'Lovecraft Country' blends sci-fi, horror, Black cast as the most American of stories

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Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett in HBO's "Lovecraft Country."
Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in a scene from "Lovecraft Country." "It's one of the most American stories I've ever seen," Majors says of the series. (Eli Joshua Ade / HBO)

Misha Green has spent most of the last five years bringing Black stories to the small screen, first as co-creator of runaway slave series "Underground" and more recently as the brains behind HBO sci-fi/horror series "Lovecraft Country." But at the moment, the writer-producer finds herself ensconced in her parents' Sacramento home. Taking a break from writing the "Tomb Raider" sequel, Green joins cast members Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, in separate interviews, to discuss their slyly subversive "Lovecraft Country." Based on Matt Ruff's 2016 book of the same name, the show places seven major Black characters front and center in genres that have historically sidelined people of color.

"I've been a fan of horror and action and thrillers since I was a kid, so it was easy to go into all of those genre spaces," Green says. "I was like: 'Is it going to feel cooler and different with Black people?' Yeah, it is! All these old clichés feel great when I get to watch them with Black people. Not just because you're putting Black faces in front of the camera, but also because you're telling the stories from Black perspectives. I remember when the first trailer came out, people were going, 'Oh, my God, the show's all Black!' To me, it's kind of crazy that we're calling this something new, but here we are."

Green responded to Ruff's novel in part because it made no effort to excuse fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft's well-documented racism. She says, "I loved that Matt's book says: 'Let's not pretend that these people weren't huge racists.' This horror world that H.P. Lovecraft built came out of his existential dread of the other, which were not monsters but people of color." "Lovecraft Country," initially set in 1955 Chicago, dramatizes a very different point of view, Green observes. "For Black people, the real world is just as scary as the horror world. With 'Lovecraft Country,' we're telling a story about generational trauma and Black life in America, and then we put all the monsters on top of that."

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country."
Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country." (Elizabeth Morris/HBO)

Series opener "Sundown," for example, tracks the heroes' road trip through small-town America as it turns nightmarish at the hands of racist cops. The journey unfolds as a naturalistic Jim Crow-era misadventure until 57 minutes into the story, when a multi-eyed, razor-toothed "Shoggoth" freak makes its terrifying entrance. "Our characters have been going further and further into this heart of darkness so that by the time the monster shows up, you're almost like, 'Whew, thank you, man, we don't want to live as Black people in America, we just want some monsters!'" Green says. "I mean, if you were watching a genre movie and someone said a certain person couldn't be in this town after dark or you'd be hunted down, you'd go, 'OK, you're making this up to tell a horror story, right?' But no, these things really happened to Black people."

For actress Jurnee Smollett, who'd worked with Green on "Underground," getting into character as "Lovecraft Country's" high-spirited but privately troubled Letitia Lewis proved challenging, as expected. "I'm drawn to Misha's stories, because she forces you, as an artist, to become untamed, unbound," says Smollett, back in L.A. after filming "Escape From Spiderhead" with Chris Hemsworth in Australia. "If anything's blocked, it's going to be a waste of your time if you try to hang on to those blocks. That was true of 'Underground,' and it's true in 'Lovecraft Country.' It's incredibly freeing to work in an environment where your captain says, 'I want you to sit in your discomfort and use it and lean into it.'"

Courtney B. Vance, left, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country"
Courtney B. Vance, left, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country." (Eli Joshua Ade/HBO)

Smollett had plenty to lean into while filming "Lovecraft Country"'s third episode "Holy Ghost." After Smollett's Letitia buys a big haunted house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood, she discovers a burning cross on her frontyard. Smollett knows the feeling. "When I was a kid, we were the only Black and Jewish family in the neighborhood," she recalls. "The morning of the Million Man March, we found a dead fish on our lawn. Inside, we felt safe, but the second we stepped outdoors, we were at risk for some sort of harassment. I witnessed my mother being called the N-word. I saw our car being keyed. Soda cans were thrown at me and my siblings when we'd go jogging. Leti already feels displacement — being stolen people brought to stolen land, that's inherent to Black people's DNA. But then by moving into an all-white neighborhood, it only compounds those emotions, which I obviously relate to myself."

On the show, Smollett's Letitia reacts by smashing her assailants' car windows with a baseball bat. "Unfortunately, as it so often plays out in real life, Leti's the one who's arrested, and the people who put the cross on her lawn go free," Smollett says. "So I had a lot of rage that I channeled for that particular scene. I remember we only had two takes, because they only had two sets of car windows, and that gave me an incredible amount of adrenaline. I didn't even realize I'd gashed one of my hands against the glass and it was dripping blood. The adrenaline was so strong I didn't feel it."

If Smollett arrived in "Lovecraft Country" fully tethered to both her showrunner and her character, costar Majors experienced more of a slow-burn approach in developing Atticus Freeman, the brooding Korean War veteran and science-fiction fan whose quest drives much of the show's action. Majors, a Yale School of Drama graduate, prepared for his audition while shooting "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

He says, "The aspects of Atticus that the material called for were, primarily, his solitude. His hero's journey. His intellect. His muscularity. At the same, he's filled with all these things: the history of his father, of Chicago, the history of his mother having passed away. And there's also this mystique that Atticus has going for him because he's a stranger. Hero-stranger was the archetype that he had going for him. Atticus is delving into that stranger, delving into the unknown parts of oneself. Over the course of 10 episodes, we learn something about him, and conversely, I learned something about myself."

Creator Misha Green on the set of "Lovecraft Country."
Creator Misha Green on the set of "Lovecraft Country." (Eli Joshua Ade/HBO)

Majors, speaking from Georgia where he's filming the Korean War movie "Devotion," came to appreciate the full scope of "Lovecraft Country" only after he landed the job. "I had no idea who Misha Green was when I auditioned," says Major, who filmed "Da 5 Bloods" for Spike Lee in between the "Lovecraft Country" pilot episode and the series' subsequent eight-month shoot. "It wasn't until I got the job that I started to understand that Misha's a visionary and a revolutionary, and she can also be very tough, which you need on set when you're shooting at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Describing as "gladiatorial" a sequence in which Atticus turns a roomful of bigots to stone and sprints out of an evil wizard's mansion only to discover that his beloved uncle has died, Majors regards "Lovecraft Country" as a daunting endeavor that yielded rare fruit. "I don't watch much TV, but this show has broken out of the ghetto of Black cinema that our industry has placed us in," he says. "Because, with all due respect, we didn't do 'Roots.' But we also didn't do 'Harry Potter.' Misha took two, three, four, five genres and melded them together to make 'Lovecraft Country.' It's one of the most American stories I've ever seen."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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