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‘The Get Down’ Lead Justice Smith Describes Challenges for Biracial Actors: ‘We’re Not a Monolith’

In previous decades, Smith says, he wouldn't have had the chance to play his character.

The Get Down

Justice Smith is among the breakout stars of “The Get Down,” Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series charting the early days of hip-hop. In a new Vulture interview, the 21-year-old details the highs and lows of his experience on the show, which was an exception to the rule for him as a biracial actor.

READ MORE: ‘The Get Down’ Season Two: Producers Reveal Vision for New Season and Time Jump

Smith, whose mother is white and whose father is black, said he’s been told he’s “not black enough for the black roles” and “not white enough for the white roles.” By contrast, “The Get Down” embraced his mixed background.

“As a mixed kid, people want to categorize you as one thing or the other, and I’m proud to be black and I’m proud to be white, because I’m both of those things,” he said. “I’m a biracial human being. I’m not one or the other. People will try to compartmentalize your characteristics, like you dance well because you’re black, but then you talk like that because you’re white. It’s like, No. I talk and act and dance and do this stuff because that’s me. That’s Justice. That’s how I was raised. That’s how my environment was. There are no biological characteristics that comes with race. We’re not a monolith.”

He adds that in “any other decade of cinema I don’t think I would be able to be a young person of color taking on diverse roles,” noting how went from playing an “upper middle-class nerd” in “Paper Towns” to his “Get Down” character of a “half Puerto Rican, half black poet-turned-rapper growing up in the South Bronx in the 1970s.”

READ MORE: Review: ‘The Get Down’ Season 1 Will Change the Way You Binge Netflix

Still, the role came with its own challenges. Smith said that he would maintain Zeke’s dialect for 16-hour days on set, worrying that to not do so wouldn’t be genuine. “I didn’t know that that actually is a burden on your soul because when you’re acting like someone else, you push yourself to the side. It’s basically a form of repression and it builds up. You’re just like, ‘I want to come out but I can’t.’ It’s awful and then there were days I would just go home and bawl because — I’m flustered even talking about it — the lines get blurred and you’re like, What is me and what is the character? Am I really like this or is that just him?

Smith said the fear that he would not return to the person he really is stayed with him throughout the experience; he would even find himself speaking like his character while spending time with friends on the weekend.

 For the entire extensive interview, head to Vulture.

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