PHOTOS BY BRAD OGBONNA, GROOMING BY SCOTT MCMAHAN AT ART DEPARTMENT USING LAB SERIES
“Some people rebel against their doctor parents by becoming an actor,” Justice Smith says. “I rebelled against my musician parents by becoming an actor.” Growing up in Orange County, California, as the son of two singers, Smith was drawn to theater and the screen, scoring early roles in Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans and the teen mystery Paper Towns. Ironically, his breakout role turned out to be a musical one, as one of the leads in Netflix’s hip-hop origin series, The Get Down. “I didn’t really know a lot about hip-hop,” says the 23-year-old. “When I did the research for it, I was almost ashamed about how much I was unaware of.” He met Kurtis Blow and Nas during filming, but he speaks more excitedly about French actress Isabelle Huppert, with whom he recently finished a run in the off-Broadway play The Mother: “Every day is a master class working with her.”
Smith scored his first blockbuster credit last year in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which served as a warmup for this month’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu. In the new film, he plays a former Pokémon trainer who goes in search of his missing detective father with the help of the title character (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). “I had some practice with [CGI] when I was doing Jurassic,” he says, “but I didn’t have to communicate with the dinosaurs—I just had to run away screaming.” He played Pokémon as a kid—his favorite character is Totodile—but having to talk to imaginary characters was a first. “We’re in a warehouse with a lamp and a stool,” he recalls, “and the entire crew is behind the camera watching me talk to myself because I had an earwig in where a reader was reading the lines for the other characters.” He laughs. “That was kind of emblematic of the overall experience.”
Considering Smith already has the YA novel adaptations Paper Towns and Every Day under his belt, it’s little surprise he’ll be starring in the screen adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s New York Times best-seller, All the Bright Places, later this year. In the film, he plays a high-school outcast who forms a bond with a popular girl (played by Elle Fanning) after they run into each other on the brink of suicide attempts. Smith says he would like to explore other genres, and it’s mostly a function of his age that he’s becoming a YA king: “That’s what comes across my desk. I audition; I am liked, so I go off and do those movies.” After his current projects, he says, “I’m going to wallow in the abyss of unemployment until another thing comes along.” Dark comedy, then?