Fans and followers have taken the breathtaking, sentimental cinematic journey with the lovely Jurnee Smollett-Bell since she won hearts in Eve’s Bayou. Bayou, her first feature film (released in 1997), cast then 10-year-old Smollett as Eve, the inquisitive ingénue holding her own alongside film veterans Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll and Meagan Good in the Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity, Talk to Me) helmed drama about an upper middle class family in 60’s Louisiana.
Today, the 26-year-old newlywed with a half-dozen feature films and more than a dozen TV series to her credit stars as Judith, a newlywed with ambitions that exceed her husband’s sensibilities to fulfill, in a role far from her own reality. Just the mention of her marital status draws a blissful smile and echoes of adoration for hubby, Josiah Bell.
I sat with the New York native in Los Angeles to discuss Tyler Perry’s TEMPTATION as well as her passion on and off camera–
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Tyler Perry takes on the subject of HIV/AIDS in TEMPTATION, territory he has not traversed previously on film. Conversely, you have been an HIV/AIDS advocate for quite some time. Tell me more about your awareness and involvement…
Jurnee Smollett-Bell (JSB): Thank you for asking. It’s actually refreshing to be able to talk about it. I’ve been involved with artists from South Africa since I was 12. My best friend is Hydeia Broadbent, the amazing AIDS activist. Between Hydeia’s advocacy and my work with ANSA (Artists for a New South Africa, www.ansaafrica.org), I’ve just been inspired to do what I can to help out with the cause.
I’m so passionate about it because I see how it’s affecting young people. It’s affecting young black women, young Latino women…it’s a silent killer that we don’t talk about. It’s a taboo topic that’s uncomfortable to talk about because it brings up topics like sex and as a community we don’t always want to speak about that subject. So I’ve traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, speaking to peers about the importance of being aware; about protecting yourself and not participating in risky behavior.
I’ve spoken in schools here in Los Angeles and I’ve been involved with ANSA, a veritable village of artists and activists like Samuel L. Jackson and his wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Alfree Woodard, Blair Underwood, CCH Pounder, all amazing actors whose artistic expression I admire. But also the way they have picked up a cause and use their voices to raise awareness.
Talk2SV: Your career trajectory is vast though short given what you’ve amassed to date in world affairs. Your generation has grown up in the era of HIV/AIDS; mine was introduced to it 30 years ago, no longer the death sentence it once was…
JSB: Yes, and it’s one of the reasons I took on this project; it really impressed me that Tyler wanted to tackle this topic. It’s unconventional. You don’t see HIV/AIDS talked about much in films– you don’t see it tackled and that really intrigued me. To have an opportunity to parlay both messages: for one, people who are (HIV) Positive no longer live under the threat of imminent death. Hydeia is a walking, living example that it’s not a death sentence but still, you don’t want to have it. You want to do everything you can to prevent yourself from getting infected. Certain behavior produces a better outcome and that’s the thing about this disease –this virus– it’s preventable. It is 100% preventable. We’re not in the ‘80’s anymore. We know the facts; we know that we have to use protection; we know how to be a 100% safe so yeah, I was really happy with that side of this film.
Talk2SV: Additionally, there are several parallel love stories going on in this film: the unrelenting love between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and disillusioned attraction between Judith and her billionaire lover. As a young married woman were any of your scenes in this film informed by your marriage, particularly the virtue of unconditional love?
JSB: I would say more so this film reinforced things for me. These characters allow us to see how important it is for them to communicate, particularly Judith and her husband, Brice. How important it is for them not to take each other for granted. The fact that Brice forgets Judith’s birthday two years in a row is so neglectful. He doesn’t really make her feel special, doesn’t compliment her when she tries to make herself look extra pretty or the little things that matter; that kind of neglect leads to many issues. And, it opens up a tiny little space for someone to come in and whisper all these thoughts into your ear…thoughts that can lead to choices…choices that can lead to actions and behavior that you never thought you were capable of.
That is a very strong message in this film– we can’t take our love ones for granted. We can’t get comfortable. We can’t just assume we’ve known them for years and they’re good so the husband gets used to sitting down watching the game, drinking beer. I’ve seen those things in my friends’ relationships that I have definitely learned from.
Talk2SV: As a young woman enjoying a praiseworthy career that began in childhood, do you see yourself formulating an image or an on-camera imprint that sums up who you are?
JSB: I definitely see myself being a mirror for society, for our community, for women. I want to play the different shades of our character. We’re so diverse as females and it’s important to me to see our stories told, to see our struggles told, to see our flaws told, to see our truths told and, in all the complexities that they exist. We’re not just black and white. For me, it’s the shades of gray that’s fascinating about us.