Justice Smith Finally Gets to Be ‘Gay as F*ck’ on ‘Genera+ion’
The star of HBO Max’s “Genera+ion” on the struggle to feel fabulous, why straight actors shouldn’t play queer roles, and “coming out” as queer—even though he rejects that idea.
There is a sequence in the fourth episode of HBO Max’s Genera+ion that is a veritable gay fantasia.
The song “Lucky” by Britney Spears begins blasting, a campy bubblegum ballad from the pop star so underrated and beloved by her most devoted fans that the synthesized “thunks” of the intro trigger Pavlovian shrieks of, “Oh my god, it’s ‘Lucky!’” from any gay man within earshot.
Chester, the gay water polo star and resident rabble rouser played by Justice Smith, is getting ready for school. Lithe and shirtless, his lavender hair dye glistening in the morning light, he starts admiring himself in the mirror. Working his angles, he begins applying eyeshadow and some sparkling highlighter, offsetting the fuchsia pussy-bow blouse, string of pearls, and striped cardigan he decides to put on. Then it’s time to film the selfie video for social media, selling the look for the people.
For some older gay men watching, it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, glittering with the confidence and openness they could not have. For about two minutes, it seems as if Chester’s skin is peeled back to reveal every flamboyance, anti-gender flourish, and quirk—not to mention the comfort of knowing that others think he’s fly, too. For some queer members of Gen Z, it’s just the reality of how they live their lives, which is its own, beautiful thing. But for others, it’s still not. That’s what Justice Smith grappled with, and why he felt himself blossom after acting out the scene.
“I remember feeling really insecure that day,” Smith says, the 25-year-old actor’s cheekbones threatening to burst through the Zoom screen as he giggles at himself while we talk. There’s already an embarrassing sense of solitude when an actor has to shoot a scene like that solo, let alone one that requires them to work their angles and, for lack of a better phrase, “feel themselves” for a selfie video.
“Sometimes when I have to be, like, ‘hot’ as a character, I can play the humor of that, where I’m making a joke of it,” he says. “But Chester genuinely is like, ‘I look hot, I look really good. I have my makeup done. I’m gonna do my little angles.’ So I’m looking at myself in the selfie camera being like, I hope this works out…” He doubles over laughing. “Because I don’t have any experience looking good.”
Clocking the eyeroll coming from the other end of the Zoom connection, he grins sheepishly. Justice Smith looks very good. “OK, OK, OK…” he says. “But Chester has really taught me about aesthetics and angles, and fashion and makeup and all this kind of stuff.”
Born in Anaheim, the fifth of nine siblings, Smith got his biggest break in 2016 when he was cast as one of the young leads in Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious Netflix series The Get Down, a musical drama about life in the South Bronx in the late 1970s. While at the time one of the most expensive TV shows in history, its run was short-lived at just 11 episodes.
Still, it cannoned him to the top of Young Hollywood casting wishlists, and soon Smith went from singing and dancing for the director of Moulin Rouge! to the industry’s new in-demand action star, with lead roles in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the Pokémon film Detective Pikachu. So when Smith made his debut as Chester in Genera+ion, it was treated by critics as something of a revelation.
The series is created by 19-year-old Zelda Barnes and her father, Daniel, making it the rare look at growing up in Gen Z that is actually made by a member of Gen Z. It’s a spotlight for the full spectrum of gender and sexual identity that the younger generation has come to embrace. And it’s a combination education and horror film for those unaware of the conversations the kids these days are having, and the sex and partying that they’re doing.
But as culture writer Joseph Longo wrote in Mel magazine, it could also be considered one of the first examples of “post-‘It Gets Better’ TV,” shaking the mandate for saintly portrayals of queer people, or the idea that “visibility is the same as diversity.” Longo writes: “Queer people can be problematic, toxic and flawed, and Genera+ion makes that abundantly clear. It’s good we’re finally seeing our messes splayed on screen, not excused.”
Smith’s Chester has issues with boundaries and authority. He suffers from anxiety, which can sometimes manifest as being a total jackass. He’s popular, and sometimes a bully. But he’s also a solar flare of light in a frustrated generation: from his fashion to his attitude, he is the epitome of fabulous.
For Smith, it’s a personal role, too. Over the summer, he came out as queer—though he rejects the politics of the phrase “coming out.”
“I’m so happy to be on this show that is gay as fuck,” he says, practically bellowing those last three words.
“All the characters are gay as hell!” he continues, his energy crackling off his limbs as he gesticulates. “I mean, not all of them, but I like to say that. But to just like give a show to queers by queers. Like sure, straight people, you can watch it, too. But for so long, queer people have had to try to find their like representation in straight material. And, like, now it’s kind of the other way around.”
