An OCSA and YoungArts alum. Radar in the movie adaptation of John Green’s “Paper Towns.” And now you’ll get to know Justice Smith as Ezekiel “Books” Figuero, the pulse of Baz Luhrmann’s latest project and a Netflix original series “The Get Down.”
Set in the Bronx during the late 1970s, “The Get Down” witnesses the birth of hip-hop in what Luhrmann calls “a sprawling epic.” Filled with conflict, angst, raw pain, anger, joy and love, the six-episode Netflix show tackles what it means to be young in a time of turbulence. The cast boasts diversity, including Jaden Smith, Shameik Moore, Herizen Guardiola, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mteen II, and more.
The series opens up with an adult Zeke, played by Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame, at a sold-out show, and he flashes back to his youth (played by Justice) with voiceover narratives. In a Skype interview with Justice, who recently celebrated his 21st birthday, we discussed the pain that Zeke harbors and how that affects his life.
“One of the main aspects of Zeke I like to focus on is his issue with abandonment, because his parents both passed away when he was young,” said Justice. “When you don’t have that source of unconditional love, you look for that anywhere you can find it. That’s why he’s so attracted to relationships and he really grasps onto people like Mylene and Shaolin because he needs that source of love whether it’s infatuation or brotherly love.”
In episode one, one of the most riveting moments is when Zeke surprises his teacher by passionately performing a poem he penned himself. It’s a poignant scene that reveals the anger and grief Zeke has accumulated on his shoulders from growing up in a tough, intolerant society.
“He’s a man of reserve. His linguistics are something he keeps to himself and uses to console himself, because the environment he lives in does not allow for that expression of vulnerability, the expression of sensitivity,” said Justice. “I remember reading this one book, ‘Down These Mean Street’ by Piri Thomas. It’s about a kid growing up in the 1940’s through the 1970s in Harlem. He talks about walking around the streets with cara-palo, which means stone face. So I play with that a lot with Zeke, making him have this bottomless well of emotion but trying to mask it through this cara-palo. Slowly you see him become more and more comfortable in his skin when he discovers rap.”
One of Justice’s biggest takeaways from his time on “The Get Down” was learning to adjust to the quick pace of filming. With each episode’s price tag of $10 million, the cast and crew wasted no time getting to work. At first, however, it was jarring.
“It made me a better actor because I was able to do analysis a lot quicker and embody the scene a lot faster,” said Justice. “You were getting pages the day of. When I got on set they gave me the poem from episode one that morning. It was two pages long and I almost broke down. I just buckled down and started memorizing and connecting to it — luckily I already knew how to do that. I knew how to memorize quickly, learn the words, focus on the emotion and focus on what Zeke’s going through and why he’s delivering this poem in that moment… ‘The Get Down’ really evolved me as an actor and made me more confident in my abilities.”
Smith also developed as a rapper — an art form integral not only to the content but also to the telling of the story as well, in the transitions and voiceovers. However, though Justice can rap, freestyling is a different story.
“I can’t freestyle. I’m really bad at it!” Justice admitted with a laugh. “I told Baz at the callback that I would rap for him if he needs, but I don’t know how to freestyle. He said that it was alright — he wanted an actor first who could kind of rap rather than a rapper who could kind of act, which really consoled me.”
On the first day of “rapper boot camp,” Justice worked with rapper and record producer Kurtis Blow who asked everyone to go around and spin a verse. Despite Justice’s nervousness and inexperience, he got through it with the help of the cast and Luhrmann’s team.
“I never managed to pick up that talent. I think it’s something you’re born with. Some people are a natural and some people have to take time to learn it,” said Justice. “But I never really freestyled on camera. It was all written in the script.”
At rap school, the cast was given a list of ’70s slang words. Smith’s two favorites include “def,” a synonym for cool when talking about music, and “dag,” a synonym for dang or damn.
While Justice credits his basic music knowledge to growing up surrounded by his musically inclined family, he was still intimidated to approach “The Get Down.” In fact, the first thing he thought was that the role of Zeke was not meant for him — which made him want the job even more to take on that challenge.
