At 25 years old, Justice Smith is stepping into the lead role, playing an out and proud high school student named Chester on the HBO Max original dramedy Generation. Created by Zelda Barnz and her father, Daniel, who is an executive producer alongside his partner, Ben, and Lena Dunham, the series offers a new and authentic portrayal of a diverse group of teenagers and an unashamed exploration of modern sexuality.
“I’ve never played a character like Chester and I was very interested in exploring somebody who wears it all on their sleeve,” Smith tells ET of the character, who is described as “fabulous, funny and fearless.” And while he’s someone who pushes the boundaries, especially at school, he’s a straight A student and star water polo player, making him very unlike anything the LGBTQ community has seen on TV before.
“Chester is this really bold, non-apologetic personality,” Smith continues, explaining there’s so much more than what’s on the surface. “Like, you look at Chester and you already make assumptions about him, you know?” But as the first half of season 1 unfolds, all of that is dispelled because “Zelda and Daniel did an amazing job of creating this multi-layered character,” he says.
Although Smith initially auditioned to play the school’s guidance counselor -- a role that went to upcoming Candyman star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett -- his turn as Chester is far more of a showcase of the actor’s talents and unexplored confidence. And it’s also a far cry from his biggest films to date, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Detective Pikachu, or even his first TV role in Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious musical drama, The Get Down, on Netflix. (“In Jurassic, all I had to do was run away screaming from the CGI characters,” he says of his experience compared to the Pokemon franchise.)
“A lot of the characters I played were a little more insecure and anxious and quiet and introverted,” Smith says of his previous work. And in his personal life, the actor admits he can be introverted. But he also has “this energy that I’m ready to put forth into the public,” he says. “And I think Chester was the perfect route for that.”
It’s also clear that Chester has rubbed off on Smith, who during our interview over Zoom is styled in a way that his character might dress on TV. “I’m sitting here looking at my screen and I was like, ‘I’m kind of looking like Chester a bit,'” he says with a laugh, before adding that he’s been taking cues from his character’s aesthetics: “I feel like Chester was giving me confidence to kind of explore my own wardrobe.”
While Smith suggests that once he’s wrapped filming on the latter half of season 1 that Chester’s influence may weaken. “I’m very happy to be expanded and enjoy this ride while I can be a part of it,” he says.
One thing is for sure, playing Chester did not prompt the actor to open up about his sexuality on social media. At the beginning of June last year, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and the start of Pride month, he took to Instagram as “a queer Black man” to speak out about the lack of support for transgender and LGBTQ people of color.
Of course, the post made headlines saying that Smith had come out. But to him, he was never “in.” “The minute I knew is when everyone else knew,” he says, while admitting that as a rising star and public figure, he understands people make assumptions about who someone is and how they identify, “which is kind of f**ked up and not fair.”
“But I had always planned on kind of stepping out of that house before the show came out because I have my own problems with people who don’t identify as queer playing queer roles,” Smith says, acknowledging a growing debate about who should be allowed to portray LGBTQ characters onscreen.
That said, with Smith being out to the public, it lends to the authenticity of his performance. And being authentic is a core driving force behind this series. “It was in the creation of the show. You know, Zelda was so authentically attached to the concept of the show and we have a majority queer cast and there's a lot of queer people in the crew and in the production of the show.”
He adds that being openly queer, “I wanted to make sure that the community knew, my community knew that this character is safe in my hands.”
Looking beyond Generation, Smith is excited to keep growing as a performer, whether it’s stretching onscreen in indie films or blockbusters and releasing music, “which is a lot harder,” he admits. His first single, it should be noted, is “Bed,” dropping on March 26.
After that, audiences will see him reprise his role as Franklin in Jurassic World: Dominion in 2022. That film will be followed by the anticipated adaptation of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which has lined up an all-star cast, including Chris Pine, Hugh Grant, Michelle Rodriguez and Bridgerton breakout Rege-Jean Page. “The character I play, again, is very different from someone I’ve played before,” he teases.
At the end of the day, “I just want to make sure that I have my hand in all those pots, because I’m an actor through and through,” Smith says. “And this is what I love to do. This is my purpose in life.”