Wonderland.

JUSTICE SMITH

The star of Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down and Netflix’s All the Bright Places reflects on his fast-rising career.

Justice Smith The Get Down

All clothing FILA

Justice Smith The Get Down
All clothing FILA

Taken from the Spring 2020 issue of Wonderland. Order your copy of the issue now.

Set to star in the film adaption of young adult novel All the Bright Places this February, the rising actor reflects on his craft, representation and telling essential narratives on screen.

Many actors can pinpoint the exact moment or age where the lightbulb flickered; the astute realisation that this thing was more than just a hobby, and something they would want to do for the rest of their lives. For Justice Smith, the young star of Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Netflix’s upcoming All the Bright Places, there was no such precision, no specific moment of clarity. “I was an observant child,” he tells me from LA. “I had a fascination with studying human behaviour in order to appear more normal myself. I also loved pretending, lying, and was always creating characters, voices, and stories. I was jealous of the kids I saw on TV because they got to play this game on the biggest stage.” Growing up in the peaceful Los Angeles suburb of Anaheim, Smith came from a performative background — both his parents singers — who were dedicated to letting their son pursue his knack for creativity and performance. “They never pressured me to pursue anything else,” he explains. “My mum worked four jobs in order to take care of my sister and I, and pay for what we needed to follow our dreams.” Though acting was always “a passion more than it was a prospective career,” for Smith, he extolls the opportunity his success has given him to repay his parents’ belief in him: “It was after I started working that I realised it was a job. It was something I could use to take care of my family.” Smith’s first big break came in 2016, with Baz Luhrmann and Netflix’s period tale of hip-hop, The Get Down, in which he was cast as the lead role: Zeke. He looks back on this period as a powerful and necessary dose of confidence, that catalysed his subsequent rapid progression in the industry. “When I auditioned for the show, I didn’t have much faith in myself,” he recalls, “so not only getting the role, but playing the lead in this story that was so important to the cultural zeitgeist, serving the vision of an incredibly gifted director, and taking my first steps in what it meant to transform into a person who was vastly different from myself […] expanded my own ideas of what I’m capable of and what I’m meant to achieve in my career.”

Justice Smith Fila
Justice Smith Fila

All clothing FILA

Justice Smith Fila
All clothing FILA
Justice Smith Fila

Fascinatingly for an actor still relatively early in his career, Smith took the decision to introduce strains of method acting into his process, using Zeke’s voice and dialect, engaging in certain behaviours and reading his favourite books on set in order to immerse himself in the character. Method acting has long been a contentious topic in the industry and Smith is quick to qualify his decision to somewhat embark on that process: “Sometimes I feel gross for using the word ‘method’. It feels competitive to me. As if actors are trying to prove something to each other or to audiences about how much they would sacrifice for their craft. But if it doesn’t come across in the final product, what is it all for?” This considered position clearly served the young actor well; his performance throughout the show is stellar, utterly believable, and put him on the map for a host of exciting future projects. The latest of these is also a Netflix project: the Brett Haley-directed, Liz Hannah-adapted film version of the young adult novel All the Bright Places, which he stars in opposite Elle Fanning. The film dwells in a genre and setting which has been seen many, many times before, boasting all the ingredients of a stereotypical YA project: high-school setting, lovestruck protagonists, and so on. However, through the sharpness and originality of the direction, writing and acting, the film manages to achieve a smart and unique edge, something which Smith tells me was a focus in the filming process: “Brett had told me from the beginning that, although this was based off of a YA book, it was not his intention to make a YA film in the traditional sense. He wanted to tell a story about humanity, that just so happened to focus on young people. That was important to me.”

Justice Smith
Justice Smith

All clothing FILA

Justice Smith
All clothing FILA
Justice Smith

Smith praises Haley’s willingness to allow room for organic improvisation, and this is one of the film’s greatest assets, with sharp lines like Smith’s sarcastic retort to his teacher that “my young brain is plump with knowledge” testament to the refreshingly nonclichéd dialogue throughout. “That’s actually a line I improvised,” he muses. “A good script definitely makes my job easier, but what’s more important to me is a director who allows for flexibility on set.” The film deals with the issue of mental health in a sensitive and mature manner, the staggeringly human relationship between Smith and Fanning — whose talent he lauds as “absolutely stunning” — communicating the nuances of coping, companionship and romance deftly. “It’s difficult to make movies that inspire conversation about serious issues such as mental health,” Smith ruminates. “People will always assume that the film is all-encompassing or is trying to represent something objective. But I hope that this film will simply be another voice in the larger conversation and people will take away how important it is to destigmatise the topic as a whole, so people do not feel they have to suffer alone. That they can be open about what they are going through and reach out without shame or judgement. That trying to overcome something in isolation isn’t a sign of strength.” For someone so early in their career, Smith’s franchise work so far is impressive, having starred in the Jurassic World series as well as Pokémon, and I ask him how important the casting of minority actors in these traditionally white spaces is for the improvement of an industry which has for too long been reserved for white men. “Actors of colour have proven time and time again that they are profitable,” he says, “which seems to be the main argument against including actors of colour in blockbuster films. On a sublevel, I find as a biracial actor I want to help normalise interracial families in pop media as much as I can.” Smith explains that, despite not being overtly political, he sees his very presence in such projects, and the success that they bring, as political statements in and of themselves: “The most radical thing I can do in my own life, as a marginalised person, is be as unapologetically happy and fulfilled as I can be in the face of people who don’t want me to be.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to put responsibility on people with platforms to solve all the world’s problems,” he continues, explaining: “I once had an interviewer ask me what I thought certain communities who were facing threats from an active volcano should do, which I thought was an unguided question for a 24-year-old who plays pretend for a living. But it also highlighted for me how desperate we are as a society for answers in the face of tragedy. How we make heroes out of the people we idolise for non-heroic things. I think once we start giving the platforms to the people who commit their lives to finding the answers, we will feel more at ease.”

Photography
Lili Peper
Fashion
Trudy Nelson
Words
Francesco Loy Bell
Grooming
Kiki Heikotter at TMG LA
Production
Federica Barletta
Special thanks
Mel's Drive In Sunset Blvd.
JUSTICE SMITH