‘Lovecraft Country’ Star Jurnee Smollett on Fighting Monsters During the Real-Life Horror of Jim Crow America
Almost a year after “Lovecraft Country” first premiered on HBO, series star Jurnee Smollett still isn’t sure if a second season may be coming.
“I will accept and surrender to whatever destiny is in store for these characters. If COVID has taught me [anything], it’s taught me that you cannot get attached to certain plans,” she tells Variety on the latest episode of the “Awards Circuit” podcast.
Until creator/showrunner Misha Green and the premium cabler decide on what the future will hold for Smollett’s Leti Lewis, though, she is enjoying still getting to reflect on the experience of stepping into the first season, which is loosely based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name. Listen below!
“It’s a very classical design: you have these heroes who go on a quest to restore order in their land [and] the heroes have to fight monsters and dragons, et cetera in order to restore balance. However, when you center a very classical story like that but with Black voices, inevitably, it flips it on its head,” she says. “What order are they restoring? Was there ever order for these Black Americans [or] for Leti, a woman who lives at the intersection of multiple identities? In the 1950s Jim Crow America, what does order actually mean? What does peace actually mean? And can you restore something that was never there, or do you have to tear the whole thing down and start all over again?”
The story begins with Leti accompanying her friend Atticus (Jonathan Majors) as he sets out in search of his father. While on that road trip they encounter racism from a local police sheriff and the laws of the sundown town through which they are passing, but they also have a supernatural experience when they are attacked by shoggoths.
From there, things only get more complicated as Leti buys a house in an all-white community and has to face additional hatred from her new neighbors, in addition to vanquishing the spirit of a scientist who performed experiments on Black patients in the house. Although there are bright spots as she and Atticus embark on a love story and conceive a child, there is additional trauma as they attend Emmett Till’s funeral, travel back in time to 1921 and Leti fights Christina (Abbey Lee) to try to save Atticus but cannot succeed.
“Work like this — for a project or character that you’re building like this — it really requires that you understand the historical context to which your characters are in. So while I didn’t know Emmett Till’s funeral was coming, I understood that [in] 1955…was when there was this collective mourning, this collective grief,” Smollett says. “I knew that prior to Rosa Parks in December of 1955 sparking the bus boycott, there were all these other little protests that didn’t get the acclaim that Rosa Parks did. [In] 1955 there was a bubbling energy in Black folks.”
To immerse herself in the time and that energy, Smollett recalls studying everything from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry to the activism of Ella Baker. “You have to understand how the character sees the world,” she explains. “Part of it is their family structure, and so I understood that, but then you’ve also got to understand the historical context of all those other elements that inform how her eyes are formed.”
In working to understand the bond between Leti and Atticus, Smollett did a deep-dive into therapy books. “With Atticus [Leti’s] got more of an anxious attachment pattern — she won’t let go and there’s anxiety around it,” she says. “I think it was an incredibly beautiful experience to explore the dynamics of these two people who are falling in love in the midst of their world being turned upside down.”
Although the “spiritual warfare” Leti finds herself involved in in the story is unique to that world, Smollett still found an important personal connection to her character.
“She didn’t go to her mother’s funeral, which was such a nugget for me,” she says. “I’m always fascinated by how we as human beings deal with grief when we grieve those that we were estranged from, which is something I can relate to with my dad. I didn’t speak to my dad from the time I was 12 until I was 26, except for three or four times. And once we were reunited, he passed away two years later. And so, I could so relate to Leti’s desire to heal that mother-daughter split if you never really get to heal once they pass away. Or do you heal it? Do you find other ways to try to heal it? Do you repeat certain patterns in an effort to heal it? So there was all these things in Leti that I was just desperate to explore for very selfish and cathartic reasons.”
Also in this episode, we speak with “In & Of Itself” star Derek DelGaudio about turning his awe-inspiring and mysterious stage show into a TV special, directed by Frank Oz. “In & Of Itself,” written by and starring DelGaudio, first premiered in Los Angeles in 2016. It then moved to the Darryl Roth theater in New York, where it played from 2017-2018. It ended after a 72-week run and 560 shows.
The autobiographical show features DelGaudio on stage, telling the story of how an encounter with a man who called himself the “Roulettista” led him on a quest to discover his own identity, and what that even means. Along the way, DelGaudio’s skills in card tricks and illusion are utilized to tell this deeper, more personal story — which involves several surprising interactions with the audience along the way.
Since premiering on Hulu earlier this year, even more audiences who didn’t get a chance to see it in person had a chance to be wowed on screen. For the Awards Circuit podcast, DelGaudio discusses the process of turning “In & Of Itself” into a film, how Stephen Colbert got involved in the TV production, and the balance between showing celebrities in the audience vs. regular people. Plus, did he ever worry that he wouldn’t get that book back?
But first, on the Variety Awards Circuit roundtable, we get into the Emmy comedy race.
Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.