The Transformation Of Jurnee Smollett From 4 To 35 Years Old

Actor Jurnee Smollett has been gracing our TV screens since she was a tiny child star, and now she's grown into a bonafide celebrity. Smollett has been appearing on TV with her big smile and head full of curls for as long as most of us can remember, but we have to be honest... she still kind of snuck up on us. Over the past three decades, Smollett has gone from doing supporting roles and episodic work in the 1980s and '90s, to appearing in major motion pictures alongside some of the most revered and popular actors in Hollywood. She's transformed from being an adorably sassy little sidekick to a super-sexy silver screen star.

It may seem like her transformation from child star to Hollywood A-lister happened overnight, but it's taken Smollett years of consistency to get where she is today, and it seems to have paid off. She's now considered a role model for scores of women of color, and she has fully embraced her role in Hollywood, along with all of the responsibility that comes with it. 

"There's a generation of young girls, women of color, who have repeatedly expressed to me [that they] didn't see many young brown girls, young Black girls on TV during that time," she told The Hollywood Reporter during an interview in 2021. "Growing up with an image of a girl whose hair was curly, you know, it had an impact on them. I'm appreciative of and grateful for that," she said.

Jurnee Smollett's started acting before kindergarten

That's right, that's a tiny Jurnee Smollett in one of her first on-screen appearances back in 1991. The future star, who spent her childhood in New York City and Los Angeles with her five siblings, made her TV debut in the pilot episode of the ill-fated series "Sunday in Paris," starring the legendary actor and dancer Debbie Allen. 

Smollett would have been about four years old when she was in the pilot, and though she admittedly wasn't acting so much as looking super cute in the background, she was already following in the showbiz footsteps of her older siblings, Jussie and Jazz Smollett. Under the guidance of her acting coach mom, Janet, Jurnee played Allison — the lead character's youngest of three children — on "Sunday in Paris," easily recognizable by her curly hair and chubby cheeks. The NBC pilot wasn't picked up by the network, per TCM, but it certainly wasn't the end of the road for Jurnee's acting prospects or her relationship with Allen. Not only would the icon remain supportive of her young co-star throughout the latter's career, but Jurnee would also go on to work closely with Allen's sister, Phylicia Rashad.

For her part, the young Jurnee Smollett naturally didn't view acting as a career or craft she loved yet, but rather "just a fun pastime," as Backstage put it, with the actor comparing it to "the way Little League is fun for kids."

Full House came soon after for Jurnee Smollett

Jurnee Smollett's first big role came when she played Denise Frazer "Full House," the precocious best friend of Michelle Tanner. Although the show didn't premiere until later, Smollett landed the role when she was just four years old, and said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she almost didn't audition because the character was originally imagined as a white girl. Her mom convinced her to audition anyway, and she ended up landing the part, which was a recurring role during the series' fifth season. 

She's since spoken positively about the experience. "I remember the feeling of performing in front of a live audience, and being able to feed off of them," she said. "There [was] that action-reaction cycle that happens when you are in front of a live audience, and 'Oh, if I do this, this makes them laugh.' It was such great training for me because it really gave me confidence and freedom," Smollett explained of the experience. She even said she had a "Janet Jackson moment" while filming her first scene in front of a live audience, noting that she "gave them a peace sign" after they gave her an enthusiastic and positive response.

When asked what she thinks Denise would be doing now, Smollett told Bustle, "That's the question I have, actually. What would she be doing today? She was so spunky, I don't know. But I know her uncle was Little Richard so maybe she took after him musically."

Jurnee Smollett continued to work steadily

After her turn on "Full House" ended, Jurnee Smollett starred in another ABC television series titled "On Our Own." The show starred her siblings Jazz, Jussie, Jake, and Jocqui as well, and was about a group of seven siblings who were left orphaned after their parents were in a terrible accident, and the eldest sibling decided to step in as guardian to keep the family together. 

