Justice Smith has lived that teenage life several times over. From playing the sidekick in YA novel adaptation Paper Towns in 2015 to his latest role as out and proud high school disruptor Chester in HBO Max's teen dramedy Generation (premiering March 11), this 25-year-old actor is still showing audiences the many, many ways we can embody our most awkward years.
In Chester's case, it's with a rainbow-striped crop top and an enviable air of confidence.
"I think that's the goal," Smith tells Inverse. "Anyone who didn't have that experience in high school kind of gets to live vicariously through us in this show."
Beyond mastering the art of the coming-of-age story, Smith has also found time for more than a few cinematic adventures. Look no further than Detective Pikachu and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom for the high-octane fare Smith's sought out in his career.
"I love doing action films and adventure films," says Smith. "There's something about it that's cathartic. You can't really get in your head."
While there will be no shortage of action and adventure in Smith's future with his upcoming role in the star-studded Dungeons and Dragons movie, Generation allows him to go back to his roots and explore the daring emotional stunts of puberty. Read our full interview with Smith for details on his new show, why he doesn't see a Detective Pikachu sequel in his future, and much more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Inverse: How did your high school experience compare to the one you portray in Generation?
Justice Smith: I feel like it's pretty accurately represented. I'm not in high school now and the show is trying to showcase high school now. I mean, not high school now, because of COVID; everyone's not in high school. But I'm from Anaheim where the show takes place and the makeup of this show is accurate to my own experience.
I knew so many kids like [the ones featured on Generation] growing up. I feel like that was a priority of the creators, to make sure that everything was spot-on accurate, and authentic.
You've had a really long career in young adult and coming-of-age media. How do you think that genre has changed in the six years since Paper Towns?
I feel like we're hopefully opening up this idea that anything that features people in high school or young people is automatically in the same bucket. We don't do that with other generations. We only do that with high schoolers, which is so crazy to me. If one day we all started saying, "Oh, Game of Thrones is like This is Us because the people of the same age are in those shows," that would be so wild.
So hopefully we're ripping that apart. I think this show is a step in that evolution because we really stake our claim. We're very different from all these other teen shows. There's a cultural overlap of course because we're all a part of modern society, so we're all participating in the same cultural things. But I think that we offer something to that space that's really different. I mean just the fact that it's such a gay show alone.
You've also had roles in action-adventure movies like Detective Pikachu and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. How do you approach the roles differently to more intimate dramas like Generation?
I love doing action films and adventure films. I'm a big fan of green-screen and I've had a lot of practice in it. I love doing stunts and traveling and all that kind of stuff. There's something about it that's cathartic. You can't really get in your head. You have to just be in the moment. You're like, "there's a dragon chasing me and I got to go." You don't really have much to think about.
But with dramedies like Generation, it's all character, it's all nuance. So there's a lot of research that goes into it, but there's a lot of catharsis in it too. Playing Chester has expanded my life in so many ways. I get to wear this confidence that he has every day. And that has influenced my own idea of self and my own confidence and my own self-love. I'm so grateful for that.
There are benefits from both. I get to challenge myself physically on these action-adventures and then challenge myself spiritually on these dramedies and character pieces.
What will people who only know you from those action-adventure movies like about Generation?
They're gonna love it because if they're fans of me, I'm playing a character I've never played before. I hope that they can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into that. I always take time with my characters, but this one I specifically took more time with. I hope they appreciate the artistry.
I'm really looking forward to watching this show with my 16-year-old brother, who loved Detective Pikachu.
I hope he does watch it because while it is about queerness, it's also just about generation Z in general. So I feel like there's stuff that he could still identify with. I do think that we prioritize the opinion of young queers. I think there's not a lot of shows for them. A lot of those shows are targeted towards the more popular culture.
This show was helmed by queers. It's a majority queer cast and I really value the opinion of the queers who watched the show. I hope they like it, first and foremost. I hope they're happy, proud of the show and that it speaks to them and it relates to them. That's what I care about first. I want everyone to watch it, but that's my priority.
Speaking of Detective Pikachu, it's been a year since you were last asked about the possibility of Detective Pikachu 2. Do you think it's still going to happen and would you still be willing to participate?
I would love to participate in Detective Pikachu 2. I don't know if it's going to happen. I think we have to just kind of bury our hopes. I don't think it's going to happen. I really hope so though. Honestly, I'm such a huge fan, who knows, who knows? I hope so.
Genera+ion premieres on HBO Max on March 11.