Justice Smith Is on a "Sex Trip"
Justice Smith is on the brink of becoming a household name. The 25-year-old Anaheim, Calif. native has starred in some of today's highest-grossing modern blockbusters: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) ($1.3B), Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) ($434M), Paper Towns (2015) ($85M). The fact that Smith is also Black and queer does not define who he is as an artist, but is exciting given how few like him are represented in mainstream media (the Lil Nas X of it all not withstanding). Yet many of the most financially successful roles Smith has been cast in so far don't really give the actor the opportunity to dig into complicated material - gawking at CGI action fantasmas is fun and all, but those films underutilize the nuanced layers Smith is capable of bringing to the screen. That is, until Genera+ion.
The HBO Max half-hour dramedy, created and written by Zelda Barnz, now 19, and her father, Daniel Barnz, follows a group of Orange County high school students living in the present day, navigating issues as varied as identity, sex, alcohol, pregnancy, and witchcraft. Lena Dunham serves as an executive producer, and her trademark raw, unfiltered wit resonates throughout the first eight episodes, which first premiered March 11 and are currently available to stream on HBO Max.
The series opens with a tracking shot of a young Black boy's bare shoulders: Smith struts across a crowded campus and into the guidance counselor's office to receive a dress code violation. He plays Chester, and from that first saunter it's clear this character has zero fucks to give, and isn't afraid to crash the cis-tem at any and all costs. (You just know he would have wanted a Symone/Gottmik tie on this past season of Drag Race.) It's a trope we've seen before - the proud, flamboyant gay kid - yet Smith's take on the role offers something decidedly fresh. There's a wisdom and a world-weariness behind his monologues about showing butt cheek through ripped denim.
"I get to play this incredibly nuanced and complicated guy who is so deep, yet so extroverted, which is something that I think is rare in television," Smith explains over Zoom from Belfast, where he's currently shooting the new Dungeons & Dragons movie alongside Chris Pine. "We always assume the kid who doodles in the back of the class is so deep and profound and writes poetry and ... wow. But the kid who's loud and out and in your face is: 'Oh, they're shallow, they're two dimensional.' No, that guy can be just as profound as the poet. If not more! Because he wants to be seen. He is all these layers, and he puts them out there for consumption."
While most young queer characters in television tend to struggle with owning their sexuality, drawing on a deep pit of insecurity to charge their performances, Chester is extremely self-assured. In the pilot episode, he does a strip tease for the drooling student body in the middle of campus. "I remember being like, 'Don't you fucking breathe. Hold your breath. Flex all your muscles. Smile!'" Smith recounts. "But on the inside I was melting." Over the course of production, Smith learned invaluable lessons from Chester by inhabiting his spirit. One profound takeaway was the ownership of his physicality: "As the show went on, I was like, 'I want to show every inch of my body. This is pure liberation for me. Pure catharsis.'"
Chester has deep pain, too, but it's not because he's worried about blowjobs. His internal struggle stems from a fundamental desire for authenticity, to be seen, to rid his life of bullshit. There's an incredible speech the character gives in this first batch of episodes (another several will drop on HBO Max later this summer) during a school lockdown. Reacting to his classmates' ignorance, their microaggressions, their basic taste in pop music, he blows a fuse. One line from that speech stuck with me: "Why is life always a lowest common denominator compromise?" I asked Smith about it, and about tapping into the overwhelming queer rage this character clearly feels. He responded: "Queer rage is dope as fuck. I love it. It's great. It's important … All those combinations of Chester being like 'I'm not in control. I refuse to be this Black, queer person and have all my control stripped away from me. That is something I set out to defy.' That's where queer rage comes into play."
It has been implied in previous interviews that despite the many similarities on paper he has with his character: Black, queer, an Anaheim native growing up in a conservative community, Smith feels distinct from the person he's portraying onscreen. Lately, he's been considering that divergence, or lack thereof: "A lot of young actors will say this thing where 'Oh, I'm so different from all the characters I've played.' Because they want people to validate their work. Which I understand, because there's this weird phenomenon that happens when people watch your artistry, and they're like: 'That's you!' No, I did so much work. Please see it. Please validate it. So I get that. And I did that." Moving forward, Smith wants to clarify his connection to who he's playing: "We don't dress the same" - Smith still experiments with fashion but often takes a more subtle approach than Chester's mesmerizing power clashing - "but Chester has inspired me to play with my own wardrobe. We don't talk the same. But all my characters are who I am if I had those circumstances. So Chester is me, but in a different set of circumstances."
Speaking with Justice, his intelligence and passion for his craft radiate from him like shimmering heat waves. He came out as queer online last summer, but is quick to unpack that phrasing: "I don't really like the term 'coming out' because when I knew, the people that I loved knew. I think that 'coming out' is a term that puts the onus on the person who the assumption was built around, which I think is unfair. I invited people into my space."
