For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
On Genera+ion—HBO Max’s answer to the question, “What if shows about teens were actually realistic?”—Justice Smith plays Chester, the vibrant, complex queer high school student who is just as good on the water polo team as he is at making inappropriate connections on Grindr. Chester, with his torso exposed, nails painted, and hair bleached defiantly, has a colorful sense of style that can truly be described as unique, but the actor who plays him tends to go for a more subtle look. He’s quick to point out that Chester is indeed a character, and Smith is a 26-year-old actor who feels fortunate to be able to act out his childhood dreams of playing on-screen. Calling from Northern Ireland, where he is currently filming an adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons, Smith talked about recent developments in his closet and obsessing over the French television show Call My Agent!
You’re currently filming Dungeons & Dragons. Did you play that game growing up?
I’ve always been really interested in role-playing games, but I’ve never actually participated. We did play as a cast before we started shooting, which was really fun. I was very invested in that.
That’s where the moral alignment chart comes from, right? Chaotic evil, chaotic good, and so on. Which one are you?
I would say neutral good, or chaotic good. I wasn’t always good, but I am good now.
What was it about Call My Agent! that resonated with you?
I think it offers a philosophical perspective on the business aspect of the entertainment industry. I don’t know how accurate of a representation it is, because I’ve never been a part of the Parisian scene, but I love how these agents always try to convince their clients of doing projects through promoting the value in the story and the character. That’s how I approach my work, like, what is the story that we’re telling? What is the character that we’re representing? It’s interesting to see non-creatives have such creative insight.
Let’s talk about your look in this photo.
It’s just me on the phone, with a backdrop of what I tried to make look like Paris, but really is just Northern Ireland apartments. [Laughs] And it’s me wearing a blazer and a button up because I’m, like, agents are always wearing a blazer.
On Genera+ion, your character Chester’s sense of fashion is really colorful and exciting. What was your relationship to playing with so many colors, fabrics, and patterns—or lack of clothing—to create such a vibrant person?
It was liberating! My own fashion sense has been self-described as “tired dad.” I was committing to that aesthetic for the longest time. I usually prefer earth tones and more of a muted palette, but getting to explore color blocking and mixing patterns with Shirley Kurata, our costume designer, was liberating. Chester taught me a lot about how fashion is just another form of storytelling.
Have you taken any style tips from Chester and incorporated them into your real wardrobe?
Crop tops are awesome. They are coming back, but if you look at Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first one, he’s in that crop. I mean, queer men have been doing it for ages, but all men should be wearing crops. I don’t know why we’re acting like it’s like a crazy idea! My sister helps me out with that, by just taking scissors to everything that I own.
What excites you most about television right now?
The stories that haven’t been told are finally being told. I think television has been embracing inclusion more than film has, and film is kind of catching up. We’re finally giving opportunities to tell our own stories and represent ourselves and create visibility for ourselves. I hope that we continue in that direction. I hope that’s not just a trend. I always talk about how blessed I am to be an actor in this era specifically, because if I was 26 and acting in the early 2000s, there would be a very small set of roles that I could play. I don’t know how my career would have shaped out back then. So I’m just grateful that I exist now and that people are embracing people like me now.
What sort of shows did you watch or identify with when you were growing up?
I’m thinking of children’s cartoons. At my art school, there were kids who were so deep, like “I watch Bonanza.” And I was like, that makes them so cool because they’re not watching the mainstream things. I was only watching Disney Channel and HBO Kids. [Laughs] But I also remember that watching those things is what really solidified in my head that art was play.
What are you excited to play with next?
I really want a season 2 of Genera+ion. I’m excited to get back to Chester, if they’ll give us the opportunity to do so. I want to continue down the path of showcasing how many different people I can be, because it’s what I take pride in. I love this job so much. It’s all that I’ve ever wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and I will die if I don’t get to explore it to the fullest. Every day I’m grateful that I get to do what I do, and that gratitude keeps me going.