Jurnee Smollett-Bell on ‘Birds of Prey’ box office disappointment: “the narrative that it became was ludicrous”

DC's all-female superhero gang did much better than people think, says the Black Canary star

The strongest fighter in comic book history with a weapon no one can rival? DC’s Black Canary might not have been making Hollywood headlines for long, but the spandex-clad superhero has a bright future on the big screen. In Cathy Yan’s thrilling Suicide Squad spinoff Birds of Prey, the legendary martial artist aces her cinematic debut.

The woman behind the aforementioned “canary cry” – a high-powered sonic scream which obliterates all enemies – is New York actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Dispatching goons and saving the day, Smollett-Bell is a fierce competitor in the film, which garnered critical praise but underperformed at the box office – grossing $201.9m (£168.1m) on its $100m (£80.4m) production budget.

From lockdown at home, Smollett-Bell spills the beans on fight training for Birds of Prey, bonding with her fellow Birds, and a most-intriguing new project she’s been working on: Jordan Peele’s mind-bending horror series Lovecraft Country.

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How familiar were you with the DC Extended Universe before Birds of Prey?

“As familiar as most people are with the classic characters – and I was a fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, and even the OG Batman movies [with Adam West]. But I used to play [as Black Canary] in Injustice 2, the video game. I’d choose her as my character most times, which is so ironic now.”

Some people thought Harley Quinn was problematic in Suicide Squad and director David Ayer has since apologised – how did Birds of Prey correct this?

“Having worked with so many different directors now, as Harley Quinn, Margot [Robbie] talks about there being different colours that come out of the character [each movie]. I love the narrative that was explored with her in Birds of Prey – her breaking up with Joker and trying to find her voice independent of him and how scary that is. It was great to see her trip and stumble so much. She’s so flawed and that’s what we love about her. It’s great entertainment to watch her fall and pick herself up. I love all the choices that Margot and Cathy [Yan] made – they were so bold.”

Jurnee Smollett Bell
Smollett-Bell alongside Margot Robbie in ‘Birds Of Prey’. Credit: Warner Bros.

What was it like working with such a female-led team?

“We’re all on a group text thread Cathy nicknamed ‘The Birds’! It was such a great experience to work with this cast. Mary[-Elizabeth Winstead] and I initially trained for the first few months, then Rosie [Perez] and Margot joined. We really bonded. We had a night of bowling and drinking which was definitely a highlight for me!”

What did the physical training involve?

“The stunt coordinators said we were each going to have a different fighting style. For me, it was Muay Thai, Taekwondo and kickboxing. It was quite painful to force my body to do things, because Black Canary is one of the most powerful fighters in the whole DC universe. There are things she’s been training for years to know. Real expert martial artists in the field can take years to master these things and we only had five months.”

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Jurnee Smollett Bell
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in DC’s ‘Birds Of Prey’. Credit: Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey had great reviews and a warm response from fans – why do you think the box office figures were disappointing?

“I feel like the narrative that it became was kind of ludicrous. It’s not my job to pay attention to any of that stuff really, but the fans loved it and they’re still loving it. I also think people aren’t aware of the fact that in the grand scheme of the average comic book film, the budget wasn’t nearly as large as others. So I don’t think it’s so fair to compare it in that sense. Do the fans love it? Yes. Did the studio make its money back? Yes, job well done.”

Can we expect a sequel? Or a Black Canary spinoff?

“I’m totally in love with Black Canary and would jump at the chance to play her again, any time. I think there’s so much she could explore. Although it’s not up to me! But I think with the Birds of Prey franchise, there’s so many characters within the DC universe that you could explore.”

True Blood
Smollett-Bell previously played vampire-rights activist Nicole in TV’s ‘True Blood’. Credit: HBO

What can you tell us about Lovecraft Country, your upcoming HBO show with Jordan Peele?

“Oh my goodness I cannot wait for you guys to see Lovecraft. I can’t hype it up too much, it’s impossible because it’s that good. I walked away thoroughly worn out, having used every ounce of my mind, body and spirit. It’s a genre-bending, crazy mix of sci-fi, social-horror, thriller, family drama set in Jim Crowe 1955 era. It’s literally unlike anything that’s ever been on TV or film before. Every day felt challenging and thoroughly stimulating. I’m just bubbling with excitement for it to come out already!”

‘Birds Of Prey’ is available to stream now – and will arrive on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray on June 15

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