Jodie Turner-Smith is a British actor and the star of Channel 5’s forthcoming drama Anne Boleyn, in which she plays the doomed queen. Born in Peterborough, Turner-Smith moved to the US as a child and later worked in finance before she began a career in modelling. She made her acting debut in 2013 in HBO’s supernatural drama True Bloodand co-starred with Daniel Kaluuya in 2019’s Queen & Slim, a road movie about a black couple on the run. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Joshua Jackson, and their one-year-old daughter.
You’re playing Anne Boleyn as she goes through turmoil and betrayal in the final three months of her life. How did you tap into that mood?
Honestly, it felt so easy. I think I was so raw because I’d just had a baby so all those big emotions resonated with me. I could feel how angry and passionate and desperate and heartbroken she was. It was the first job I did after having a baby and I was redefining myself as well as [being] a performer. After you go through something so transformational, you’re a new person.
What felt most new to you?
Well, there’s so much figuring-out. Like, how to come to yourself in this new body with this new state of mind. And so feeling all of that and translating it to a character, it just felt really easy.
How familiar were you with Anne Boleyn’s story; are you a history buff?
Because we don’t have a record of her life – no letters or diaries or anything in her own words – I had to find a different approach. Historian Dan Jones and I created a bible for Anne Boleyn that was just all about her, the facts of her life, her upbringing, which I used to see how this would motivate this woman to do the things she did, to be the person she wanted to be.
Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/Fable/The Falen Falcon Ltd/ViacomCBS
Did you expect the backlash for being a black woman playing Anne Boleyn?
If anything, recent times have shown us that we’re not beyond that in any way. So I was not shocked or surprised. I will say that over the last four years there has been a wave of extreme rightwing ideas and that individuals are very vocal on social media in their limited ways of thinking. I wasn’t surprised by people being angry about it. Also, when someone cares about a character and is a huge fan of someone in history, they’re going to feel passionately and invested in seeing it the way they envisioned it in their own minds. That’s no fault of their own, I guess.
That’s a very generous and diplomatic take! In a recent interview, Daniel Kaluuya was very clear that racism in the industry held him back in the UK, which is why, like lots of other actors, he found his career in the US. Do you think you would have had the same career opportunities in Britain as you’ve had in the US?
It is impossible to say what might have happened and I have no way of ever really knowing. But I believe the things that I hear my fellow actors say about limitations for black actors in the UK, historically and currently. And I live the experience of limitations for black actors in the US. Racism is at work in our industry. Full stop. So regardless of the market in which I began, this was always going to be a hurdle for me, that much was guaranteed, in the same way that any amount of success or visibility then makes me a spokesperson for the grievances of my community.
As for whether or not I’d have had the same opportunities – who knows? When I went to business school in America, they taught us that success is about positioning yourself to get lucky, a concept I’ve always found to be marvellous. Because the idea that success equals effort plus randomness means that there isn’t a real answer for how to be successful – I am just making it up as I go along. Am I luckier in America than I would be in England? I could never ever know that, but I certainly hope not.
Queen & Slim tackled police brutality, Black Lives Matter and social injustice at a time when these conversations were at the fore, but it had a mixed reception. What did you make of its impact?
In some ways, we were kind of ahead of the time in terms of what the film said and did. These issues are not new, but there was not a film to date that made the statement we did. With everything that’s happened in the last year, when the world erupted into protest, had our film been released during that time, I think there would have been different dialogue around it. I do believe art should reflect the times and that’s simply what we were trying to do.
Its success – your first lead in a film – must mark a real before-and-after moment in your life. How much has it changed since?
My life has changed completely! That film allowed me to be in conversations that I would never have been in without it. Work begets work and I’m just trying to ride that wave as long as I can.
Turner-Smith with Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures
You posted a picture of yourself in high school on Instagram and wrote about how much you used to hate yourself for not fitting in. How did you become happier and more confident?
Nothing happens overnight, it’s always a gradual shedding. It wasn’t until I got to university that I realised I hated myself and that’s a really scary thing. I’d spent so much time trying to fit in and conform to something I’m not because, to a certain extent, we all mirror the people in front of us. We adapt to our circumstances in order to be accepted. But once I realised I didn’t like who I was, I was able to figure out how to love myself. The first step is knowing you have a problem.
Who do you turn to for support?
My husband is absolutely 100% my rock. Unfortunately, he wasn’t with me on this project but we are two working actors so we don’t always have the luxury of being together when we’re on shoots. I did have my mum and the nanny for the baby and fortunately this was a female-led production, working mothers who had compassion for the experience I was having.
Is it true that your husband was your teenage crush when he starred in Dawson’s Creek?
Come on, who didn’t love Pacey? It answers itself.
Anne Boleyn starts Tuesday 1 June at 9pm on Channel 5
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