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'Full House' to the 'Underground' Slave Railroad: One Black Actress' Journey

Feb 13 2016 5:45 PM
'Full House' to the 'Underground' Slave Railroad: One Black Actress' Journey

Courtesy of WGN

Jurnee Smollet-Bell has appeared in some of the most well-loved series of the last decade, now she's starring in WGN's new dramatic thriller about the underground railroad. Smollet-Bell talks to Broadly about diversity, empowerment, and the Tanners.

Trust me when I say that you know Jurnee Smollett-Bell. The name might not immediately trigger a memory, but as soon as you see her, you know exactly who she is.

Smollett-Bell got her start on Full House as Michelle Tanner's best buddy, Denise Frazer. The well-timed grade schooler stole just about every scene she was in. Then Smollet-Bell appeared in all the most presitigous well-loved shows of the decade, Friday Night Lights to True Blood and Parenthood but, on March 9 you're going to see a whole new side of the actress.

Starring as Rosalee, a house slave on a plantation in 1857, Smollett-Bell is the heart and soul behind WGN America's brand new series Underground, which tells gripping story of the Underground Railroad. The series has the tone and dramatic charge of an escape thriller–a departure from usual period-piece drama of recent slavery focused films.

We sat down with Smollett-Bell to discuss growing up on the screen, fighting for what you want, the state of race in America, and whether or not we might see Denise on Fuller House.

BROADLY There have been a lot of slave dramas on the screen, how is Underground different?
There was a mandate from Misha Green and Joe Pokaski [who created the show], and it was that we had to be bold. And that mandate was given to every single department, whether you were in the props department or whether you were doing the music like John Legend. Having that mandate from the top down really made all of us think outside the box and really try to tell this story in different way. I think we've succeeded in that.

One of the unique aspects of the show is the way it weaves in this contemporary music with dance scenes.
Yeah, I think what was important, if you go back to the slave narratives (which I read slave narratives and really tried to view the first-person accounts as my bible for my character), you see that they laugh, they love, they sing, they cooked. They were living, breathing people and, aside from this horrendous occupation they were under and aside from the heavy weight of their oppression, they still struggled to find joy within their life. It was a struggle. It didn't come easy, but they tried to find little nuggets of gratitude, and I think that's something that we wanted to explore. In the midst of all this tragedy around them, they still tried to triumph. They still tried to find little victories. Constantly trying to find ways to enjoy themselves.

Smollet-Bell in 'Underground'

There's a moment in Underground when you have your hands whipped. It's difficult to watch, but I want to know what's going through your mind as you're enduring something like that.
That was one of the hardest scenes I've ever done in my life. Leading up to it, I tried to fill myself with images of these beautiful bodies that had just been ransacked with strikes, and I just tried to read different accounts of what it was like to be a victim of being flogged.

Honestly, there's something that happens to you when you step on a plantation. You feel the spirit. And there's something that happens to you when you hear the sound of a whip crack. I said to Anthony, "Please don't let me hear the sounds until I need to hear it."

On the day, I refused to talk about the scene. We had over-talked it, so on that day I just prayed that the spirit would overtake me. I didn't know how I was gonna do it when I walked out there. I really didn't know.

The first take, seeing Bill standing there with that whip, the spirit just overwhelmed. We did it over and over and over. When I was done, I was just shaking. I couldn't stop crying. It felt like I was crying there for like ten minutes and nobody interrupted me. And then I just went back to my trailer and called my mom and I couldn't stop crying. It was just so overwhelming.

The underground railroad was the first integrated civil rights movement in our nation.

I mean, that level of pain that the Rosalees of the world had to experience is going to be with me forever.

Has working on Underground given you a new perspective on slavery, race, and empowerment?
I think it's definitely deepened my perspective of the issues we deal with today. I'm on the board of the Children's Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman is a mentor of mine, which I am so blessed to be able to say.

