Actress Jurnee Smollett Explains to A&U’s Dann Dulin Why She’s Revved Up About
Peer Prevention, Working with ANSA& Her Proactive Plan to Stop AIDS
Activist” is an overused word. And when words are overused—like “new and improved,” “going out of business,” and “Cher’s Final Tour”—they become meaningless. But actress Jurnee Smollett (pronounced small-let) puts the punch back into the term “activist” and customizes it.
Perched on a red velvet couch, Jurnee’s shapely body is bent over, elbows resting on her knees. She’s intense. “My generation is becoming more and more complacent! There is crying and pain going on. There’s a whole population screaming out and no one is listening. It’s neglect,” she says fiercely. “It’s frustrating because when infection rates rise we have budget cuts. This is proof that the world is ignoring us. When my generation was born, this disease existed. So I definitely feel like it’s up to us to take the baton and keep up the fight.”
Smollett, nineteen, has firmly taken hold of that baton. She’s the youngest board member of Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), a group she has worked with since age eleven. And she’s also been involved with NAPWA (National Association of People with AIDS). After recently training with Positively Speaking, a program sponsored by the Los Angeles school district, she speaks for ANSA at city schools about HIV prevention. “I have countless numbers of positive friends who I would lay down my life for,” she declares.
One of her friends is Hydeia Broadbent. Earlier this year, they both spoke at the Ryan White Youth Conference on HIV and AIDS in Philadelphia. Hydeia, twenty-one, was one of the first babies infected with HIV. Doctors at the time proclaimed that she wouldn’t live past three. Today she is healthy and a crusader for HIV/AIDS prevention. “Hydeia and I talk several times a day,” Jurnee remarks excitedly. “She’s like my second sister.”
Smollett comes from a large, close-knit family. In fact, on this overcast day in Los Angeles, Jurnee showed up at this journalist’s home with her mother in tow. Her mother? Yes. They have a unique relationship and her mother, Janet, is a story unto herself. She raised six kids by herself and homeschooled them. Presently, she’s working on an AIDS documentary about women. Throughout the interview, Jurnee pays homage to her mom and credits her for instilling in her strength, courage, and compassion.
Jurnee is comfortable speaking her mind. No wonder—she’s had a lot of practice. Her career unfolded when she was an infant modeling diapers. At age three, she landed a Pepsi commercial with Joe Montana (“Boy, did I flirt with him,” she coos, with a coy smile and raised eyebrow). As a kid, she conquered television, appearing on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Full House, Cosby, Wanda at Large, and On Our Own, a comedy that featured her real-life sister and brothers. Jurnee’s powerful performance in Eve’s Bayou, a feature film with Samuel L. Jackson, moved many critics to assert that she deserved the Oscar. Currently, Smollett can be seen in the features, Roll Bounce and Gridiron Gang. The girl can also sing (trained by her mother) and has sung on various TV shows.
“I use my acting talent as a weapon for the greater good. I think of myself as a server of the people,” she boldly admits, her eyes locked into mine. “Mom taught me that there is a bigger purpose.” Her mother, who looks much younger than her years, is wearing sunglasses, a low-cut ivory blouse with tight jeans, and sits quietly next to Jurnee. She is expressionless, but listening intently. And Janet is not your stereotypical Hollywood “stage mom”—we don’t have a Mama Rose thing going on here. Both gals are dressed funky-classy.
“I want to reach my peers, but some aren’t paying attention,” she complains, adjusting her hair. “At the Ryan White Conference I spoke to a girl from Nashville who contracted HIV two years ago from her boyfriend. She said in her hometown people see AIDS as a problem just for white, gay men or IV drug users. Though her mother took her to the doctor to get birth control pills, AIDS was not the issue, just pregnancy. She wasn’t using protection because she didn’t think that in this day and age it could happen to her.” Jurnee sits motionless, aghast. She gets loud. “That blew my mind! Do you know how many kids she represents?! I mean, even just a year ago, I had a friend who got infected. She was twenty-three and a virgin. We are all living with this disease. That’s why we all need to do something about it. We need to break down these stigmas!”
Those of us who lived through the beginnings of AIDS, when the medical field was grasping for answers, know all too well the hurtful comments that were directed toward those infected. Jurnee rattles off some of those ignorant statements that can still be heard today: “‘They’re dirty.’ ‘Don't kiss them.’ ‘Don't sleep in the same bed.’ People need to be educated. This stigma is not just in Africa, it’s happening right here on our soil!”
On L.A. turf, the Los Angeles Unified School District program that Smollett works with also has a PWA or HIV-positive person speak to the students. “I give the affected side of the story and they give the infected side,” she says. “It’s a profound duo.” Jurnee repeats their familiar testimonials: “‘I have a stomachache and headache every day.’ ‘I can’t sleep.’ ‘There are side effects to these drugs I have to take.’ I hear some of these symptoms daily from Hydeia. It’s tough to watch someone you love in pain,” she whispers, grimacing. “As with the program, yes, we are scaring people into not getting the disease!” If anyone can scare adolescents to play safe, it’s Jurnee. She’s like a bird of prey, an eagle or falcon, who has the beauty to attract and captivate, yet can dominate her subject. By speaking around schools, Smollett hopes it will have a ripple effect and inspire others to do the same.
Jurnee relays a recent experience after one of her talks. “This beautiful girl came up afterwards and quietly passed me a note. It said she was stuck in the system and living in a group home because her mom died of AIDS when she was seven. She knew what it felt like to lose that special someone before you get the chance to really spend time with them. She had been robbed,” breaks Jurnee with a hint of sorrow in her voice. “Even though this girl is negative, she is afraid she’s ‘going to get it’—not because of sex, but because her mom had it when she was pregnant with her. That really broke me,” confesses Jurnee.
