At the end of 2019, Jodie Turner-Smith made her breakthrough into Hollywood with her mesmeric performance in Queen & Slim, opposite an equally captivating Daniel Kaluuya. An unexpected, beautiful love story set against the backdrop of deep-rooted racism in the US, with profiling, police brutality and social unrest, the movie has become even more pertinent and achingly profound in the months since its release. Although critically acclaimed after its cinematic debut, one can only imagine how it might have been received and the impact it may have made had it come out just six months later.
Since landing on HBO in August, the movie and Turner-Smith – its shining star – have deservedly been brought to an even wider audience. Eagle-eyed buffs may recognize the British-born, US-raised model-turned-actor from numerous music videos directed by Hype Williams, TV series True Blood or Netflix drama Nightflyers, but it was Queen & Slim that made the industry sit up and watch. “That film was polarizing in a lot of ways in its messaging,” Turner-Smith tells me via Zoom from the home she shares in Topanga with her husband Joshua Jackson and the daughter they welcomed in April. “It’s by no means a perfect film, but there were so many things that resonated with me when I read that script that made me want to make the film, and proud of what that film had to say – [things] that became even more relevant in 2020.”
The twists and turns masterfully written by Lena Waithe, the spellbinding cinematography directed by Melina Matsoukas, the score by Dev Hynes and performances by the lead duo are certainly examples of Black craft at its finest. “What Queen & Slim was as a film… What Melina Matsoukas did as a director… that is a film that is walking so someone else behind can run. In the way that Jordan Peele did with Get Out – that opened the door so Queen & Slim could happen,” Turner-Smith affirms.
A positive outcome from the traumas of 2020 is that it has forced every industry to interrogate ways of working, diversify teams and create space for those who have historically been overlooked. Turner-Smith feels optimistic about the sea-change ahead. “Whatever it is that makes people want to open the door – whether it’s white guilt or a sincere desire for allyship – it’s happening. It’s creating more opportunities for us to tell more stories, and when those stories are told, it’s going to create an opportunity for the storytellers coming up behind,” says Turner-Smith. “The same thing happened with the #MeToo movement – suddenly all these female directors were getting opportunities, but no matter if it’s tokenism, we’re getting in the door.”
“The fact that the door is even opening a crack…” she continues. “The water rushes in and then the door gets pushed back a little, but the weight of that water is going to keep pushing the door open further. What remains a fact is the resilience of Black people; is the joy of Black people; is the beauty of Black people. It’s great when we can get the mainstream to listen and to care about accolades for those stories, but whether or not it’s happening, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to tell our stories.”
From the roles that she gravitates towards, to the candor with which she speaks about the movie industry and world at large, it is evident that 34-year-old Turner-Smith wants to make a difference, creating richer, more representative depictions of real women.
“What remains a fact is the RESILIENCE of Black people; is the JOY of Black people; is the BEAUTY of Black people”
She is motivated and empowered by her peers and role models who are forging ahead with those types of stories, and speaks animatedly about one particular person. “I am so emotional about how much I admire that woman,” her voice cracking as she praises Michaela Coel, the genius behind lockdown hit I May Destroy You. “There were so many times after an episode where I had to sit there and think about what I’d seen. I think it was after episode five where I just uncontrollably wept. I want to write her a letter and tell her how much I respect and adore her. This is the Michaela Coel stan club!”
In the case of both Coel and Turner-Smith, we are at last starting to see more dark-skinned women on our screens, as the protagonists, love interests and heroes. Studying Turner-Smith’s exquisite face (as one can’t help but do when presented with it make-up free on Zoom), it is difficult to conceive how she was ever made to feel unattractive. But the realities of colorism were something she was confronted with growing up, and are still prevalent today. “This is one of those conversations that people get really upset about,” she says, “but the truth of the matter is, regardless of whether your family is telling you you’re beautiful, everything in the media for a very long time has pointed towards [the idea] that darker women are less desirable.”
“This is also a Viola Davis stan account!” the actor jests, characteristically traversing between humor and hard-hitting conversation. “As I sat and binge-watched a 15-episode series of How To Get Away with Murder, I was blown away not only by how incredibly talented but how mesmerizingly beautiful that woman is… If you interview her, can you tell her I’m obsessed with her? I’m asking my team, ‘How can I work with Viola Davis?’ I just want to learn from her; see greatness at work and be a student of it.”
