Just Let Justice Smith Play Hamlet Already
2nd April 2021

Though 25-year-old Justice Smith may not be a household name just yet, he’s probably a familiar face. You may recognize him as Zeke in Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix hip-hop epic The Get Down. He costarred with Ryan Reynolds in Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and is part of the Jurassic World franchise. He’ll even be in the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons film. But still, the star of HBO Max’s Generation (styled Genera+ion) notes, “I feel like every role that I’ve done is my breakout role. Every single role that I do, they’re like, ‘A newcomer!’”

Some would be bothered by the assumption. But Smith sees it as an advantage. “I’m like, ‘Okay, so I’ll just be a newcomer forever,’” he says. “It means that I have a clean slate every single time.”

In his latest reintroduction, Smith plays Chester, a rebel in a crop top who’s notorious for breaking school dress codes with revealing outfits and ever-changing hair colors. He’s just one of the diverse set of actors on the new teen dramedy that explores coming of age, modern sexuality, navigating the intricacies and messiness that come with it, and finding solace in each other within their conservative community. It’s a role unlike any role he’s ever played.

Here, Smith tells us about landing the part and what lies ahead for him.

How did you get your start in the industry?

The acting bug bit me young. Does the acting bug bite? [Laughs.] I don’t know, but I wanted to be an actor from a very, very young age, like as far back as I can remember. And it was because I was just very interested in human behavior. I was just a really observational kid, and I was fascinated with the ways that people would laugh, or cry, or the melodies in which they spoke.

And I also got really obsessed with lying at a young age. How do you make someone believe you, that what you’re saying is true, and how do you convince yourself of something that is true. I’m now not a very good liar, which is good, but that was kind of how I fell in love with it. It’s just that childlike need to play pretend. I just knew it was what I had to do with my life. I did my first professional commercial when I was 15.

We’re skipping ahead a little in your career trajectory, but how did you land the role of Zeke on The Get Down?

I remember I got Get Down because it had the same casting director as Paper Towns, which was the first movie that I ever did. And she called me in for this part. And I was like, “I’m not going to get this. I know nothing about hip-hop. I don’t know how to rap.” Part of the auditioning was rapping. And I was like, “I guess I’ll rap Biggie Smalls.” I taught myself the song “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls. And I dressed how I thought the character would dress, or at least a modern version of the character because it was set in the ’70s.

And I went in and because I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because I knew I wasn’t going to get it, I just had so much fun. And the next thing I know, I’m flying out to New York and I’m meeting with Baz [Luhrmann], and I’m doing a mix-and-match with a bunch of other kids.

When I got the part, I didn’t even realize that it was the lead part. I remember I was in an acting class trying to prepare for shooting, and someone in that acting class was like, “Oh, I’m friends with a producer on the show,” or something like that.

I was like, “Oh, cool.” And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the lead guy.” And I was like, “Oh, no, I’m one of the guys.” And then he was like, “No, they said that you were the main guy.” And I was like, “Oh, shit! Really?” I was so taken aback. Did that put pressure on me? I don’t know. But it definitely was a surprise.

Okay, so tell me about the casting process for Generation.

I originally auditioned for the guidance counselor, Sam, who was a much older part at the time. And I remember the audition scene was the scene from the pilot, which was slightly different. And I was like, “This Chester part is cool, but I know this guy. Like, they’re going to find the guy. I know so many people who are like Chester in real life.”

And I auditioned for the guidance counselor. They were like, “Oh, we’re actually looking for someone else.”

I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.”

And my friend was like, “You should go in for Chester.”

I was like, “Nah, I don’t really want to play.” I was trying not to play 17 anymore. I was really trying to look at older roles and stuff. And I was like, “Also, I know they’re going to find the guy, it’s fine.” But my friend kind of convinced me. And I was like, “Okay, sure I’ll go in.”

And the minute I went in, I was just like, “Oh, this is amazing, because I have so much to draw upon, because I know these people. I know how to play this. And this is so much fun and unlike anything I’ve ever done before.” And it just kind of was born from there. The next thing I knew, I got the call that I got it. And I was like, “I want to dye my hair blonde! I got to get into the fitting room.” And then ever since, it’s just been this amazing, magical experience.

I love your hair on the show. You’ve said that your personal aesthetic is “tired dad,” but you seem like such a fashion guy.

Yeah. It’s because Chester has kind of opened me up and made me incorporate new aesthetics into my own personal life. I still really like vintage and tired-dad kind of looks, but Chester has just introduced me to this whole world. A lot of the research I did for the part was watching almost every season of America’s Next Top Model and actually every single season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and All Stars, and the international seasons. I watched every single episode—except Season 1, but that was because they didn’t really find their footing yet.

Anyways, after watching all of that, I kind of really started to form an aesthetic for Chester. Our costume designer, Shirley Kurata, is incredible and can pull all these amazing pieces. But I’m very vocal in the wardrobe room, because I’m like, “These clothes are an expression of who he is.”

When you first read the script, did it feel like a diverse and authentic portrayal of queer youth culture?

Yeah. I’m from Anaheim—and the show takes place in Anaheim—and it felt very true to that kind of culture. I know so many people like Greta, Nathan, Chester and other characters on the show.

It also felt very authentic to queerness, and young queerness, and young queers of color and how they interact with one another, but also to Generation Z. That’s really what we’re trying to showcase: the way sexuality is dealt with in this new generation. I think it’s like 50 percent of Generation Z identifies as LGBTQ. [Editor’s note: Nearly 16 percent of Gen Zers identify as LGBT, and more than half of LGBT adults, 54.6 percent, identify as bisexual.]

These characters have problems around their sexuality, but it’s not the age old, like, “Oh, I’m so sad because I’m gay, and that’s sad.” It’s like, “No, these people are, like, open, fluid, and exploring and dealing with what it means to be in love, and what it means to have sex, and all that kind of stuff.” And that feels very authentic to teens today.

What is your dream role?

I really want to do a period piece, or some sort of serious drama. I really want to play Hamlet before I get too old, because I’ve seen amazing Hamlets, but they’re all guys in their 40s, and Hamlet is [younger]. I want to play a young, 19-year-old Hamlet. So hopefully that happens. What’s another dream role? I really want to play a villain. I really want to be in a horror movie. I love horror movies. I want to be killing someone or getting killed, or doing something crazy and gory and bloody. That’d be fun.

I have problems with the idea of “making it,” because it signifies an end. And I think that I have so much more to do.

Do you have a dream collaborator?

I created a list of all these people that I want to work with. Off the top of my head, I really want to work with Paul Thomas Anderson. And I really want to work with Jordan Peele, that’s kind of in the horror zeitgeist. There are young actors I want to work with like Olivia Cooke, Dominique Fishback, and Geraldine Viswanathan.

Do you feel like you’ve “made it” at this point? What does making it in the industry look like to you?

I have goals in life, but those goals are more milestones. On the flip side, I feel like I have made it in a sense that I’m getting to do what I love to do. This is what I set out to do from a young age. I wanted to be an actor. That was my one goal, and I’m doing that. I’m providing for my family, and that I think is invaluable. So in that sense, I feel like I’ve made it. But I also think I have problems with the idea of “making it,” because it signifies an end. And I think that I have so much more to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Images courtesy of Justice Smith and HBO Max. Design by Ingrid Frahm.

Source: Read Full Article