Ever since her 2019 breakout performance in Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim, Jodie Turner-Smith has carved out a place for herself within the worlds of film and fashion as a woman to watch. Her starring role as a lawyer turned outlaw was both boldly commanding and deeply vulnerable. It was a transformative moment in what has been a storied career: in her twenties Turner-Smith moved from Pittsburgh to LA, USA to work as a banker in a corporate firm, before quitting to become a model and then actor. Onscreen, Turner-Smith has a mesmeric presence. And off, her playful approach to style lights up every red carpet she graces. Last year she hosted the FashionAwards in London. Before that, she danced down the runway of Alessandro Michele’s SS22 Gucci Love Parade. 2023 is set to be a landmark year for the 36-year-old British actor. She has already appeared as a tenacious political reporter alongside Succession’s Brian Cox in The Independent. Next, she flexes her comedic muscles, joining rom-com icons Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in Murder Mystery 2 this summer, before starring in Star Wars spinoff The Acolyte.
In 2018, she met her now husband, actor Joshua Jackson. Inevitably they became one of Hollywood’s most-stalked couples, but Turner-Smith took the obsession in her stride. She became a mother in 2020, after a pregnancy that re-wrote every so-called maternity fashion rule, from golden gowns to crop tops that left her bare bump proudly on display.
She is a notably dexterous performer, and one of Turner-Smith’s most talked about roles came in 2021, when she made history by becoming the first Black actor to play the doomed Tudor queen, Anne Boleyn. Another actor who understands a thing or two about being a first is Ncuti Gatwa: this autumn he will step into the Tardis as the fifteenth Doctor Who – and the first Black Doctor. As Gatwa takes on one career-defining role, he leaves another. Netflix’s Sex Education was the show that catapulted him from rising actor to the big leagues (watch out for him in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie this summer). But before saying goodbye to his beloved character, Eric, the 30-year-old personally invited Jodie Turner-Smith to star in the fourth season, which will air later this year. While the world waits for that, ELLE reunited the friends, co-stars and actors of the moment over Zoom to discuss everything from nepo babies and imposter syndrome to the unadulterated joys of dressing up.
NCUTI: Jodie! I’m interviewing the big dog, the big G!
JODIE: The big homie! Are you in-between takes? I see you in your trailer.
NCUTI: I’m finished now. I was doing a promo day for Doctor Who, and as soon as it wrapped, I was like, ‘Get me to my trailer, give me a laptop. I’m interviewing Jodie and none of y’all gonna stop that…’ Jodie, we met almost a year ago. Was the first time we met at Critics’ Choice Awards?
JODIE: Yes, I was breezing past your table and I saw you and thought, ‘I have to tell him how much I love him.’
NCUTI: You did – you walked past me and whispered in my ear. I was so awe-struck that you even knew my name. I’d been absolutely shitting myself and you were so generous with your energy; it made me feel like I deserved to be in that room.
JODIE: It really touches me to hear thatI made even a moment of difference for you. I understand impostor syndrome. I find it to be so important to tell people how much they matter – to you, to the world, to whoever. When I was doing the Met Gala for the first time, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t ever want to do this.’ I didn’t feel good. You’re waiting to get onto the carpet, my shoes were hurting. I was not feeling the vibe. I remember there was this moment where my husband just took me by the hand and said, ‘You deserve to be here.’
NCUTI: That’s so beautiful. Speaking of the Met, every look that you do is iconic. That yellow gown…
JODIE: The yellow Gucci dress that I wore to the BAFTAs? Everyone remembers that dress, it permanently stores itself in everybody’s brain – mine included.
NCUTI: What is your relationship with fashion?
JODIE: I love to have fun! I think fashion is play, it’s costume: an opportunity for expression of self – or whatever self you happen to be in that particular moment.I am of the opinion that while I look like this, I’m gonna do all the crazy things with it that I can. There are certain things that I’m able to do and wear and get away with, and opportunities that being a young actor affords me. You want me to wear the clothes? Yes! They may not want me to wear the clothes forever…
NCUTI: Where did you get this ‘live in the moment’ mentality from?
JODIE: I have a mother who has such a beautiful spirit. In Jamaican culture there’s a sense of celebration in existence. That’s part of it, and I think there’s something in the way I was raised. We were poor, but I never really had a sense of it. I certainly wasn’t as poor as my mother when she was growing up, but when you come from not having anything, you want to grasp life with both arms.
NCUTI: Kedar [Williams-Stirling] from Sex Education has this quote – he always says, ‘Everything’s a moment in time.’I love when he says that because it’s like, everything is just a moment, so really grab it. Girl, I’ve seen you with your beautiful daughter, and you’re doing more than the best job…
JODIE: I love this little girl so much. She’s so funny. It’s a big job to prepare children for the world. The best thing that we can do is let them touch the earth and be grounded and real – as real as one can be when you have the level of privilege that obviously my child has. I’m not acting like she’s not a nepo baby. ButI worked damn hard to have a nepo baby!
