The day before my phone interview with Jodie Turner-Smith, the actor had a copy of her English birth certificate overnighted to her in Topanga, California. “I’m a Virgo, Scorpio rising, Libra moon,” she says excitedly, noting, however, her current astrological chart’s basis on her mother’s best guess of her birth time. The rising star is home on a rare break from work, fresh off of shooting a film with Colin Farrell in New York City. But like many millennials, she needs to know the exact time she was born, or she’ll have some recontextualizing to do. Her chart, as she currently understands it, means she has a perfectionist’s eye and work ethic concealed behind a fiery external energy. “If I find out that I’m not actually Scorpio rising,” she says, “I will be very confused.” But no matter the details of Turner-Smith’s birth certificate, a combination of careful dedication and the following of her passionate impulses has certainly driven her career thus far.
Born in England to Jamaican parents, Turner-Smith has lived in Peterborough, England, with her father and four siblings, and in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., with her mother, her stepfather, and her younger stepbrothers. Always an avid reader, she imagined she’d become a writer when she moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago in a blind leap to find out what she wanted to do with her life. Instead, Turner-Smith started modeling, and soon learned she had more of a knack for moving image than print. It wasn’t until then that she considered trying to make her mark as an actor. “When I moved to L.A., I had this philosophy that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by just trying whatever my heart desired in terms of a career,” she remembers. “I just decided to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what stuck.”
Well something finally did: after five years of doing television ads, Turner-Smith was hired in 2013 to play a blood-drenched siren in four episodes of the HBO vampire drama True Blood. The experience made her look at the function of acting differently, and she decided to throw herself into it with an ardent force. As she recalls: “It moved from being something I wanted to try because why not to being something that I was deeply in love with—I was excited by how much it required of me, how much it called for me, how much it made everything that I’ve ever gone through and every emotion I’ve ever felt feel like something that belonged to me, that I could use for this work.
Turner-Smith spent the following years booking small roles in movie shorts and the occasional film before landing a series of regular television roles. Beginning in 2017, she appeared as Sergeant Azima Kandie on the final two seasons of TNT’s sci-fi thriller The Last Ship. In 2018, she starred as Melantha Jhirl on the SyFy series Night-flyers, based on the novella by George R.R. Martin. And this year, viewers can catch Turner-Smith as Josie on Cinemax’s Jett. Her upcoming role as the titular character Queen in the Lena Waithe–penned film Queen & Slim, though, promises to be her most challenging and provocative role yet. It, too, she found by following the unpredictably intense pull of her devotion to acting. She sought out the script after seeing an announcement about the film and became deeply attached to Queen.
“I’ve developed a thick skin, but when I did the auditions for Queen, there were at least three times where when I left I sat in my car and cried,” she says. “I felt so deeply emotionally connected to the story and to the woman. I hadn’t felt that way about anything in a very long time.” In the end, Turner-Smith’s fervor paid off, and she won what will be her first leading role in a feature film. What be-gins with Queen’s first date with Slim, played by Academy Award–nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, soon turns into a Bonnie and Clyde–esque, on-the-run thriller. As the two are driving home-ward at the end of their evening, they are pulled over and harassed by a keyed up police officer, who looks as though he’s going to shoot them. In an ensuing scuffle, Slim shoots and kills the officer in self-defense. Knowing they’re up against a legal system that promises little understanding or fairness for black people, they end up on a life-changing adventure, fleeing in an effort to save their lives.
Directed by Melina Matsoukas, best known for her work on Insecure, Master of None, and a number of music videos, including Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Queen & Slim explores a love story within a wider context of police brutality, racism, and black resistance. Turner-Smith remembers being attracted to Queen’s deep sensitivity, which the character masks in her day-to-day. “Black women, we relate to that story, having to be strong when you don’t feel strong, but needing to give that face to the world,” she says. “She makes a journey to reveal her vulnerability. That was really the most important part, because black women are vulnerable, too.”
Looking forward, Turner-Smith is excited at the prospect of taking on even more boundary-pushing roles, resisting the instinct casting agents often have to put her in the type of role she describes as an elevated set piece. “I’m interested in telling stories about the vulnerability of black women, because often we’re portrayed as just sexual objects,” she says. “I always want to be able to tell a fuller story of what does this person hope for, what does this person fear, what drives this person to grow into someone different?” But, in keeping with the traditional Scorpio trait of embracing sexuality, Turner-Smith admits sexiness can be a meaningful aspect of a character’s depth. “I believe that it’s important that we tell the world it doesn’t have to be one or the other,” she adds. “You can be all, you can be both. I think that’s just as important.”
PHOTOGRAPHS: MARK STEINMETZ
FASHION: STELLA GREENSPAN
MAKEUP: ALANA WRIGHT
HAIR: MICHAEL JOHNSON
MANICURE: RACHEL SHIM
PRODUCTION: SASHA BAR-TUR for CR STUDIO
SPECIAL THANKS: TRIBECA JOURNAL STUDIO
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