Long before she battled monsters both human and otherworldly as Letitia Lewis on HBO’s Lovecraft Country — a turn that earned her an Emmy nomination for lead actress in a drama this year — Jurnee Smollett was getting laughs from a studio audience as little Denise Frazer on ABC’s Full House.
Born into a family of performers (she and her five siblings, Jussie, Jazz, Jojo, Jocqui and Jake, played fictionalized versions of themselves on the short-lived 1994 ABC sitcom On Our Own), Smollett was a natural in front of the camera, booking modeling gigs at just 10 months old. In 1992, at age 4, she scored a recurring part on the fifth season of the hit sitcom about a widower (Bob Saget) raising his three daughters with the help of his brother-in-law (John Stamos) and best friend (Dave Coulier).
“I remember the feeling of performing in front of a live audience, and being able to feed off of them,” Smollett says. “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.” She vividly recalls shooting her first scene, in which she offers Michelle Tanner (played in tandem by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) a sandwich as a gesture of friendship. “The audience applauded as I walked in front of them and I gave them a peace sign,” she says with a laugh. “In my head, that was my inner Janet Jackson moment.”
That moment might not have come if her mother, Janet, hadn’t pushed for her to audition for the role, which was originally written for a white girl. Perhaps that’s why Smollett is still recognized now from her first TV gig. “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. Growing up with an image of a girl whose hair was curly, you know, it had an impact on them,” she says. “I’m appreciative of and grateful for that.”
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.