Coming Out, or Fleeing the ‘House of Assumption’
When Smith starts talking about the research he did to play Chester, he starts giggling again. He watched every season of America’s Next Top Model (and is happy to do his best Tyra Banks “we were all rooting for you!” impression), as well as every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, including the recent international seasons. “I mean… I just got to sit in front of the TV all day.”
It’s a syllabus that paid off in spades.
One of the most memorable scenes in the Genera+ion premiere comes after Chester is sent to the guidance counselor and asked to change his clothes after violating the dress code; turns out a rainbow-striped, knit crop top secured by overall straps that’s barely long enough to cover your nipples is not school-appropriate. (Let it be known that it’s accessorized with a yellow dog-collar choker, red half-moon sunglasses, and tartan harem pants.)
To make a show of things, he saunters into the school’s courtyard, starts shouting if anyone can sell him a new shirt for a dollar, and strips the crop top off entirely, swiveling his hips and posing as his classmates gawk.
“I was just like, I hope I’m doing Miss J proud,” Smith says, referring to the legendary Top Model modeling coach. But scenes like that tended to feel less like strutting down the runway and more like teetering on a tightrope between cathartic and traumatizing for Smith.
On the one hand, it was impossible not to feel amazing once he put on Chester’s clothes, to the point that he noticed even his body would move differently.
“It’s just utter, pure self-love,” he says. “And I think that’s something that everyone should experience because it’s been incredible to my own evolution of self-love and thinking that I look good.” He smirks: “Sometimes it bleeds into arrogance. I will say that. But that’s not because of Chester. That’s just because I’m a Leo and I am going to be vain.”
Even wearing Chester’s confidence, though, he was a mess of nerves shooting the scene. He didn’t breathe, tensing every muscle he had and sucking in his stomach as much as possible. Here he was playing a scene in which his character couldn’t be more comfortable in his own skin, yet he was so unrelaxed he couldn’t stop sweating.
“I got a glimpse into how actresses, specifically, have to do that constantly,” he says. “Even in roles where the point is not even like, ‘Oh, she’s so hot.’ But because of this double standard that society has, they’re forced to, like, be hot when they cry. To have their hair done perfectly when they’re emotional. It’s fucked up. It was a glimpse into that: How do I look attractive and also play my character? So that was really interesting.”
While he couldn’t bring himself to say it at the time, when he watches the scene back, he can admit, “Damn, Chester looks good.” That’s the kind of revolutionary thing about Genera+ion.
Smith identifies as queer. In an Instagram post this summer, he expressed his solidarity for Black queer and Black trans lives, writing his support “as a Black queer man myself” and declaring his love for his boyfriend, Nicholas Ashe.
Genera+ion marks the rare occasion where an actor who publicly identifies as queer is playing a character that isn’t just also queer, but fierce and confident. The narrative isn’t rooted in his marginalization or the trauma and struggle he experiences. His identity is celebrated, a positive portrayal that queer actors in Hollywood still fight for the opportunity to play.
“There’s all these amazingly dynamic queer characters, and they go to straight actors. Then those straight actors are called ‘brave,’ which makes no sense to me,” Smith says. “That’s so insulting. I don’t understand how it’s brave to, like, press your lips against another human being’s lips. That is just something that human beings do. It’s not a brave thing to do.”
The biggest point for Smith is that he, as a person, is nothing like Chester. He is acting. Playing him is a stretch. They both are queer Black men, but they are not the same person. Not only does he get to play a queer character, but, as an actor, he’s getting to do real character work—the kind that straight actors are so often lauded for when they take on queer roles.
More, Chester isn’t relegated to being someone’s best friend, or the show’s comic relief. “Whenever we’re confronted with personalities that are loud and effervescent and big, society assumes that they lack profundity,” he says. “That’s not fair. Extroverted, big personalities are just as complex as the kid in the back of the classroom writing poetry in his notebook.”
Because of his feelings about straight actors playing queer characters, Smith had always planned to, as he calls it, “step out of the house assumption” and let people know that he identifies as queer before the show premiered. “Like, I don’t want anyone to ever assume that I’m straight,” he says, smiling to say he’s (mostly) kidding. “That’s so dumb. Don’t assume that. That’s like such an insult.”
But he also rejects the idea of “coming out,” the idea that individuals owe the rest of the world an announcement about their sexuality. “When you’re a public figure, the house of assumption is built around you,” he says. “And then everyone decided, you need to tell us who you fuck.”
It was during the Black Lives Matter rallies over the summer—”the revolution,” he calls it—that he needed to get out of the house of assumption, and he wanted to associate himself with the message of protecting Black queerness when he did it.
Bringing it back to Genera+ion, he says, “I just love that this show kind of celebrates all that progress. The characters are open and fluid and dealing with the nuances of sexuality, and not just sexuality in itself.”
It’s about getting to be “gay as fuck”—but also so much more.