Generation star Justice Smith on his 'effervescent' new role: 'This character is safe in my hands'
While audiences have had plenty of introductions to Justice Smith in blockbusters like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the new HBO Max series Generation affords him a more liberating role.
As Chester, a commanding presence in the halls of the Southern California high school where the show takes place, Smith has another platform to explore queer issues after going public with partner Nicholas Ashe (Queen Sugar), and protesting to protect Black trans lives last year.
"The cast is absolutely like family," Smith tells EW of the show created by father-daughter duo Zelda and Daniel Barnz. "We hang out all the time; we're always eating lunch together. We have a group chat."
"I'm kind of dreading the end of the season just because I'm going to miss these guys so much," adds the actor, "but, knock on wood, hopefully, we get a season 2."
Read on to hear what role Smith originally auditioned for, what he's learned from Gen Z, and why the "effervescent" Chester is a character that's safe in his hands.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How'd you get involved with Generation? And what drew you to the character Chester specifically?
JUSTICE SMITH: I originally auditioned for the guidance counselor, which was originally written as a younger part. And I remember the [audition] scene was that scene in the pilot where he's talking to Chester. They liked me, but they were like, "We're looking for something else." So I was like, "Oh okay, that's fine," and my friend was like, "You should go in for this Chester part." And I was like, "I know so many guys like that. They're going to find the guy." But they didn't. And I was like, "Okay, I'll go in." I went in, and I got a part, and I just remember as soon as I got in that room and started playing Chester, I thought, "Oh, this is amazing because I have so much reference for this. I know this person." So he just kinda came to me immediately. And now, here I am.
So Chester wasn't originally the role you went in for. Again, his name is Chester, he's a water polo star. I'm wondering was Chester always written as Black?
Oh yeah, Chester was always written as Black. But the guidance counselor was originally written as white, and I remember being like, "I think I could change their mind," and then they were like, "No." They were like, "We want to cast a white guy." But then in the end, they casted a Black guy, so I was like "Oh, all right." [Laughs]
I love that they did because the connection between you and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is so good. Especially the aspect of both characters being Black, and his character Sam the guidance counselor being that queer elder he can go to who can relate to his experience.
That's a big portion of why Chester is drawn to this guidance counselor too because he's represented in that way. I'm from Orange County, and I'm from Anaheim where the show takes place. There's not a lot of us out there, so when you see another Black person you're very much drawn to them, or you just kind of see yourself in them.
Right. So you went in for the guidance counselor part, and ended up playing Chester. Why play a teen again? Did you have any misgivings about that?
Yeah, that was another one of the reasons why I didn't want to go in for Chester because I was like, "I'm getting too old. I don't want to play another 17-year-old." But the role was so dynamic and I was like, "I feel like I can do this." And I went in and I was like, "Ah, here we go again." Though I have a babyface, so I think I'm going to be playing like a 17-year-old for a long time, which I'm not that mad at.
With this role, is a lot of the character on the page? Or were you working with the Barnz family to craft it?
Most of it is on the page, yeah. I feel like a lot of my approach to acting is just intuitively responding to what is written, you know, like I just say it and then it comes out in the way that it's supposed to come out. You can't really do that if the writing is bad. So I'm just grateful that our writers are also brave enough to give an inner life to a character who you would conventionally assume is superficial because — I don't know what it is, but I think in society we view extroverted, loud, in-your-face characters as lacking of an inner life. And the Barnz's not only centralized a character like that, but also have been like, "No, these people are just as complex and just as profound as like the kid in the back of the classroom doodling, or writing poems, or whatever."
That's really interesting too, because like you said, people have preconceived notions about your character just by the way Chester dresses and acts and stuff. But there are times of profoundness, and also times where he feels a little dangerous, pushing back a little too much with Nathan like, "Is he going to flip?"
No, it's a part of who he is, and he wants to be loved for that, not in spite of that. But often, that intimidates people, or it scares them off, or it makes them feel like he has a wall up, and he doesn't. I mean, he kind of does about certain things, but he really just wants to be seen.
Having done big blockbusters where the set is like its own city, did you appreciate that change of pace making a more down to earth show like this?
Yeah. I mean, it's like they're different mediums. I've done so much green screen work that I'm really kind of good at it now. I like doing stunts and battling, and doing all that kind of stuff, but this is the first time that I'm shooting in a city where I live. We shoot in L.A. This has been a really interesting experience in that regard, just being able to go home every day, relax, and return to myself — and then get to play this incredibly confident, incredibly expansive character. Yeah, it's just different. There are pros and cons to both.
Did playing Chester influence any changes you made this year, like making your relationship public and becoming more outspoken in your support of Black Lives Matter, and protecting Black trans lives? Or did those changes feed into how you play Chester?
We weren't shooting at the time that I publicly made the announcement about my relationship. We had shot the pilot, but I mean, I had always planned — again I have problems with the words "coming out" because when I knew, everyone in my personal life who matters knew. But when you're a public figure, people like to put you in a box of assumptions, and then you have to expel that box, and that's not really that fair because it's like, I didn't put myself in here. Society puts you in there, but regardless of how you get in there, you're kind of like, "I still have to get out." And I'd only planned on getting out of that box of assumption before the show came out.
Because I have my own personal problems with non-queer people playing queer characters. It's like... it's fine, but it's also just like let queer people play themselves. So I just wanted to make sure that before the show came out, people knew that this character is safe in my hands. I understand this experience. Although there may be lots of differences between me and Chester, I have more access, and I can play him more authentically than somebody else can.
Over the years, there have been more intense conversations about age gaps. What conversations did you have about depicting a sort of hot-for-teacher plotline without it feeling exploitative, or like it's endorsing Chester and Sam being together?
I don't want to get too much into this because I don't want to spoil anything, but I think the show is very authentic to what would actually happen. And Chester's fascination with Sam is rooted in Chester's own desperation to be loved. He suffers from loneliness because he's this effervescent personality, and people are intimidated by that. And he feels seen by Sam, and feels represented by Sam, like Sam is queer and Sam is Black. And he confuses that representation for something else because as a teenager, you can't really categorize your feelings. All the lines kind of blur, you just feel intensely, and you don't know what goes where. The series explores him conflating two different things. But yes, the series explores that. It's more about Chester's desperation.
Being on the Millennial/Gen Z cusp, what has working on this show taught you about people who are more firmly in Generation Z?
I've learned a lot of little slangs and songs and dances, TikTok dances. TikTok is a huge resource. I learned all of those little things. But yeah, I'm on the cusp of that, but I'm always on TikTok, especially queer TikTok showing all these people with their colored hair, and the dances that they do, and the outfits that they put together. I just always try to make sure that everything I'm doing is in that realm, so it's not inauthentic. But that also makes me feel like an old person. I'm right on this gap, like I kind of am Gen Z.
What can you preview about the rest of the season? Is there any chance of a love connection between Chester and Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) or does that feel like more of a friendship?
Again, I don't want to spoil anything. I will say that Chester has his eyes on somebody, and when you're fixated on a person, you're blind to everyone else.
This interview has been edited and condensed.