Jurnee Smollett on Spiderhead, Lovecraft Country, Black Canary Movie – The Hollywood Reporter
[This story contains spoilers for Netflix’s Spiderhead.]
Jurnee Smollett knew she wanted to book some time with Spiderhead, even before her character’s path was fully locked down.
The actress, who got her start as a child actor on show like Full House and has established herself as a forceful presence in a wide range of recent roles, plays inmate Lizzy in Netflix’s sci-fi prison thriller Spiderhead. Based on a short story by author George Saunders, director Joseph Kosinski’s film boasts an impressive pedigree, with a script from Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and a cast that includes Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. The story focuses on Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), who is in charge of a facility that tests experimental drugs on convicts, including subject Jeff (Teller).
It didn’t take Smollett long to realize she wanted to work on the project with Kosinski, whose other 2022 film, Top Gun: Maverick, hit theaters shortly before Spiderhead’s release and has soared to become the year’s biggest theatrical hit. The initial Spiderhead script hadn’t yet created a fleshed-out Lizzy, but Smollett felt empowered to work with the director and writers to develop her secret past, revealed late in the film, involving her child having died tragically in a parked car.
“[Kosinski] was so open to ideas and to ways in which we could work on Lizzy,” Smollett recalls to The Hollywood Reporter. “We needed Lizzy to walk around with something that she’s trying to mask with that cheerfulness, with that energy, and to be the thing that makes her feel a bit unlovable, which is the most beautiful form of love, when you can finally own all parts of yourself.”
BIRDS OF PREY, from left: Jurnee Smollett as Black Canary, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, 2020
Claudette Barius/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection
This is just one of many projects making it clear that Smollett has an appetite for exploring complex paths, following earlier roles on TV series including Friday Night Lights and Underground and in such films as 2007’s Denzel Washington-directed The Great Debaters. She earned a 2021 Emmy nomination for the buzzy Misha Green-created HBO series Lovecraft Country, which was canceled after just one season, and fans are hoping to see more of her DC superhero Black Canary, who was part of the 2020 movie Birds of Prey and is the focus of a planned HBO Max film that Green is writing.
During her conversation with THR, Smollett weighs in on Spiderhead’s powerful love story, shares the valuable career advice she’s received from such luminaries as Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, offers her take on Lovecraft Country’s brief run and explains why her Black Canary future is “being made possible because of the fans.”
What made Spiderhead stand out to you when you signed on?
My agent sent me a script, and when I first read it, I thought of the Milgram experiment, which really stood out to me when I was in high school — actually, I was taking college classes during high school. It always fascinated me because of this idea that one person can manipulate a second person so much that they can convince them to inflict harm upon a third person. So when I read the script and then read the short story, I thought, “Wow, what a thought-provoking and impossible-to-neatly-categorize film.”
Then, when I met with Joseph Kosinski, we had a Zoom, and I was honest with him about my thoughts and things that I would want to do to flesh out Lizzy and bring her to life. The session essentially became a brainstorming meeting, and after that Zoom, I was like, “I wanna work with Joe.” I really bought into his vision of the film and his spirit of collaboration. He was so open to ideas and to ways in which we could work on Lizzy. It was really, really exciting, the idea of working with a filmmaker like him.
Is it unique to have that kind of opportunity for collaboration?
Having done this so long, I find that the most fruitful collaborations that I’ve had have been when the filmmakers obviously have their vision, but say, “OK, here’s your playground; go play.” As an artist, you have to be encouraged to play, and to fail big and succeed big. Denzel Washington would say, “Fail big,” and I think it’s that safety net that great filmmakers provide where you can try things and just not have that sense of self-awareness where you care about the last take. I would say I’ve been very blessed lately: folks like Misha Green; Joseph Kosinski; [producer] J.J. Abrams and [director] Anna Forrester, who did [the upcoming Netflix thriller] Lou last year. These are all great collaborators.
It takes a while to get to know Lizzy, especially with her secret past coming out late in the film. What went into making her such a complicated character?
One thing Joe and I spoke about was this idea that Lizzy is analog in a digitized world. She’s definitely the archetype of the Mother Earth. She’s listening to cassette tapes in a very futuristic facility. Everything, from the costumes to the hair and makeup, was supposed to feel like from a different era, that she didn’t belong in this facility. Not only was she an outsider, but she’s also trying to escape in small ways. Music helps us escape, so if you have your headphones on all the time, you can transport to a different place, regardless of where you are. It was about finding those ways for her to just constantly feel like she didn’t belong. It’s quite beautiful because it’s this genre-bending, good-versus-evil, dark comedy, psychological thriller, but there’s this subplot of these two star-crossed lovers, and the idea that what Jeff and Lizzy actually build together is the biggest threat to this facility. Because it’s authentic; it’s not the synthetic version.
(L to R) Jurnee Smollett as Lizzy and Joseph Kosinski (director) on the set of SPIDERHEAD
Courtesy of Netflix
It’s interesting to see their romance play out in a real way.
