The first thing that comes to mind when you hear Justice Smith’s name is his signature role in the hit Netflix series, The Get Down. The Cali native played Ezekiel, the smooth poet who loved reading books and reciting lyrics with his hip-hop crew based in ’80s New York City.
Smith drowned himself in that character and felt the more he was becoming Ezekiel the less he was being his true self. “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,” he told Vulture in 2016.
The 22-year-old takes his craft seriously and is always in search of the next best role that’s going to challenge his talents. To keep in line with diversifying his portrayals, Smith’s role in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a stark difference from what he’s previously done. Smith plays the nerdy Franklin Webb, who whines and always gets picked on by dino-doctor Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda). Webb is part of the good guys in the film, whose sole mission is to save the dying dinosaur species while others are trying to clone them to make a profit.
Smith joins Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing) and Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) on their quest to save these creatures. Yet it almost seems ludicrous to want to save something that could potentially kill you, as evidenced in the movie.
But that’s the whole message behind the story—every living thing deserves to move freely in this world without fear of death.
“That’s the moral question of the movie. These animals weren’t supposed to exist in present day. They were not supposed to be here,” Smith says to VIBE. “We created them out of greed, out of lust for money, and now they are about to be extinct. They are being wiped out again by a natural cause and to be saved again when it was our mistake in the first place to make them. I think that’s what the audience has to ask themselves.”
VIBE chatted with Smith about the film’s “mysticism” and the type of roles he’d like to play in the near future.
VIBE: What drew you to play Franklin Webb. He seems so different from what you previously played in the Get Down. I feel like Ezekiel is a lot cooler than Frank is. (Laughs)
Justice Smith: That is true, I don’t think Frank and Ezekiel would get along. I’ve always wanted to play different characters. That’s always what I’ve set out to do in my career, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that at the start of my career so that was a big draw for me. Also, the franchise meant a lot to me as a kid. I don’t think I would pass up the opportunity to be a part of it.
Describe the moment you received that call, what was the audition process like?
I sent an audition video, and they liked it. Then they wanted me to fly out to London to do a screen test, and unfortunately, I couldn’t do it because I was doing this play at the time. Then they asked me to come for a callback, and I was like, “Wow that was a huge leap.” And now, here I am talking to you. (Laughs)
What type of research did you do to get into Frank’s character?
I just allowed myself to be open to the process of being on the set of a blockbuster film. It’s completely different from being on a television set, so besides re-watching the original film, I kind of just came to set open to see what was going to happen; open to playing, open to improvisation. It was a different process for Frank’s character.
How did that process challenge you as an actor?
I had to do a lot of stunts, which I’ve never really done before. That was a whole new challenge, and I realized I really like doing stunts. It really helps me get out of my head. It’s fun and it makes me feel young again although I’m still very young. It was cool to find a new love for a whole new art form, so to speak.
What was it like working with Chris Pratt, he’s hilarious.
He’s great, he’s the funniest guy. He’s really down to earth too, he talks to everyone like they are a person. A lot of times with people of that caliber things go to their head, but Chris is very level-headed. He’s a people’s person.
Did he give you any advice?
I learned a lot from him by example, just the way he carries himself on set. When you’re in the lead of a movie it really sets the tone for the rest of the crew. So seeing how positive he was, and how open he was, friendly, serious about the work, inspired me to also be that way. To have fun to take the work seriously, be collaborative. I’m fortunate and grateful for that.
What talent qualities did you pick up from Jurassic World?
I was playing a role with comedic relief, which was difficult because I don’t really know how to be funny on purpose. I feel like I can do it conversationally but to actively be funny is beyond me. I realized that when I would just play it truthfully in a heightened way it came across very funny, and I got a good response from doing that.
Did you improvise?
Yes, I did. [Director ] J.A. Bayona really encouraged improvisation, and Chris also improvised all the time so it was hard not to just improvise back with him. There’s one line in the movie when the earthquake first starts happening in the bunker, I’m up against the wall, and I scream “Why am I here!” That was improvised.
What are your thoughts on the film’s activism component?
I think that’s why a lot of audience members come to see Jurassic Park because it’s a parallel to our own reality, and environmental and animal rights activism. That’s the nugget of truth in the film; amid all this action and suspense there is something there that connects with people.
What do you hope the audience will feel after watching Jurassic World?
I hope they feel it pays homage to the original movie, that it exceeds their expectations because there is something about this film that separates itself from the others. It has a sense of grandiosity and mysticism. That’s the difference from the other Jurassic Parks. I think people would be satisfied with the scenes that they come to see, but also be excited to see a change of pace.
What’s a future role you’d like to play next?
Hamlet (laughs), I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet.
I see a lot of productions where Hamlet is played by someone who is 35 when Hamlet is a 19-year-old kid. I think that while I’m young I probably should play Hamlet too. I feel like to understand his actions in that play, you have to understand what it’s like to be that age, or close to that age.