Art & Culture / Film

Community Issue: Jodie Turner-Smith

As she prepares to stun audiences with her portrayal of Anne Boleyn, Jodie Turner-Smith speaks to HUNGER about her rapid rise.

Actor Jodie Turner-Smith is 30 minutes late. I’ve almost resigned myself to the fact our chat isn’t going to happen today when she suddenly pops up on screen with a smile. “I’m so sorry about everything that has gone on today. I’m actually in Jamaica – we came out here for a holiday and then I’ve been working as well,” she says with an energy that instantly disarms you.

Given the hectic 18 months that the 34-year-old has just experienced, she can be forgiven. It’s been a nonstop ride for her since the end of 2019, when she enjoyed widespread acclaim for her titular role in Lena Waithe’s on-the-run crime drama Queen & Slim, alongside Daniel Kaluuya. But just as the industry called lift-off on her career, the pandemic put film and TV production on ice. The global shutdown was actually a blessing in disguise for Turner-Smith, as lockdown regulations coincided with her maternity leave following the birth of her daughter in April 2020. “[Motherhood] has definitely changed me. I’m a different person now,” she tells me. I can see Joshua Jackson, Turner-Smith’s husband and her daughter’s father, scrolling through his phone in the background. “You have to transform in order to bring a baby into the world, so it’s impossible to be the same person. I love it, I love being [a mum].”

Transformation is nothing new for Turner-Smith, who was born in Peterborough and grew up in a village just outside the city. Hers was the only Black family in the village, and she was the only one of her sibling group to be born outside Jamaica. She emigrated to the US at the age of nine and was working as a banker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when a friend introduced her to Pharrell Williams after a NERD concert. His advice to move to Los Angeles and become a model inspired her to make the leap. Since then, she’s worked her way up the ranks, starting out shooting for the likes of Gucci and appearing in the video for Zayn Malik’s “Pillowtalk”, eventually cutting her acting teeth with a role in the series True Blood before her career breakthrough with Queen & Slim. “Working on Queen & Slim was such a life-changing experience for me in so many ways. Being somebody who didn’t go to drama school, the number one way that I learn is being on set, and from the actors who are so gracious to show me the way they work and to really let me into their process,” she says. “I think a big thing for me was getting to work with these two women [writer Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas], who were just so driven and focused and had such an immaculate vision. I’m glad that I have them in my corner to ask questions or if I want advice about things.”

The mammoth task of embodying Queen, a defence lawyer who goes on the run with her Tinder date after he accidentally kills a racist police officer, has been the perfect preface for her upcoming role, and arguably her most ambitious to date. This month, Turner-Smith will captivate audiences with her portrayal of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second, and most famous, wife. The three-part limited series for Channel 5 documents the final five months of Anne’s life, as the miscarriage of her son, a legitimate heir for Henry, ultimately leads to her demise.

Since her casting in the series was announced, social media has been rife with opinion, some positive, some negative, but while Turner-Smith admits it can be hard to ignore, she’s keen to maintain some distance from the opinions of prospective viewers. “I have definitely seen a lot of the discourse. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of separation I like to keep between myself and what’s going on, just because there’s a lot of really negative and racist commentary, and I think it’s really important to try to isolate myself from as much as possible. But I think it’s great that people are having a dialogue about it. The important thing to remember is that there is a distinction between history and historical drama. History is rooted in objective facts and with historical drama you have a licence to explore a relationship between the past and the present. This is a well-known story that has been told many, many times – we’re telling it in a different way, in a way that’s hopefully exciting for people.”

With I May Destroy You star Paapa Essiedu playing her similarly fated brother George, and Mark Stanley of Game of Thrones taking the role of Henry VIII, the project is one that not only seeks to entertain but inform; it’s packed full of historical facts that will open the world’s eyes to Anne and her influence on Tudor Britain. The scope of the work, and the fact that it’s such a well-known story, meant that Turner-Smith had to be well versed in Tudor history in order to immerse herself in the life of Henry’s queen. “I definitely did a lot of research, and we also worked closely with the historian Dan Jones to make sure that we would stay faithful to what is historically true about her and include historical details and plot points. I read some books too. I really loved The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. I thought it was so interesting how it just talked about her magnetism and how I feel it’s often not reflected that the relationship between Anne and Henry was so deeply connected and intense, you know, and I hope that was an interesting element to bring to it.”

By the time this issue hits shelves, her latest flick, Without Remorse, will be available to stream on Amazon Prime. Also starring Michael B Jordan, Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce, the action thriller is based on the Tom Clancy book of the same name. But how does the small-screen experience compare to that of the silver screen? “Well, I think the medium of television has changed so much. You’re seeing so much incredible content on television that is so amazing and elevated. With COVID-19 and nobody really going to the cinema, I feel like the line is disappearing. From my limited experience of working, I do find that television moves quite a bit faster than creating a movie, obviously because of the amount of time you get to turn over an episode versus how much time you get to complete a film. And then in television, if it’s episodic, you will often work with multiple directors and so that makes it different. There are obviously similarities and differences in both and they’re both just two different adventures. And, depending on who you ask, there’s more money to be made in television.”

With banking, acting, modelling and motherhood already under her belt, I wonder what strings Turner-Smith plans on adding to her bow next. Her answer is resolute. “Definitely writing and directing,” she says with a nod. “I directed a short film called Jackie last year. I wrote it too. That was such an incredible experience – it really made me fall deeply in love with that process. What drives me is this idea that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by just trying to see what happens when I create something. I’m not afraid of trying and not succeeding at something. I think it’s better to try and fail and know that that wasn’t the thing for you than to not try and live your life wondering what else you were capable of.” If her trajectory so far is anything to go by, there’s a future full of successes ahead.

 

In the UK, Anne Boleyn shows nightly on Channel 5 at 9pm until Thursday (3 June).

2 June 2021