Jodie Turner-Smith Isn’t Done Talking About Colourism — Are You Ready To Listen?

Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic.
In the A24 film After Yang, Jodie Turner-Smith’s character Kyra rarely raises her voice. She’s all muted tones and measured timbre — even when she’s mad. In our Zoom interview, Turner-Smith is the exact opposite. The quiet confidence and thoughtful reflection are there, but when she responds to topics she’s passionate about — like Euphoria, Rihanna’s pregnancy, or colourism — Turner-Smith leans into the camera and goes off. She drops f-bombs to emphasise her points and punctuates every syllable with graceful flailing of her Gucci-feather clad hands. In other words, she’s everything I’d hoped she’d be.
Turner-Smith was already making waves across the pond, but her breakout U.S. role in Queen & Slim in 2019 solidified her as one of the most exciting working actresses in Hollywood. No matter what you thought of the film (which divided Black Twitter unlike than anything I’d seen in a pre-Verzuz world), it was clear that the woman who went toe-to-toe with Academy Award winner Daniel Kaluuya, and who took sometimes-clunky dialogue and turned it into poetry, was a star. Throw in a scene-stealing role in Without Remorse opposite Michael B. Jordan, a starring turn as Anne Boleyn in the AMC miniseries, and striking red-carpet/runway appearances, and Turner-Smith became an instant ‘it girl’ — a coveted Hollywood title that typically isn’t reserved for dark-skinned Black women. (Which is extra infuriating when you consider the fact that she’s a stunning Amazonian-esque beauty whose face is so perfect you can’t look directly at it for too long lest you lose focus on the task at hand.) I know, I know, celeb-worship is so 2020, but since it’s still rare to come across one that’s talented, extremely hot, smart and kind, I reserve my right to stan Jodie Turner-Smith — oh yeah, and her husband, my childhood crush, actor Joshua Jackson.
I don’t ask her much about Jackson — Turner-Smith has a lot of interesting things to say aside from her handsome man (respectfully) — but he comes up naturally in conversation. He also almost literally crashes our interview when their daughter (off-camera) makes a run towards her mother mid-sentence. Turner-Smith jokes that she’s a “jail-break baby,” refers to Jackson as “babe,” and picks up right where she left off. A professional. 
When the interruption happens, Turner-Smith is talking about After Yang, directed by Kogonada and co-starring Colin Farrell, about a couple who adopts their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China. In an effort to keep her connected to a culture and identity to which neither of them belong, they buy her an android named Yang (Justin H. Min) who becomes her big brother. During a global family dance competition (apparently, those are common in the future), Yang malfunctions and the couple is left reeling from the prospect of life after Yang. See what they did there? The film is meditative and intentional, slow but purposeful, and at once a rumination on artificial intelligence and a contemplation of humanity. 
After Yang toggles between sweet familial moments and devastating depictions of grief as easily as Turner-Smith slides between breaking down the effects of white supremacy and calling out Meghan Markle (lovingly). I dare you to read this and not come out on the other side a little bit (more) obsessed with Jodie Turner-Smith too. 
Unbothered: Is it true that the first thing you shot for After Yang was the family dance scene? Tell me everything about it. And how long did it take Colin to get that choreography?
Jodie Turner-Smith: Yes, that was our first scene we did together as a whole family. And it was a great jump-in with both feet, get out of your head, get into your body and fucking do this completely ridiculous and also amazing dance. It was so fun, and it’s so funny because it's always so nerve-wracking when you have to do something that potentially could be very embarrassing. But in a way, it’s so freeing because you're like, I can't even think about any of that. I have to do this choreography. I don't know how long it took Colin because he was learning it from before I started. I got hired a few days before I was going to start [filming]. I literally had the weekend to learn this dance. I'll tell you a lifehack when you're trying to learn choreography, and you're not a dancer: I recorded it, then I put it in an app, and I slowed it down so that I could learn it in half time. And then my girlfriend who was hanging out with me at the time in New York, she would come over every day and help me learn this dance.
Celia, our choreographer, said, "The dance is this burst of confetti at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the film is the confetti falling." And I just think that's the perfect description.
That's really beautiful and so true for the pacing and tone of the rest of the film. If your IRL family was in that dance competition, how far do you think you would make it?
JTS: I mean, if my family was in that dance competition, first of all, the outfits would've been a little bit cuter. But we wouldn't have made it far, because I have a toddler and learning choreography for a toddler is challenging. I have a toddler and a white husband, so... I don't know… I don’t think we’d make it very far [laughs]
You said it. I wasn't going to say it! So, a lot of movies about artificial intelligence make it seem scary or something to be wary of. This film brings a lot of humanity and heart to AI. Did making this movie change the way you think about technology? 
JTS: I love the future that [director] Kogonada envisioned. If this is how we are relating to technology in the future, sign me up. I think it's brilliant. [In the film], technology is actually bringing us together, especially taking into account what we gained by learning what Yang was recording and how that reconnected us to each other. I think the big takeaway from the film is that he showed us our humanity and made us feel more connected as a family by the end.
But even in the beginning, the idea that you could have this techno-sapien who helps you integrate an adopted child into their culture, I think that's f*cking brilliant. It's amazing. For a lot of families, especially families that adopt children from outside of their culture, there is always going to be that separation because your child, whose identity is such a personal and particular journey, belongs to a group that you don't belong to with a rich history that you have no personal knowledge of, that you can never make your child feel they belong. That is such a lonely feeling, I think, on both sides. And so to have this part of your family that can integrate that for you, that's pretty amazing. I hope that's what we see from technology in the future. 

