Justice Smith Almost Lost Himself in The Get Down

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New York Magazine | Justice Smith Photo by Bryan Derballa Photo: Bryan Derballa
Justice Smith Almost Lost Himself in The Get Down
The 21-year-old actor on the challenges of method acting, his short-lived experience on Nickelodeon, and why it’s hard to book roles as a biracial actor.
Photograph by Bryan Derballa
Justice Smith, photographed at The Bowery Hotel.

“I had a rat in my apartment last night,” Justice Smith tells me as he orders an iced green tea. “I watched it on top of the microwave jump and crawl down the broomstick like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.” The cashier and I are horrified. I ask him if he’s sure that it was a rat, and not a mouse. “No, it was a rat,” he says firmly. “It was a baby rat, but it wasn't a mouse. It had a rat tail.” Smith, who just turned 21 years old, lives alone in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he moved after he learned that he had gotten the part as Ezekiel Figueroa, the lead in Netflix’s hip-hop epic The Get Down.

Smith is a bright and energetic presence — a tall tangle of limbs and curls. He’s a quintessential Leo, he tells me, which makes him “self-oriented” but “not necessarily selfish.” He comes from a big family of eight brothers and sisters (he’s smack dab in the middle), and both his parents nurtured his desire to become an actor at an early age. To play Zeke, Justice says he was interested in method acting, and would stay in character so much so that at times he was scared he was losing himself.  “There were days I would just go home and bawl,” Justice says, “because the lines get blurred and you're like, What is me and what is the character? Am I really like this or is that just him?” We talked for a while, discussing his process on The Get Down as well as the difficulties of going out for auditions as a biracial actor, and the time Nickelodeon ghosted on him.

Both of your parents are singers. Did you get into musical history before you started The Get Down?
Growing up, because my parents were singers, I never felt the opportunity to just sing in the car to a song I liked without my mom being like, “Breathe through your diaphragm. Where's your tone?” That pushed me off singing. Both my parents did it. Especially because my parents were competitive singers, that competition dragged over into our family life, with my dad in the car, with all my siblings. Whoever could hit the highest note or whoever could sing the best, my dad would congratulate them. It got really competitive, maybe because I'm a competitive person. Maybe it wasn't necessarily an external thing; it was something that was coming from inside but that pushed me off of music and singing. I always loved it and I always experienced it indirectly because I went to their shows and absorbed their vocal warm-ups and their lessons. Any musical talent I exhibit in the show is indirect.

What attracted you to Ezekiel Figueroa in The Get Down?
I had just come from Paper Towns, where I played this nerdy, upper middle class character, and I was like, “I want to do something different.” That's what drew me to it. I did [the audition] and I got a callback and I met [show creator] Baz Luhrmann. He had a really clear vision. I booked it and I screamed. I was really happy I booked it, but I was happier because it meant I was good. It meant I was doing it right.

What was it like working with Baz?
When I met him, he's just this force of nature. This artistic being. It comes across immediately. I can connect to this guy on an artistic level. This is not a superficial discussion we're having. There's something deeper happening here. Then he explained to us his vision, he showed us his storyboard and we got into the minds and the emotions of the characters. He egged us on to debate with him about our own characters' journey. He gave us the opportunity to find some autonomy in the character, which is a godsend for an actor because you want to have that say. You want to be able to voice when you don't think something fits in the arc of your story. That was at the callback. We hadn't even booked the gigs yet and he was already saying, Argue with me.

[As a kid], I learned how to lie and I was like, The art of deception is also an art.

Did you feel it was like school in some ways? It seems like you had to absorb a lot.
Yeah, that's how I approached it because my number-one concern was that I wasn't going to be cool enough. I was like, Oh God, I'm not cool at all. How am I going to rap on screen? Then I was thought, Oh, I know. I'm good at research. I'm good at studying things and then applying it. I just watched all these documentaries and I listened to all this music and tried to copy it to a tee, and that's how I found my in. With rap, because Zeke has to do a lot of poetry, the way I connected with that was because I had done Shakespeare and Greek plays. That was my nerdy way to get into hip-hop.

