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Justice Smith, star of ‘The Get Down,’ makes his mark in ‘Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom’

The young star speaks French, digs Viola Davis and Heath Ledger, and spills on who left him starstruck

He hasn’t been in the acting game for long, but Justice Smith has made an early mark. You must’ve seen him onscreen already — perhaps as Radar, a high schooler completely embarrassed by his parents’ extensive collection of black Santa memorabilia, in the 2015 film Paper Towns, which was inspired by the John Green novel of the same title. Or maybe in the short-lived musical drama series The Get Down, set in 1970s New York, in which Smith’s character Zeke and his love interest Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) were the real-life embodiment of heart-eyed emojis. Pokemon fans have certainly heard that he’ll be starring as Tim Goodman in Detective Pikachu, which is scheduled to hit theaters in 2019. But now, Smith is embracing his biggest role yet: as an IT technician named Franklin Webb in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the latest installment of the epic series of dinosaur movies that began in 1993 with the timeless Jurassic Park. It’s a difficult part that Smith nearly missed out on, but one he landed as a testament to all the work he’s put in. It’s because acting is truly what he lives for — although he also loves speaking French, watching culinary competitions on television, and some good ol’ Simon and Garfunkel. Oh, and the story behind how he got his first name is absolutely hilarious.

How did you land the role as Franklin Webb in Jurassic World?

I sent in a self-tape and got a call saying that they liked it and wanted me to fly out to London and do a screen test. At the time, I had an offer for this play that I really wanted to do. So I told them, ‘I’m sorry … I can’t fly out because I’ve already committed myself.’ … Then they said, ‘OK, well … we’ll just give you the role.’ I’m like, ‘WHAT!’ And now, here I am.

Did you grow up watching Jurassic Park?

I used to take family road trips all the time with my siblings and my dad. We had this portable DVD player, and we’d watch all three Jurassic Parks in order … I fell in love with them. My siblings would all cower in the corner of the car, and I would just sit there in awe of the people getting eaten by dinosaurs. I’m a big fan of horror movies now, and I think it’s because of the horror aspect within that first movie. Obviously, the first one is my favorite.

“My favorite Pokemon is, and was, Totodile.”

What separates Fallen Kingdom from the other four Jurassic Park films?

[Director] J.A. [Bayona] is really gifted at creating tone, and he adds this sense of mysticism and this kind of fairy-tale-ness to Fallen Kingdom that the other films don’t really have. I think this new movie is going to hit all the things that people are expecting to see and want to see but also have this really cool new fantastical element.

What was it like working with Jeff Goldblum?

I never got to work with him. I didn’t have any scenes with him. But I just met him two days ago … and he’s awesome.

What was the best part about working on The Get Down?

It was an amazing experience. It really shaped the kind of actor that I am today. Because I was playing someone who was very different from me, I was trying out a process of approaching a character that I hadn’t really tried out before. I was working with such a visionary director in Baz [Luhrmann]. There was a lot of things that I took away from that period.

Out of all the characters that you’ve portrayed on screen or onstage, which one is closest to your personality?

I just finished the Pokemon movie, and I would say the character I play in that is very similar to me. But no one has seen that yet, so … (Laughs.)

Speaking of Detective Pikachu, what was your favorite Pokemon growing up?

I had all of the original, first-generation Pokemon cards, both me and my sister. We would play the games. I had Pokemon Gold — that was one of the first games I had on Game Boy Color. I was a huge fan. My favorite Pokemon is, and was, Totodile, who is from, I believe, the second generation. It’s because I had a little figurine of Totodile as a kid and he was in the Pokemon Gold game.

What was the inspiration behind your first name?

My mom thought it was funny. She wanted to name me something weird, like Fire or Wood or something like that. Then she came upon Justice because she thought I would become a rock star, and then when the audience is waiting for me to come out, they would all scream, ‘WE WANT JUSTICE! WE WANT JUSTICE!’ That’s where that came from.

When and how did you learn to speak French?

I started learning the language my freshman year of high school. My grandmother was French-Canadian. She passed away when I was 8. I wanted to take French in honor of her. I took it for three years, stopped for two and picked it up again when I met my current girlfriend, who is a French major at school. It’s been eight years total but five years of speaking it.

Are you fluent?

I would not consider myself to be as fluent as a native speaker, but I definitely can hold my own in a conversation.

What’s your favorite French word?

I’m very immature, so my favorite French word is bonheur, which means happiness, but it sounds like boner. I just think it’s hilarious that happiness in French is boner in English.

If not acting, what do you think you would be doing with your life?

I don’t think I would be alive. Acting is my everything. It’s my first love. I’ve known that’s what I wanted to do since I was a little kid, so I’m very fortunate to be doing it now. But I never really thought that I would be doing anything else.

What was your favorite video game as a kid and why?

I had Donkey Kong … and Super Mario … on Super Nintendo. I loved those games.

What’s one album you think is a classic that no one else does?

That no one else does? Ughhh … wow, that’s a hard one. I really like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, but everyone thinks that’s a classic. That’s an iconic album. So I don’t know. I think my tastes are pretty much aligned with other people’s. I’m not really that original, I guess.

If there’s one actor or actress, dead or alive, who you could do a single scene with, who would it be and why?

Viola Davis, because she is phenomenal. She’s completely underrated. Or Heath Ledger, because he’s one of my favorite actors.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I don’t really get starstruck. When I meet people, I think it sort of instantly kills the facade of what I thought of them. If I’ve seen them online, or in movies or TV shows, I instantly shed all the things that I thought of them before and interact with them as a person. But I will say, when I did meet Will Smith, I was a little starstruck. I was trying to be cool and act like I didn’t like him, which I don’t know why I did that. It was bad.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?

Competitive cooking shows, where they have to do weird stuff to make their food … I love that s—. I also love Gordon Ramsay yelling at people.

What will you always be a champion of?

I’m not really good at a lot of things. Hopefully I’ll be a champion at acting, but that’ll take a long time.

If you died and came back to life as a dinosaur, which one would it be and why?

The mosasaurus, because in my soul I am a giant whale who eats everything in his path.

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.