeping. Most kids don't spend parts of each day regularly screening calls from bill collectors, but Jurnee was remarkably adept at the task, thanks to her innate math and negotiation skills. And if any of the bill collectors questioned her age, she would shrug it off by claiming she simply had a childlike voice.

Rebel with a cause

Social activism is a multigenerational family affair for the Smolletts, a legacy which Jurnee is actively working to instill in her own young son, Hunter. As Jussie Smollett explained to The New York Times, their mother, who is African-American, was active in the civil rights movement alongside the co-founders of the Black Panthers. She even first met her husband and the children's father, Joel Smollett Sr., a Russian-Polish Jew, while they were both involved with activism in the San Francisco area. 

Smollett described the family dinner table to The Hollywood Reporter as a forum for lively discussions about politics and social justice. During the Rodney King riots in 1992, when Jurnee was just five, Janet took her children with her to protest and hold up signs. Most recently, Smollett has been actively involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, telling The Reporter that if it weren't for the COVID pandemic, she'd have Hunter out protesting with her — just like her mother did in 1992. 

Smollett is also involved with Time's Up, a foundation fighting for "safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds," whom she credits in the same Reporter interview for giving her the confidence to stretch herself creatively and learning to speak up for her needs.

She met Nelson Mandela

The Smollett family values community service as much as they value social causes and their creative livelihoods, and Smollett told The Hollywood Reporter that the children were required to immerse themselves in community service. As a result, Jurnee has been passionately involved with various causes around the world, and the sheer volume of her volunteer work rivals that on her acting resume. As a tween, she became the youngest board member of Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), and volunteered to teach sex ed to students her own age. 

This led to some slightly awkward moments, which Smollett shared with The Reporter: "They'd be like, 'Aren't you Tori from "Roll Bounce"?' " She continued, "And I'd go, 'Yes, we'll take pictures after. I need you to know how to put a condom on.'" In her twenties, Smollett became the first presenter for ANSA's Positively Speaking, a Los Angeles Unified District HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit. Her work with ANSA also took her to South Africa, where she met many notable figures, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

In 2010, Smollett completed a U.S. State Department tour of Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa, where she spoke with women and youth about activism, empowerment, and HIV/AIDS. Then, in 2015, she was the keynote speaker at the Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award, for students who have demonstrated an exemplary ability to break down cultural stereotypes and promote interracial understanding.

She values quality over quantity

Thanks to the values instilled in her by her family, and the challenging life experiences she's faced from her mixed heritage (which she jokingly referred to as "Blewish" on "Conan"), Smollett is very particular about the projects she takes on. There was a period of time in the 2000s when she rarely worked at all, telling Backstage magazine she found the clichés, tropes, and stereotypes commonly found in scripts at that time "very frustrating." 

Smollett also revealed a love of genre storytelling in film, but was only offered limited roles during that time, like "the Black chick killed on page 37." She summed it up best during the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City, saying, "There's no price tag they can put on my soul ... My resume would be way longer, I'd be really rich, if I would just sell my soul ... It's about finding those projects where you can feed your spirit, feed your soul at the same time." 

This perspective inevitably cost her roles along the way, but Smollett has landed far more in-depth and subversive roles as a result, like her stellar work in the HBO award-winning horror drama, "Lovecraft Country." And, of course, as a fantabulous reimagining of DC's Black Canary in "Birds of Prey."

Spreading her creative wings

Jurnee Smollett's specific choices in her acting projects have also launched her down a path which crosses that of many other inspiring women in film and television. She met her best friend, writer Misha Green, after the latter cast the former as Letitia Lewis in Green's groundbreaking series, "Lovecraft Country." Smollett shared with Backstage magazine how refreshing it is to take on empowering roles under the direction of women like Green, and has been inspired to expand her own creative platform in a way that will support others. 

