“Turn it up,” Jurnee Smollett-Bell playfully shouts across the room as she poses in a dazzling Salvatore Ferragamo dress. Outside, it’s an uncharacteristically rainy and gray afternoon in Hollywood, but inside the 30-year-old actress is heating up the set. The lemon-colored fabric clings to her curves as Rihanna’s “Work” blasts in the background and Smollett-Bell flashes coquettish looks at the camera.
As she sways to the beat, dropping it low and picking it back up again, it’s hard to believe the Underground star is the same curly haired tween who stole our hearts in the 1997 film Eve’s Bayou. But Smollett-Bell is grown, and even more impressive, extremely self-aware.
“I wouldn’t even call myself a former child star. I was a child actor; there’s a difference,” she explains. “People look at you and they think they know you. They think they can place you in a certain category by what they think they know about you. But there’s so much more to all of us than what we know and what we see at face value.”
Smollett-Bell’s decision to define herself and chart her own course is paying off. In 2010, she married musician Josiah Bell, and last November the couple welcomed their first child, Hunter Zion. His birth came after the actress finished filming the second season of WGN America’s hit show Underground, a scripted series about enslaved Black Americans who escape via the Underground Railroad. Co-produced by John Legend, the first season’s finale boasted an impressive 2.5 million total viewers, making it the No. 1 scripted original cable series in its time slot. Not too shabby for a show that premiered in a year when many (including rapper Snoop Dogg) said they were tired of seeing narratives about slavery.
Ask Smollett-Bell why Underground has thrived despite cries of “slavery fatigue,” and she fires back with a powerful answer.
“I think we had seen the occupation so much, we wanted to see the revolution and that is what Underground is,” says the actress who plays Rosalee.
“It was the story of the uprising. It was the story of those of us who fought back, who attempted to fight for their freedom,” she explains. “That was a side of the story we were hungry to see in order to understand our whole history.”
Fighting is something that becomes second nature to Smollett-Bell’s character. In the first few episodes, Rosalee—a house slave who is the daughter of the plantation owner—appears cautious about the prospect of running away. But as fans of the show know, she later meets the challengers to her freedom head on, and by the season finale, Rosalee stands over a slave catcher who threatened her life and doles out her sweet revenge. “You want to hunt us down like we animals? Then you gon’ die out here like one,” she tells him.
Despite securing her freedom in the North, the new season will see Rosalee risking recapture as she heads back to the South to free others.
“She’s running toward the danger because her mission is to get her family back,” the actress says. “So the stakes are just so much higher in season 2.”
Smollett-Bell believes she was born to play Rosalee; in fact, she has even gone so far as to say that she was “ordained” to portray the resilient character.
“Rosalee was underestimated, and I think that’s one of the [ways] I can relate to her. That’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life—people underestimating me,” the actress explains. “But also there’s a fire inside of her that sometimes she doesn’t even understand. There’s this inner strength that she has and in season 2; it’s almost like a manic strength, another superwoman strength.”
Read more in the March 2017 issue of EBONY Magazine, on newsstands now! Click here to subscribe.