NCUTI: The thing is – and I don’t know because I’m not raising any children– but from my experience with my mum, you won’t be able to protect her from everything, and that is what enables her strength.
JODIE: She is going to have a completely different experience in the world than I did, because I have given birth to a mixed-race girl. It’s interesting because I had a lot of resistance to becoming a mother and, throughout my life, I always said if I were to have children, I wanted to have Black, Black babies so thatI could affirm them as children with the love that I felt I needed to have been affirmed with by the outside world. Then I fell in love with my husband and we talked about having kids. To decide not to have a child with somebody you love, just because they’re white, was insane to me. But, at the same time, I did have this mini pause, where I was like, ‘She’s going to be walking through the world not only having an experience that I did not have, but looking like people that, in a way, I’d always felt a little bit tormented by.’ Now that I’ve got this little, tiny, light-skinned boss, I feel like it’s the universe teaching me lessons. I’ve been given a daughter who looks this way to heal my own conversations around colourism.
NCUTI: As a dark-skinned woman, in a society that is not always the kindest, how did you find your confidence?
JODIE: I was watching an old movie the other day, Stormy Weather  with Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. It’s an all Black cast, and there is not one single dark-skinned woman. Back then, it was OK to have a dark-skinned male lead, but the woman had to be light. That was what was held up as a kind of beauty. If it was a dark-skinned Black woman, then it’s a Mammy character, a desexualised character. For a longtime in entertainment any sort of dark-skinned figures were held up as unattractive. That has a huge effect on the zeitgeist and it trickles down.
NCUTI: It affects your sense of self-worth.
JODIE: Exactly! Because you’ve never seen anybody who looks like you held up as beautiful. That definitely affected my psyche. Anyone who has known me throughout my life would say, ‘Oh, Jodie has very high self-esteem.’ But it affected me, I just faked it till I made it. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to come into myself. For a long time, people would even say to me, ‘You’re so pretty…for a dark-skinned girl.’
NCUTI: You went from working in finance to modelling, a job that was defined by beauty standards. Mentally, what was going on for you?
JODIE: When I started modelling I went around to agencies, and they would belike, ‘We already have one Black girl and she’s mixed-race.’ That’s why I love Naomi Campbell, Iman and Bethann Hardison, how vocal they were about pushing this idea that the fashion industry was too white. Still [today] there are times where there are not a lot of Black models walking. What’s going on?
NCUTI: It definitely still feels like diversity is just a trend in the fashion industry. Let’s reflect the actual world we see! Beauty comes in all shapes, forms, sizes and colours. That’s what this industry should be about. Now, we have been talking about a lot of very serious topics. I want to talk about how flipping funny you are. I watched Murder Mystery 2 last night and I can’t believe that I don’t have you as a comedic actress in my head. I think because Queen & Slim was so monumental –
JODIE: So intense and serious.
NCUTI: People must have that vision of you. It was the most beautiful performance ever, but you have strings to your bow, and you have comedic chops for days! Are you enjoying getting more into comedy?
JODIE: I want to do everything. I feel like, why limit myself? Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler: when the two of them do their thing together, it’s so f*cking hysterical. I’m so proud of myself because I was cracking Adam and Jen up. I had so much fun, and let me just say, Jennifer Aniston is so cool.
NCUTI: I’m so glad you said that.
JODIE: She really is that girl, babe, she really is.
NCUTI: I get that impression from her too.
JODIE: And Adam Sandler is a G. They really know how to work. I mean, it was Paris and Hawaii, OK. Honey, the locations!
NCUTI: And I’ve been filming in minus temperatures in Wales. Jodie, I want to talk about Sex Education 4. It was a hard shoot for me, because there had been so many changes to the season. Then the producer comes in and asks me to text you to get you in. I remember thinking,‘If there is a world in which she says yes, I want to be in that world. So, f*ck it, I’m gonna text her.’ When I got this text back saying that you were keen, I was like, ‘This is wild!’ Then obviously you’re very busy – you were doing Star Wars, I started wondering if it was ever going to happen…
JODIE: And you were doing Doctor Who at the same time as well.
NCUTI: But we managed to get you!I can’t tell you how much you blessed us and you blessed me with your presence on that show. Those final scenes that we had together were so emotive – you had the crew crying! What you did to that script was pure magic. I will never not be grateful to you for coming on to the show. I got the chance to work with you– that was a dream come true.
JODIE: It’s so funny because we started this conversation off talking about imposter syndrome. No one is immune from that little voice, even me, so to hear you, an actor who I admire so much, speak so powerfully about how it felt to perform with me: that’s so affirming.There’s no harsher critic that we have than ourselves; I don’t think those thoughts ever go away, but I’ve made a conscious choice to not live in them for so long. I feel insecure, but I also feel secure and I choose to lean into feeling good about myself and lean onto the people in my life who affirm me.
Murder Mystery 2 is out on Netflix this month. Read Jodie Turner-Smith’s full interview in the May issue of ELLE, out March 30.