For me, injustice is two-fold. There's an overt injustice where you walk down the street and someone called you a racial slur. Then there's systemic injustice as long our brothers and sisters are being gunned down, as long as we are not afforded equal opportunity, and as long as children are denied education and poverty has stricken within our community, and you're being locked up at higher rates. These are systemic injustices that we've inherited from this very time period. And my work on this show has absolutely deepened my understanding of where we are.

Smollett-Bell in 'Parenthood'

We've come so far. We've come so far, but the underground railroad was the first integrated civil rights movement in our nation. It was the first time black people and white people and Native Americans and people from all walks of life worked together in an organized way (which was very disorganized), and had a grassroots movement to bring down a system in our nation. And they succeeded.

There are plenty of abolitionists who, if you read their writings, will say, "I became an abolitionist because I saw Frederick Douglass speak." What they're saying is that putting a face to that term "slavery" and putting a voice to that word "slaves" made it personal for them. They could no longer just sit down.

You came into this business at such a young age. Have you seen the shift start at least, in terms of diversity in Hollywood?
Absolutely! I've definitely seen the shift. It's slow. It's really slow. It's like pushing a large rock up a mountain. Viola Davis (who is 'Queen Viola' for me) hit it on the nose when she accepted her Emmy and alluded to the fact that you cannot win awards for roles that are not written. Viola Davis has always been an exceptional actress. She has been that well before the Emmy said she was, but if it hadn't been for Shonda Rhimes creating this complex, layered, sexual, beautiful, intelligent, and morally questionable character, would Viola have been standing up there accepting that Emmy? Would she have broken through that glass ceiling last year? I don't know.

But I think I see more improvement because we have more writers and more creatives and more producers being willing to put people like her in that starring role. But, to this day, I still hear that, "Oh, we're not willing to go ethnic on that role." And I'm not gonna quit. I still try to force my rep to get me in the room for roles that are not written black.

I would guess that your role on Parenthood wasn't originally written black.
Oh my gosh! My role on Parenthood was not originally black. My role on True Blood was not originally black. I mean, going all the way back to Jack and Full House. Those roles were not originally for black girls.

But, again, Jason Katims [Parenthood's executive producer] didn't care. He called my agent—I had worked with him on Friday Night Lights—and said, "I've got this arc, this fun character, that I think would be perfect for Jurnee." He doesn't write with color in mind.

That mandate came from above him.
It's so above him. He writes complex characters and, really, anyone could play these roles. Anyone could have played Jess in Friday Night Lights.

'Full House' screengrab

Speaking of Full House, you started on that show when you were four years old and reprised that character on Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. Is there any chance we'll get to see a Denise Frazer appearance on Netflix's upcoming Fuller House?
[Laughs] Not to my knowledge. I don't think so. I mean, I have no idea. I haven't even seen it. I don't even know... What would Denise being doing? What trips me out is when people come up to me and recognize me from that because I'm like, "I hope I've changed somehow since I was four."

What are you most proud of in your life or career so far?
One proud moment for sure was when I was in South Africa. I was there a few years ago. The State Department had sent me there to do peer education about HIV/AIDS. And I still have this letter from this little girl who wrote me and said that after having seen The Great Debaters, it made her want to become an attorney. She joined the Debate Team and hopes, one day, to become an attorney.

That, for me, was like, "You know, that's what it's all about." A little girl in South Africa had seen an image of a little brown girl on screen who faced incredible opposition and it inspired her enough to want to do the same thing.

I will continue to do what I do just for that moment. That's what it's about.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I've ever received was from Quincy Jones. He said to me, "Jurnee, you can't believe them when they tell you that you're great because you'll believe them when they tell you that you're not great. You have to know who you are and that you're made by God."

We're in the business of rejection. You go on these auditions, you read these scripts that you want, and they say no. It's takes 95 no's just to get one yes. That can chip away at you, but I think the message he was trying to communicate to me was that you have to know who you are regardless of people's opinions of you. People will try to define you. This will keep you levelheaded. You won't get too conceited and you won't get too insecure.

Underground premieres on Wednesday, March 9 at 10 PM EST on WGN America.

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