By Chancellor Agard
July 17, 2020 at 06:57 PM EDT
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From Friday Night Lights to Birds of Prey and now HBO's Lovecraft Country (premiering Aug. 16 on HBO), Jurnee Smollett has made a career of playing bold, inspiring characters. Here, as part of EW's Women Who Kick Ass series, the 33-year-old actress reflects on the lessons she's learned from almost three decades in the industry.

On growing as an actress

"I currently feel my most powerful," says Smollett, whose TV career started when she was 6. "I feel incredibly spoiled to have been able to, over the past few years, work with really liberating filmmakers in spaces and characters that I felt safe to try new things. Whether it was training for five months for Black Canary [in Birds of Prey] in order to do the majority of my stunts, or pouring the pain and that ancestral blood memory into [Lovecraft Country's] Leti."

Smollett in Kasi Lemmons' directorial debut, "Eve's Bayou."
Everett Collection

On the best advice she received for Birds of Prey

Smollett was nervous when she joined the Margot Robbie-led DC film because she'd never done a comic book movie before. So she turned to Ava DuVernay (New Gods), Will Smith (Suicide Squad), Lupita Nyong'o (Black Panther), and Samuel L. Jackson (The Avengers) for guidance as she developed her character. "They were all incredibly encouraging to just piss on my territory, like, just really make Canary mine," she says. "The collective advice is really how you have to approach any character, not [just] in this space. You put on your blinders and you trust your f—ing instincts."

Smollett as Black Canary in "Birds of Prey."
Claudette Barius/ © DC Comics

On the advice she gives others

"Don't ask for permission, because no one has to give you permission to be an artist. You can create art anywhere, wherever. And even if no one ever sees it, or no one sees it for a season, you're still creating."

On "Friday Night Lights," Smollett played aspiring coach Jess Merriweather.
Bill Records/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

On how she's nurturing her craft at home

"I'm teaching myself the guitar, I'm writing, trying to stay in touch with my playful self, because this time has been filled with so much grief."

Before "Lovecraft Country," Smollett worked with showrunner/EP Misha Green on WGN's "Underground."
Everett Collection

On the next frontier in her career

Looking ahead, "I want to do the thing that terrifies me the most, which is a full-fledged musical," says Smollett, who shows off her vocal chops in Lovecraft Country and covered James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" in Birds of Prey."It's a really hard genre to do where we are in cinema now. And when they do it and they get it right, it's beautiful, it's everything, it's electrifying."

Watch EW's Women Who Kick Ass panel with Jurnee Smollett, as part of EW's Fandom Week, above.

A version of this story appears in the August 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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