Justice Smith

The rising star and the Hollywood legend: Justice Smith in conversation with Julianne Moore
Film+TV | 18 April 2023


It’s a corker of a year for Justice Smith. Right now, it’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – a mega-budget rollocking adventure based on the beloved role-playing game. Then later, indie calls – I Saw the TV Glow is an A24 project, written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, that sees a TV show leak into reality. Last year, Smith met and collaborated with Hollywood legend Julianne Moore on another A24 film for Apple, Sharper, a plot-twisting story of power and greed that Moore also co-produced. Carving out a rich oeuvre isn’t easy, but you get the sense that Smith is catching his stride – banger following banger – and along with it an evolving outlook on how to approach each new opportunity.

Julianne Moore: Hi! How are you?! What time is it in LA?
Justice Smith: It is 10:30am and I just woke up about fifteen minutes ago, I’ve got to be honest! It’s raining and hailing outside.

JM: I heard it snowed in LA yesterday.
JS: Yes, completely bizarre. I don’t know what’s going on with the world right now, but it is snowing in LA.

JM: I’m in a car, it’s 6:30pm, I’m just leaving work and I’m in London. So, we’re on different sides of the world but it doesn’t feel like it, baby! [both laugh]
JS: How’s the show going?

JM: It’s going OK, it’s a long one. I’m just at the halfway point next week but it’s cool. It’s a real departure from Sharper let’s put it that way, it’s all period costumes. So, what are you doing?! Are you working right now or are you just doing a tonne of press?
JS: I’m about to do another press tour for Dungeons & Dragons, I’m travelling all over the world in about a week or two.

JM: Are you looking forward to that?
JS: I am. It’s interesting, I used to not really enjoy press, but I realised if I had that outlook, then I would be miserable every single time I finished a project, which is not helpful for me or for the people interviewing me. So I made a decision to find joy in it, I love travelling, I love seeing the world, and I love meeting new people.

JM: I agree with you, I love to travel too and I also find it fascinating because there are so many jobs involved. It’s a tremendous community effort and I love that. I love the collaboration, I like the social part. Having watched you perform and seeing how you are as an actor on set, you have such a wonderful quality to everything you do. You have so much warmth and so much ease…
JS: Julie!

JM: You’re really vulnerable and grounded. I don’t know if you know this but I saw your audition because, of course, [on Sharper] I’m a producer! I was on the phone with Ben [Caron] talking about the auditions we’d seen, and we were both like, “This guy Justice Smith is Tom, he’s perfect.”
JS: Oh my god.

JM: You had blonde hair in your audition, do you remember?
JS: Yes, that’s right! [both laugh] I had just finished a job where I had blonde hair, and I was wearing a wig for the job I was currently on, so I was like, “I don’t need to cut this.” I had these crazy blonde highlights because I was just letting my hair grow out.

JM: I kind of loved the blonde, I thought it was good! [laughs]
JS: You liked the blonde?! Maybe I should try it again.

JM: You’ve sported a lot of great looks. Anyway, I loved you in that audition and I was so happy and grateful to see it and be able to go, “That’s the guy, that’s who we want.” I always tell actors, especially when they’re starting out auditioning, “Everybody wants you to solve their problem, everybody wants you to come in and nail it.” So it was just so great to see you on that tape and think, “Oh this guy is perfect.” And then, you were even nicer and better and more interesting and richer in person.
JS: You really created an environment on set where I felt comfortable. I had come into the process of the film with this mentality that I was going to prioritise my presence over preparation, because the last project I had done right before Sharper I over prepared for and I shot myself in the foot, because when it came to letting that go I couldn’t do it. So when I got this movie I was like, “OK cool, I’m working with Julianne Moore so all I really have to do is respond to what she’s giving me and I don’t want to come in with preconceived notions.” When I got to set and witnessed what you do, and I’ve been talking in interviews a lot about that rehearsal we had… You’re so amazing – I watched you craft this performance, and you were so unapologetic in the way you would say the line, then immediately say it again in a completely different way, and then you would talk to yourself about why that’s the better way to do it. I saw you mould this performance and I was like, “That’s the kind of actor I want to be,” where it’s just this vessel, this flow of creativity, you’re just so in flow.