While we all wish future projects with Michaela Coel and Viola Davis into existence, before then Turner-Smith has a string of major roles coming up. She has been announced as a lead alongside John Boyega in Borderland, which begins filming next year. There is After Yang with Colin Farrell out in 2021 and Without Remorse with Michael B. Jordan, in which she plays a Navy SEAL, filmed while she was in her second trimester. “All these guys wearing all the tactical gear, [were] jumping out of helicopters, carrying big rifles and saving the world, and I was doing everything they were doing but with a baby inside me. It was testament to the fact that women really can do fucking anything.”
Choosing to give birth at home, with the risk of pregnancy-related deaths more than three times higher for Black women than for white, Turner-Smith was supported through her four-day labor by her husband, doula, her obstetrician, midwife and mother. “Right after I gave birth, my husband washed her, and the midwife and doula cleaned everything up. Then me, my husband and my daughter, we just slept for a good 12 hours. I needed that. We needed that.”
“There was a MOMENT where it felt really hopeful, when everyone was in this conversation about ANTI-RACISM… but it goes away and it gets QUIET again”
Turner-Smith moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland, with her mother from Peterborough aged eight (her accent has a distinctive east-Midlands-meets-American lilt) after her parents’ divorce. It was a priority, then, for both Turner-Smith and her husband, who was also raised by his mother, to create the most loving, hands-on environment for their daughter. “You just want to create a better life – not that I had a bad life by any means – but the heartbreaks I had in my own life, ideally I want to save my daughter from having them,” she shares.
Not long after the birth of their daughter, in the midst of the pandemic, the world was rocked by another global crisis, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We decided to live in West Hollywood for the birth [to be closer to a hospital in case of an emergency], so I was hearing the sirens and the marches,” Turner-Smith reflects. “I could hear all the unrest outside the door, and it actually took me a while before I could watch the video of George Floyd because I was nursing my daughter and you think about the generational trauma that we already carry and deal with and pass on. I was trying really hard not to pass on that fear, sadness and anxiety through my breast to my child. I had to shut a lot of it down and just stay insular and inside my family for a bit.”
A few months on and, each day, Turner-Smith is still working out how to navigate and process the deep wounds this year has inflicted. “There was a moment where it felt really hopeful, when everyone was in this conversation about anti-racism… but it goes away and it gets quiet again.” Turner-Smith, however, is not one to keep quiet, using her platform and social media to raise awareness on issues she’s passionate about, to stan her favorite stars, share memes and talk about love.
“I’m really in love with my husband. That might be weird for people, but I’m doing a pretty good job of not shouting that from the rooftops as much as I would like to,” she says, unapologetically. “He’s a really amazing dude. Today’s actually our two-year anniversary. It’s only gotten better and I feel so grateful for that. That’s why I share it sometimes, because I love him, I think he’s hot, I think he’s smart and he’s incredibly talented. I feel so lucky to be in a relationship with somebody who feels the same about me, who is not shy about telling me that or uplifting me.”
So, will we get to see them on screen together? “I would love to work with him on stage. I’m excited for what else he’s going to do in his career,” she says, beaming. “This is kind of a new wave for him. He’s now a man in his forties who’s been acting since he was a child. He’s become a new man, a husband and father.”
“As much as I am EXHAUSTED, as much as I am HEARTBROKEN about things that are happening and continuing to happen, at my essence I am HOPEFUL”
The couple’s red-carpet outing at the BAFTAs in February cemented them as one of the press’s favorite pairs. This was only heightened by the gorgeous yellow Gucci gown Turner-Smith wore to the event that cascaded over her growing bump. “[Alessandro] had sent some sketches of things he wanted to do, and I love that the gown was really showcasing what was happening inside of me, which I thought was really special. My style evolves in so many ways, but there is an element of me that I always put forward, which is that I’m strong but feminine and that I like to have fun. Also, that I’m extra!”
In July, Turner-Smith was unveiled as a new face of Gucci, alongside Anjelica Huston, Susie Cave and Florence Welch, in the Bloom fragrance campaign. “I feel like I have made three really lovely friends out of that,” she asserts. “It was nice to do something with women that felt so powerful, interesting and amazing.”
With the fashion world at her feet, a bumper line-up of projects for 2021 and the exciting role of new motherhood to enjoy, Turner-Smith has a lot to be thankful for and look forward to, despite the horrors of this year. “It’s a hopeful thing to decide to have a child. It’s a hopeful thing to decide to love in this moment. As much as I am exhausted, as much as I am heartbroken about things that are happening and continue to happen, at my essence I am hopeful, otherwise I wouldn’t be here celebrating my two-year anniversary with my husband, who I love dearly, and our daughter, who we brought into the world just a little while ago.” As for Turner-Smith’s accelerating career trajectory, we cannot wait to see the characters she will be bringing into the world next, too.