Dinah Laurel Lance has had many iterations on the small screen, but there's never been a portrayal of everyone's favourite Black Canary quite like Jurnee Smollett-Bell's in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). The Underground actress takes on the role of DC's famed vigilante with the supernatural cry and adds a tortured soul and songstress spin that adds to her air of danger. "When we meet Dinah in the film, she hasn't become the Black Canary that we know her to be," Smollett-Bell explained to POPSUGAR during a chat about the film over the phone. "At this point she's working for the devil."
That devil happens to be Ewan McGregor's hilariously ridiculous Roman Sionis aka the Black Mask. While the notably unstable villain is a right menace throughout the film, he has a soft spot for his lounge singer, which leads to a chaotic series of events resulting in Dinah landing right into the path of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Birds of Prey. While the role is almost completely different from Smollett-Bell's previous work, it sounds like it might be one of her favourites! Read on to find out exactly how insane that iconic carousel scene was to film and who Smollett-Bell would love to see put on the green tights as Green Arrow one day.
POPSUGAR: This is the first time Dinah's depicted on the big screen, what do you want fans to come away with after seeing the film?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Oh man, we tried to capture the essence of Dinah Lance from the comic books as a street fighter raised in Gotham, the daughter of a crime fighter. When we meet Dinah in the film, she hasn't become the Black Canary that we know her to be — at this point she's working for the devil. She's working at Roman Sionis's Black Mask nightclub as a lounge singer, and because she lost her mother to crime-fighting she wants nothing to do with cleaning up Gotham. She's just trying to survive. She's not thriving and is going against her nature, because the Dinah Lance in the comics is the one who's all hard with a high moral compass, and in the film, she's not willing to own her power yet.
She's kept it a secret but she just keeps getting sucked into this meta world more and more. And because Roman was the only person who took care of her after her mother died, she has this false sense of loyalty to him. But she really has to go on a path of owning her true power, not apologising for who she is, and truly owning her true potential in spite of her loyalty to him.
PS: Love that! How does it feel to be the woman to play her big film debut?
"The beautiful thing about the DC universe is there are so many origin stories for the characters . . . I felt an incredible amount of freedom to make her my own."
JSB: It's an honour! She was written over 70 years ago and the Black Canary is one of the most iconic characters in the DC universe. So it was an honour to be the vessel through which she was brought to film. When I first met Dinah, I was playing the Injustice 2 video game and didn't know this film was being made, or anything like that. I would keep going back to Black Canary for her Canary cry and I would always annoy my opponents because they couldn't really do anything to stop me. So when I was cast, I dove into the comics and just fell in love with her. She's got this mix of vulnerability and strength that was interesting for me as an actor.
PS: And it's the first time she's portrayed by a Black woman. What was your thought process when you got the role and were you nervous about the reaction to your casting at all?
JSB: Nah, I wasn't nervous at all. I just put blinders on and approached it no differently than I would approach any other character I'm portraying. For me, it's just my job to do justice to the character, to serve the script, to serve the character, to serve the source material. I felt very confident that as long as I approached it the same way I would approach any character — and that's to do your homework, give it your all, and make it your own — I could trust my instincts on it. For me, the beautiful thing about the DC universe is that there are so many origin stories for the characters and there are so many interpretations that you could have of these characters. I felt an incredible amount of freedom to make her my own.
PS: That's amazing, I love that attitude! One of the things I enjoyed about the film was the action sequences because they were so seamless and really beautiful and vicious at the same time. I have always appreciated watching a woman kick ass. What was the fight training like?
JSB: Well, I trained for over five months total, about two and a half months before we started shooting and three months while we were shooting. I was squeezing it in during lunch breaks and between takes. I had a personal trainer, Jeanette Jenkins, that I worked with on the side when I wasn't working with the stunt team, and completely changed my diet. It was very strict because I had to put on muscles and it was important to physically transform into Black Canary because that lifestyle changes your entire swag, your posture, your walk, your approach to life.
When you are a martial artist you have a completely different outlook on life and it was gruelling to push my body that hard. But it was necessary to do justice as Black Canary because she's one of the most iconic street fighters in the DC universe, male or female. And in the comic books she's trained by Wild Cat, the same trainer for Batman, so we all know it's no joke what she's capable of doing. I definitely had some high standards for myself.
PS: One of the greatest scenes in the movie was when all the women got together to protect Cassandra. I thought it was such an essential part of the film because that's when they come together as the Birds of Prey. What was it like to film with the other women and what was one of your favourite scenes?
JSB: One of my favourite scenes for sure was the carousel scene. It was also probably one of the most inhumane scenes to shoot because [director] Cathy [Yan] had very ambitious ideas on how to shoot it. She wanted to shoot it in a very long continuous take and Oners. And that meant you've got dozens of stunt performers and us actors approaching it all together. It was like a ballet, and if one person messed up, we were all screwed. We ended up having to do it over and over for a few days and we shot it with French hours, which means you don't take lunch.
PS: Oh, wow.
"It forced us all to be our best selves because we're part of a group of people who are determined to be great."
JSB: Yeah [laughs]. But it was great because there was this moment where Cathy came to us at the end of the second day, like during hour 11 and I'm just pumping energy drinks and water and everyone's in pain. She comes to us saying, "Ladies, I'm so sorry. We got to do it again." And it was at that moment where we all clocked each other to see if anyone was going to quit. Because if you're not going to quit then I'm not going to give myself a choice to quit. And it was so great because everyone was pushing themselves to do their best and it forced us all to be our best selves because we're part of a group of people who are determined to be great. And we just felt incredibly bonded at that moment.
PS: Okay, I love and respect that energy. And you can clearly see it come through in the film! So, what would you like to see if the Birds of Prey get another film?
JSB: Oh, I think there's a wealth of potential! Having read so many of the comics, several fascinating characters come in and out of the group and interact with the Birds. I think one of the most essential members is Oracle and I would love to see how they would connect with other characters. I could see them working with the Gotham City Sirens. And of course, there's such a great history between Black Canary and Green Arrow that I loved in the comics. It's obviously up to DC to decide all that — we don't get a say in any of this — but I think there is a wealth of potential there.
PS: Honestly, all that would be awesome to see. Do you have a dream actor you would love to play opposite if they did bring Green Arrow in?
JSB: Oh my God, the question no one has asked me yet! There are so many. Oh my goodness, I don't know. I mean, it really depends on what kind of movie you're making. I've seen a lot of suggestions from the fans and I love so many of their thoughts, but I think it depends on which Green Arrow and what story we're telling if we were going to being Green Arrow to the big screen.
PS: That is a perfect, diplomatic answer.
JSB: Girl [laughs].
PS: You basically just said, "Don't try to get me in trouble with anyone, okay!" [Laughs.] Okay, so one last question. If you could portray any other character in the film, who would it be and why?
JSB: Honestly, you're not going to get me to give up Dinah Lance. That's just never going to happen.
PS: I respect that!
JSB: I'd be going kicking and screaming. There are so many characters in the film that I just adore on and off-screen — I just loved working with Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] and what she did with Huntress, and I have a total crush on her. But I can't imagine anyone else in these roles. I think that's just what happens when you spend so much time in your character and their skin and then looking into the eyes of the other characters. You just don't see anyone else.