“I’ve never gotten over the childlike need to play. I think that’s going to follow me my entire life.”

JM: Aw, that’s so nice! I think what I want to foster on set, and what set is for is: ‘we’re working on it’. One of the great things about film is it’s not solid – you don’t have to make the same choice every time you’re rolling, you can figure it out. What was wonderful about what you did was that idea about being present, the camera has to capture you being alive on film and you did that. You were relaxed, you were open, and the game- playing [off camera] you did was phenomenal. I would tell everybody about when we played ‘Green Glass Door’ or ‘Picnic’.
JS: Yes! [laughs]

JM: All of those black magic games, I loved that because it’s a way of staying connected with other actors and whoever else is playing on set. It’s a way of stimulating your brain and keeping the energy going, but mostly keeping the connection between all the people, which is really imperative and was something I saw in you. I was like “That’s different, I’ve never seen an actor do that before!” I loved it, I took that with me.
JS: I honestly completely forgot I did that, I love playing games so it makes sense I would do that on set, but I think in the same vein it also keeps the element of play alive. At the end of the day, what we do is play pretend for a living – it’s important to have some relationship with your inner child. I don’t consciously think, “This is what I’m going to do on set to keep the play alive,” I’m just always trying to find the fun in the performance, in the work.


“I’ve gotten to this place where I’m really trying to do projects that light me up.”

JM: When did you start acting? Did you start as a kid?
JS: Yes and no. I knew I wanted to be an actor since I came out of the womb, it was all I ever wanted to do and that meant I was in every school play, I was in every community theatre play, but I didn’t start professionally acting until I was about fifteen. That was in commercials and stuff, and then from there, I started doing guest spots.

JM: That’s pretty young.
JS: Yeah, but I only ever had one goal in my life and I’m so blessed and grateful I get to live it. I think I’ve never gotten over the childlike need to play. [laughs] I think that’s going to follow me my entire life. My parents are rather youthful as well so I think I was just conditioned towards youthfulness because of how I was raised.

JM: They’re both musicians, right?
JS: That’s correct, they’re both singers. Although my mum doesn’t sing anymore, my dad still sings from time to time.

JM: Do you sing much?
JS: I do sing, I have a lot of trauma around singing though. It’s really hard for me to sing in front of other people.

JM: It’s a hard thing to do.
JS: It is hard and my parents were very particular about what songs should sound like, so I never got to have an exploration phase, I just immediately had to be good because they were good! So that scared me away from singing, but then I re-found it in my adult life. Speaking of singing, remember when we used to sing your song on set, I’d just seen Dear Evan Hansen?

JM: That’s right! Oh my god, that’s true. [laughs]
JS: You made me cry when I saw that movie and I loved that song [So Big / So Small] before I’d seen your performance of it. Then when I saw your performance, I loved it even more. We were just singing it back and forth. You were so receptive and I loved that, it was a really good shoot. [both laugh]

JM: It was a good shoot, it was a meeting of the minds. When you read Sharper, what was interesting to you about that character?
JS: I’d played a lot of characters that were desperate for love and connection before, so I knew the character would be in my wheelhouse. And I really wanted to work with you, so I would have done whatever role. But what specifically stood out to me about Tom [Justice’s character in Sharper] was, I grew up around a lot of wealthy kids – I went to an arts high school and I was not wealthy by any means – my family was on welfare growing up. I saw in these wealthy kids this guilt of privilege, almost an aversion to the echelon they were born into. I thought it was such an interesting psychology. It’s like a paradox almost, how can you resent the blessings you were given? I wanted to explore that. Tom specifically saw money as an obstacle to connection; his relationship with his father was fraught because of money and I think when his mother died his father wasn’t able to show up for him in the way he needed and Tom blamed money, business and capitalistic greed instead of blaming his father. So when he meets Sandra [played by Briana Middleton] he’s eager to connect to someone on a human level, but has no relationship to this other world he’s known before. That specifically is what stood out to me.

