Saturday, June 03, 2023

‘Lovecraft Country’ Stars Jurnee  Smollett and Aunjanue  Ellis Talk Show’s “Spirit of Respect” and “Beautifully Sensitive” Collaborators

By their own assessment, the cast of HBO’s Lovecraft Country spent a lot of time off in their own corners during production. The lauded series, recently christened with 18 Emmy nominations, spent much of its first and only season scattering characters to the proverbial wind — before they all collided in the bloody finale.

“It’s like when you’re in the library,” says Jurnee Smollett, who played Leti. “Everybody’s just kind of doing their own research and their own work.”

Smollett, up for outstanding lead actress in a drama, and co-star Aunjanue Ellis, nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a drama, recently reunited over Zoom to talk about the late series’ unique place in their careers and the overall TV catalog. Not only did Lovecraft Country center a troupe of Black actors in a fantasy epic, but it did so with loaded relationships and the weight of racism infusing every vampire, ghost and monster tale with atypical genre character development. “It could’ve just been broad strokes, swashbuckling and all of that,” says Ellis. “There’s a lot of that that could have gone wrong here, in other hands.”

Prior to Lovecraft Country, you two never worked together. Did you meet while working on the show?

JURNEE SMOLLETT I remember seeing your work in The Book of Negroes. I thought, “Who is she? This woman is killing this.” And then when [series creator] Misha [Green] told me that you were cast in Lovecraft, it just made so much sense. You are Hippolyta. I don’t think we really met until preproduction.

AUNJANUE ELLIS I knew that this was such a massive undertaking, in terms of character and the scope of what you were about to do, I just wanted to stay out of your way. Like, I’m going to be over … here. I really felt that way. And I — honestly, it was kind of like that while we were shooting. I’m sure you could tell.

SMOLLETT There wasn’t really hangout time. And I don’t even know if we’re those types of artists. You come, and you do the work. We did eventually have like a few, “Girl … girl” moments.

ELLIS Oh, yes.

SMOLLETT We know what we’re talking about. We definitely had a moment of, “Are we really doing this right now?”

Can I ask you to elaborate on that at all?

SMOLLETT No! (Laughs.)

ELLIS It was a bonding moment for eternity.

There’s so little time when your characters overlap — and I could say the same for many of your co-stars. How does that influence the way you work together?

ELLIS I’ll tell you a story about Jurnee that encapsulates how ride-or-die she was about this show. Our storylines started converging at the end of the series, and we were doing a scene where Atticus [Jonathan Majors] had died and we had to take his body across a bridge. My back was messed up at the time and I knew that I could not carry Jonathan Majors. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jurnee talking to the director and the next thing I know she’s carrying that body with Michael K. Williams — muscles jetting out of her arms. [That take ended up being used in the series.] She needed to feel what his body felt like, for her character. I just had so much respect for you in that moment.

SMOLLETT You just made me cry. I did not sign up for this!

ELLIS It was just colossal stuntwoman stuff that you were doing, and you were committed to doing yourself. Am I lying?

SMOLLETT No. I needed to do it. I think there was such a spirit of respect and allowing space for everybody’s process on that set. Everybody got to do their weird-ass actor shit. (Laughs.) And they all found their way. It’s rare that you’re gifted with collaborators who are also beautifully sensitive.

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From left: Aunjanue Ellis, Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams in episode nine of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

Everyone has a different process — and as actors, you have to negotiate yours with other people going through their own processes in real time. Do you find that difficult?

ELLIS Lovecraft Country could have rendered itself to some very bad acting. (Laughs.) So much of it is fantasy. And there’s a way to do that with performative work, fantastical acting. But this ensemble, there was zero fakery.

The default in genre is often camp.

SMOLLETT Yes, but the thing is that these characters don’t know they’re in a genre [show]. I didn’t even label this show as genre or horror or any of that stuff until I started hearing people say that during interviews and stuff. Then I started to use those words.

I imagine it also doesn’t feel as genre-y in the moment because so much of what the viewer sees, you don’t see in the moment on set.

SMOLLETT But you’ve got to see it! If it’s a green X, you can’t see the green X. You’ve got to see what it actually is. You have to use your imagination.

Was there anything you were jealous that the other got to do on the show — or, vice versa, anything you’re glad that it was the other and not you?

ELLIS I felt that way about all the stuff that Jurnee had to do. (Laughs.) You’ve got that, girl. Handle it! And I know I’m being silly right now, but what an incredible role for a woman to play — to do what she did.

SMOLLETT What we all did! You literally turned into a superhero!

ELLIS No, I’m talking about you specifically. I’m not being modest here. I’m not being deferential. We don’t get that space to do what you did in one season of a TV series. And, unfortunately, we don’t have seasons upon seasons upon seasons to continue these tales. But what you did in these 10 episodes, it’s unheard of. I was just over in my corner trying to figure out mine.

SMOLLETT I think we all had such tunnel vision. It’s like when you’re in the library, everybody’s just kind of doing their own research and their own work. And to your point, we, as Black female artists, don’t have any different depth than anybody. It’s that we don’t get the opportunity to explore the depth of our instrument. How often are writers just writing stories for us to explore and play and be imaginative and curious? There’s not many Shonda Rhimeses, Misha Greens and Jordan Peeles out there — although it’s exciting because there are more stories like this being written.

ELLIS You also can’t do this kind of work unless you feel real comfortable. Somebody else can, but I can’t. I feed off of the people that I’m working with, and I didn’t have to worry about that at all.

SMOLLETT The most challenging scenes to do are opposite folks. You can’t trust folks when they’re not just as in it for you. I can’t stand actors like that. It is so rude to the craft. Then the scene is splintered! I once worked with … I hate dropping names …

ELLIS Drop, drop, drop!

SMOLLETT When I did The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington, he told me that Meryl Streep — goddess! — had said to him that she feels that it’s the job of the actor to actually work hard, on or off camera, and be there for your co-star. And I agree.

And you don’t want to watch somebody playing their big scene opposite of a stand-in.

ELLIS I did this movie one time with a superstar. And it was just a bad experience. It was New York, in the middle of the day, all summer, no air and a hundred people. I had like the smallest of roles in it. So of course my coverage was kept until the very, very last minute. And [my co-star] did all her coverage and everything, and she left. In the scene, this woman is supposed to be her best friend — and I literally had to say my lines to air. They weren’t even going to read the lines! I had to go to the director. I said, “Where is she?” She was like, “Oh, well, she had to go wash her hair.” (Laughs.) I need at least a body! And to hear the lines! So Lovecraft Country was a dream.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


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