AIDS has always been a part of Smollett’s life. Her first personal encounter came at the age of seven while working on the series, On Our Own, when a crew member died of AIDS. Before that, she recalls her mother talking about Ryan White. “She never kept stuff from us,” she attests. “That's what is so wonderful about my mom and why I appreciate and respect her so much. She was blunt, she was honest, and she used the lingo that my friends used. I’ve never been babied. She told me what the world was like so I wouldn’t grow up and be shocked to find out the truth.” Smollett was briefed on drugs, alcohol, and sex at the appropriate time. “Oh, we had the sex talk early on!” she laughs with a nod and a grin. “It was so normal to me that I wasn’t in such a rush to see what it was about. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, boy, what boy can I jump on?’ And when I was younger and would go to Hollywood parties, I was offered liquor and drugs. But my mom had already talked to me about that stuff, so it cut the glamour and the mystique. It was no longer mysterious.” There’s a lesson here. If a taboo subject is discussed at home, chances are the power and curiosity are taken out of it.
The conversation leads to parent-child portrayals in the movies. Jurnee and Janet are both classic movie fans and we touch on Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford. Jurnee briefly reenacts a pivotal, emotion-fused scene between Mildred (played by Crawford) and her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), on the staircase that includes a vicious slap in the face. Jurnee straightens up, throws back her shoulders, gets poised in a Joan Crawford attitude, and says stridently, “‘Veda! I said, Give it to me!’” We all giggle.
Not long ago, Smollett and fellow ANSA board members joined with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in New Orleans to shine the spotlight on the forgotten children of Katrina. “It was truly a life-changing experience,” she reports, glancing out the window at the dazzling violet bougainvilleas. “It’s been nine months since Katrina, yet it’s barely been touched. The Ninth Ward is still in a state of ruins, and schools, grocery stores, hospitals, etc. haven’t been rebuilt. Only eighty-eight Congressmen out of 535 have come to New Orleans. The legendary Marian Wright Edelman is trying to get Congress to pass disaster-relief Medicaid because many of the families we met complained about the complications and eligibility requirements they faced when they where simply trying to get prescriptions filled. They’ve been going months without asthma machines, breast cancer medication, diabetes medications, etc. This is unacceptable….”
Despite her youth, this spitfire has been around. Before we end the interview, I ask Jurnee what has been her favorite moment thus far. She perks up in a regal manner, her eyes widen and she answers, “Oh, there’s been a few, but one recently. Last year, there was an ANSA event held in honor of Ahmed Kathrada. He’s an amazing man. He has such a glow around him,” she says breathlessly, shaking her head in awe. “I was fortunate enough to be around him for three days.” Kathrada was Nelson Mandela’s prison mate for almost twenty-six years, and the event was a celebration for the release of his book, Memoirs. The function was celebrity-peppered and on-hand were Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Richardson, Roma Maffia, and CCH Pounder [A&U, January 2006]. “At the end, he got up and spoke. He started thanking so-and-so, but then realized the list was too long to mention everyone individually. Then he looked at me and said: ‘Oh, I see my young friend, Jurnee, is here. I met her a few days ago, and I want to thank her. I’m in love with her politics, her passion, and her spirit. It makes someone at my age feel very hopeful that there’s someone like Jurnee in her generation. I wish there were more Jurnee’s in the world.’ I was….I was so honored.” Jurnee is teary-eyed.
Like a hurricane, she is calm at the center, but on the outside Smollett exists with electric energy. Where does she get this exhilaration, the motivation to help others? “It’s my mom,” she says with no hesitation. “Life is about giving. Since she first learned that I wanted to be an actress, she taught me how important it was to build a strong platform. Because of my celebrity, people will listen to me and so it’s important to have something to say; I don’t want to feed people’s ears with garbage,” she protests. “AIDS has got to stop with my generation.” She pauses a moment to reflect, then confesses, “It’s a task!” She takes a breath and lets out a short sigh. “It can be overwhelming sometimes because I am just one, small person.” Doesn’t matter, Jurnee. You’re making a change. Remember Rosa Parks. It only takes one person....
Contact ANSA at www.ansafrica.org.
What is your "funnest" thing to do when you're not working?
Sing and dance. I put on Lionel Ritchie's All Night Long and me and mommy dance.
Out of the many people you have worked with thus far, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most?
I can't pick one person. There is a collection of people. Every person I meet I learn something.
What is in your iPod right now?
Aretha Franklin, Night and Day, Barbara Streisand, The Eagles, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Foodies, Tupac, Madonna, Black Eyed Peas. I run the gamut in my likes for music; from Santana to Debussy.
Any tattoos? Any piercings?
None other than my ears.
Do you have a hero?
What are you most proud of?
That I am a nice person.
Tell me something the public may not know about you.
That I am a very private person and I protect the people I love.
Complete this sentence. The best thing about being famous is . . .
That's assuming I'm famous! [she laughs]. Meeting people.
Jurnee names her pet preferences
Clothing to wear: This black rock jacket that my friend gave me
TV sitcom: I Love Lucy
Movie of all time: Sound of Music or American In Paris
City: New York
Actor: Sydney Poitier
Actress: Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford
Physical asset: My lips
The People She's Met Along Her Journey
Jurnee's quick responses to some of the people in her life
Wanda Sykes: Hilarious!
Nick Cannon: Genuine
Jenifer Lewis: Fierce
Samuel L. Jackson: Respect
Diahann Carroll: Idolize
Sharon Stone: Idolize
Bill Cosby: [long pause] Interesting
Angela Bassett: In awe
Kevin Anderson: Talented
The Rock: Greek god
Bow Wow: Hustler
Dann Dulin interviewed Chad Allen for the June cover story.