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justice smith: the laterals magazine


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Justice Smith is cultivating a singular career. He was notably the breakout star from Netflix's big budget hip-hop musical The Get Down. It was set in the Bronx of the 1970's, following the origins of hip-hop music and the culture it embodied. Unfortunately, the series was never able to capture the zeitgeist of director and de facto show runner Baz Luhrmann. Despite its short run, the series was able to manifest its ambition through its outstanding soundscape. And of course, Justice Smith. His immersion into the leading role was fascinating to watch, grounded in an undeniable charm that's taken him beyond the world of streaming and into the multiplex.

A homegrown star with worldwide endeavors, Justice joined Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom alongside Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. With all of the reverence fans have for this franchise, he seemed to achieve the impossible with a performance that was larger than any of the dinosaurs' enormity. He balanced a comedic effect with deep empathy and a disarming physicality that was exceptionally seamless. Justice continues by taking his craft even further into the fantastical with the live action film Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. Ryan Reynolds voices the electric Pikachu while Justice takes the reins as Tim Goodman, a former Pokémon trainer in search of his missing father.

As Justice continues to develop his portfolio of work, his range proves to be ambitious. He took the stage in an Off-Broadway production of The Mother. Later this year, we can look forward to watching him in the unconventional romantic drama All The Bright Places with Elle Fanning. Unlike other teen movies, the couple doesn't connect at the school Homecoming dance or in chemistry class. The two find each other at the ledge of a building, both contemplating suicide. As its title suggest, the two are able to uncover the world's potential within themselves and each other.

With everything he has accomplished in the last few years, Justice Smith is undeniably a star. And yet, he's just getting started.

Thanks for chatting with us, Justice. The last couple years have been huge for you. Is this what you imagined it to look like when you dreamt about the dream coming true?

I have been very fortunate to find the relative success I have, but the dream was just to be an actor. So the dream came true the moment I stepped on my first set.

Tell us what inspired you to want to pursue this craft. Was there a "moment" for you that put everything into motion?

I had an active imagination as a kid, and I loved watching people. I felt very abnormal so I would watch people for examples on how to be normal and imitate them. Then, I fell in love with the melodies in which people spoke, their idiosyncrasies, the way they expressed themselves emotionally, and that helped me discover my own identity. Once I realized I had an undying urge to express is when I found my love for acting. Luckily, I grew up in a creative household (both my parents were singers) so I felt supported to pursue it as a vocation rather than a passion.

Of course, most people recognize you from your breakout role on The Get Down. What was it like working on this fantastic show?

The Get Down was incredible. It was my first time leading anything (apart from small community theater plays), in addition to my first time playing a character very different from me. It was also the first time I realized that acting wasn't just about expressing yourself, it was also about storytelling and being in service of another person's narrative. It was difficult, but Baz is an amazing captain, and it was worth it in the end.

It must have been so much fun working with Chris Pratt and the rest of the cast on Jurassic World. Share with us one of your favorite behind-the-scenes moments.

J.A. Bayona, our director, would prank me all the time on set. I was playing someone incredibly high strung and on edge so J.A. would find ways to authentically scare me so he could get the reaction he wanted. Such as playing roars over the loudspeaker or having things explode without me knowing. It was a lot of fun.

We are so excited about POKEMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU. Were you a fan growing up? Also, what was it like working in animation?

I was a big fan of Pokémon growing up. Pokémon Gold was the first game I got on Gameboy color and I had all the original cards. My sister, Cameo, and I would play together and make up the rules because we were too lazy to read them. Working with the animation was easier than expected because I had some practice working with CGI characters on Jurassic. Although it was slightly different since all I had to do was run away screaming, and in Pokémon, I actually have to talk with them.

You did theatre in an Off-Broadway production of The Mother. Tell us more about this project and what it's like to perform live in front of an audience.

I just finished doing The Mother with Isabelle Huppert at the Atlantic Theater a week ago. It was incredibly educational. I learned a lot about acting from her. I always learn a lot when I do theater that I carry with me on to film sets, but she is a titanic talent. So I set out to absorb as much as I could from her. Performing in front of an audience is always more grounding. There's also something attractive to me about putting on a show that won't be memorialized forever in history, the way that film and television is. Once you put something on camera, it's permanent. But theater is only captured by the people who come see it. It's only for them and no one else. There's something beautiful about that.

You've pretty much done it all at a very young age: action-adventure, drama, musical, animation, theatre, etc. Is there anything you would like to try next (soap opera, horror, western)?

I would love to do a horror film. My main focus right now is playing an antagonist or a villain. I find that all my characters have a sensitivity to them, and I would love to explore someone insensitive.

As someone of African-American, Italian and French-Canadian descent, what are your thoughts on representation in the industry?

Being biracial is complicated. I'm not remiss to the privileges it has unfairly awarded me. And although I am not perfect, I am trying to make a career of only playing biracial characters for two reasons. One, because there is a pervasive favoring of light skin and biracial people for roles meant for dark skin/monoracial people. And I think once we explore more actively the nuances of the black experience and black stories (and have diversity of thought behind the camera), that will happen less. I do not fault the actors. I fault the larger Hollywood system that still views blackness as monolithic and thinks any black actor can play any black role. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong about it (since it is an actor’s job to bridge the gap between their character and them). I just think we can't exist outside of our current racial context. And Two, in the same way that all my characters at their base are male, I feel like all my characters at their base should be biracial. And then from there, let them be messy, or empathetic, or crude, or spoiled. I want to focus on the work rather than the implications of my casting.

If you weren't working in this industry, what do you imagine yourself doing?

I always wanted to be an actor and I never had a "back-up" so to speak. If I weren't working, I'd probably find an improv theater somewhere or be in an acting class. It's what I love to do more than anything. It's my first love.

In your next project you star alongside Elle Fanning in All The Bright Places. Tell us all about it.

It is a love story between two people who feel trapped by their mental strife and try to guide each other out of the darkness. Brett Haley, our director, is amazing and really understands how to talk to actors.