Fourteen-year-old Marsai Martin has always been considered an “old soul” by those closest to her, so playing a mid-30s tyrannical tech tycoon in the fantasy comedy Little wasn’t a massive stretch for the black-ish actress. “I would watch movies and listen to music that you wouldn’t think a child would listen to,” says Martin, listing Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records among her favorites. “That old-school world stuck with me — but the power suit and amazing hair helped me get into character too!”
Martin stars as no-nonsense boss Jordan (also played by Regina Hall), who, in a moment of magic, is returned to her 13-year-old body and turns to her assistant April (played by Issa Rae) to help her reverse the spell. “Issa’s kind of like the older me to be honest; she’s just funny, quirky, smart,” says Martin. “You can definitely see the chemistry between us — it just worked really easily in such a short amount of time.”
While things ran smoothly with Rae, some scenes with Justin Hartley (This Is Us) who plays the middle school teacher on whom Martin’s character has a crush, were a little less straight forward. “Flirting with Justin was awkward, I’m not going to lie,” laughs Martin. “I don’t actually feel that way about Justin, so I just had to look at it as the character. Getting to know him and hanging out with him made helped too.”
Acting aside, Martin also came up with the movie’s concept after watching Big — her mom’s favorite movie — when she was just 10. “I thought, What if we give it a modern perspective with a fresh twist of a powerful black woman?” says the actress who took the concept to black-ish creator Kenya Barris and watched it blossom from there. “I wanted other people to see what’s in my mind, as a young 14-year-old girl, because sometimes when men — or just older people — try to make films from what they think is a kid’s perspective, it doesn’t come out the right. It’s like, ‘Ehhh, that’s probably not what we would do!’
Three years later, Martin earned a producer credit for the project, making her the youngest person to receive one. “Being so young when I thought of it, I had the biggest imagination,” she says. “It’s the craziest feeling when you see it too; to see what’s in your mind going on to the big screen and seeing other people see what you created? It’s the greatest feeling!”
Riding that high, the teen — who signed a first-look deal with Universal in February, where she’ll develop projects produced by her own company, Genius Productions — now hopes to open doors for others like her. “I just want to keep on creating stuff that people can relate to, and inspire anyone who feels like their voice isn’t heard; being relatable and being as authentic as possible is the whole goal of my production company,” says Martin. “That’s the point I’m trying to get across in Little: Kids can do anything, and that’s how adults need to see things too.”
Little hits theaters Friday, April 12.