Fresh face: Justice Smith's musical destiny led him to Netflix's 'The Get Down'

'The Get Down' has an upside for Netflix
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    'The Get Down' has an upside for Netflix


'The Get Down' has an upside for Netflix 01:28

(CNN)Over the next three months, there will be no shortage of new TV shows vying for viewers' attention. Hopefully not lost in the chaos of dozens of series premieres? The great batch of fresh new talent poised to have breakout years.

CNN's Fresh Faces interview series aims to introduce some of those talented newcomers.
Name: Justice Smith, 21
    Hometown: Anaheim, California
    Where you might know him from: "Paper Towns" (2015)
    Now starring in: Netflix's 70-set musical drama "The Get Down"
    He plays: Zeke, a lovestruck poet with a gift for rhymes
    Acting hero: Viola Davis
    Favorite TV show: "Bojack Horseman"
    I wanted to start by asking about your first job in the entertainment business. What do you remember about it?
    My first professional job was a commercial I had done in middle school for Apple. I played a middle school reporter doing a news report for my school on wind turbines and how they're energy efficient. It was not even a TV commercial. It was one of those [web] commercials. I remember being super excited. I was the only one who had lines in the commercial and I was just really cocky about it -- like, "I get to speak on TV!" And then it turned out it wasn't on TV. [Laughs]
    How old were you then?
    I was fifteen, I think.
    You've been doing theater for a very long time and you got into TV/Film acting. What was the motivator behind that?
    As long as I remember, I've wanted to act. I remember seeing kids [on] this HBO kids show about kids who make movies and stuff, and I remember watching it when I was 5 or 6 and being like, "I want to do that." I've always wrote stories and wrote little scripts. But it wasn't really, "I want to be on TV." I just wanted to act. I was obsessed -- as I still am -- with acting.
    It was less about the spectacle and more about the art of acting.
    Yeah, the craft of it. I was always more fascinated by kids in dramas than kids in those Nickelodeon shows or kid shows. I was more obsessed with, like, the kid [on screen] crying because their dad got shot, you know? I was like, "That's what I want to do."
    That's so funny. What did your parents think of that?
    They were very supportive. Both my parents are musicians so they're both artists and my sister's a singer as well, and they had thought that I was going to become a musician. My mom always says the reason she named me Justice was because she wanted to name me something unique. She thought that if she named me Justice, when I became a rockstar, everyone [would] chant, "We want Justice! We want Justice!" while they're waiting for me to come on stage. Then when I was born, I disappointed her by becoming an actor. [Laughs]
    I'm pretty sure "disappointment" is not a word she'd use.
    Yeah, probably not. They were very supportive at a young age. I was very privileged to have parents that believed in me and believed in my dreams and wanted to help me achieve them.
    If your parents are musicians, then they must have been so happy when you got "The Get Down." Tell me about getting that role.
    Before "The Get Down," acting was always a way for me to express myself. I feel like "The Get Down" is a way to escape myself. The character [is] a lot different than me [in terms of] where I grew up and my interests. I had to really find a way to research to really put myself in the shoes of of Zeke. It was the first time I was really like, "Wow, you're doing what the big boys are doing." But I remember my mom was really happy about it because I was always, "No, I don't want to do music." And she's always like, "You have such a great voice." You know how a mom is — very biased. Then I got this show and I was like, "Okay, I guess I have to do this anyway." [Laughs] But it was cool. I had that indirect training in music from my parents growing up, so it wasn't completely new to me. Although, rap was very new. But because I think I understood music to an extent, it was easy to jump in headfirst.
    justice smith the get down
    So rap was new to you? Was that because you were, like, a musical kind of guy — coming from theater?
    No, my sister was more into rap than I was. I mean, hip-hop is so popular. It's a very powerful entity. I think it affects a lot of different people and influences our culture. I always knew about it and heard songs that I liked, but it was never my preferred genre. I like jazz. I like folk and I like indie and alternative. I like some old school stuff. I remember three months before [my audition], coincidentally, I [had] gotten really heavily into Biggie Smalls because he was one of my sister's favorite rappers. Then from there, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q. Then I got this audition for "The Get Down" and I had to rap for the audition. That was nerve-racking. I rapped a Biggie Smalls song and I got the call back and the rest is history.
    "Thanks, sister."
     Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]
    Tell me about working with Baz Luhrmann. What did you, not just learn from "The Get Down" like the experience, but what did you take away from it as an actor?
    I was fairly nervous to meet Baz. But as soon as I did, he was very easy to talk to. I was always surprised by how humble he was for a man of such prestige and vision. He was just very conversational and very youthful and wise. Every time he opens his mouth he has a life lesson to share. He wanted us to have this back and worth where we could talk about the characters because he really wanted us to make the characters our own -- which was a dream come true. As an actor, you don't really feel like you have any autonomy as a character. He really established early [that] these are our characters. We're the only ones playing them and we're the only ones living them. We need to own them as much as possible. I just learned a lot about what it means to be an artist from him and what it means to be nice and humble and patient. At the same time, say what you want and say, what you need and be open to the moment. Trust that you understand your art.
    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.