AGE: 20. FROM: Orange County, CA. UP NEXT: The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series about the life and music of a group of teens in the South Bronx in the 1970s.
JOHN ORTVED: Do you call your hometown “The OC”?
SMITH: No! Actually, yeah, sometimes. But it means something different to me than to other people.
ORTVED: Tell me about growing up.
SMITH: My parents were singers. I have eight brothers and sisters. I’m in the exact middle. The middle of nine kids!
ORTVED: Did you get any attention?
SMITH: You tell me. Maybe that’s why I’m so starved for it. I wanted to be an actor since I was little. I went to a public school and then an arts high school. And I learned how to lie at and an early age, and how to lie well. It’s about convincing myself of what I’m saying: self-deception.
ORTVED: What was your first real gig?
SMITH: I did an Apple commercial. I played a middle school news reporter talking about wind turbines and how they’re a better energy source. I was 15. I was on a Nickelodeon show, The Thundermans, when I was 18. It was about a superhero family. And I was miserable. It was very heightened sitcom acting, and I wasn’t good at that. I just hadn’t found my niche.
ORTVED: What’s your niche?
SMITH: I like things that are more grounded and authentic, genreless things. The Get Down is like that. It gave me the opportunity to be gritty and raw.
ORTVED: Tell me about your character in The Get Down?
SMITH: His name is Ezekiel Figuero. He’s a very smart and sensitive poet in an environment where those qualities are vilified.
ORTVED: How did you train for the role?
SMITH: We had rap classes with Kurtis Blow, Rahiem from the Furious Five, and Grandmaster Flash. They would teach us how to move and rap, and the difference in intonation and cadence from early rap to modern rap.
ORTVED: Can you rap now?
SMITH: Yes, but I have a South Bronx dialect in the show, and I can only rap in the dialect.
ORTVED: Tell me about working with Baz Luhrmann.
SMITH: He’s a true artist. I convinced Baz that I was Jaden Smith’s cousin, before Jaden came in. He believed it for a few minutes, until I told him it was a lie.