JM: That’s fascinating. I love hearing that because of course for me, the movie is all about money and how everybody is moving towards or away from it. It’s always the driving factor in the film, so that’s an interesting perspective. You have Dungeons & Dragons coming out – tell me about the movie and who you play.
JS: It’s very different to Sharper. It’s also period clothing but in weird, made-up alternate dimension period clothing. [laughs] I play Simon who is a half-elf sorcerer born from wizarding blood, I don’t know if you’re going to understand any of this Julie. [both laugh] But he has a real lack of self-confidence even though he is incredibly powerful, he doesn’t know how to access that power because he doesn’t have belief in himself.

JM: So your character is all about trying to access that power?
JS: That’s correct.

JM: You’re just half an elf. [laughs]
JS: I’m just half an elf. [laughs] The funny thing about half-elves… Julie when I tell you I had to do so much research for this movie, I was reading these giant books about Dungeons & Dragons lore and this world is so fleshed out. It was almost a godsend because when you play a character you have the script and then maybe if it’s adapted from something you have the source material, but then you have to bring the rest to it. But with this, it was like, “This is how half-elves are, this is how druids are, this is what this environment looks like.” There is a world map, there is a description for every single town and city you could possibly go to in this world. It tells you how each race and class might lean in terms of personality, so much of my work was already done for me and it was just about reading these books and delving into this lore which was a lot of fun.

JM: Wow.
JS: I realised how much the Dungeons & Dragons game is like acting, it literally is the exact same. You create this character, you have this backstory and then you play out the circumstance.

JM: That’s fascinating. Now I understand the attraction because for me, Dungeons & Dragons was always a game people played but I never did, I never knew what it was. But there are hugely obsessive fans and that’s such an interesting description, because now I understand the idea.
JS: When I played the game I was the same as you, I knew nothing about it, and I didn’t really have friends growing up so I didn’t have anyone to play with even if I wanted to!

JM: Aw…
JS: Don’t feel bad! [laughs] But we played the game as a cast before we shot the film, just to know what we were getting into, and besides all of the laws and the world-building they have, there are no rules in this game. It is essentially five or six people sitting around a table and committing to a narrative they are all creating together. It’s a lot of improv, a lot of trying to make each other laugh, but also being vulnerable and I was like, “This is completely familiar to me.” It almost felt like an acting exercise I did in theatre school.


JM: You also have the A24 film I Saw the TV Glow coming up, right?
JS: Yes, correct.

JM: Man, you’ve been busy! Tell me about that.
JS: I don’t know how spiritual you are Julie, but I’m quite spiritual, and I believe in manifestation. I really wanted to work with A24 and I ended up working with them twice, which was crazy. All that aside, I Saw the TV Glow is kind of a horror-drama and it’s the weirdest script I’ve ever read, when I finished it I turned to my partner and said, “I have no idea what I just read but I have to do it.” Then I got to do it which was very fortunate. It’s a lot about the connection to self and the things that can disturb your connection to self. Funnily enough, when I played that character, I watched an interview you gave for Safe, you talked a lot about your character and the vocal quality you applied and why you applied it, why you wanted a separation between voice and body.

JM: Is that something you were doing with this as well?
JS: Yeah, I was like, “That philosophy would work so well for this character.” They often say ‘steal like an artist,’ and that is something I stole from one of your performances. [laughs]

JM: That’s so cool! It’s not theft it’s homage, there’s totally a difference, so you can lean into that.
JS: That’s what I’ll say.