As a Black woman, everything I do is political. Who I choose to marry, who I choose to sleep with, who I choose to have a baby with, who I choose to be around, what I say, everything is political.

jodie turner-smith
As you were talking, I was thinking about the idea of passing down culture to children. I'm in an interracial relationship. We come from different cultures. I know you are too. If my husband and I ever have children, I think a lot about the importance of preserving my culture and passing that on. This movie brings up so many of those questions. Did it bring up those questions for you?
JTS: At the time of filming, it didn't. We filmed this in 2019. This was before baby. This was before marriage. And obviously my husband and I were dating each other at the time, but we hadn't necessarily gone down this path. It was interesting watching it at Cannes for the first time as a mother, and as a wife. Everyone is having this experience where they desperately want to understand what the meaning of being a human being is, and what it means to be connected with someone. To tell that story with a family that looks like the way that myself, Colin and Malea look, I think it's a way to say, ‘it's not about race.’ It really is a human story. It really is a story about connection, and how connection can be missed as well. 
When we talk about technology, the future, and how things are changing, we have to talk about social media. You are one of my favourite people to follow, not just because I like staring at your face, but because you also have a brilliant mind, and your tweets are hilarious. When you're thirsting after Joshua openly on Twitter or flirting on Instagram comments, I love that. Thirsty Jodie is my fave. 
JTS: You’re welcome. [Laughs] 
But I also know from being a Black woman on the internet that we deal with a lot of sh*t. And you're still pretty private, especially when it comes to your daughter. How do you decide what to share, what not to, and what boundaries do you set when it comes to social media?
JTS: The biggest boundary I set is I don't share photos of my daughter for multiple reasons. I was having this conversation the other day. We make these choices with the hope that we're making the right choice, for us, for our families, for our children. But we have no way of knowing it in maybe five, 10, 15 years, we'll see whether or not that was a good choice. When our child says to us, "Why didn't you ever do this?” But I feel the need to protect her from the world. I think anybody feels that for their child. And I think, for as long as I can shield her from social media, where there are a lot of people who are hurting and are desperate for connection, even if it's a negative connection, they will do that. As long as I can shield her from that, I have to try. Also, she's young, and she doesn't have her own agency and what is put out there about her. I don't want to take that from her.
I feel like I used to share so much of myself on the internet, and I had to learn to really pull it back because number one, as a Black woman, everything I do is political. Who I choose to marry, who I choose to sleep with, who I choose to have a baby with, who I choose to be around, what I say, everything is political. That makes people feel like they can speak to me in a certain way. It's that term “misogynoir,” which I know you're familiar with. And people don't even realise the extent to which they are anti-Black and anti-woman and anti-Black woman.
Obviously my husband and I, we do share certain things about ourselves, but I don't share as much as I used to just because I feel like the more people know who I am, the more it's necessary for me to protect things that mean a lot to me. A lot of people don't understand my relationship, and they don't understand the decisions that I make. Because I'm in the public, they feel like they're entitled to express their confusion with anger, vitriol, whatever. And for my own mental health, I have to make that impossible for them to do so. 

I am raising a biracial daughter... I want to raise her to have an understanding of white supremacy, of colorism, of how she benefits, of how she does not benefit, of how to have these kinds of conversations in a way that is really powerful and empowering.

