Courtesy of HBO

Recently, during a press roundtable discussion, I had the opportunity to speak with actress Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) for her role as the vivacious Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis in HBO’s 10-episode series, LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. The series, which is based on the book of the same name by author Matt Ruff, “follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he journeys with his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) on a road trip from Chicago across 1950s Jim Crow American in search of his missing father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). Their search-and-rescue turns into a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and monstrous creatures that could be ripped from an H.P. Lovecraft paperback.” (HBO)

When discussing the inspiration behind her portrayal of Leti, Smollett remarked, “A big part of Letitia is inspired by my grandmother whom I never got the chance of meeting but her nickname was ‘Showtime’.” Smollett went on to say that her grandmother was a beauty queen who was the first Black Miss Galveston, as well as a single mom who raised four children all while having to experience racial intolerance because of the color of her skin. “I grew up hearing the stories of my grandmother going to work and being so mistreated by the family she worked for, she worked cleaning white folks homes,” explained Smollett. “Yet, they could not rob her of her dignity. Every single day she’d get up early in the morning, at the crack of dawn, press out her dress, do her hair and makeup and walk out that house with so much pride and dignity.”

When preparing for the role, Smollett stated, “For me, one thing in doing the research that I did, going back to the writings of James Baldwin or the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks or trying to understand what makes the fire inside Eartha Kitt, I came to the conclusion that we come from Kings and Queens, regardless of how this nation has tried to erase us.” Because of that, Smollett, and by extension Leti, are shining bright in the face of racial injustice. “One of the most radical things as people we have done is to not allow them to erase our dignity.”

Jurnee Smollett in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY | Photo by Elizabeth Morris/HBO

This led Smollett to discuss her approach to Leti in the context of systemic racism both prevalent in the 1950s, where LOVECRAFT COUNTRY takes place, as well as in our current timeline. “In approaching Letitia, this defiant disrupter, this woman in search of her tribe, in search of her family, to me it was important to hone in on the struggle to maintain your dignity in spite of your oppression, the struggle to not be erased in spite of the systemic racism,” explained Smollett. “[Leti] picks up a camera, very much so like a Gordon Parks because she just wants to see our people in everyday life, moving in, protesting, she just wants to feel alive, she just wants to feel seen. There are so many ways in which I can relate to that.”

As our conversation came to a close, Smollett described why the personality traits of Leti were so important to explore. “In mythology, [Leti] would have been one of the Virgin Goddesses who owns her own sexuality, makes her own choices, knows her true intrinsic worth.” Smollett continued stating, “It was a lot of fun to explore Leti but it was also important to own her weaknesses and flaws. She doesn’t entirely apologize for them, they are there on full display, which I love.” But Leti is much more than a character that Smollett enjoyed playing, “I had a lot of fun diving into her and for me, again, this whole story…one of my teachers refers to it as Blood Memory. This visceral connection I have to my people, to the oppression of my people, to the joy of my people. It’s actually quite radical to pursue joy in spite of your oppression.”

For more on the series, check out our review here as well as our interview with showrunner Misha Green and make sure to tune into HBO each Sunday at 9/8c for new episodes of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. *Interview questions were contributed by Elga Roberson*

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