This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
British model-turned-actress Jodie Turner-Smith has been thrust into the national spotlight, headlining Universal’s “Queen & Slim,” a consciousness-raising love story that confronts racism’s toll and the cost of violence. Starring as Queen, alongside fellow Brit Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim, the modern-day “Bonnie and Clyde” (written by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas) marks Turner-Smith’s highest profile role to date. The 32-year-old actress holds the screen so well it’s a wonder she isn’t already a household name, but she said the project was the hardest experience of her burgeoning career.
“I didn’t really have any real concept of how much physical and emotional work would be required of me until I started doing it, because I never had a performance workload that heavy, being on almost every single page of the script,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “On so many occasions, I felt like I was in over my head, but having the framework and support that was around me, and realizing that we were creating something really beautiful, was important.”
She first read about casting for Queen online in late 2018. The role was described as a 20-35 female, born in the south to American parents, American grandparents and American great-grandparents. Based on that description, Turner-Smith assumed that non-Americans need not apply, considering recent backlash against black British actors and actresses for accepting roles as African Americans. (Recent examples include “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo and Smith-Turner’s future “Queen” co-star Kaluuya after his own breakthrough performance in “Get Out.”)
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But Turner-Smith talked the part over with her team and decided to give it a shot. “I read for her, and then read for the producers, met Lena and Melina, and we had wonderful conversations about who the character was and what they expected,” she said. “And finally, I read with Daniel, who had already been cast, and we had a wonderful chemistry. And I eventually got the part. It didn’t happened that quickly, but that was the order of events.”
It was a similar kind of positioning and luck that launched her career in the first place — a chance encounter with Pharrell during a 2009 Pittsburgh concert, thanks to a friend of hers who worked backstage. The songwriter, record producer and fashion designer, was so impressed by Turner-Smith’s statuesque frame and look that he encouraged her to consider getting in front of the camera. A month later, she moved to Los Angeles, walked into NEXT Model Management and booked her first job, a Levi’s campaign.
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Turner-Smith was raised in Peterborough, England by Jamaican parents, which made her arrival in Los Angeles 10 years ago without any screen credits to her name especially daunting. The bit parts accumulated gradually: She was first cast as a sexy siren in HBO’s vampire soap “True Blood,” in 2013. Her acting debut provided enough of a boost that it led to bit parts over the next four years, in everything from Nicolas Winding Refn’s chilling “The Neon Demon” to Janicza Bravo’s surreal comedy “Lemon,” as well as music videos for R&B, hip-hop and pop stars like Zayn Malik and Blaqstarr.
But it wasn’t until she landed a major role on SYFY’s “Nightflyers” in 2018 — that other George R.R. Martin TV series — that Turner-Smith began to gain wider recognition.
“I didn’t come to LA thinking, okay, I’m going to be an actor, so my progression was just kind of organic, starting in print modeling, which I was far less successful in, than acting in television commercials,” she said. “So when I realized that I was doing much better on the screen, even though they were mostly commercials, I thought I should see what else there was for me in that realm, with the philosophy that I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. So I started to earnestly pursue acting.”
“Queen & Slim” is the apotheosis of that journey. The story follows Queen, a criminal defense attorney, whose uneventful first date with retail employee Slim (Kaluuya), quickly spins out of control when the pair is pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. The situation quickly escalates, with sudden and tragic results, when Slim kills the police officer in self-defense. Terrified and in fear for their lives, the pair are forced to go on the run, unwittingly becoming a symbol of trauma, terror, and grief for people across the country, while discovering and forging a deep love each other. (The film currently boasts a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 11 reviews in so far. IndieWire’s chief critic Eric Kohn called it “an emotional lament that’s powerful even when it stumbles.”)
Turner-Smith described it as “intense, important, and provocative,” and a story she really wanted to tell. “There’s so much of me in her,” she said. “She goes through a journey from hiding behind this really tough exterior, for a reason, to eventually being unafraid to be vulnerable. I really empathized with that. But it’s the most challenging piece of acting I’ve ever done.”
In the end, she summarized the entire experience as revelatory, while being able to work with women behind the camera (the director, the writer and some of the producers), was especially rewarding. “Seeing how Melina commands a set, how unapologetic she and Lena are about their worth and their talent, was inspiring,” she said. “Also, trusting Daniel and watching his process, I learned so much throughout, and it really expanded me and who I am as a human being, and an actor.”
And now the big roles are coming: Turner-Smith next stars opposite Michael B. Jordan in the action film “Without Remorse,” which is based on the 1993 Tom Clancy novel; Paramount releases it next fall. She also has the sci-fi drama “After Yang,” in which she co-stars alongside with Colin Farrell. It has no release date yet.
In the meantime, much of her attention is pointed to the opening of “Queen & Slim” in wide release later this month, which will likely serve as her official big screen introduction to many. She’s of course excited to see how the film will be received, and what kind of conversations it inspires.
“It’s about two people who fall in love as the world burns around them,” she said. “And what is so beautiful about the story is that, while these terrible things are happening, there can still exist this wonderfully human connection that cannot be destroyed. This film feels like a celebration of that.”
Following its world premiere at the AFI FEST on November 14, “Queen & Slim” is scheduled to be released in the United States on November 27, 2019 by Universal Pictures.