How Little Star Marsai Martin Took One "Dope Idea" and Made Hollywood History
"Now I know that I can do anything," the 14-year-old says.
At just 14 years old, Marsai Martin is officially making history. The Black-ish star serves as the youngest ever executive producer of a major Hollywood movie on Little, a comedy that follows a cutthroat mogul (played by Issa Rae) who magically transforms into a younger version of herself. Not only does Martin executive produce the film she also has a starring role and — best of all — the plot was entirely her idea.
“My parents would watch movies like Big and Freaky Friday, and I wanted to see that kind of story told from an African-American angle,” Martin recently told InStyle. “So I had the idea for Little, and then I told my parents and we all fleshed it out together. This was at the end of filming season one of Black-ish, and when we were shooting the finale, my dad — who’s also an executive producer — went up to [Black-ish creator] Kenya [Barris] to ask his opinion. He thought it was a dope idea, and we worked on the full-blown idea at a Waffle House or something, eating while we came up with the pitch. The rest is history.”
Granted, Martin had a good sounding board for her ideas given her work on Black-ish. But she was dreaming big long before she landed a part on the hit series. “My parents always told me I could do anything, so I never had limits on what I could or couldn't do,” she said. “Still, because of my age, I didn’t always believe that. No one ever said that I couldn't create my own projects, but no one actually told me that I could be an executive producer, either. I kept a lot of my ideas to myself because I honestly thought no one cared. So it was surprising to find out that people did! Now I know that I can do anything, and I want other people to feel the same.”
Since she was acting in Little, in theaters April 12, as well as executive producing (and simultaneously being home-schooled; more on that below), Martin had to strike the right balance between her two jobs on set. “I was mostly acting, playing little Jordan,” she says. “But sometimes I’d be called over and asked, ‘Marsai what do you think of this? What do you think of that? Do you want to do another take?’ We kept it like that mostly so I wouldn’t feel stressed out.” Ultimately, “It was an easy balance,” Martin said. “I used to do iMovies and record my Barbies when I was younger, so this was pretty much the same — just on another level.”
What Martin has accomplished at just 14 is certainly impressive. But she’s not ready to pat herself on the back for her successes just yet. “I like to think of it myself as being the first to lead a bunch of people [down this path] in the later future,” she said. “I’m just trying to be an inspiration for young girls, young boys, and adults, to show them that they can do anything at any age. That's what it's really all about.”
Martin’s ultimate goal? “To continue creating diverse and inclusive films,” she said. “I want everyone to feel whole and welcomed.” Keep reading for our full chat with the Little big shot.
InStyle: You have so much going on, work-wise. When you're at home, do you get to just be a regular kid?
I'm kind of like that all the time — not even just at home. I have all this stuff going on with this big old title, but I also have friends that I like to talk about my crushes with. I like hanging out with my little sister. I like to go swimming. When I’m with my family and friends, that’s the place where I can just be comfortable and safe with where I am.
Working in Hollywood, do you feel like you’ve had to grow up fast?
Not necessarily. A lot of people call me an old soul because I was very mature at a very young age. But I feel like I'm more mature now, after working with different types of people. I'm still a kid, but I do have to work and focus on my craft and stuff, which will make you more mature.
Are you still enrolled in school?
Yes! I am. I take 8th and 9th grade classes, so I'm both a middle schooler and a high schooler. I do three to five hours of school a day. A regular public school kid would do eight hours. Usually I have to work, so we’ll be done with a scene and I have to go back and do like an hour of school. And then when I’m done with that, I have to go back on set and do the next scene. In the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to figure that out, because I was a public-schooler at the time. So going from 20 people in my class to just me with a computer was kind of a big switch-up for me. I've been homeschooled for about four years now. And now that I'm 14, I'm kind of used to it.
Do you have friends your age in the industry who are also doing these major projects?
I definitely have friends throughout the industry, who are all really cool to hang with. We're all still regular kids; we just go to the mall and we visit each other. It's lots of fun with them. Those are friends that I can definitely relate to, because I know when I talk to them that they've been through the same situations. But my best friend is not in film at all. She's just like a regular public-schooler. And I'm glad to have her in my life, because she doesn't see me as like, “Marsai Martin, Big Old TV Star.” I always have her back and she always has mine.
What's the best advice that you've gotten from someone in the industry?
It’s been more about seeing how people are so down to earth. When I met Oprah — no big deal, we go way back! — but when I met her, we actually just talked about school and how I'm doing and how everyone is doing on set. It was actually very chill. I thought I was going to have to ask her a whole bunch of questions with like a journal and stuff when I met her, but no. Everyone is so down to earth and sweet. And of course with Tracee [Ellis Ross] and Yara [Shahidi], they're my family now. I've been with them basically for six years, so I just seem them as people who I love and am free to call whenever I have something on my mind that they can help me with.
Has there ever been a time where you felt like you struggled to be taken seriously because of your age?
I’ve definitely had those types of problems before — that's how Little came to be. It's not that I wasn't taken seriously; it's like I wasn't heard. I was limited because I'm just a kid. [People can treat you like] you don't know anything. But now that [Little is] going on, everyone listens. Everyone is all ears now! That's what I'm so grateful for. Now I'll be making an impact.
When do you feel most powerful?
When I say how I feel. I used to be very insecure — I still kind of am — but I'm more aware of my surroundings now and I’m more comfortable saying what I feel. I feel power in myself. When I’m in meeting rooms explaining to other people what my ideas are and what's going on, that's when I feel most empowered.
What’s your advice for other young girls out there?
Don't be afraid to do what you love. And don't be afraid to say what you feel. Your voice matters; you just have to have the courage and confidence to say it out loud. Let people hear your voice so they know what you're thinking about and what you want to do in the future. Just believe in yourself. I know everyone says that all the time, but it's true.
What is your biggest hope for your career going forward?
I’ve said this before, but I want to be a legend. And now, holding the title of being the youngest executive producer in history, that just means I'm getting up there. This is just the beginning.
Who are some legends you look up to?
Well Beyoncé, of course. Rihanna, Oprah, Jennifer Lawrence. People I've worked with for a long time. The people that I see doing amazing things and actually making an impact and making people happy. That's what we need in this world: love and positive energy everywhere. When I see people doing that, I’m like, “Oh yeah! Follow.”
What, in your mind, makes them legends?
They're confident in themselves and they're not afraid to do anything. They are just following their passion in something that they love to do, and it actually shows. Just having a good heart and still being sweet and kind. It doesn't matter how famous or popular they get; they're still them in their heart. That's what I admire.
What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
I haven't done a lot of crazy things in my life, these past 14 years. But a long time ago, when we were shooting a Disney World episode, I believe, I didn't want to ride on Tower of Terror. I was like, “Nah, I'm good on that!” And my mom said, “You can do it. You literally go to Disneyland and Disney World all the time and go on every single ride except this one.” I ended up doing it, and after that, I felt like I could do anything. Over the next few months, we went to six flags and I rode every single ride just because I rode Tower of Terror. It opened a lot of doors for me. So that was probably the bravest thing I've done.