JM: That’s wild, I am so flattered. It sounds like it’s a very eclectic group of things you have coming out, is that something you’re working towards as an actor?
JS: I find it changes from day to day. [laughs] I’ve gotten to this place where I’m really trying to do projects that light me up. I’m grateful for everything I’ve done but I was doing a lot of projects as career moves or money moves, things that weren’t necessarily lighting me up, but I thought I was supposed to do them. Then I got to a place where I was like, “I’m not happy, and this art form made me so happy once, I really want to return to that.” That’s when I started saying ‘no’ to things and really set out to find projects that felt right in my spirit. I’m now fortunate to find them, Sharper being one and I Saw the TV Glow is another. On a superficial level I really want to play a villain, I have not played a villain yet and I’d love to do that.

JM: Right, that’s fun! [laughs]
JS: And I really want to do some Shakespeare – I really want to play Hamlet before I get too old.

“I’m just always trying to find the fun in the performance, in the work.”

JM: You have a while, people play Hamlet when they’re 40. I love a young Hamlet though, I have to say.
JS: He’s nineteen! I feel like him being nineteen is why he acts the way he does in the play. I appreciate the actors who play him when they’re 40 because obviously they’re amazing performances but there is something specific about him being so young and ruled by impulse. I want to explore that, but we’ll see.

JM: I agree, I love the idea of it. I think as human beings we go through different phases, certainly, Hamlet is in a very reactive stage so it’s something you’re not going to experience the same when you’re older. A 40-year-old guy freaking out because his mother got remarried is a different kind of story. [both laugh]
JS: Exactly!

JM: When we saw each other in London at the premiere of Sharper you were talking about really wanting to do a play too, is that something you’re exploring? Have you done any theatre?
JS: I’ve done two different plays in New York Off-Broadway and because I grew up doing community theatre, I always say my foundation is in theatre, because I still validate those as important performances.

JM: You should, because they are! Whenever anybody comes up to me and says, “My kid wants to be an actor, what should I do?” I tell them to try out for the school play or do community theatre because that’s the only way they’re going to know whether or not they like it.
JS: It’s such good practice because the feeling is the same. I remember early in my career, when I started doing movies, I used to say, “This isn’t much different from when I did student films, this just has more money, but the community is kind of the same and the role I’m playing on set is kind of the same.” The same thing happened when I did professional theatre, I was like, “This is very similar to when I did school plays, just with more money!” I very much want to get back into theatre, and hopefully soon.

JM: That would be awesome. You mentioned about your process before – I think it’s interesting you want to be as present and as free as possible. So as you start a new project, do you often you change your approach? What are all those choices based on?
JS: 100 percent, I’ve realised my process is dependent on the environment, who else is in the film, the character… Doing what I did on Sharper – just trusting myself and trusting the other actor – has followed me to the other three projects I did after it, and I felt very successful in that. I have my initial pass of the script and I track the character, I take notes, I decide what I want to do, or what stands out to me, and then I’ve been putting the script down, showing up on set and learning my lines there, because I can learn lines fairly quickly. When I do that, I can’t make preconceived choices, I’m learning my lines there, then I’m going on camera and seeing what happens if I put myself in the circumstance. That has been very powerful. It’s specifically in the vein of something I learned from a friend of yours, Isabelle Huppert, when I worked with her.

JM: What did you learn from Isabelle?
JS: She’s incredible. We did an interview together and she talked about how she does not play ‘characters’, she plays ‘states’, like states of being, and that really connected to me and allowed me to trust the multitudinous of myself, of my being. So, when I get on set and put myself in a circumstance, I just allow whatever state of myself to come out that needs to come out, instead of trying to find a reference from outside of my body. Instead of trying to climb a mountain of a character, I’m mining for the character. Does that make sense?