Jurnee's character was the middle child of the seven siblings. The series only lasted a single season, but it was promising enough that it landed a brief stint on TGIF early in 1995. Even though it had an interesting concept, some believe it wasn't original enough to keep audiences entertained beyond the first season. "It felt like a mixture of a number of different shows, instead of really being something special," Complex editor Khal wrote of the series back in 2016. The series did however, ensure that Jurnee remained a regular on TV screens through the mid '90s.

Interestingly, Jurnee told The Hollywood Reporter that she and her siblings performed "Shut 'Em Down" by Public Enemy to audition for the series. "I don't even think my mom was trying to make a statement, it's genuinely who we were," she said.

Jurnee Smollett headed to the big screen

From wrapping up "On Our Own," Jurnee Smollett went right to the big screen, starring in the Robin Williams film "Jack" in 1996 and the movie "Eve's Bayou" starring Lynn Whitfield and Samuel L. Jackson in 1997, so by the age of 10, she could already be considered a movie star. She later talked about her role opposite Robin as a great learning experience for what would come later in her career. 

"Robin Williams was the first person to do that with me [improvise] and taught me how to just say the first thing off the top of your head — so when Peter [Berg of 'Friday Night Lights'] started doing that with me in the room, I started doing it back and afterwards he slapped me five and said, 'You are a f**king fantastic actress,'" she recalled to BuzzFeed in 2016. 

Smollett herself has credited working on "Eve's Bayou" — a gig that earned awards and nominations — with her love of acting. "I don't know if I would be doing what I do without 'Eve's Bayou' and I don't know if I would have the career that I have without working on 'Eve's Bayou.' The love for what I do, I found it in that project," she told Essence in an interview marking the 20th anniversary of the film.

Curls became Jurnee Smollett's signature

As Jurnee Smollett, who identifies as "Blewish" (aka Black and Jewish), continued to make her mark on Hollywood, she quickly became identifiable by her signature mass of naturally curly hair. She wore her hair in its natural state throughout her entire career as a child star, and into her teen years. Smollett's curls have been a topic of conversation ever since she stepped onto the acting scene. 

Curly hair blogger Nikki Walton of the blog Curly Nikki had the chance to chat with Smollett about hair on the 2011 Emmys red carpet. "I'm natural," the actor said. "I've never done a perm. I've always heard that they're damaging, but I don't know, I've never tried it. Maybe it's for me in the future? I don't know." She went on to explain that she's low maintenance and prefers to do her own hair, even work, but that at home she likes it to wear it "big and wild." Her curls have always been something that makes her stand out in a crowd of straight-haired film stars. "Being the '90s kid I am, remember ogling Smollett's curls as early as her 'Full House' days," Walton explained of why she was so eager to chat with her.

"My mom instilled us with such a healthy relationship with our hair," Smollett told Vogue in 2020. "She reminded us that all hair is beautiful and never allowed us to use the term good hair. If you've got hair, you've got good hair."

Jurnee Smollett popped by hit TV shows

As a preteen, Jurnee Smollett starred in "Cosby," alongside the now decried Bill Cosby and Debbie Allen's sister, Phylicia Rashad. "She was actually quite good... quite good," Rashad said of Smollett in an Archive of American Television interview. Naturally, her career continued to flourish in the next decade.

While she was in high school in the early oughties, Smollett didn't take on as many big acting roles. Instead she stayed relevant in Hollywood popping up in popular shows like "ER," "Strong Medicine," and "House" for single episode stints, as well as multi-episode arcs on hits like "Wanda At Large." By making occasional TV appearances, she managed to keep her face in our minds, so when she resurfaced in full force a few years later, she was still quite familiar to audiences who had grown up seeing her on TV and in movies. 

Smollett once explained that at that point, she decided she wanted to focus on movies, so she stepped back from the small screen. "When I was a kid, I did a lot, then I took a break because I wanted to focus on films," she told BuzzFeed News in 2016. "I did guest spots here and there, but I had a rule where I said, 'No, I'm not doing television.'"