What were you reading?
They provided us with books about the time period and about the culture, and I said, “No.” Zeke is not going to read history books about his own time period. He's going to read these books that he likes. So I was like, “Give me books that he would read.” I would read them on set as well because, well, if this is his favorite book then I'm going to read it when I'm playing him. I read Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, and then Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver. I read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, which is one of my favorite books now. I read this one book that I made Zeke’s favorite book, which is Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. In that book, it's about this kid from the 1940s I believe. He's a dark-skinned Puerto Rican who gets racially profiled as black constantly. He's growing up in Harlem during that time period and he talks about growing up in the ghetto. In the book he talks about when you're walking in the streets you have to adopt this concept called "cara palo," which means stone face. That was one of the main things I played with Zeke, is having this deep well of emotion but trying to mask it with his subtleties and with trying to be expressionless, which was a challenge because I grew up in a very expressive family. Zeke still has that passion, but I was never taught that it was not okay to cry. I was never taught that it was not okay to say what you feel and how you feel and just address things immediately instead of holding them in. With Zeke I had to try to be as cara palo as possible.

That sounds like an intense process. Were there particularly difficult scenes to shoot?
The whole process was difficult because it was the first time I felt as an actor I was escaping myself rather than expressing myself. This is maybe too much information, but we had period underwear, so I would strip completely down and start with the underwear. I would already have my hair done, and then as I'm getting dressed as Zeke, I become Zeke. As soon as I got into costume I would be in dialect and in voice the entire 16 hours we were on set and I did that every single day because I felt it wouldn't be genuine otherwise. I didn't know that that actually is a burden on your soul because when you're acting like someone else, you push yourself to the side. It's basically a form of repression and it builds up. You're just like, “I want to come out but I can't.” It's awful and then there were days I would just go home and bawl because — I'm flustered even talking about it — the lines get blurred and you're like, What is me and what is the character? Am I really like this or is that just him? Once you get some separation from it you realize who you are again. You always come back to yourself because you can't change who you are. You can only do it temporarily. In the moment it's scary. To the point where there were some days I felt I wasn't fully in it because I was afraid to go all the way. My biggest fear was, What if I don't come back? What if I don't return to who I am?

Photo: Bryan Derballa

How would you bring yourself back?
Listen to music that I like that was not hip-hop, or watch movies that I liked or wear clothes that I would wear. But because we had such long days and because I would get there at six in the morning, leave at like two in the morning, go to bed, wake up, and then go back to set, I didn't really have time to really return to myself. It takes a while. There were even moments where I would hang out with my friends on the weekends and I couldn't help but talk like Zeke. I would hear certain vowel changes coming through, or I would use certain grammar that he would use, and I'm like, That's not me, why am I doing that right now? It's a really hard job, but I'm so grateful for it. I feel like I'm coming into my own. This is what has saved my life on multiple occasions, acting — what's gotten me through very hard times was, well, at least I get to act. It's the one thing I hold dearest to my heart, so if it hurts and if it's a struggle, I'm willing to do it because I owe my life to it.

You stay in character?
Yeah. I'm really interested in the method — I would like to grow into one of those actors who are able to live fully in a character. I do that with this part, but I would like to take it further. I'm just trying to do that in this age where method acting is used as a marketing tool rather than an actual method. So I'm just trying to find the authenticity and the genuineness in the method rather than doing it for some lavish, superficial benefit. I almost didn't talk about how I stayed in voice on set because I didn't want people to know.

I have problems with method, because sometimes it's just an excuse to be an asshole. Like Jared Leto. And Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favorite actors, but I've heard stories about him being not so nice to the crew because he wants to really be immersed in the character. I try to find a good balance where I can be nice, professional, but I can also do my job, which is live this person's life and live this moment authentically. In between takes, usually people know when I'm being silent that means I don't really want to talk. Sometimes I will have to just be short with people and they understand that. Other times I'm like, “Hey, hey! What's up man? How's it going?” so it kind of counter balances it and I don't just come across as a dick.

There was a moment between takes for one scene where I was bawling and I was talking to myself. The director came over and said, “You want to stay there for a little bit?” I just didn't hear it, but then you remove yourself and you're like, Oh, shit. I was being a crazy person.

I have problems with method acting, because sometimes it’s just an excuse to be an asshole.

