Jodie Turner-Smith: “The last three years of my life have been completely mad”

After a decade of grinding out small victories, the 'Queen & Slim' star stepped up her game. We hear what's at the next level

It took ten years for Jodie Turner-Smith to become an overnight sensation. In 2009, aged 22 and having never acted professionally, she quit her job as a corporate banker in Pittsburgh and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. A decade of modelling, TV work and bit-parts later, the Peterborough-born actress landed her first leading film role opposite Daniel Kaluuya in outlaw road movie Queen & Slim. All that hard work paid off as her sensational, multi-faceted performance established her as one of the most in-demand actresses on the planet. “It’s been completely mad,” she says, now 34 and struggling to find the words to describe all the ways her life has transformed since then. “The last three years have been… wow. Very wow. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m just going with it, leaning into it and trying to learn as much as I can.”

By the time Queen & Slim hit screens in November 2019, Turner-Smith was already in Berlin shooting her next film, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. Playing a Navy SEAL in a big-budget military action-thriller couldn’t be further removed from the breakout role which made her name, but Turner-Smith says she was attracted by the opportunity to play another “strong, complicated Black woman” – and by the chance to work with the film’s leading man. “I really jumped at the idea of doing a film like this with Michael B. Jordan,” she says. “That was really what brought me to the project. As we know, he already has a very successful franchise in Creed and he’s, you know… the Sexiest Man Alive!”

“Why did I work with Michael B. Jordan? He’s the Sexiest Man Alive!”

Jordan was indeed awarded that lofty title by People magazine last November, and in Without Remorse it’s easy to see what they saw in him. In one particularly testosterone-heavy scene – already put to good use in trailers for the film – Jordan strips off his shirt to reveal an unbelievably ripped torso before kicking the living shit out of a bunch of riot cops. “That’s such a great scene!” says Turner-Smith with a grin. “It all looks so cool, and then when he takes his top off it’s like…” She raises her voice to a yell: “‘Give the people what they want!’” but barely gets the words out before collapsing into a fit of laughter.

If it sounds like Turner-Smith is enjoying herself right now, that’s because she very much is. Through the video call screen I can see her sipping something fruity while palm trees sway behind her in the breeze over an azure sea. She’s in Jamaica visiting family with her mum and infant daughter, who she was pregnant with while shooting Without Remorse. Much like her career, Turner-Smith’s personal life has undergone a total transformation in the last few years. In October 2018 she met the actor Joshua Jackson, who she’d grown up adoring as Pacey in Dawson’s Creek, at Usher’s 40th birthday party of all places. They married in December the following year and in April 2020 Turner-Smith gave birth to their daughter, who she’s been looking forward to introducing to the island. “When we were descending on Jamaica,” she recalls, “I told my daughter: ‘I’m taking you to see the roots of the tree.’”

Without Remorse
Alongside Michael B. Jordan in ‘Without Remorse’. CREDIT: Prime Video

Both Turner-Smith’s parents are Jamaican, and all her siblings were born there, but by the time she came into the world – on 7 September 1986 – they had moved to the notably less sunny climes of Peterborough. She grew up there until she was 10, and still has an unmistakably British accent, but says she only misses one thing about the place. “Really only family,” she says, “Because every time I go back there I’m like: Wow, there’s nothing here!”

After her parents divorced she moved with her mum to Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 30 minutes north of Washington, D.C. As it happens, many of the scenes of political intrigue in Without Remorse take place in the US capital, although Turner-Smith says it’s not a city she was out and about in very often when she was growing up. She had more important things to worry about. “I really wasn’t that person who was going to parties or clubbing when I was a teenager,” she says. “School was so important to me, as was all the stuff that I did around it like playing sport and trying to be a really good candidate for university. That was my life!”

Jodie Turner-Smith
CREDIT: Getty

She thought she’d eventually become a lawyer, an idea her parents very much encouraged. She’d been in school plays and sung in the church choir, but the idea of actually performing for a living seemed so out of reach as to not even be worth contemplating. She had no problem getting into the University of Pittsburgh to study finance, but when she got there she realised she hated it. After graduating in 2008 she found a job in middle market corporate banking at Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank, but it wasn’t long before she realised she hated that too. “I looked around and saw that other people liked what they were doing,” she remembers. “I wanted what they had. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I decided I would rather try to figure that out than live to regret it and end up resenting everyone in my life because there was this idea that I should have pursued something else. My mantra became: ‘I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.’”

She quit her job at the bank and was mulling a move to Hollywood when a friend working backstage at an N.E.R.D. show in Pittsburgh introduced her to Pharrell. He encouraged her to go chase her dreams and accurately predicted she’d find work as a model. He also provided her with a pretty decent first contact in the industry. “He was like: ‘Do you know Hype Williams?’” she remembers, referring to the legendary music video director for the likes of Busta Rhymes, Will Smith and TLC. “I had already been planning to move to LA, but he connected me to Hype Williams. I saw Pharrell a few times after that and he was always encouraging but I haven’t seen him since I did Queen & Slim. It would be nice to be like: ‘Hey, I’m doing great! Thanks for giving me the nudge!’”