Jurnee Smollett found footing in the movies

Within a few years, Jurnee Smollett managed to make a solid return to the movies. She appeared on-screen in "Roll Bounce" with Nick Cannon, "Gridiron Gang" starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and "The Great Debaters" with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, and it quickly became clear that she was no longer a little girl. 

Smollett admits to being very selective about the roles she took. Eventually though, it became more about the part, than about whether it was for movies or TV. "It's been about finding roles that weren't set dressing, characters who weren't just the girlfriend," Smollett told BuzzFeed. "You don't want to be the earpiece for his problems where you have to help push the plot forward and your identity is directly connected to your male counterpart's storyline. You have no arc of your own and you're really irrelevant," she explained. So she kept working, and she waited for just the right role, which did eventually come, and brought about her return to primetime TV.

Another big TV role for Jurnee Smollett

From 2009 to 2011, Jurnee Smollett starred as a series regular on the popular television show "Friday Night Lights." She was a full-fledged adult by then, and had changed her look quite a bit. She wore her famous curls looser and often tried out bolder makeup applications, further separating herself from her child star image. 

Taking on the role of high schooler Jess Merriweather in the Emmy-nominated series was a huge move for her, especially since the show — which also starred Connie Britton, Jesse Plemons, and Kyle Chandler — was already a hit when Smollett joined the cast. "It feels, really, really amazing, because 'Friday Night Lights' is such an incredible show. I mean to be a part of a show that I think is gonna go down in history as one of the greatest television shows in history, it's like, it's an honor for me," Smollett told at the 2011 Emmys. 

While she was on the show, Smollett who was by then in her mid-twenties, also got married to actor and musician Josiah Bell. The two were married for 10 years, and share a little boy named Hunter, whom Smollett gave birth to in 2016. Smollett filed for divorce from Bell in 2020, however according to Radar, the divorce was not finalized until more than a year later.

The role that raised the bar

After her run on "Friday Night Lights," Jurnee Smollett played a young lawyer working in Las Vegas, on the series "The Defenders," which also starred Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell. She completely shed her youthful look. She wore her hair sleek, and was most often seen in the typical lawyer attire of suits and practical pumps. 

"I started shooting 'The Defenders' two days after I wrapped 'Friday Night Lights.' I was doing research for 'The Defenders' throughout — interviewing lawyers and sitting in courtrooms just to watch — but there's something fun about throwing yourself in the water, and learning by doing," she told GQ.

The series which ran from 2010 to 2011, was short-lived, and she spent the next few years on various projects including TV shows "The Mob Doctor" and "Do Not Harm," but nothing really stuck during that time. "We got spoiled with 'Friday Night Lights,'" she said to BuzzFeed. "Not every show is like that and on other shows, if you try to bring that same truth or that same approach, the system of television doesn't always allow for that level of collaboration, which is unfortunate because the work would be richer. It was a little bit of an awakening."

Even more TV work followed for Jurnee Smollett

By this point, Jurnee Smollett had solidified her position as a legitimate TV and film actor, and took the failures in stride. Looking very much the gorgeous adult woman, the former child star went on to appear in recurring roles on hit shows including, "Parenthood," and perhaps even more notably, HBO's "True Blood," on which she was a series regular for the final two seasons. 

On "True Blood," Smollett's character Nicole was a vampire-rights activist, which allowed her to tap into some of her own personal experiences as a lifelong activist who openly advocates for various human rights issues. But the show brought a lot of new experiences for Smollett too — namely stunts. 

"[Doing stunts] was new for me on a TV show. I'd done it in films, but this TV show feels like a film. You've got special effects, and wolves, and animals and blood! All this stuff that makes it feel like you're on a film set. It's so cool. It's so much fun it should be criminal," she told Entertainment Weekly at the time. The gig ended up being something of a turning point at that time in her career.

More stunts and more award buzz

In 2016, a couple of years after "True Blood" ended, and the same year she gave birth to son Hunter, Jurnee Smollett starred in the riveting WGN America series "Underground." Yep, your timeline math is correct; as Smollett recalled to Vulture, she filmed the intense series while pregnant.