As a result, the actress recently expanded into production, saying, "Society hasn't actually evolved a space for women to just be their full, authentic selves." She continued, "And we can't really wait for society to evolve. We've just got to do it ourselves." While she is listed as an executive producer for the 2016 cooking show featuring all six siblings, "Smollett Eats," Smollett will also be producing her first major film, "Lou." 

It's a Netflix thriller about a kidnapping and more, backed by heavy hitters like J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company, director Anna Foerster, and writer Maggie Cohn. There's no release date as of yet, but it should be worth keeping an eye on.

The rocky road to friendship

Despite Smollett and Green's legendary BFF status, the two had to overcome some major differences before they properly clicked. The besties divulged the details to The Hollywood Reporter, stating that, although Green prophetically declared to Smollett they were "going to be best friends" after first meeting during table reads for "Lovecraft Country," Smollett confessed, "We did the pilot and I hated her." 

She continued, "We proceeded to be the worst of enemies for the first two months of shooting." They explained further that their differences were due in part to challenges in communication style, which nearly led to physical altercations, as well as the pressure the two felt as they both undertook leading roles in their fields for the first time. 

Thankfully, they were able to overcome their differences, and once they ironed out the kinks, the pair not only connected creatively, but on a personal level as well. It's exciting to see them working together again on another exciting feature — this time, on a Black Canary-centered "Birds of Prey" spinoff.

It all comes full circle

Video games have been known to bring people together, but in some cases, they also may inadvertently tie into important jobs or opportunities. When rumors of DC's second "Birds of Prey" movie were first circulating in late 2020, Green and Smollett chatted up Variety about their thoughts on the project — which led to an interesting insight. 

Green felt like Smollett being cast as Black Canary in the first "Birds" film was prophetic: the besties used to battle it out while playing the video game "Injustice 2," and Green would continually beat Smollett by playing as Black Canary. "I just would just do the 'canary scream' to win all the time, which would frustrate [Jurnee]," she explained. 

Green described it to Smollett as "kind of kismet and funny that you're now Black Canary, because I was using that character to beat you with this game." We can't help but wonder if Green cheered when she first saw Smollett perform Black Canary's scream. Funny how some things come full circle, eh?

Getting by with a little help from her friends

It's rather fitting that Green and Smollett are working together on the next "Birds of Prey" movie, because Green is one of the primary reasons Smollett took on the role in the first place. As she told Marie Claire, the part almost wasn't even made available to her in the first place, due to perceived scheduling conflicts with "Lovecraft Country." When Green caught wind of the project, however, she asked her best friend and the star of her current project why she wasn't auditioning for Black Canary. 

After hearing Warner Bros. had assumed "Birds" would conflict with "Lovecraft Country," Green gave it her blessing, explaining that the two projects likely wouldn't wind up shooting simultaneously. Smollett wound up self-taping her audition while filming the pilot for "Lovecraft" in Chicago, while assuming the whole time she would never actually be cast as Black Canary. 

Much to her surprise, she received an enthusiastic response (Margot Robbie told The Hollywood Reporter that during the audition she drew "like, 10 stars and exclamation marks next to her name"), along with a request she come meet the film's director, Cathy Yan, in Los Angeles. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mom's gone wild

It seems that Janet Smollett is quite a force to be reckoned with, which was made all the more apparent during Jurnee's second time on "The Ellen Degeneres Show." As reported by The Daily Mail, she shared a funny anecdote from the first time she was a guest on the show, involving her mother and the mighty Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Apparently, once Smollett got backstage, her mom flirted with Hemsworth and referred to him as a "tall drink of water" — which is as hilarious as it is true. We wish we could have been a fly on a wall for that cheeky conversation. 

Smollett went on to tell Ellen that when she later worked with Hemsworth for the first time while filming Netflix's "Escape from Spiderhead," an upcoming American science fiction film, she recognized him from this awkward encounter. We're assuming that People magazine's 2014 Sexiest Man Alive didn't recall the incident, considering he's probably used to making people and their moms swoon all the time.