jodie turner-smith
I see you setting those boundaries, and it's inspirational. Speaking of motherhood, let’s talk about Rihanna. 
JTS: Rihanna's pregnant! How amazing is that? I think she's going to be such a great mother. Anybody who is running their life that positions themself in such a way where they are trailblazing and opening doors, I think that person is going to be a great mother. And I'm so excited for her. I DMed her. I was like, “Baby girl, I know you have a huge support team, but if you need anything, I'm here for you, okay?” [Laughs]
Did she respond? I love this Black motherhood linkup. 
JTS: Yes! RiRi and I sometimes talk on DM. We're not besties, but yeah, it’s a Black motherhood linkup. I sent her a picture of my daughter. She's like, “Oh my God, what? Sis, you just had a baby 10 months ago?” I'm like, “Girl, it goes by really fast!” 
One of the reasons we are such fans of yours here at Unbothered is that you are constantly furthering a conversation that’s near and dear to us: colorism in Hollywood. Thandiwe Newton went viral recently for her thoughts on the subject and she named you specifically. What did you think of what she said? 
JTS: Listen, I love Thandiwe. She is actually the woman who inspired me to give birth at home. And I think that it's unfortunate that she chose this medium to work through what she's working through. She's talked about [colorism] many times. She's talked about what seeing me on screen means to her and so on and so forth. I think colourism hurts all of us, and we all have a lot of stuff to work on. [The video] was definitely something that I watched, because I just wanted to listen. At the end of the day, I am raising a biracial daughter. I'm raising a girl who does not look exactly like me, who is lighter than me. I want to figure out how I can raise her to have an understanding of white supremacy, of colourism, of how she benefits from that, of how she does not benefit from that, of how to have these kinds of conversations in a way that is really powerful and empowering. 
I think that obviously [Thandiwe] has a lot to say on the topic, and she has often said things that have come out much better than what she said that day. I felt her pain was real when she talked about her mother, even in a weird way, but the love that she has for her mother is genuine. I think there are bits that were very sincere, and we should definitely honour that. And then we should help her to identify the bits that are coming from a place that is actually not helpful in the conversation of fixing colourism. I hate to be that person who's like, “she has good intentions,” but I think that she is on a healing journey. She has a lot more healing to do, as we all do. And I think the best thing that we can do is really talk to her about how some of the things that she said were harmful and listen to the bits where she's obviously in pain. 

When I said, “This is how I've been perceived in life as a dark-skinned Black woman,” people literally told me that I was lying. So, you don't want to hear it from dark-skinned women. You don't want to hear it from light-skinned women. When do we get to have a conversation about it?

jodie turner-smith
I get it. People were mad about it. And I definitely cringed at certain bits that I was just like, oh, I don't think that was what you should have said there. But the other thing is, when you're doing these f*cking interviews, you're talking off the cuff and you're trying to express something that you have deep pain about… I'm telling you, only five times out of 10 times does it come out f*cking right, okay? It's really easy to f*cking just tear somebody to shreds, but she obviously needs to have a few more conversations with a person who can guide her through unpacking it all. That interview probably wasn't the place, but this teaches us that we need to keep talking about these things.
You’ve been talking about colourism for a long time and you’ve gotten a lot of pushback. 
JTS: When I did Queen & Slim and tried to talk about colourism, people told me to sit the f*ck down and that I didn't know what I was talking about and that I was lying. When I said, “This is how I've been perceived in life as a dark-skinned Black woman,” people literally told me that I was lying. So, you don't want to hear it from dark-skinned women. You don't want to hear it from light-skinned women. When do we get to have a conversation about it? Without people telling us to sit down and shut up? That shit that doesn't make sense. We need to have dialogue and say, ‘okay, this is what doesn't work, and this is what does work.’ And I think that a lot of times mixed-race people can have a certain naiveté when they talk about their experience in life. I think of Meghan Markle, when she went on Oprah and she was talking about how she didn’t know [how the Royal family would treat her]. And it's like, sis, what do you mean? She wasn’t aware of the experience that she was having because of her proximity to whiteness. She thought that because of that proximity to whiteness and being one of the “good Negroes,” they wouldn't treat her like that. And then she found out. You f*cked around and you found out when they treated you like you was as Black as me.
They absolutely did. 
JTS: Anyway, I can't wait for them to soundbite this and tear me to shreds on the f*cking internet. But here we go. My point is we have a lot to learn. We all just need to love each other and help each other figure it out.I think it's important for people who are mixed race and who are light-skinned to understand the role that they play in things. And I think it's important for us to just f*cking all love on each other and help each other out of this f*cking quagmire that is white supremacy and its effects.
This is why we love you so much. And why you're my bestie in my head. So sometimes we like to end our interviews with a “Don’t @ Me” where you basically get to go off on whatever you want and no one can say anything about it. Go! 
JTS: Euphoria! It's amazing. Shout out Eric Dane, killing it. Shout out to Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie. I don't know them but they’re so good. Zendaya! I'm obsessed with her. I just love the work that she's doing. And I was commenting about how amazing her performance is and how I felt like episode 5 was her best performance that she's ever done, and someone came in my comments, trying to [disagree] with me. Just celebrate the performance and go. I don't need to argue with you. If you don't agree, move on. That's the thing about the internet. Just keep it moving. Zendaya deserves another Emmy. Episode 5 was her best performance of all time as it should be, because she's growing as an actor from project to project. So your next project should always be better than the last one in my humble f*cking opinion. Don't at me! 
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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