‘Lovecraft Country’ Star Jurnee Smollett and Creator Misha Green on Exploring America’s Darker History Through Monstrous Fantasy

For “Lovecraft Country” showrunner Misha Green and star Jurnee Smollett, you don’t need fangs and ooze to capture the real monsters of American history, but it definitely makes it more fun. Smollett stars in Green’s gothic and illuminating HBO series based on the strangely alluring novel by Matt Ruff. Set in the 1950s, the show follows the book’s premise of combining recent U.S. history with the hallucinatory creations of author H.P. Lovecraft. It is pop art as cultural subversion, using the creations of a notoriously racist author like Lovecraft to provide stunning allegories about racism in America, even as it works as a gruesome horror thriller.

Green, who has written for a variety of hit shows like “Heroes,” and is also the creator of the historical drama “Underground,” crafted the show with Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams as fellow collaborators. “When I write I don’t think of actors, I just think of characters,” Green told Entertainment Voice. “I go into that zone… it’s exciting for me. I’m a history buff. For me the book gives you a plethora of things. Matt’s beautiful novel had so many great points in it that it was like, ‘great, if I literally just do this, we win.’” The story of “Lovecraft Country” begins with Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Black American soldier who fought in Korea and devours pulp sci-fi fantasy novels, particularly those of H.P. Lovecraft. He comes back home to Chicago in search of his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), who has gone missing. Atticus does, however, find Montrose’s brother, his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance). Not only is George also a huge pulp buff, he also authors an important guide for Black Americans to travel safely through a country where Jim Crow laws and lynching culture at “sundown towns” are still an oppressive reality. A cryptic letter left by Montrose sets Atticus and George on a road trip, along with an old childhood friend of Atticus’s, Leti Lewis (Smollett). As they venture into the South, they encounter two sets of monsters, some from fantastical realms, taken straight from the pages of Lovecraft, and more dangerously, the racism that turns people into violent, horrific threats.

“History has all these fucking crazy stories,” said Green. “Like sundown towns. I’m a horror fan, if I made up a sundown town people would be like, ‘alright, we’ll watch it, but come on, all these signs around the U.S. telling people they can’t be there?’ The novel just gives you a beautiful place to jump off from and that is what I said when I went into the writer’s room. I said this is the platform. We gotta go to the stars and back. For me, the heart of Matt’s book, which is reclaiming this legacy that was not always meant for us, and excluded us, could be done for 10 episodes, and then another 10 episodes. There’s so much of this genre space to reclaim for people of color and not just Black people.”

“Misha’s writing is pretty sophisticated. There’s always room for collaboration, and there’s so much room to bring the character to life,” Smollett said to Entertainment Voice about taking on the role of Leti, who gives the series a fantastic, strong female center. “I think there’s a danger when the truth is distorted. It’s lethal. It’s been weaponized throughout our nation, when your history is rewritten, when your history is overlooked, when your history has been erased. What excites me so much about ‘Lovecraft,’ is it is this radical reimagining of the story. It’s centering Black voices in a genre that we’ve been shut out of for so long. Our characters go through irreversible change but in essence it’s this ancestral story of our characters going on a quest to bring down white supremacy. And we see in 2020 this nation still hasn’t healed. As Black Americans we’re still trying to bring down white supremacy. It’s for sure a meditation on where we are now, where we come from. In such a radical way it forces us to confront the ugliness of our past. But there is healing in confronting it. You can’t move forward unless you confront it and heal from it.”

“I was familiar with Lovecraft, I was familiar with his history as a person,” said Green. One of the show’s great achievements is in taking ghouls and creatures from Lovecraft’s imagination while turning them into potent symbols. Creatures will devour a band of racist sheriffs. An underground society obsessed with racial purity will engage in dark magic, someone will literally shed their skin for that of another. “I wasn’t bananas like other people get bananas. I thought they were good, and I could definitely read them and see the parts where he’s being racist. It was hard to divorce those two things when I could read horror that doesn’t have blatant racism right there in the text. So I didn’t feel any sacredness to H.P. Lovecraft when adapting this, although I always thought ‘Lovecraft Country’ was a dope ass title. But it goes back to what Matt was doing which was reclaiming it, and not saying we’re not going to honor your contributions to the genre, but we’re going to take that, and acknowledge who you were as a person as well, and move forward.”

For Smollett the true monsters in the shadow rarely come from fiction. “With the monsters, what you see is what you get, it’s pure danger, pure terror. You either outrun them and do whatever you can, or you’re screwed. With the systemic racism that this nation was built on, and that we are yet to dismantle, it’s more horrifying because it’s more nuanced, you have to fight it at every single step of your life.”

Lovecraft Country” season one premieres Aug. 16 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.