That's really her singing in Birds of Prey

In her DC origins, Black Canary is known for her singing skills as well as her fatal death cry. When audiences first meet Smollett's interpretation of the character in Cathy Yan's "Birds of Prey," she is paying homage to these comic book roots and singing onstage at Black Mask's club (in a fishnet outfit, another nod to the character's roots). The song is a sultry rendition of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," which perfectly complements the viewer's introduction to Canary's entanglement with the villain, and a girl-powered movie like "Birds" as a whole. 

Many may not realize it, but Smollett is actually the one performing the song, which makes her even more talented than we already knew she was. The soundtrack lists her as the singer, although it endearingly credits "Black Canary" in place of the actress's real name. As she explained while being interviewed for the BUILD Series, it was her first time singing in a studio, or publicly for that matter. 

Up until that point, she'd performed solely in places like "the shower." To make the situation even more unconventional, Smollett claims she was never asked to sing during the audition process, just if she was capable of singing well. That takes some serious confidence on behalf of Smollett, and makes her performance in the film all the more admirable.

She performs most of her own stunts

Not only did Smollett sing in "Birds of Prey," she also performed a good majority of her own stunts while portraying Black Canary. She told Marie Claire that she threw herself headfirst into her training, while still nursing her then-infant son and working off a "mom bod." She added that she was "in a constant state of pain," and she spent many evenings unwinding with the rest of the of-age cast with some hard-earned adult beverages

Thankfully, Smollett had proper guidance for the undertaking under stunt performers and coordinators from 87eleven Action Design, a Hollywood stunts training and equipment company co-founded by directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. They worked together to create a "distinct style" and "specific visual language" for each primary character, as one member of the team, Shahaub Roudbari, put it to Business Insider

For Black Canary's fighting style, they focused on Taekwondo and kicks to add a level of believability to her sequences. As Roudbari so eloquently put it, "If she's throwing a bunch of punches against a big guy, she's going to wreck her hand." He continued, "But when she puts her strength into a kick, that's going to sell more." And "sell" it does — Smollett's high-flying kicks look like they'd do some serious damage in real life.

Life in the underground

"Birds of Prey" isn't the only physically demanding project Smollett has undertaken. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she revealed the grueling behind-the-scenes of filming the period drama, "Underground." Apparently, it was as challenging to face as the harsh realities examined in the show. "You have to do it take, after take, after take," Smollett told the site, "And you're in these corsets and your dress is like four or five layers and it's 106 degrees in Baton Rouge in the dead of summer." 

This sounds challenging enough, but Smollett also explained that she was swimming through swamps in said corsets and dresses, while also attempting to perform as many of her own stunts as possible. To top it all off, she managed all this while struggling to keep up with fast moving cameras strapped to the back of all-terrain golf carts. In the end, Smollett stated that she found it a humbling experience, because it caused her to reflect upon the lives of real slaves who actually undertook the incredibly brave journey of escaping their bonds.

She took home Harley's Good Night bat

Hopefully, Smollett didn't take home any leeches or other unwanted guests from the Southern swamps she worked in while filming "Underground." Thankfully, later she got to take home some much more awesome keepsakes from a much more fun on-set experience. While chatting with MTV and fellow "Birds of Prey" cast members about their filming experience, Smollett confessed to sneaking home a few of Black Canary's props as keepsakes. 

She wasn't the only one — Margot Robbie admitted to taking home a pair of shorts which never wound up being used in the film, along with a top intended for Black Canary, and Ella Jay Basco mentioned being allowed to take home one of her character's pink casts. When asked which items she snuck home, Smollett mentioned some of her character's jewelry, including a belly chain and nose ring. 

Not only did she make out with some Canary keepsakes, but as it turns out, Smollett also brought home a Harley Quinn "Good Night" baseball bat. After mentioning this, she joked, "I shouldn't be talking about this on camera, they're going to come knocking on my door." Perhaps we'll see the bat turn up in the upcoming Black Canary "Birds of Prey" film — fans can only hope and speculate, for now.