JM: That’s fascinating, it totally makes sense and I think it’s really impressive. I always try to relate it to my physical human body and when I’m experiencing a sensation or a feeling as a person, I’m not thinking “What would Julie do?” Or, “Julie’s like this, Julie would react like this, these are Julie’s boundaries,” you don’t think that way. You just have this huge wash of feeling, it is a state of being we experience as human beings, so it’s fascinating to think about it in relation to your character, rather than putting limits on yourself by saying your character would do x, y, or z. You don’t know what your character would do because you don’t know what they’re capable of. I love that.
JS: I love the way you said it back to me too. It was so succinct. [both laugh]

JM: That’s fascinating, I’m going to take that with me to work on Monday. Have there been moments in filming where you had a revelation or saw things from a new perspective?
JS: I find a lot of my revelations come after the project, which is unfortunate. [laughs] But I think that’s representative of the ever-evolving nature of character discovery, every single day on set being like, “Oh that’s why he does this, that’s how this moment is supposed to be played.” That lasts even after the film is complete. Even when watching Sharper the other day at the premiere I thought, “Oh you know what would have been an interesting choice for that moment…” It’s something I’ve learned not to beat myself up for and instead embrace: there isn’t one right way to play a character, there are hundreds of different ways to play a character, and however I played it at that moment was how I was supposed to play it. But of course, I’m going to discover new things.

JM: That’s exactly right. Picking a moment in time, picking the place, you’ll make a choice for characters that way. Going back to Hamlet, your first choices are going to be different. I once did a play [Vanya on 42nd Street] when I was 27, and five years later, when we actually made the film, I was 32.
JS: Wow.

JM: So I’d had a huge change in my personal life – in my development as a person. At the beginning there were even parts of the character I didn’t understand, but five years later I did, because I’d had this life experience. I think that applies to doing any kind of work on set, you’ve got to make a choice but that’s not the only choice, it’s just the choice in that particular moment. You just have to go with it.
JS: Yes, based off of what you know about life at that point. That’s specifically the thing I connected with – what you just said – that life experience is so important for acting, if not the most important thing.

JM: What’s important in your life and your work? Do you feel you are achieving the kind of success you want to have, in terms of how you want to live your life?
JS: Is this a therapy session, Julie? [laughs]

JM: It sounds like it, sorry! You don’t have to answer! [both laugh]
JS: No! I’m just like, “Wow I’m really opening up here.”

JM: It’s because it’s me. Right?! [both laugh]
JS: I want to watch my own performance and say, “That was great.” Obviously, when other people like my performance it’s fun and it feels great, and I can receive that, and I do feel like I have a healthy relationship with self-critique. I can watch myself and say, “That’s good work, you should be proud of what you did in that scene,” or “OK cool, that choice you made there isn’t reading the way you wanted it to, but now you know for the future.” When I watch myself I have a detachment from who I am, so sometimes I forget other people are looking at me and being like, “That’s Justice!” When they come up to me and say, “You were so great in that,” sometimes I forget other people can see what I’m doing…

JM: That’s smart about detachment. Actors can get overly critical and say, “I can’t stand looking at my face, blah blah…” I do think it’s important to see stuff and say, “This is what I did.” I think that’s a healthy way to be, to be invested in the work but not in yourself.
JS: 100 percent.

JM: As actors, I always like people who take the work seriously but don’t take themselves seriously. It allows you to be a human being, to work really hard but not to be so precious. That’s an important quality. Sometimes it takes people a long time to get to that place.
JS: I do take the work so seriously and it’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do, but in my personality, I’m very fun-loving and relaxed and chill. I can make fun of myself and I’m always bothered when people meet me as a person and assume because of how goofy I can be that I’m not trying to be a capital ‘A’ actor. Do you know what I mean?

JM: Right.
JS: Sometimes I’m tempted to perform a level of gravitas just so I can get the roles I know I would be good at, but not have to act off camera as well. [both laugh]


hair SHARO ALI using ANDIS; grooming MIRA H. using LANCÔME; set design SARAH COTTERELL; photography assistant SOPHIE WEBSTER; fashion assistant JADZIA SCOTT

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