Well, you're just in it.
Yeah. But it's weird because film and TV is really business-oriented and very technical. Acting has evolved into this stand there and say your line kind of thing, so when actors who have been trained, who have their own processes, come in and start doing these really absurd things that if you were to do in public would be crazy, it's kind of jarring. The cameramen are like, What the freak is he doing? Then it usually pays off in the product. But our cameramen were great. They knew when it's a somber scene, they would keep their voice down. If they needed me to move over a little, they would say, Justice, can you move over, very solemn. When it's a fun scene, they're fun. Our cameramen were just as much artists as we were, which we were very grateful to have. It's this cycle of people supporting each other's craft and trying to do their best work. If I'm over here really trying to craft this moment then that inspires this cameraman to think, What can I do? I can do something creative with the camera right now. It's a never-ending cycle of collaboration which is ideal.

When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
At a very young age I was writing stories and scripts. I was always artistic and I was always encouraged to be artistic, because my parents are artists. I loved making people laugh. I remember watching this thing on HBO Kids — kids shooting short films and then acting in them. I was like, I want to do that. Then I learned how to lie and I was like, The art of deception is also an art. At a young age I thought, This is how I can convince people to do things.

What was a lie that you told?
I never told my mom this one story junior year of high school, where I was in history class and I was bored and I was like, I'm just going to leave. So I packed up my stuff 30 minutes before class ended and I left. I went to the auditorium and I played piano because I wanted to relax and be by myself, because I loved being by myself. The lunch bell rings and some students from my class run up to me and are like, “Mrs. Combs is so mad at you. She knows you left. We checked all the bathrooms, you weren't in any of the bathrooms.” I was like, “I got a text from my mom during class that we got evicted.” Not true. Then I went to Mrs. Combs and I put myself in full tears, crying on command. “My mom sent me this text during this class that we're being evicted.” She's like, “I don't know what mother would do that. Why would she text you during class?” She gave me a big hug. She said, “Just tell me next time, I'm here for you.” I got out of it and I didn't get in trouble but I made myself believe for that moment that we were getting evicted enough to make myself cry. It was always this weird ability to self-deceive that I had a natural talent for.

I saw that one of your first big breaks was a Nickelodeon show called The Thundermans. What was that like?
Whenever I auditioned for Nickelodeon or Disney, I was always against it because I was like, I don't know how to do that. I booked it and on set I felt super-insecure because all of these kids. Nickelodeon acting and Disney acting, especially on those teen shows, it's its own medium. I didn't know how to fit into that medium. All these kids were regulars and they had been doing it for two or three seasons. I'm coming in like, How do I connect to this character? That wasn't what it was about. It was more, how do you hit this beat to get the laugh with a studio audience?

I played the drummer in the kid's band who was kind of dumb. I did two episodes and then they replaced me with this foreign guy from Sweden who's the drummer now on the show. They didn't tell me or anything. I saw on Instagram and I texted my friend who was also in the band with me in the show and he was like, Yeah, there's a new drummer here. Where are you? I didn't get any call. They didn't tell my agents or anything. It was crazy.

They just ghosted on you.
Yeah, they did. They really did. But then I booked Paper Towns like a week after. I was like, Fuck you. Great. Cool. I cried because I'm a crier. I was really happy because, shit, this is a big fucking movie, and I have a pretty significant part in it.

Have you ever felt that your race was an inhibiting factor in getting roles?
Oh, absolutely. Most of the time. Especially because I'm mixed it's a lot more difficult because I'm not black enough for the black roles, and I'm not white enough for the white roles. Which is why this was a great role because it's a mixed character. In part two we address that. I thought that was great because that's something that's hard to explain to people in my own life. As a mixed kid, people want to categorize you as one thing or the other, and I'm proud to be black and I'm proud to be white, because I'm both of those things. I'm a biracial human being. I'm not one or the other. People will try to compartmentalize your characteristics, like you dance well because you're black, but then you talk like that because you're white. It's like No. I talk and act and dance and do this stuff because that's me. That's Justice. That's how I was raised. That's how my environment was. There are no biological characteristics that comes with race. We're not a monolith.