With this project in particular, it's clear the role has cracked him open spiritually and as a person. But he makes an important clarification about what Chester has taught him. "It was implied that Chester helped me own my sexuality, my queerness, and I was like, 'No, that's not what I'm saying. Chester is so much more than his queerness in that he is unapologetic in his pursuit of the truth.' He's unapologetic in his rejection of social mores, he's like 'Fuck sheeple.'"
"[Chester's] fulfillment from life comes from being a bold individual and those are the things I learned to stand in - literally in my truth," he continues.. "He taught me how to respect the way that I look. And see the artistry in that. There's so much authenticity to Chester outside of his queerness. Transcendent of his queerness, that he taught me to own."
Smith realized he had a knack for storytelling from an early age. Or, as he puts it: "I was a really good liar as a kid." He's also always loved writing - he recently penned and released a gorgeous single, "Bed," an experimental, moody pop vibe - and grew up experimenting with visual art. But acting ended up becoming his focus. After a string of smaller projects, he had his big breakout as the lead role, Zeke, on Baz Luhrmann's Bronx-set Netflix musical series The Get Down. Of the experience, Smith recalls: "[It was] the first time that I experienced using my body and my art to tell someone else's story, versus expressing something deep within me. Because there was such a large gap that I had to bridge between me and Zeke. It was transformative."
Superstardom didn't come overnight after that, but several blockbuster film roles would follow, in addition to stage work, such as Yen, opposite Lucas Hedges, for which Smith received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.
Moving into the future, Smith has an exciting slate. Another Jurassic film is on the horizon, in addition to the aforementioned all-but-guaranteed box office smash Dungeons & Dragons. He'd like to do some more period pieces. Most interesting to me is The Voyeurs, currently in post-production and set for release later this year, billed as an "erotic thriller" and co-starring Euphoria's Sydney Sweeney. Of this project, Smith gushes: "[it] was an amazing experience." Between The Voyeurs and Genera+ion, Smith declares, "I'm on a sex trip! I want to do more sex stuff!" If there's any frontrunner takeaway Smith has had from his experience in this role, it feels like an ownership of his sensuality.
"A psychic once told me that my sexuality is my power," Smith recalls. "Not my sexual orientation. But my sexuality."
Read on as Smith discusses The Fray, cinnamon bagels, and hot villains.
What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
Watch TV, usually something mind-numbing. Something I've seen before. I can't fall asleep to something I haven't seen because I'll stay up and watch stuff from my past. Like, I watch the first two seasons of Spongebob. Or I'll watch reruns of The Office.
Bowser, purely for aesthetics.
Six favorite Pokemon?
Totodile. Gengar. Snorlax. I'm going to go Charizard. I'm going to go traditional: Blastoise. Diglett.
First album you ever owned?
How To Save A Life, by The Fray.
We're close in age. If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why?
Can I say a really self-righteous answer? I would probably give it to charity. G.L.I.T.S. Inc.
If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?
I don't know what I'm doing, but neither do you.
Name one place you've never been but have always wanted to go?
Nagoya, Japan. It's where my parents met.
What's the most uncomfortable outfit you've ever worn?
One of my very first photoshoots was for Interview magazine. Basically, it was my first photoshoot ever, and I was like, 'I'm doing the cover of Interview magazine?!' My publicist was like, 'No. You're doing a small photo inside.' Oh, oh, OK. Cool. I did this photoshoot. It was a really cool photoshoot, but they put me in this sheer top that was so itchy. It looked great!
Favorite joke? Tell it.
I bought these shoes from a drug dealer recently. The only thing was, I don't know what he laced them with and I've been tripping all day.
Favorite Chris? Pine, Pratt, Evans, or Hemsworth. You can also say another.
I need to work with two more and then I'll have bingo.
Are you picking a favorite, or is that your answer?
That's my answer.
Last time you cried?
I did this spiritual healer thing a couple weeks ago. It was just getting the gunk at the bottom of the barrel, you know? A good, full cry. It was great.
Last question: favorite bagel?
This is going to be my longest answer. So, one of my favorite things is a tuna sandwich with lettuce and tomato, on a cinnamon raisin bagel. It's really good. Don't fucking judge me.
I'm not, because Cynthia Nixon does the same kind of shit! You're in good company.
That makes me happy. It's so good. The only thing is I'm vegan now, so I don't have an alternative to tuna. I need a tuna alternative. But yeah, cinnamon raisin. But I really like all bagels.
Genera+ion season 1: part 2 will launch June 17 on HBO Max.
Photographer: Tawni Bannister; Production: Kelly Chiello and Erin Glover; Booking: Isabel Jones; Special thanks to Polaroid.