Smollett-Bell's career never skyrocketed, but unlike many former child stars she never stopped working. Her impressive list of credits includes Cosby (1998-2000), Roll Bounce (2005), The Great Debaters (2007), Friday Night Lights (2007-2009), The Defenders (2010-2011), and Tyler Perry's newest film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counsellor.
Now 26, Smollett is an experienced actress, a gorgeous young woman and even a wife, having married musician Josiah Bell in 2010.
"I was a child who acted," she says. "Some kids have baseball, Little League, as their passion or hobby. Acting has been my passion and my hobby, but my childhood was filled with so many other things, and I had my mom, my family and a few select mentors who were my village, like Samuel L. Jackson and Alfre Woodard and LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
"My mom had me volunteering at a very young age and becoming a peer educator," Smollett-Bell continues. "So I knew how to stay grounded, and I realised that there's such a bigger world outside of the industry. I just didn't have the typical child-star life. I had a really full, normal childhood."
Now, though, Smollett-Bell could be on the cusp of something big. She stars in Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counsellor, the new film from the dependably provocative Tyler Perry. The March 29 release casts her as Judith, a young marriage counsellor who has herself been married for six years to Brice (Lance Gross). He's the only man she's ever been with, so she's thrown off guard when she meets Harley (Robbie Jones), a handsome billionaire who pretty much sweeps her off her feet.
"Harley whispers things in her ear about her husband, telling her that she deserves better," Smollett-Bell says, "and Brice has been forgetting her birthday and neglecting her and is starting to take her for granted because they've been together for so long. They're becoming more like roommates.
"It was interesting to me because Judith has dreams of being a great marriage counsellor, and yet she can't even make her own marriage work," Smollett-Bell says. "A lot of people experience that," the actress continues. "There are classes that people take, self-help books they read and just a lot of information out there about how to have a healthy relationship, but then half of Americans are getting divorced. So it's not so easy. Judith struggles with a lot of the things people struggle with, like insecurity and self-doubt."
Smollett-Bell heaps praise on both of her leading men, Gross and Jones, calling them "so professional and so present." Temptation is every inch a Tyler Perry movie, however, and even when in this case — he doesn't appear on screen, he's always the leading man in his films, their most dominant presence. "I was definitely aware of him," Smollett-Bell says. "It's funny, because I was asleep one day and I got a call from an Atlanta number. The guy on the other end said, 'Hi, may I speak with Jurnee?' I said, 'Speaking.' He said, 'Hi, Jurnee, this is Tyler Perry.'
"I was like, 'Shut up, no way. This is not Tyler Perry'," she recalls. "I thought it was one of my brothers playing a joke on me. Tyler started laughing and said, 'Yes, it is, sweetie. Were you asleep?' I said, 'Yes,' in my groggy voice, and he told me to go back to sleep and call him back.
"I hung up the phone," Smollett-Bell continues, "and my husband said to me, 'Was that really Tyler Perry?' I said 'Yes.' He said, 'Girl, you better wake up and call that man back.'
Smollett-Bell next will be seen on "True Blood," joining the cast as a regular when the HBO show returns for its sixth season. (Ian Spelling/The New York Times New Service)