Starting out as a child model, three-time NAACP Image Award winning American actress Jurnee Smollett broke into the small screen with recurring roles in the sitcoms “Full House” and “Hangin' with Mr. Cooper” before moving on as a regular cast in “On Our Own” (1994-1995), a short-lived comedy series in which she starred with her real siblings. Smollett attracted a lot of attention with her portrayal of Eve Batiste, a young girl who during the course of one summer uncovers some of her family's hidden truths, in the critically acclaimed drama “Eve's Bayou” (1997), which was directed and written by Kasi Lemmons. The role brought her a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award and nominations at the Young Artist Awards, the YoungStar Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. Smollett took home two Image Awards for her work in the sitcom “Cosby” (1996-2000), from which she also picked up a Vision Award. Other movies Smollet has acted in include “Jack” (1996), “Beautiful Joe” (2000), “Ruby's Bucket of Blood” (2001, TV), “Roll Bounce” (2005), “Gridiron Gang” (2006) and “The Great Debaters” (2007, earned a Teen Choice nomination). Smollet has also guest starred in such television series as “NYPD Blue,” “ER,” “House M.D.” and “Grey's Anatomy.”
“There is crying and pain going on. There's a whole population screaming out and no one is listening. It's neglect.” Jurnee Smollet
Inspired by the death of a crew member of “On Our Own,” Smollett has actively supported issues regarding HIV/AIDS since she was seven years old. She is the youngest board member of Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), a non-profit organization working in the United States and South Africa to fight the disease. With ANSA, Smollet has traveled to South Africa and met with big names like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Childhood and Family:
Jurnee Diana Smollett was born on October 1, 1986, in New York City, New York, to Janet and Joel Smollett. The forth of six children, she has four brothers, Jojo (born in 1977), Jussie (born in 1982), Jake (born in 1989) and Jocqui (born in 1993), and a sister, Jazz (born in 1980). All of her siblings are performers.
Jurnee Smollett got her start as a child model by appearing in commercials for “Cheerios,” “Pepsi” and “Fisher-Price,” to name a few. Her first real acting job arrived when she landed the role of Alison Chase in the 1991 TV film “Sunday in Paris,” a 30 minute comedy directed by Hugh Wilson and written by Susan Fales-Hill and Jeff Spencer. The six year old thespian went on to have the recurring role of Denise Frazer in the ABC family sitcom “Full House,” a role she played from 1992 to 1994. She also reprised her Denise Frazer role on three episodes of ABC's “Hangin' with Mr. Cooper,” starring Mark Curry, and appeared in an episode of the Matin Lawrence sitcom “Martin” called “I Saw Gina Kissing Santa Claus” (both 1992).
Smollett next costarred with comedian Ralph Louis Harris, T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh, and her real siblings in the sitcom “On Our Own.” Debuting in September 1994, the ABC show was criticized for mimicking the comedy film “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the FOX’s “Party of Five.” Although it was later revised, the show still suffered low ratings and was finally canceled. The last episode, “The Tonsil Tale,” was broadcasted in April 1995. Playing Jordee Jerrico, Smollett's performance on the show earned her a 1995 Young Artist nomination for Best Performance by an Actress under Ten in a TV Series.
The energetic youth bounced back by making her feature film acting debut in the 1996 Robin Williams comedy vehicle “Jack,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In the movie, she played a supporting character named Phoebe. Other costars in the film included Diane Lane, Bill Cosby, Fran Drescher and Jennifer Lopez. On the small screen, Smollett appeared in the “NYPD Blue” episode “Where's 'Swaldo,” which aired on November 12, 1996.
However, it was not until the following year that Smollett got her first leading role in a film and gained critical acclaim for her performance. Playing the title role of a 10 year old who experiences a loss of innocence in the Toronto Film Festival-premiered “Eve's Bayou” (1997), the directing debut of actress Kasi Lemmons, she brought a maturity far beyond her years to the role and was handed the Critics Choice Award for Best Child Performance at the 1998 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards. She also received a Young Artist nomination for Best Performance in a Feature Film - Leading Young Actress, a YoungStar nomination for Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Drama Film, and a NAACP Image nomination for Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress. Set in 1962 Louisiana, “Eve's Bayou” received primarily positive reviews from critics, with Roger Ebert of the “Chicago Sun-Times” referring to it as the best film of the year.
Smollett returned to television in 1998 by joining the cast of the CBS sitcom “Cosby” (1996-2000), created, developed and executive produced by and starring Bill Cosby. She portrayed Jurnee from 1998 to 2000 and picked up two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress (1999, 2000) and a Vision Award for her work on the show. In 1999, Smollett portrayed Sheyann Webb, a young girl who befriended Dr. Martin Luther King during the 1960's voter rights movement, in the ABC television movie “Selma, Lord, Selma,” which was helmed by Charles Burnett and scripted by Cynthia Whitcomb and based on books by Sheyann Webb, Rachel West Nelson, and Frank Sikora. The same year, she also starred as Ali Baba in the “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child” episode “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Opening the new millennium, Smollett was cast alongside Sharon Stone, Billy Connolly and Gil Bellows in the uneven romantic comedy “Beautiful Joe” (2000), from filmmaker Stephen Metcalfe. It was followed by a supporting role opposite Angela Bassett and Glenn Plummer in the made-for-TV film “Ruby's Bucket of Blood” (2001), from which she netted a Black Reel nomination for Network/Cable - Best Supporting Actress. She then made guest appearances in “ER” and “Strong Medicine” (both 2002) and played Holly Hawkins in the short-lived comedy series “Wanda at Large” (2003), opposite Wanda Sykes.
Smollett resumed her film career in 2005 by taking the role of Tori in the Malcolm D. Lee-directed “Roll Bounce,” which starred Bow Wow, Chi McBride and her “Eve's Bayou” costar Megan Good. Her performance garnered the gifted actress critical raves from The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today, among others. She next supported Dwayne Johnson in Phil Joanou's “Gridiron Gang” (2006) and costarred with Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Nate Parker in “The Great Debaters” (2007), a drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Texas. Under the direction of Washington, Smollett earned a Teen Choice nomination for Choice Movie Breakout Female for her role of Samantha Booke.
The New York native returned to television after guest starring in a 2006 episode of “House M.D.” with another guest spot in “Grey's Anatomy.” She played Beth in the May 22, 2008, episode “Freedom,” which was directed by Rob Corn. 2008 also saw her in the documentary “Road to Ingwavuma.”
Image: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, “The Great Debaters,” 2008
Image: Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress, “Cosby,” 2000
Image: Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress, “Cosby,” 1999
Broadcast Film Critics Association: Critics Choice Award, Best Child Performance, “Eve's Bayou,” 1998