We have a bit of a girl-crush on actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell. The stunning beauty and New York native has appeared on Full House (remember Michelle’s BFF Denise?), Grey’s Anatomy, Parenthood, Friday Nights Lights, and True Blood. She has a knack for taking on strong female roles, has won three NAACP Image Awards, and is an activist who has spoken out on the issue of diversity in Hollywood. Her latest project has her starring on the compelling and important new series Underground, which premiered this month on WGN America. Jurnee stars as the show’s heroine, a slave named Rosalee, fighting for freedom along The Underground Railroad. We caught up with Jurnee and talked about her role on Underground, diversity in Hollywood, and her love for all things coconut.
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day! There’s something about Eggs Benedict that just makes me happy…I would also throw in some Belgian waffles or French toast on the side and a smoothie. For lunch, I’m obsessed with sushi, so ideally I would eat sushi for lunch and dinner if I could.
How do you practice beauty from the inside out?
I do interval training and yoga at the gym. For me, my soul shines when I feel most confident and at peace, so I try to practice daily journaling, prayer and meditation. Having quiet time is essential and really important for your spirit and your soul. Also, my Mom was a big health nut, so growing up we always took our vitamins and drank a lot of water.
What are your morning and nightly beauty routines?
On my hair I use a haircare line founded by Janet Zeitoun called Sotah, which is super hydrating and paraben-free. I go back-and-forth between curly and straight hair and need to make sure my hair stays hydrated.
What makes the show Underground super relevant right now?
There’s never been a story about the Underground Railroad told on TV or film. It’s a part of our history that’s to be celebrated and owned…I think we all can find a lot of inspiration from these men and women who were so bold to take their lives into their own hands. Men and women from all walks of life worked together to change our nation…we are at our best when we do that.
What – in your opinion – will the show bring to light?
I think the show will stimulate dialogue about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go as a nation. We are at our greatest when we work together as men and women did during the Underground Railroad. There are a lot of systemic injustices that we face today that originated during slavery. We as a nation still have wounds from that era…we have yet to truly heal from those wounds.
What was the most enlightening part of shooting it?
I so badly wanted to do justice to all the Rosalie’s of the world. It was truly humbling to play Rosalie, a young woman who is battling to take ownership of her own voice, and identify her own sexuality and her own body in a world that tells her she has no ownership over it. She’s desperately trying to take agency of her own life and has to go through horrific challenges and obstacles in order to make that happen. I think a lot of women can relate to that. Society constantly wants to box us in and define who we are as women, which is impossible, because we will never fit into their molds or categories. I found more strength inside of myself while she was discovering her strength.
We loved your part in the New York Times piece on diversity in Hollywood. What has been your personal experience with #OscarsSoWhite in terms of diversity and your career?
Listen, you cant win awards for roles that aren’t there. We live in a very colorful world. Yet somehow, Hollywood continues to make projects that don’t reflect how our world looks. The solution lies with the writers, creators and directors. You can’t have diverse television or film until the creatives behind the scenes decide to openly cast the projects in a way that truthfully reflects society. That’s why I am so proud to be a part of Underground, because not only do we have a very diverse cast but we also have strong female characters that aren’t just ‘set dressing’ or the girlfriend for the male character.
You co-starred with Michael B. Jordan in Friday Night Lights (We loved you in that!). Do you guys still keep in touch? Did you know he’d go onto great things like this career-wise?
I loved playing opposite Mike…we had so much fun on FNL. That’s my homie. He’s one of the coolest, most down-to-earth guys on the planet. We don’t see each other as often because of our schedules, but we still keep in touch and will send each other texts of encouragement here and there. I am always texting him when I see a new project or something he’s done just being like, “Man you’re killing it!” I’m so proud of him. It couldn’t have happened to a better person.
What’s one thing you think everyone should know about Underground?
One word…Underground is bold. It’s unlike anything you’d expect it to be. It really will blow your mind. We’ve never seen a project about the Underground Railroad told in this way.
Where do you love to travel? What won’t your travel without?
I love South Africa; being there makes me happy. My husband and I also vacation in Mexico a lot. It’s just stunning there. Cabo is so easy to get to. Punta Mita is another favorite…the Four Seasons there is like a paradise. I never travel without my journal.
What are your favorite cities for food? What restaurants do you go to in each?
In Cabo, San Lucas there’s an amazing restaurant called Casiano’s. There’s no menu and the chef prepares something different everyday. I live in Los Angeles and I’m obsessed with Sugarfish. Connie and Ted’s is a favorite because I love their raw oysters and lobster sandwich. There’s a small little Mediterranean restaurant in Studio City called Mantee that my husband and I go to a lot. Also, Cochon in New Orleans is insanely good. I love Babbo in NYC. Beans & Cornbread has the best soul food in Detroit.
How do you always start your day?
What’s always in your bag?
My journal and lip balm
Your go-to snacks on set?
Kettle chips or hummus and pita
In the same vein as ‘what is the new black’ in fashion, what’s the new potato right now?
Coconut anything. Coconut water, milk, oil, meat…you name it.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell, photographed at Houseman Restaurant in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann