The Multifaceted Jurnee Smollett
From conjuring her inner wild woman to the power of natural diamonds, the Lou actress tells it like it is.
Directed & Photographed by: Mark Lim | Styled by: Alexandra Mandelkorn
Words by: Christine Whitney
The first time I wore natural diamonds was to the New York Premiere of The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington,” actress Jurnee Smollett remembers. It’s a hot fall day in one of Los Angeles’ cozy canyons, and Smollett, casually polished in jeans and thick-soled boots, is gamely answering a series of questions about notable diamond moments in her life.
“I was about 20 or 21 and Cartier loaned me all these diamonds—I was just in awe. We grew up pretty poor, and anything like that seemed so out of our reach, or reserved for women like Diana Ross and Elizabeth Taylor. Being able to see the artistry and unique energy of diamonds in person was such a special experience.”
While she’s one of the most grounded actors one could hope to meet, Smollett does love a good jewelry moment. She’s recently added a number of piercings (now totaling seven) to one of her ears, and plans to go back ASAP to complete the other one. “I’m allergic to fake jewelry, random fact,” she offers when asked about her preferred personal amulets. “It literally makes my ears swell.”
For her Only Natural Diamonds cover story, Smollett got to match her creative spirit with her love of fine jewelry, channeling different characters through changes of hair, wardrobe, and of course, natural diamonds. “I think as I grow older, I realize that it’s okay to embrace all the different complex sides of my womanhood,” Smollett says of the inspiration for the shoot. “One day I want to show up in combat boots and jeans and a T-shirt,” referencing her uniform for this interview, “and that feels authentic to me in this mood and space. Fashion really is about expressing ourselves in that present time. All this other stuff that we make it about is performative and not actually creativity,” she concludes.
The shoot, however, brought out the kind of collaborative self-expression she loves. “It was just one big playground,” she says of the experience. “I rarely have fun at photo shoots because honestly it’s a bit counter to my relationship with the camera—to actually look into the camera—I’m not a model. I’m an actress, I tell stories. So it’s just a different muscle that can be awkward.”
Asked if she had a favorite piece, look, or moment from the shoot, she demurs. “I’m a Libra, I can’t pick a favorite,” before referencing her top three, including an a pear-shaped diamond that “looks like something Elizabeth Taylor would wear;” natural diamond earring fashioned into hairpieces courtesy of hairstylist Nikki Nelms “I felt like a queen who didn’t need a crown;” and an architectural Louis Vuitton look with a slicked-back bun with Melissa Kaye and Louis Vuitton jewels.
“After having played so much with divine feminine energy, it was nice to play with a little bit more of a divine masculine, because we have it both in us. I need the balance. I don’t subscribe to this idea that we’re all one or the other,” Smollett says. “Oftentimes when I am getting into a character, it is about exploring the different colors, and the shapes, and the energies. As a society, we love to put names and labels on it, because we need to understand it. And that has its value, because folks need to feel seen. But when you’re talking about your instrument, it’s just energy flowing through you.”
Smollett’s own energy is warm and infectious, and has, in concert with her determination and mettle, secured her a robust complement of roles throughout her decades-long career. “Typically, if there is a typecasting of me, it’s the wild woman,” she says, referencing an archetype from the beloved Clarissa Pinkola Estés book, Women Who Run with the Wolves. “I think that’s just the blood memory. One of my teachers talks a lot about that—these characters don’t come to you by accident.”
Her latest character is the protagonist of the Netflix thriller Lou, directed by Anna Foerster, which debuted on Netflix September 23rd. Smollett plays Hannah, a domestic violence survivor who is forced to embark on a hero’s journey when her daughter is kidnapped. Allison Janney co-stars as the reclusive neighbor who joins Hannah on her odyssey. “It’s a beautiful story that’s simply about two very different women from very different backgrounds,” Smollett says. “We are forced to work together and trek through the woods in the middle of a storm. We’re battling conditions, demons from our past, and each other while trying to rescue [my daughter] from my ex-husband.” The project also marks Smollett’s debut in the role of producer, with more production credits in the works.
Shot in the Vancouver wilderness, Lou offered the opportunity for Smollett to lean into her character’s inner wild woman—and to have a great time in the process. “I got to play in the woods for months with Allison Janney,” she says. “[She’s] an icon in her own right and one of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with. We really had to develop a partnership because it was a tough shoot, 100% outdoors.”
Rugged conditions or none, Smollett is not one to be deterred by the elements. “It was just so beautiful,” she says of the landscape. “I’m channeling the inner mama bear spirit, and had an encounter in one of our last days of shooting with a mama bear—her cubs were on the beach and she was fishing. It was really quite moving. I tend to dive into a spiritual aspect of the work and the character. And that was a little nod from nature, ‘you’re on the right path.’”
Smollett has been acting since she was a kid, having featured opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Eve’s Bayou and as a recurring character on ‘90s sitcoms like Full House and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. In fact, her first diamond encounter came courtesy of Kasi Lemmons, who directed her in Eve’s Bayou. “I was 10,” Smollett remembers. It was a pearl necklace with a heart and a tiny little diamond in the middle of the heart. And she inscribed the back of it, ‘To Jurnee. Love Kasi.’” Receiving her first piece of real jewelry was a thrill, but it was the gesture and thought behind it that really moved her.
