The question at the heart of the Apple TV+ series Defending Jacob is a simple one: Did he do it? For Jaeden Martell, who plays the title role, that question was also the key to unlocking his performance as a teenage boy accused of murder. The series, which will answer that question when it concludes this week, follows Jacob’s parents, played by Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery, as they confront the reality that their son might be a killer. Martell has spent the last few years appearing in some of Hollywood’s most popular movies, from the Stephen King horror adaptation It and its sequel, to last year’s surprise-hit whodunit, Knives Out. The 17-year-old Philadelphia native, who launched his career with a Hot Wheels commercial and has been growing up on movie sets ever since, has steered clear of the juvenile roles that bog down teenage acting careers, carving out a niche in darker material such as last year’s claustrophobic horror indie The Lodge. Here, Martell tells his three-time costar and onscreen dad Chris Evans why he’s drawn to the darkness.
CHRIS EVANS: What’s going on, buddy?
JAEDEN MARTELL: Nothing much. How are you?
EVANS: Slowly slipping into insanity.
MARTELL: I hear you.
EVANS: I’ve got a list of hard-hitting shit, Jaeden. You’d better be ready. I’m not pulling any punches. First question: Who do you hate the most in Hollywood?
MARTELL: Chris Evans.
EVANS: [Laughs] Let’s take it to the very top. You’ve been doing this since you were a fetus. What got you into acting?
MARTELL: When I was growing up, I didn’t think I could do it, because I grew up in Philly. But I moved out to L.A. with my mom when I was 8, and a lot of people out here are actors or are connected to the industry in some way, and I met my now-manager. She has a bunch of kids who are all actors and they’ve been doing commercials since they were toddlers, so she said that I should try it out. But I was naturally introverted and shy, so I got into it by accident and fell in love with it, as people do.
EVANS: You’re so poised and mature for a kid your age. That’s not a question, that’s just me blowing smoke. What was it about the role of Jacob that piqued your interest?
MARTELL: The script, [the director] Morten [Tyldum], [the writer] Mark [Bomback], and you were super-attractive, but the most attractive thing about the show was Jacob himself. I could relate to him, but he was also mysterious and kind of confusing to figure out as I was reading the scripts. It’s very internal, and I was just able to figure out who this character was. I’d never really done that before. I feel like all of the information is always on the page, and with this one, I got to use my imagination and creativity to create this character.
EVANS: I don’t know that you’ve ever actually said out loud whether or not you think Jacob did it. That’s a really cool thing to keep to yourself. What were you able to do to prepare for a role like this?
MARTELL: The biggest thing I did was figure out who Jacob was and whether or not he did it. Mark and Morten wanted to give me the freedom to choose, and they knew that no matter what the answer was, it wouldn’t affect how they shot it or how he was outwardly portrayed. I had to figure out whether he did it or not, and not only how it affected my actions and my dialogue, but how it didn’t affect them. Either he’s a really incredible liar or he’s telling the truth.
EVANS: You’ve done a lot of movies where you’ve been the only young person on set. You’ve got, as I said earlier, an unprecedented level of composure and maturity for someone your age. What is one of the major differences between doing a movie like It, where you’re surrounded by peers? I remember when I was young, doing movies with a bunch of kids my age, it’s a very different vibe than when you’re doing a movie like Knives Out or Midnight Special. Which one are you more drawn to?
MARTELL: The first movies I did were all just me and adults, and that was pretty hard. I didn’t experience high school or anything like that, so it was hard to make friends. It was really the first experience I had where I was with other kids my age. We all became best friends, and I definitely appreciate those relationships. But there’s something about being on set with older people and being able to learn from them. Knives Out was just as fun as It, but I was also able to learn so much from you and Jamie [Lee Curtis] and Daniel [Craig]. For me, acting is all about learning and getting better with every project, and the way to do that is to look at people who have been doing this for forever.
EVANS: What’s been one of the more challenging jobs you’ve had to tackle?
MARTELL: It was this movie called The True Adventures of Wolfboy because I had to do three-and-a-half hours of makeup every day. It was also mentally stressful because sitting in that chair and not being able to eat because there’s hair on my face—it was interesting getting in the mind of that character, but it took its toll on my body and my mind as well.
EVANS: I fucking bet. Oh, probably I shouldn’t swear. Who has been one of the most influential actors that you’ve worked with, and what lessons do you think they’ve taught you? And you can’t say me as an answer, no matter how much you want to.
MARTELL: I feel like working with you or Michelle [Dockery], you don’t necessarily give me advice to my face, but just by watching you guys work and seeing how you interact with the crew, and how you interact with your own characters, that’s where I really learn, by observing. I did a lot of that on the set of Knives Out, because we were such a huge cast. I was able to sit there and watch Jamie stay in character while reacting to Daniel speaking. Just the little things, like her checking her watch. It seems so simple to people, but I can forget to do the simple, natural things. Also, someone like Bill Murray [on the set of St. Vincent]. When I started acting, I was very anxious being the only kid on set and having a lot of dialogue and not knowing what I was doing, but Bill taught me how to stay relaxed and find light and define it within the stress of moviemaking and having fun.
EVANS: Are you attracted more to darker material?
MARTELL: For sure. I don’t know if you feel this way, but sometimes it’s easier to be emotional. It sounds really weird to other people, but sometimes I’ll just cry in the mirror for fun.
EVANS: That’s great!
MARTELL: It sounds like I’m a psychopath, but it’s fun to push yourself and be weird and be crazy and sad.
EVANS: I’ve got to start doing that shit. Maintain that connection. Don’t lose access to that, because you only start burying it more. I always want to work with good directors. They usually come first and foremost. Director aside, what type of roles do you want to play?
MARTELL:I’ve always wanted to play the villain. Someone you love to hate. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, where they’re terrible people that you would never want to meet, but you’re still drawn to them and are able to empathize with them even though they’re awful.
EVANS: Is it hard for you to play your own age because you’re so much more advanced than your years? Do you kind of get excited about the idea of playing adults because you’re like, “Shit, my brain has been here for years”?
MARTELL: I’m still a regular kid. Jacob does do dumb things that I’d never do, like plays video games and go on social media when he shouldn’t. I think that’s less of an age thing and more of a character thing, so I have to think about that and try to justify it in my own mind. But I’ve been lucky to play really interesting, complex characters that aren’t just defined by age, which is really cool. A lot of young actors don’t get to do that. A lot of actors get stuck playing the same thing. That’s the interesting thing about being a child actor. You just have to be natural and act like yourself. That’s what gets you jobs. But, to be a good actor period, you have to be good at changing yourself and becoming different characters, so I’m hoping I can do that.
EVANS: Well said. I hate the who’s-your-favorite-actor questions, so I’ll frame it like this: Is there a career out there that you would model yourself after? I have a lot of actors I enjoy, but I would never want their careers. What actor out there do you think, “Man, this guy’s really done it and I’d love to follow him in those footsteps”?
MARTELL: I’ve always loved Leonardo DiCaprio. He chooses one role at a time and he really delves into it. I think that’s really admirable. People like Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix, I feel like I would want their careers to a certain extent. They sort of drive themselves beyond sanity.