Jurnee Smollett

Jurnee Smollett

A lot of actors joke that they have been in front of the camera since they were babies. Jurnee Smollett, who plays the levelheaded Lisa on CBS' "The Defenders," really has.

She had her first gig at 10 months old, modeling diapers. "My earliest memory is this commercial," for Pepsi, she says of being 3 and pulling on football great Joe Montana's collar.

Over the years, she has worked with Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington. She was 11 when she turned in a haunting performance with Samuel L. Jackson in "Eve's Bayou."

Though she has never taken a drama class, Smollett says she has learned much by being around great actors. "Being directed by him was a dream," she says of Washington, who directed her in the 2007 drama "The Great Debaters." "He has a big philosophy of searching for the truth and sometimes less is more. We would just talk about the character and the character's truth and things like that."

As for the truth of Lisa, the associate lawyer who worked as an exotic dancer to put herself through law school, Smollett says, "She is not always going to have the answers. She is still an associate, and up and coming. There are some mistakes she is going to make, and it will all be because of that young, excited energy a young attorney has, and you think you are going to change the world and right the wrongs and bring justice. She is going to realize you can't do certain things, and there are limits, and there is a little bit of a hard truth."

Among the hard truths Smollett has learned is that thousands of children 12 and under are heads of households in Africa, where AIDS has cut such a wide swath. She volunteers with Artists for a New South Africa.

"The whole mission is artists can bring voice to the voiceless," she says.