Smollett once again did her own stunts, allowing some of her previous acting experiences to enhance her performance. "I wasn't going to let the boys do stuff that I wasn't doing. Hell, no! We have a lot of scenes where we're running, and the camera would be strapped onto a gator, which is like a more rugged version of a golf cart, and you would have to just chase it. When you do that take after take after take, in a corset and a dress that's, like, five layers ... it really humbled me," she told Cosmopolitan.

The show lasted just two seasons, but gained Smollett a lot of attention. For her portrayal of a sheltered house slave in the series about slaves attempting to escape on the Underground Railroad, she was nominated for two NAACP Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series awards. "It's so exciting to be a part of something that gives a voice to the voiceless like this. It puts a face to the thousands of people that had the courage to run," Smollett said in Cosmo of the importance of a show like "Underground."

Birds of Prey was a big shift for Jurnee Smollett

In probably her biggest movie role to date, Jurnee Smollett took on the role of Dinah/Black Canary in the 2020 DC Comics film "Birds of Prey." Her character was sultry, but tough as nails, and Smollett stunned in the film. 

"We saw hundreds of actors for her role, and so many did incredible auditions, but when you saw Jurnee, it just drove everyone else out of your mind. I drew, like, 10 stars and exclamation marks next to her name," producer and star Margot Robbie told The Hollywood Reporter of Smollett's auditions.

Not everyone was happy that she was cast in the part though. Some DC Comics fans were reportedly upset that the film's producers diverged from the comic books, in which Dinah is portrayed as a white woman with blonde hair. They took to social media with their racist complaints, but Smollett let the drama fuel her performance. "It brought a rage out inside of me, which was great for Canary," she told The Hollywood Reporter. Smollett's performance in the action film was so on-point, it got its own spin-of: As Variety reported in August 2021, she and "Underground" creator Misha Green are set make a Black Canary film for HBO Max.

Stretching boundaries with Lovecraft Country

By the time she reached her 30s, Jurnee Smollett had firmly established herself in Hollywood, and she continues to take risks both with her film and television roles, as well as with her image. Notably, she starred in Misha Green's HBO sci-fi series "Lovecraft Country," which takes place during the civil rights movement and America's Jim Crow era. 

Smollett brought some of her old sassiness back in the role of Letitia Lewis, but being Leti wasn't always easy for her. "Work like this — for a project or character that you're building like this — it really requires that you understand the historical context to which your characters are in," Smollett confessed to Variety, admitting that she had to do a lot of research and reading to prepare for the role. In fact, playing Leti was so impactful for Smollett that she told Vogue that when she finished filming the show, she cut her hair off to "purge herself of Leti."

The series, which premiered in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, did not end up being picked up for a second season, despite racking up nearly 20 Emmy nominations for its first season and becoming an instant cult classic.

She sure makes a statement on the red carpet

With all of the incredible success Jurnee Smollett has had throughout her decades-long career, it checks out that she seems to be brimming with confidence. Now an Emmy nominee herself, thanks to her role in "Lovecraft Country," Smollett has a lot of fun with her image these days. She often takes bold fashion risks during red carpet appearances and is known to give open, honest interviews in which she speaks her own truth, quite unapologetically.

Smollett's support system has definitely played a role in that. She told The Hollywood Reporter that "Grey's Anatomy" creator, Shonda Rhimes, once told her, "I'm so tired of women like you who don't own your power. You're Jurnee f**kin' Smollett." Oh, and Reese Witherspoon evidently advocated for her to be paid higher by HBO — which she was.

"We come from kings and queens. They weren't knighted, they weren't caped, they weren't written about in textbooks. Their stories have been so undervalued and hidden in history, erased in history. We are now currently being told that we should not be talking about our stories in schools. These are the battles we are fighting. Being able to give voice to these stories is such a privilege," she told W magazine in August 2021, and for her part, she's looking forward to the future.