TVHow The Get Down’s Justice Smith Makes Swagger Look So Easy
The actor talks about the easy way to get ’70s strut.
In Baz Luhrmann's intoxicating ’70s-set series The Get Down, Justice Smith plays a 17-year-old poet with something to prove, years before he becomes a successful rapper. When the show sets up home in the glitter-grime of the decade, Smith’s character, Ezekiel, can be seen strutting around the Bronx, notebook in hand and heart set on his disco-singing crush, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). In this fun, exaggerated world, the stakes in acquiring a record and getting into a club are life-or-death. As someone tells Ezekiel: “Your life or your motherfucking record.”
In the first episode of The Get Down, which emphasizes the bravery needed to be creative in a limiting world, Ezekiel makes up the word superflicious. He’s devoted to bending the world to his originality, and the actor who plays him—Justice Smith—put some of his own originality on display when he told us about hiding out after Netflix released the show, ordering in his favorite food, and learning how to rap.
It seems like a lot of people devoted a weekend of binge-watching to The Get Down. What did you do after it came out?
When it first came out, my parents and producers were like, You're not gonna be able to walk down the street. That scared the shit out of me, and I stayed inside for three days after the show came out because I was afraid [laughs]. And then after three days, I went outside and it was fine. One person came up to me, and I was like, Oh, okay, cool, my life is the same.
Do strangers coming up to you make you nervous? Do you hate small talk?
No! I love small talk! I feel like I'm really good at small talk. If we can just talk about the weather all day, I'm set. Everyone can relate! This wind, though! Gosh darn. Because I'm in California and I'm in New York, I can compare the weathers! Like, Oh, we don't have snow!
Tell me about the first few days the show was out and you were home. What did you do?
I was watching TV, reading. I read a lot of plays that I had to get through—some Arthur Miller and Venus in Fur. And Postmating a lot of stuff. I ordered Pinkberry.
Does reading older plays, with more traditional rhythms, help prepare you for the use of rhyme and poetry in The Get Down?
I always liked Shakespeare, and that was how I connected to the rhyme in the show. I was fairly new to rap and hip-hop, and the show uses poetry and rhyme in casual conversation, so I was like, “How am I gonna do that?” But it's very similar to what they do in Shakespearean plays, speaking in heightened language in order to colorize whatever you're saying. I like Greek plays a lot more, so I also utilized my knowledge of the meter and poetry in Greek plays.
"Well, my favorite Greek god is Hermes, just ’cause I like his winged shoes."
I really like Greek mythology. I especially loved it as a kid ’cause it's all gods with powers, and Zeus turns into a bull! Euripides is my favorite playwright because when I was a kid, Hercules was my favorite Disney movie. I read Heracles when I got older because it's what Hercules is based off of. It's nothing like the Disney movie! Still, that’s one of my dream roles, to play Heracles when I'm way older.
Who was your favorite Greek god when you were a kid?
Well, my favorite Greek god is Hermes, just ’cause I like his winged shoes. And he was also associated with Mercury, which was, you know, the planet and also communication. I liked how he was sort of this small, weaker god, but he was one of the most important because he helped all the other gods communicate.
Tell me a little bit about how you felt wearing ’70s clothes and developing a ’70s sort of strut.
Well, the clothes kind of make you move in that way because they're so tight. [laughs] I would start putting on the costume, and that's when I started to get into character, and I would stay in character for however long we were shooting. Then at the end of the day, when I took off the costume, I could put on my own clothes and return to myself.