A lot of roles would come my way that were written for black actors and it would always say things like "addressing his dark skin" and I'm like, well, I don't have dark skin. That's why I wanted to do this project so much because I got a lot of roles like that in the beginning where all the roles for black actors take place in the ghetto and they all talk in African-American Vernacular English. They're all talking about race relations and the struggle, or there are a lot of roles that are thugs and gangsters, which is fine because that's part of the black experience, but if that's all that we're making and that's all that we're creating, then that's all the mass of people are going to see us as, which is why we need to create diverse roles for diverse people and not just have "Oh, well I have diversity in my show because I have this black guy.”

Because I’m mixed, I’m not black enough for the black roles, and I’m not white enough for the white roles.

And The Get Down felt different.
I like this show because it's set in an urban context and it's about urban life and it's about the ghetto, but the characters are not monolithic. We have an array of people of color and they're all different types of people. Ra Ra is not the same as Boo Boo is not the same as Shaolin Fantastic. Books is a very sensitive; he cries and you don't really see that often in narratives about urban life. I would get sent out for a lot of black roles that I don't connect to. I actually connect to this white role, and they'd be like, “We can't send you in for that.” When I walk in the room for these black roles they laugh at me because I'm this light-skinned biracial dude walking in the room, talking the way that I talk, and they're like, “Why is he here?” I've walked in the room and the casters have said, You're so cute. I'm like, I didn't get this role. Or I'll be right for the role, but I'm not dark enough. If that's happening then why can't I also be sent out for these white roles? My agent would always say, we know you're not the right skin color for this, but there's no hurt in going out for this role because casting directors can see your abilities. That makes a lot of sense to me, but why can't you send me out for the white roles as well? If they're not going to cast me regardless, at least they can see that I can act and I can portray this character.

Do you feel like that's changing?
Yeah, absolutely. I would not be booking anything in the '70s. Even the '80s, '90s. I would be booking one type of role over and over and over again. I'm able to play the upper middle class nerd in Paper Towns and then I'm able to play the half Puerto Rican, half black poet-turned-rapper growing up in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Any other decade of cinema I don't think I would be able to be a young person of color taking on diverse roles. Even the scripts that I'm reading now are really good. You still get a lot of the stereotypical ones, which are fine because there are people like that. It's not that we need to eradicate those stories. I am starting to see more narratives that address the individuality of people of color and not necessarily these preestablished stereotypes.

A lot of that has to do with giving people of color creative control to make the shows they want to make.
Like what Matt Damon said, when you're talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the script, not the casting of the show. The only black female on the panel was like, “Okay.” And now he's doing that movie about the Great Wall of China. I read what Constance Wu wrote about it, and it was great. It was true. She's also a great actress. It sucks because when you're a person of color in the industry, you have to be an activist. You can't just be known for your abilities. White actors have the privilege of never addressing race, of never addressing what's going on in the world and just focusing on what it means to be an actor. When you're a person of color most of the roles you're going to play address race, address social constructs, and even if you don't play those roles, people are going to ask, “Did you hear about Ferguson? Did you hear about this? What is your opinion on that?” Because you're a person of color. They will never ask a white actor that. I just think it's important to acknowledge their abilities as an artist and not just acknowledge their abilities as an activist.

Photo: Bryan Derballa

Were your parents politically minded? Did you grow up with that sort of influence, and would you consider yourself politically minded?
No, my mom is Canadian. She knows nothing about American politics. She was in an interracial relationship with my dad. She experienced barely any discrimination based off that. She saw some that my dad experienced, but it wasn't really a thing. My dad is a proud black man. He always talks about civil rights and his own experiences with racism, which are fucked-up stories, but it’s mostly from his own experiences. It kind of gets into conspiracy theories, and I'm like, Dad, no. Not everything was created by black people.

When I was younger I was very light-skinned, even more light-skinned than I am now. I was racially ambiguous so I wasn't really treated one way or the other. As I started coming into my features more, I remember kids treating me different. The schools I went to were very diverse: black, Latinos, and Asians, and whites. White kids, if anything, were the minority. Then I got accepted into a very rich high school. It was a performing-arts school, an independent charter. You had to audition to get in, and it's donation heavily suggested. A lot of these kids would just pay their way even if they weren't talented. My mom was like, “Nope, no donation. I don't have to pay.” I was like, fuck yeah. I got in.

