(L-R) Top Row: Kevin Kennedy Executive Producer/Creator/Writer; Carol Mendelsohn Executive Producer; Greg Walker Executive Producer/Showrunner; Bottom Row - Jurnee Smollett; Jerry O'Connell at a TCA panel for "The Defenders" in Los Angeles ( July 28, 2010)

*At the pre-pubescent age of 11, actress Jurnee Smollet was already receiving critical acclaim for her breakout appearance in “Eve’s Bayou,” where she played the title character and held her own opposite screen veterans Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield and Debbi Morgan.

Thirteen years and dozens of child roles later, the soon-to-be 24-year-old will debut this fall as a grown-ass woman in the new CBS legal drama “The Defenders,” about a pair of Las Vegas defense attorneys “who go all-in when it comes to representing their clients,” the network notes.

Jurnee Smollett as Lisa Tyler in "The Defenders"

Smollett plays Lisa Tyler, a young lawyer whose naïve ideals are shattered by the behavior of her bosses Nick Morelli and Pete Kaczmarek, played by Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell, respectively.

“She’s fresh out of law school, just passed the bar, hired by the Morelli & Kaczmarek firm and comes in thinking that we are going to do things by the book: ‘This is what I learned in law school, and this is how the courtroom is supposed to be run,'” Smollett told TV critics at the recent CBS Press Tour (pictured at top). “But, she’s with these two characters, and they are, like, ‘Toss that away. This is not how we do things.’ And we just hit the ground running.”

While “The Defenders” will film in Los Angeles with occasional exterior shots in Vegas, Smollett’s previous TV role – a cheerleader on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” – had her shooting mostly in the dusty football fields of rural Austin, Texas…and under circumstances that were not ideal.

“We were constantly in the field, getting bit by mosquitoes, and dealing with 106-degree heat,” she says.

Jurnee Smollett (R) with Jerry O'Connell (L), Tanya Fischer and Jim Belushi in a scene from "The Defenders"

For “The Defenders,” premiering Sept. 23 at 10 p.m., Smollett says the welcome change of scenery is only part of her overall transition from playing a high school student to suiting up as a young professional.

“For my own personal process, I had to do a lot of research and just dive in to what it’s actually like to be an attorney, and what it’s like to go through law school,” says Smollett. “I’m incredibly excited to take on this challenge because it’s definitely a stretch, you know, but it’s stimulating.

“And working with these guys, it’s so great because it’s just fun. We have so much fun on the set. It’s almost criminal.”

  • Look for Jurnee Smollett to join Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, Macy Gray and others in Tyler Perry’s next film, “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.”

Below, a trailer for “The Defenders” and an interview with Smollett alongside co-star Tanya Fischer.