Few young actors have had the chance to explore as much range as quickly as Justice Smith. He’s currently starring in a play with acting legend Isabelle Huppert and will soon appear in a movie with another icon: Pikachu. The play is Florian Zeller’s The Mother, in performances now at the Atlantic Theater Company, where Huppert’s character has a smothering, maybe-too-close relationship with her son (Smith) that plays out across scenes that are alternate versions of each other, so that you’re never quite sure if everything is happening in her head or not. There’s also Chris Noth as the father, and Odessa Young playing — as Smith puts it — “my girlfriend, sister, father’s mistress, nurse.” “I feel like I’m in the play where I can’t say anything concrete,” Smith says while sipping on a kombucha before a show one afternoon. He’s embraced the philosophical confusion. “We had a Q&A and this one audience member said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything, does it?’” he says. “I’m like, ‘Well, it does.’ It depends on what you take away from it. But at the same time, I mean, does anything mean anything?”
This might be a good time to mention the movie Smith has coming up, which is Detective Pikachu. It’s about a Pokémon, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who wears a nice hat and solves crimes with his friend Tim (Smith). Smith, like many a 23-year-old, grew up with Pokémon and has many strong feelings about them. Speaking with Vulture, he discussed what it was like to film a noir-ish Pokémon movie, how he’s trying to break out from playing nerdy characters, and what it was like to watch Rent: Live with Isabelle Huppert.
The play goes to some dark places with the relationship between your character and Isabelle’s. What’s it like to work with her on that?
Incredible. She was the reason I wanted to do the play, along with getting to work with Trip Cullman, because he directed my Off Broadway debut at MCC [in Yen]. He’s just one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. I read the play and it was amazing. Then, I heard Isabelle was going to do it and I just had to do it.
Had you seen a lot of her work before?
Somewhat. I’d seen The Piano Teacher and I had seen Elle. I just heard about Ma Mère today and I haven’t seen that yet. But I want to. Especially because it has a similar undertone to this play. But yeah, but working with her in the rehearsal process was incredible, because I just watched her “process” and I absorbed so much. She’s electric. She makes choices and then immediately abandons them, and then will make a new choice, just pull it out of thin air. And all of them are genius. Every night is kind of like a different show, because she brings something different every single performance and you have to be alive and respond in real time.
This play has an interesting structure where different versions of events play out several times. What is it like to figure out how you’re going to play those alternate realities?
Usually as an actor you get a script, you learn the background, the character. You make choices accordingly. But in this, because we are all in some way playing the mother — I’m not going to get into that, but we are all somewhat playing her — if we make any extreme choice, it could steer the whole story off the path. It took a lot of collaboration and a lot of conversation about what the story is we’re trying to tell. Usually the answer was, none of us know.
I can’t even speak about it right now, because I feel like I’m in the play where I can’t say anything concrete. Florian does this, he balances the reality and the illusion, and by doing that so masterfully, he creates this puzzle for his actors to project their own meaning onto.
To take this back to a much more practical question.
No, no it’s fine. But you speak French in the play. Do you speak French fluently?
Mais non. C’est pas couramment. Not fluently, but a little. Isabelle speaks to me all the time in French, though. She’s helping me a lot with my French. The other people don’t often know what we’re saying to each other, so we have this little secret back-and-forth, which is fun. Sometimes she does talk really fast, and I have no idea what she’s saying. But I’m just like, “Oui, oui, oui,” with my thumbs up. I took it in school. My grandmother was Québécois, French Canadian. I took it because of her. Then I was in a relationship where she also spoke French and she kind of helped me get back into it. Hopefully I get to do what Isabelle has done, if I get better at French, which is act in my second language. That would be amazing.
Does Trip do much to get the cast together and bond as a group?
We hang out. Occasionally we’ll get dinner or drinks or have lunch. We did watch Rent: Live together at Trip’s apartment. It was Isabelle Huppert, Trip and Odessa and then a bunch of other theater kids. I didn’t know Isabelle was coming. I had a few drinks. Then Trip was like, “Isabelle’s going to come,” and I was like, “Oh no. I do not want her to see me like this. I’m not in a state to be professional.” But she’s so relaxed and knows how to have a good time.
Did she enjoy Rent: Live?
No, she fell asleep.
Yeah. I mean, I get it.
I guess Rent is sort of a weird American thing to explain.
Yeah, but then we played a game after and she really liked the game, so that was cool.
Before you did this, you shot Detective Pikachu, which is coming out in May. How much of that is CGI and green screens? What was the actual process of shooting Detective Pikachu like?
There wasn’t a lot of green screen. Our director, Rob Letterman — I’m getting better at saying last names, Rob Letterman — wanted to shoot on location as much as possible. We shot in London, and for like a week in Scotland which is like a desktop background. He had this vision to put the Pokémon up against this urban backdrop and use this gray, grainy filter. We shot on film so it gave it that natural grain.
So it’s like a noir?
Yeah, exactly. Because the Pokémon are so fantastical, to put them up against this realistic backdrop makes them pop more. That kind of drew me into wanting to do the film, because you can so easily go into this zany realm. I loved Rob Letterman — I don’t know why I’m saying his last name still — because he was all about the actor and our performance and keeping it loose on set and improvising and responding naturally.
Did the Pokémon have those intense scaly and furry character designs when you came into the movie?
When I first saw them, I freaked. The inner child in me was having a field day. They brought in a statue of Pikachu that was all covered in fur and it was soft and everything. Its nose was rubber and wet. It was so lifelike, and I was just like internally crying, because I was like, “This is exactly how I wanted to see them portrayed.” It was a childhood dream come true.
So you were a big Pokémon kid?
Huge Pokémon kid. I collected all the cards. I still have them in my closet somewhere. I played Pokémon Gold on Game Boy Color.
The best one!
Totodile is still my favorite Pokemon. I have a little Totodile figurine. My generation and the older people of my same generation, they all tweeted me when the trailer came out. They were the people who were most excited. I was just getting response from people in their 30s. I agree with the people on social media talking about the different character designs and stuff, and debating over the way that the characters were realized in such a way. It’s so engaging.
Do you think any specific Pokémon will be the breakout star from Detective Pikachu?
I don’t know if I can say. But there are some cool ones. I can’t really say which Pokémon are in the movie or not.
I’ve heard that Psyduck is going to be a star, though there’s not much of it in the trailer.
I’ll say that I agree with that. Psyduck does have a prominent role in the film.
After going between movies and stage like this, is there a kind of acting or genre you really want to do going forward?
An interviewer the other day was like, “You did Paper Towns and you did Every Day, and now you’re doing All the Bright Places, you’re like the young adult novel king.” I was like, “Oh no!” Not that that’s not amazing, it’s just I never wanted to be doing the same type of films over and over again. I hadn’t even realized, “Oh, I’ve done three of those now. I should probably switch it up.” I play a lot of nerds or nerdy people. Smart people. The scared nerd, the smart nerd, the weak nerd. The dry nerd. The funny nerd. So I’m trying to expand past that. In All the Bright Places, I don’t play a nerd. So, I’m making waves.