There were about 15 black kids out of, I don't know, 1,500 kids. I remember my first year I was interacting with these kids fine. I have white relatives. I never really saw myself as different from them. I have curly hair, they have straight hair. That's just how it is. Not one is better. I thought, I'm black, and that doesn't really mean anything. I remember the first time this one kid who I was friends with made this joke — I forget what the context was. He had food and I was like, “I want it I'm going to steal it from you or something,” and he was like Oh, 'cause you're black. I was like, Haha, what? You hear stereotypes on TV. All of those stereotypes are funny so I laughed, but it was the first time that I was like, I'm black? And then it kept happening and at first, I would say, well, I'm biracial. I was trying to appeal, and that's where internalized racism comes in because everyone comes at you with these jokes. I want to be friends with these people, so I'm going to make jokes about myself and make jokes about my own race. That's how I'm going to move forward in this school. That led to deep depression and deep self-loathing. Not only was I experiencing normal teenage hormones and what it means to be in high school, I was also experiencing this racial backlash that was masked in this well-intentioned humor. Every joke would tear a little bit away from me. It was a struggle to navigate because no matter what you do, you couldn't win. If I made jokes about myself that would just say that it's okay for them to continue to do that, and if I were to say, “Please, stop, that's not funny,” they would be like it's just a joke, and I would be too sensitive. I didn't learn the language of what I experienced until after high school.

I was never taught that it was not okay to cry. I was never taught that it was not okay to say what you feel and how you feel.

How did you learn that?
All four years of high school I was in a feminist club. I'm a very devout feminist because feminism isn't feminism without intersectionality. I learned about race and gender and sexuality. I learned some of the language, but I really didn't know that that's what I was experiencing.

It's crazy because when we learn about black history, which is a month, you learn about black history and then you'll learn something that kids didn't know and all the kids will turn to you and ask you about it. It's that phenomenon that a lot of people of color experience, where you're really the only person of color in the room and you have to speak for your entire race and it makes you feel even more monolithic and less like an individual. You're like, “I am nothing but a black person. I am not an individual. I'm not Justice, I'm a black person.” They all treat you like you're the expert. I get to make these jokes, but you're the expert so teach me about everything that it means to be black and also give me permission to say the N-word and also give me permission to make these jokes. It's like you are simultaneously this small little marginalized thing and this divine holy omnipotent voice for your race. It fucks with your psyche and it fucks with your self-esteem. It was this added struggle in terms of navigating it because of my white half. Because of the privilege that I have of being light-skinned, and them saying, well, “You don't experience racism, you're light-skinned.” It was a hard period of my life. The school was great. It was just the social dynamics that were a struggle. I get out of high school, I'm like, great, I don't have to deal with it anymore, and nope. As you get older it's even worse.

In what ways has it gotten worse?
The other day this guy wouldn't take me to my destination because I was black. He pulled over, I got in his cab, he said show me your money, I showed him my money. I said I was going to pay with credit card. He said my credit card machine doesn't work — which is illegal, but I didn't know at the time — get out. I said, "Well, I have cash." He said, “Show me.” I showed him my cash. He told me to fan it out. I fan out my cash and he says, “Okay, where do you want to go?” I said Brooklyn and I gave him the address. He said, “It's just that someone who looked like you ran out on an $80 fare.” I said, “Okay,” and I just sat in silence, thinking I should say something. I didn't and I paid with credit card because his machine worked. I went in and I cried because I'm a fucking pussy. I called my mom and she said, “I just wanted to have beautiful mixed babies, I didn't know this was going to happen.” I called my dad and he was like, “You're a real black man now.” I was like, Thanks, dad. It was hard. When you're younger it's very subtle. It's more jokes and lighthearted kids not knowing and being oblivious. When you get older it's people with malicious intentions. It's not subtle, and it's not well-intentioned. It's really a foggy thing to navigate. Anytime it comes up even in a subtle context, as a person of color you're always trying to decide whether things are racist or not. Why are they doing this right now? Why is this person treating me this way? And they could just be treating you this way because they're having a bad day. But because we're inflicted with this burden that is race, that is not innately burdensome but that our history and our society has made a burden upon our people of color, it's difficult to even live. It's a difficult thing to navigate from day to day.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

All Photos: Grooming by Naivasha Johnson for Exclusive Artists Management using Kerastase Paris and Artis Brushes.