The secret, in the way that it is in the film now, was something that was not originally in the script but something that Joe, Rhett, Paul and I just brainstormed about and landed there because we needed Lizzy to hold a level of guilt and shame, as all of the incarcerated individuals do at Spiderhead. Because it’s that guilt and shame that Abnesti weaponizes against them. We needed Lizzy to walk around with something that she’s trying to mask with that cheerfulness, with that energy, and to be the thing that makes her feel a bit unlovable, which is the most beautiful form of love, when you can finally own all parts of yourself. That’s really part of her arc. Can she own all of herself, including the past mistakes, and can she and Jeff, through that vulnerability, achieve a level of unconditional love where you go, “Hey, this is who I am, take it or leave it”?
A number of people involved in the film are associated with big superhero films, including Chris, Rhett and Paul and yourself. Did that help create a connection between all of you?
We shot this in the middle of 2020 and the COVID pandemic. It was one of the first films that Netflix put back into production. And so I personally felt this real desire to just create and be amongst creators and found such a kinship in the sessions with Rhett and Paul and Joe, and getting on set and working with Miles and Chris. I think we shared this desire to just create together. There’s such an element of isolation to the film. Going back and shooting during COVID, this was the first time I was dealing with the COVID protocol, and that’s a whole different way of working. It’s a different way of being in the space. But it’s a great team.
And then, of course, Joseph Kosinski has had another big movie out this summer.
I’m so proud of Joe, truly. They shot Top Gun before Spiderhead, and I remember him and Miles talking about it and what a wild ride it was. I’m so proud of him. I know how personal it was for him.
How does it feel now that Black Canary has become a fan favorite and is heading toward her own moment?
I can’t talk about it, as you know. (Laughs.) But I can say I really am excited about what we’re developing.
There’s always so much fan enthusiasm on Twitter about the love people have for your character.
Truly, one of the great joys of my professional career has been playing Black Canary and to see the response from the fans online and engaging on Twitter. They are a massive reason why I am where I am, and any excitement I have about continuing on the Black Canary trajectory, it’s being made possible because of the fans.
They have really rallied behind seeing more of her.
It’s an honor. They’re tough. I have to say, when I first was cast in Birds of Prey, I just remember I called a bunch of my mentors who had more experience in the comic book world. Like Samuel L. Jackson, I remember calling him and being like, “OK, so like, yo, what do I do? Is there a way in which I should approach this any differently than how I would approach any other character? I always do so much research of the world.” And he said, “Baby, just go and piss on your territory.” (Laughs.) So I’ve been just so truly, truly humbled by the response from the fans.
Lovecraft Country seemed to have really connected with viewers, including all the Emmys recognition for yourself and others, like Michael K. Williams. Fans seemed taken aback that your team wasn’t able to make more of it. What stands out from that whole process, now that you’re a little removed from it all?
I will always hold Lovecraft so dear to my heart — the opportunity to work with such phenomenal artists like Jonathan [Majors] and Misha and Michael and Aunjanue [Ellis] and Wunmi [Mosaku] and Courtney [B. Vance], Jamie [Chung], Abbey [Lee]. The opportunity to bring that story to life — it was a real privilege to play Leti Fuckin’ Lewis. What a dream. I’ve been in it long enough to know not to have expectations with anything. It’s a project that will continue beyond those moments. It’ll continue to do the work, and while, of course, I would’ve loved to continue with it, those are things that aren’t up to us as artists, and you can’t get too attached to the results. You just keep your head down, and you do the work. But I feel like I grew so much as an artist. I was so challenged by the work, in such the most beautiful way. Rest in peace, Michael, who I just love and adore, and my heart is so broken about. I love my Lovecraft Country family, and we’re all still so close. And I think those memories that we created together, we’ll always hold onto it.
Is there a type of work that you haven’t yet gotten the chance to do?
Absolutely. I feel like I’ve only just begun. I feel like my instrument is growing rapidly, and I’m in a space where I actually have more clarity now than I have ever had artistically. I feel like I’ve only just begun. I’m very, very excited about the roles that I will take on in the future that are going to challenge me on such deep levels. But that’s the sacrifice that I’m so hungry to make. I’m at a point where I really don’t want to do anything that doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice, or else it’s not enough of a challenge.
Are there certain types of projects that don’t excite you?
I have more clarity than ever about the things that will challenge me and my instrument that I didn’t necessarily have clarity about even a year or two ago. It’s just a period of rapid growth that I’m very open to right now. I just did a movie with Jamie Foxx, The Burial, and it’s a role truly unlike anything I’ve done. I play this litigator, this brilliant woman, and Jamie and I are adversaries in it, and it was the most beautiful challenge at the right moment. To have Jamie as a scene partner truly was a dream. He’s, in my opinion, one of the greatest actors of all time. So I go, “If it doesn’t require sacrifice, and if it doesn’t thoroughly terrify me, why do it?”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Spiderhead is currently streaming on Netflix.