Queen & Slim let me go deeper than I’d ever been allowed”

When she contacted Williams, he told her that when she landed in Los Angeles she should come straight to his office as it was near the airport. She did so, expecting perhaps to have a meeting, but ended up walking straight on to the set of her first music video shoot. Although she hadn’t been told anything about it, Williams cast her in the video for The-Dream and Kanye West’s 2009 single ‘Walkin’ On The Moon’. She remembers walking down a catwalk with Kanye while he shouted at her: “’You need to look more scared!’” Not too much of a stretch for the budding actress, as she recalled on The Graham Norton Show last year: “I was like: ‘I’m shitting myself!’”

More music video work followed – for artists as diverse as Devendra Banhart, Blaqstarr and Zayn Malik – while Turner-Smith also began landing roles on television, first a small role on vampire drama True Blood and then more substantial parts in George R. R. Martin’s horror show Nightflyers and the post-apocalyptic action series The Last Ship. Then, in July 2018, Turner-Smith read a press release announcing that The Chi creator Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas, who helmed the videos for Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ and Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, were making a movie together starring Daniel Kaluuya. She knew she had to get her hands on the script, and when she did she fell in love with the character of Queen. “Queen & Slim was an opportunity to go so much deeper than I’d ever been asked or allowed to go,” she says.

Queen & Slim
With Daniel Kaluuya in ‘Queen & Slim’. CREDIT: Alamy

There are, she adds, a few notable similarities between Queen and Karen Greer, the Navy SEAL she plays in Without Remorse, despite their many surface differences. “We’re talking about two very strong, very determined women,” she points out. “Queen was very emotionally strong, to a fault, as a way to protect herself. Karen is physically very strong, but also has to be emotionally strong to do what she needs to do. They’re both women who know what they want.”

For hardcore Tom Clancy fans, Turner-Smith’s character’s surname may ring a bell. She’s canonically the niece of Jack Ryan ally Jim Greer, memorably played by James Earl Jones (aka the voice of Darth Vader) in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October, 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. While Turner-Smith says she’s a fan of the various iterations of Clancy’s world we’ve seen on screen over the years, calling them: “a legitimately good time”, she also says she thinks Without Remorse presents an opportunity to tell a new kind of story. “I thought it was really cool to be a part of something that leans into being a part of the ‘Tom Clancy universe’, but also very much stands on its own,” she says. “It has two Black leads, and it’s very much a departure from the book.”

“Every story is an opportunity to say something”

Jordan himself has made no secret about the fact he’d like Without Remorse to kick off a new franchise. The plot essentially serves as an origin story for his character John Clark, who is significant within Clancy’s universe because he goes on to lead the international counter-terrorist unit featured in Rainbow Six. Given the mammoth success of the Rainbow Six video games – 2015’s Rainbow Six Siege alone has earned over a billion dollars for makers Ubisoft – it seems safe to think this might not be the last time we see Jordan as Clark. In February, he told Deadline: “As a guy who grew up playing Rainbow Six, this was an opportunity to dive into the John Kelly/John Clark character and give him a fresh start. Growing this thing out into a franchise is something we look forward to.” Does that mean Turner-Smith will be back too, the Rainbow Five to his Rainbow Six perhaps? She’s much too well drilled to give anything away. “Um, I will say that all of the novels in the Tom Clancy universe have always lent themselves to multiple projects, but each of them can stand on their own,” she says diplomatically. “We’ll see what is in store, if anything! I’m open.”

In the meantime, Turner-Smith’s next role will see her play a queen again, albeit one of a very different type. She’s starring as the ill-fated titular wife of Henry VIII in Channel 5 miniseries Anne Boleyn, set to air later this year. It’s been billed as a retelling of the Tudor tale in a “psychological thriller” format – and has been praised for its colour-blind casting (I May Destroy You‘s Paapa Essiedu will also star). Turner-Smith says she’s excited to bring a new perspective to that well-trodden period of British history. “Every time I look at stories I look at them as an opportunity to say something, and for me to say it,” she says. “Obviously, we have heard that story many times, but I wanted to tell it! I think that’s what every actor wants. We want you to hear our take on it now, in this moment, and then after we do it we agonise over what we did.”

Anne Boleyn
As Anne Boleyn in an upcoming Channel 5 drama. CREDIT: Alamy

She plays off her thespian angst with a laugh, but it’s clear the opportunity to tell these stories is one Turner-Smith both relishes and takes seriously. No wonder she always has a take worth hearing. Before we wrap up she tells us once more that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and maybe that’s true, but if it is then at least she has impeccable instincts. It takes a special sort of self-belief to drop a career and a life to cross a country in pursuit of a half-formed dream. Turner-Smith took the gamble, she put in the years, and her reward is finding out she really did have nothing to lose and everything to gain. “I love it, and that’s the cool thing,” she says. “That’s why I quit doing what I was doing all those years ago. I wanted to feel glad about what I do every day. Now I’m here and I really, really like it. It affirms that choice, and makes me want to keep seeking that feeling.”

‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’ is available on Amazon Prime Video from April 30