article by Melena Ryzik via nytimes.com
CHICAGO — When Jussie Smollett and Jurnee Smollett-Bell were growing up, bouncing with their parents and four siblings between New York and Los Angeles, as the kids pursued careers in modeling, acting and music, their downtime was just another chance for performance and togetherness.
“Creating was something that we just were expected to do,” Mr. Smollett said, in a joint interview with his sister here, where he tapes the Fox series “Empire.” Seated next to him in a downtown restaurant, she was nodding in agreement. “And I don’t remember a time not wanting to do that.”
The members of the Smollett clan have made good on their childhood promise. Mr. Smollett, 32, is a singer and a breakout star of the hit drama “Empire,” in which he plays Jamal, the most talented member of the Lyon hip-hop dynasty.
Ms. Smollett-Bell, 29, who made her mark as an actress by the age of 10, with the 1997 film “Eve’s Bayou,” is one of the leads in “Underground,” a new WGN America show about a group of slaves who try to escape from their Georgia plantation; her brother guest-stars.
Though it’s their first project together in 20 years, it’s clear that the more creative freedom they have, the more their tastes will converge.
The Smolletts have also been outspoken politically and, since their school years, devoted to causes like H.I.V./AIDS prevention and ending apartheid. They were raised in the orbit of the Black Panthers and, lately, have lent their voices to the Black Lives Matter movement. Their trajectory, from child stars to successful adults, is born of their family and its history of activism.
“Their sense of justice is very strong, and it permeates everything that they do,” said Alfre Woodard, who has known Jussie and Jurnee since they were children; they worked with her at the nonprofit Artists for a New South Africa. “They’re like a model sibling unit. They look out for each other, all the time. And they all reach across and say, ‘O.K., I got my foot in this door; here, grab my hand, we’re going in together.’”
Raised on a diet of classic films (they’ll gladly quote the 1945 version of “Mildred Pierce”), Jussie and Jurnee still count their mother, Janet Smollett, as their only acting coach. An African-American from New Orleans, Ms. Smollett met their father, Joel Smollett Sr., a Russian-Polish Jew, in the Bay Area, where they campaigned for civil rights. “My mom was in the movement with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and one of her first mentors was Julian Bond,” Mr. Smollett said of the Black Panther founders and the civil rights leader. “To this day, Angela Davis is one of her dearest friends. We’ve spent Mother’s Day with Angela.”
That gave extra resonance to a sequence in “Empire” last season, when Jamal and his onscreen brother Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) dressed as Black Panthers as part of a music-video shoot. Besides seeding the family with an early progressive ethos — Jussie and Jurnee were both with Artists for a New South Africa as teenagers, “and it was not fake work,” Ms. Woodard said of their fund-raising efforts and off-camera visits to orphanages — the activism also had an impact on their sense of worth.
“It makes it hard to just be an actor and to sell your soul, because you have this conscience,” said Ms. Smollett-Bell, who is married to the singer Josiah Bell. “I think that’s why I say no to projects, that’s why Jussie says no to projects, and that’s why we fight for the ones that we’re told ‘no’ to.”
“Underground,” created by the writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski (“Heroes”), and co-executive-produced by the singer John Legend, who oversees the music, reframes the slave narrative as a courageous adventure story, drawn in part from firsthand accounts of the Underground Railroad. The focus is on heroism and rebellion, giving voice to the underrepresented.
The grotesqueries of slavery are not skirted; an early moment where Ms. Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee, a house slave, is whipped, brought everyone to a standstill. “The crack of the whip in the air, just hearing that snap, sends something through your body,” Mr. Hemingway said. “It almost felt like we jumped back in time.”
Ms. Smollett-Bell, who has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and played opposite Denzel Washington, said it was one of the hardest scenes she’d ever done. “After we finished it, I just couldn’t stop shaking and crying,” she said. The cast and crew surrounded her, and let her weep.
Mr. Smollett, a friend of Mr. Hemingway’s, plays a runaway slave in some episodes. He has no scenes with his sister, but she came to the set to watch him work. At the interview here, where she was promoting “Underground,” their vibe was not goofy or overly playful, just enviably tight.
She started modeling as an infant — “At a year old, she was like a mix of Diana Ross and Elizabeth Taylor,” her brother said. “She was boss from the beginning” — and the other children followed. Her recurring role on the mid-90s show “Full House” (a character written for a white actress, which her mother got her to audition for), led to a network tryout for all of the children. “We rapped Public Enemy, ‘Shut ’Em Down,’” Ms. Smollett-Bell recalled.
They were cast in the 1994 ABC sitcom “On Our Own,” as siblings whose parents had died, and were left to fend for themselves. It lasted one season, but “it was like heaven,” Ms. Smollett-Bell said. Six dressing rooms were converted into one. “We all were in the same school trailer. We would eat hot links and bagels for breakfast every morning — very black and Jewish of us.” (“Blewish,” as Mr. Smollett once put it.)
Jussie and Jurnee have started a production company, hoping to develop more work as a family, though not everyone is in the business. The oldest, called JoJo in his youth, is 38, and works at a nonprofit; the youngest, Jocqui, 22, is at a tech firm. Their sister Jazz is part of their company; Jake is a chef.
Opportunity still comes communally. Jussie heard about “Empire” through family — Jazz sent him the casting notice — and Jurnee, who’d once auditioned for one of the show’s creators, Lee Daniels, helped her brother prepare. Mr. Daniels based the role, partly, on himself, an artist whose father disapproved of his sexuality. Mr. Smollett is among the few openly gay actors to play a gay character on TV. “It’s a responsibility that I take seriously,” he said.
After the interview, Mr. Smollett headed off to finish a song for “Empire.” “I need Jurnee to come and sing on it,” he said, egging on his sister. She laughed and demurred, but of course, met him in the recording studio. She didn’t join in the chorus — “she’s a wimp,” he joked later. But: “She was there. That’s all that matters.”