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December 2007
THE GREAT DEBATERS
An Interview with Jurnee Smollett


THE GREAT DEBATERS
An Interview with Jurnee Smollett

by Wilson Morales

December 24, 2007

After growing up before our eyes on television with appearances on ‘Full House’, ‘Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper’ and ‘Cosby’, Jurnee Smollett is ready to get back on the big screen but in a leading lady way. It’s been almost ten years since she won a Broadcast Film Critcs Award for Best Performance by a Child Actor (1998) in ‘Eve's Bayou’ and with a few other roles under her belt such as ‘Roll Bounce’ and ‘Gridiron Gang’, Smollett’s next role will definitely take her to higher places. In ‘The Great Debaters’, she plays Henrietta Wells, the only female chosen to be on the debating team.

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and inspired by a true story, "The Great Debaters" chronicles the journey of a brilliant but volatile coach (Denzel Washington) who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small, modest black college in East Texas into an elite debate team while challenging the social mores of the time, culminating with a groundbreaking invitation to debate Harvard's championship team

In speaking with blackfilm.com, Smollett talks about getting cast in the film, working with her co-stars, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker, and meeting Oprah Winfrey.


Let’s talk about the role you play and what attracted you to the project

Jurnee Smollett: After I read the script, it was obvious that this was going to be a special project just because the script was so intelligent and it was a side of American history that I never heard about and I wanted to be a part of that.


How did the auditions go?

JS: I was in South Africa over a year ago and Denzel (Washington) wanted the casting director to reach out to me, and since I was out of town, I didn’t get the message. A few months later after he completed ‘American Gangster’ and he was ready to sink his teeth in this to get it going, he had the producer call my manager, and this was on a Friday night, and he told my manager that Denzel wanted me to come and read with him on Monday and they sent me 13 pages that night and then 15 pages on Sunday just to be prepared. I read with him and I got the role from that audition.


How much did you know from the character you played?

JS: Well, I did a lot of research. I did not know too much about Henrietta Wells, who is still living, but I knew more so about the time period. I read as much as I could and tried to digest as much as I could and do my own thing; and once I was hired I met Henrietta and spent as much time with her and interviewed her over the phone and asked her everything.


This is probably the biggest role for you since probably ‘Eve’s Bayou’ or ‘Roll Bounce’. Are you prepared for the national spotlight?

JS: We don’t see a lot of young, young kids striving to be scholars. That was another thing that was attractive about the project. As far as the national ride, I take each day as it come.


How was the shoot like in Shreveport, Louisiana?

JS: It was hot and there was rain, unexpectedly, and mosquitoes; but you know what, it helped and added to the character. The second day we were in Shreveport, Denzel had us going around to all the different locations. We went Wiley College and to the classroom. He just wanted us to see what it was like; and I’m really grateful to his location scouting. He chose to not shoot the film in Los Angeles for a reason. He chose to not shoot it in any other place because you can fake the South.


How was working with Denzel (Washington) to work with as an actor and as a director?

JS: Well, because he’s an actor, he’s a great director. For me, he knew he could whisper one thing in my ear and it would open my mind up about something. More than that, he was a great collaborator. He was also open to my suggestions and my thoughts and we found the character together and that was the beautiful thing about it.


How was working with Nate (Parker) and Denzel Whitaker?

JS: After my first audition, Denzel (Washington) hired me and had me come in for the boys’audition. Just to do chemistry test and stuff. When I walked in with little Denzel, big Denzel introduced me as Samantha Booke and little Denzel says, ‘You want me to flirt with that? Oh, I could flirt with that!’ (Laughs) I think they did an amazing job with the entire cast. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in these roles.


How old is your character supposed to be?

JS: 19 and then she turns 20. In my biography she turns 20.


Wasn’t Whitaker’s character like 14 years old and all of you were in the same college?

JS: Yes, James Farmer Jr. was actually 14 years old and that’s a true story. He attended college very early and my character transferred from another college, her local college, to Wiley College just because she wants to be trained by Tolson, played by Washington.


Was Oprah ever on the set? Did you talk to her?

JS: The very first time we met Oprah was on her show, which was just a few ago.


As a producer on the film, she wasn’t on the set?

JS: She wasn’t, but Kate Forte, the head of Harpo Films was. I think Oprah wanted to leave everything to Denzel. She wanted to trust his instincts and I’ve been told that she didn’t want to get in the way of that.


Is there anything you can relate to with your character?

JS: Oh, several things. Having those aspirations to do what has never been done before. It takes a lot of courage and I just admired her tenacity. It’s women like her and others like Eleanor Roosevelt, Ida B. Wells and women like my mom. These are very courageous women and they make the world a better place, honestly.


Since you started so young in this business from the TV world, is there anyone whose career you would like to follow?

JS: I admired the way Tom Hanks, and Robin Williams, and Will Smith made a solid transition.


Why should anyone see ‘The Great Debaters’?

JS: Because every single person who I have met and have seen this film has said that moved them beyond expectations. I don’t know many people that know about this story and it’s a side of American history that deserves to be in text books and deserves to be told. At the end of the day, it’s good entertainment.

 

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