In her early 20s, she won an NAACP Award for her role in Denzel Washington’s celebrated The Great Debaters. She’s gone on to star in myriad movies and series, including WGN’s Underground, Netflix’s Spiderhead, and HBO’s Lovecraft Country, the latter of which secured her an Emmy nomination. In one of her many upcoming projects, The Burial, Smollett plays a litigator facing off against Jamie Foxx in the courtroom.
“Even within the suit…she has the spirit of the wild woman,” Smollett says of her character, “trying to break free from societal standards. If that’s the typecast, I’m ok with it.” Asked about her dream role, she reveals, “I’m actually currently attached to doing it. I can’t talk about it yet, but it’s truly a ‘pinch me’ moment—the role I’ve wanted to play my entire adulthood.”
“After having played
so much with divine
feminine energy, it
was nice to play with
a little bit more of
a divine masculine,
because we have it
both in us.”
Smollett is stunning to watch as an actress, but she’s also disarmingly generous and candid offscreen, a rare find amidst the often-vapid gloss of Hollywood. Filmography aside, she’s the kind of person you would want at your dinner table. She’s polished and smart as hell, but it’s her old-soul depth that makes her truly magnetic.
“My love languages are for sure quality time and acts of kindness,” Smollett says, when it’s suggested that she is a gifted gifter. She’s just responded to a line of questioning about memorable diamond purchases, revealing that the most notable natural diamonds she ever bought were actually for her mother—a set of earrings bearing her grandchildren’s initials. As with most things Smollett, it’s about the thought. “My brother Jake will not leave my house without making sure he takes my trash out. That’s the family that I come from. I don’t ask him to do it, I live down so many stairs.”
Indeed, she’s one of six siblings, and her mother, a full-time mom and an activist who worked with Angela Davis, set the bar high. “She’s iconic,” Smollett says of her mother. “She raised me watching classic movies. She had me reading Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography when I was thirteen. That’s probably why I know I need to produce now, because Katharine Hepburn did it.” Hollywood glamor aside, Smollett’s mom taught her about grit, one of the proverbial gems she hopes to pass down to her five-year-old-son, Hunter.
“[My mom] had a tough upbringing as a Black woman in the South growing up in the ’60s, ’70s. But she’s so resilient and did instill that in us—you get kicked down eight times, you get back up nine. I don’t think I would’ve survived in this industry without that.”
Typically, if there is
a typecasting of me,
it’s the wild woman.
Smollett is a single working mom, and it’s clear that for all her A-list roles, her most important one is always that of Hunter’s mom. “The mama bear in me is very protective over his curiosity, his imagination, his questioning, that sense of exploration that kids have…Kids are some of the greatest artists.” It’s a role she’s determined to embody on her own terms. “I didn’t want motherhood to feel like a death,” she says when asked about balancing parenting and her profession. “Unfortunately, we haven’t evolved enough in society to have space for women who want to pursue what they love without neglecting those they love,” she explains. Smollett is forging a third path—pursuing her passion while bringing her son along wherever the work takes her.
“I THINK AS I GROW
OLDER, I REALIZE THAT IT’S
OKAY TO JUST EMBRACE
ALL THE DIFFERENT
COMPLEX SIDES OF MY
She reflects on the dialectics of the matriarchs in her lineage: “My grandmother was a single mom, worked her entire life, raised four children in the South. And I think my mom reversed that. She wanted to be more present than her mother was able to be, but I’m trying to find a blend.”
It’s a theme the team discussed often during the making of Lou. Says Smollett, “There’s so much judgment that we place on ourselves and so much judgment that society places on mothers. How do you find space to just go, ‘I’m doing the best I can. And that is enough.’” Which brings us once again to the love languages, time and kindness. “I think back to my mother’s rearing of all of us and cherish how present she was, along with her gifts of selflessness and generosity,” Smollett says.
Another gem she wants to pass down to Hunter comes courtesy of Denzel Washington. “Denzel says, ‘You’ve never seen a U-Haul trailer following a hearse—you can’t take it with you,’” she recounts with a smile. “Another good gem he told me was, ‘Man gives awards, God gives rewards.’ You can’t buy quality time—it’s actually priceless.” She elaborates, “I don’t subscribe to the idea that money is the solution. I’ve had it, I’ve lost it, I’ve had it, I’ve lost it, I’ve had it again.”
Diamonds are forged under extreme pressure—they go through a lot in order to arrive at perfect clarity. Talking to Smollett, one gets the sense that she’s lived, devising a way to thrive under even the most challenging conditions. Between her turn in Lou and her roster of forthcoming projects, Jurnee Smollett’s brilliance is very much in evidence.
Director/Photographer: Mark Lim
Creative Director: Lizzy Oppenheimer
Stylist: Alexandra Mandelkorn
Hair: Nikki Nelms
Makeup: Jorge Monroy
Manicure: Emi Kudo
Director of Photography: Carl Knight
Video Editor: Bruno Alves
Colorist: Natasha Wong
Sound Composer: Mark Lim
Assistant Camera: Kelvin Kataria
Steadicam: Gio Barot
Key Gaffer: Robert Olivia Junior
Best Boy Electric: Dave Blundell
Key Grip: Beau Beagles
Best Boy Grip: Roman Reardon
Digital Tech: Yuhsing Lim
Photo Assistant: Patrick Molina
Stylist Assistant: Drew Cockrell
Tailor: Maureen Lessman
Sound Recording: Kai Morrison
Produced by: Petty Cash Production