“When I got the job and I remembered thinking holy s***, I have to do this right — this is a huge weight on my shoulders. Hip-hop is such an influential entity. It affects everybody’s lives. Even if you don’t like hip-hop you can’t help but hear it on the radio, or hear it at parties and clubs. It really permeates our culture and [The Get Down] is the origin story of that,” said Justice. “I not only had to capture authentically what it meant to grow up in that time but also had to capture the accent, the environment, and the musical revolution. It was a lot on my shoulders that I didn’t realize until I booked it… But I never felt alone approaching the research or the characters. Baz’s team provided us with all those resources — they wanted to make sure the show was authentic.”
Luhrmann, director and screenwriter of “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby,” is known for his scope, ambition, and attention to detail. Justice told me he enjoyed Luhrmann’s visual aesthetic and process.
“He is a visionary for a reason. He has a very specific cinematic language he puts in all of his projects. He is not only a visionary in the product, he is also a visionary in the process because the way he conceptualizes things in the scene are remarkable,” said Justice.
He recalled a two-second scene in which his character had to grab a pair of disco boots from a shelf while Justice’s aunt was sleeping in the background. Luhrmann was incredibly intentional in his actions, even directing how his aunt should be sleeping — face tilted over, mouth open, indulged in REM, etc.
“That is incredible to not only be thinking about the objective projection of the show and how everything should be, but also to zone in on the specificity of this woman sleeping,” recalled Justice. “That was one of the first instances I was like, I am working with a cinematic genius.”
The attention to detail and the beauty of the set — gritty New York, graffitied walls, red-and-white checker tiles, rubble — certainly helped the actors get into the mindset of their characters. The transformation is almost immediate with putting on the costume.
“When I’m on set, I stay in character and I stay in voice, in the accent that I develop for Zeke,” said Justice. “It’s really cool that our costume designer Jeriana [San Juan] provided us with undergarments for our characters that are authentic to the period. I could put on the undergarments and then dress up into Zeke. It makes it ritualistic and easy for my psyche to transition into Zeke’s psyche when I get on set. There’s a certain tightness to the clothes that remind me of the posture I have for Zeke. It’s remarkable because I look myself in the mirror I see Zeke instead of Justice, and for the rest of the day I can live as that.”
Once Justice steps out of the costume, he’s back to being himself. He talked about the importance of having that distinction between his life and his character.
“For a lot of actors, that can get muddy. It’s difficult because acting is basically digging in your own brain and messing with your own emotions, thoughts and feelings in order to give an authentic performance,” explained Justice. “People don’t understand that it can have a long-lasting effect if you’re crying in a scene thinking about your father dying. That can really affect the individual, so you have to differentiate between what is the job and what is the character and what is my real life. I’m grateful for the costume and hair departments for making that easier for me.”
As Justice transforms into Zeke everyday on set, he’s also transforming into a bigger and bigger star.
“My family keeps me humble. The people who I have in my life — they don’t indulge in all that nonsense,” he said in regards to the crazier side of fame. “I had a lot of people come up to me saying, ‘Your life is going to change,’ ‘You’re never going to be able to walk down the streets again,’ ‘it’s going to be so crazy.’ After the show came out I stayed inside for three days because I was scared!”
But after emerging from his hideout, Justice met kind fans who appreciated the show and the importance of the story.
“My associate producer keeps saying that it’ll grow into something even more present as time goes on — this fandom obsession — but right now it’s okay,” said Justice. “It’s cool to see that the show’s connecting with people.”
And indeed “The Get Down” is looking at massive critical acclaim and positive feedback from audiences — a hopeful sign that there will be a season 2. The parallels between the conflict in the storyline and the conflict of today are undeniable. “The Get Down” is a crucial story that needs to be told.
“I think it’s an honest depiction of America… My hope for the future is that this is not an isolated incident. I think we’re starting to see especially in television more diverse casts and shows about people of color with an array of conflict, which sometimes doesn’t even have to do with their race,” said Justice. “It needs to be told that we are not a monolith. That we are not cut from the same cloth, that we are all individual, and that we all have our own line of conflict that anyone can relate to. This show is special because it’s not only showing a diverse group of people but also young people of color achieving their goals and following their dreams. We’re exploring what it means to be young and when people watch the show, they can see their similarities in their own lives in their own youth regardless of what ethnicity they are.”
Meet the youth of America in “The Get Down” on Netflix.