Jurnee Smollett is in full mama bear mode in film "Lou."
She plays Hannah, a single mother whose daughter, Vee, is kidnapped in the middle of a storm. Her landlord, Lou (Allison Janney), helps Hannah find Vee by embarking on a grueling journey through the woods.
The thriller premieres on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 23.
Smollett, an executive producer on the movie, has a five-year-old son with musician Josiah Bell. She told TODAY that her character's "mama bear spirit" is "very familiar" for her.
"There's just something that happens, or happened to me, when I became a mom. My priorities just entirely shifted in life. It sounds like a cliché, but it is absolutely an accurate description to say that it is as if your heart is living outside your body when you become a mom. Or that's been my experience. The fear and the vulnerability and all that comes is very real. And this sense of just wanting to protect your little cubs," she said.
The 35-year-old "Lovecraft Country" star said her experience with motherhood informed part of her approach to playing Hannah. But the other part, Hannah being a domestic violence survivor, was an experience she researched.
"I spent a lot of time trying to research that aspect of it because women who are survivors of domestic violence, oftentimes in society, are judged as being weak. It's something I just wholeheartedly disagree with. It is not a sign of weakness," she said.
That viewpoint is at the center of clashes between Lou and Hannah, which Smollett said was not originally part of the script.
"Through my research, we were able to layer in a little more context and an accuracy about Hannah’s backstory," she said.
To research the role, Smollett visited Los Angeles at Jenesse Center, a treatment center for domestic abuse survivors. She said her time there was eye-opening, with details making their way into the character.
“Karen Earl, who founded it years ago — I mean, she’s doing God’s work — she was so amazing in my research process, and really gave me access to the facility but also the experts and the counselors and the lawyers. I was able to speak with some of the survivors and got a real intimate, firsthand account on what it is like to leave, to have that courage, and what it actually takes to to make that decision,” she said.
The movie also explores what it means to be a mother, a conversation Smollett said is urgent.
“Society doesn’t really hold space for the very different shapes, colors and hues of womanhood. Not everyone is supposed to be a mother. Not everyone wants to be a mother. And that choice, while it’s a part of the subplot (of 'Lou'), it is an interesting dialogue to have, and one that I feel is very relevant for our time," she said.
In terms of their approach to motherhood, Smolett said Lou and Hannah are "very different women."
"They come from very different backgrounds. Hannah has devoted her whole life to her daughter. Lou's the complete opposite. She’s devoted her whole life to her country and to her sense of duty. I think there’s an initial judgment that they have towards each other for each other’s very different choices in life," she said.
"Lou" ends with a plot twist that sets up a sequel. Smollett did not deny the possibility.
"Without giving too much away, I think Lou is such a fascinating story," she said. "It's really about the right pieces coming together. I had such an incredible time collaborating with (producer) JJ Abrams and Bad Robot and Hannah Minghella. They brought me on as an executive producer, and it was my first time, and I learned so much from JJ and the whole team.
"I would trust if they felt there was more story to tell," she said.
Smollett knows fans would also like to see her reprise her role in "Lovecraft Country," a popular and critically acclaimed HBO show that blended history and horror, which was canceled after one season.
"I know, I know," Smollett said sadly when asked about the cancellation. "That was a special one."
The show was created by Misha Green, and Smollett said there's more to come from the two of them.
"Misha and I have a lot of exciting projects that we are collaborating on. So luckily, that won't be the end of our collaboration," she said.