Jurnee Smollett shared details of the charitable journey she went on to South Africa with other celebs, such as Samuel L. Jackson, to ‘build wells for villages that needed water’, in a new interview.
Jurnee Smollett, 34, revealed that she almost pulled the plug on acting at one point in her career, but a South African trip to help those less fortunate is what changed her mind, in a new intimate interview. The longtime actress sat down with StyleCaster for a cover feature about various issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the causes she most believes in, when she opened up about the time in her life when she thought she would say goodbye to the industry she’s been in since she was a little girl. She was 20-years-old and had been doing nonprofit work since she was 12, including with the organization, Artists For a New South Africa, which was founded by Alfre Woodard and other actors and was aimed at helping to end segregation in South Africa, and she began to wonder if she should do that kind of work full time.
“I was broke,” she told the outlet. “I was over the industry. Not the art side, but the business side. The game you have to play.” She further explained that the “game” she was referring to was the lack of interesting opportunities she had as a black actress. “It was incredibly frustrating to just get into the room for roles I would be excited about,” she shared. “I was constantly told, ‘Oh, we’re not willing to go ethnic on that role.’ That’s what my agents were told consistently. That would be the term they used.”
“Casting directors had no shame in saying, ‘Yeah, the role isn’t opening up. The filmmaker isn’t willing to go ethnic.’,” she continued. “I couldn’t even get in the room to compete, which was incredibly frustrating because the roles I could get in the room for were either horror films where I’m killed on page 33 or I’m the sassy Black best friend. It’s very unsatisfying for someone to tell you, ‘Well, you can only create this kind of art.’”
Before she made the final decision to quit acting, she was invited to South Africa with Alfre, Samuel L. Jackson, and other celebrities to help build wells for villages that needed water, and it’s what unexpectedly opened her eyes to looking at her art in a different way. “I saw the power of art,” she said. “This art is what brought us there. It’s what could save an 8-year-old girl operating a household, taking care of her four younger siblings because both of her parents had passed away from HIV/AIDS.”
“It could save her from having to walk five kilometers just to get water,” she added. “We could go there and build a well in this township, so she could spend more time in school. This art is what could change lives. If I had been given the gift of art, how dare I not use it?”
Jurnee returned to acting after the life-changing trip and booked impressive roles on television shows like Friday Night Lights, The Defenders, and True Blood, before getting cast as the lead in Misha Green‘s Underground in 2015, a groundbreaking role that brought in many more offers. She was eventually cast in the role of Letitia “Leti” Lewis in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, which is a part she felt only she could play. The first season of the drama premiered in Aug. and the finale will air on Sunday, Oct. 18 at 9 p.m.