genera+ion is an HBO Max teen dramedy from the minds of the father and daughter duo Daniel and Zelda Barnz. The show centers on a group of Gen-Z high school students who are navigating the difficulties of exploring sexuality, friendship, and the obstacles of life in Orange County, California.
Leading the way is Justice Smith, who portrays Chester, a confident young Black queer teenager, a character who serves as the heart of the show and a point of intrigue for many. AwardsWatch spoke with Smith a few weeks ago to discuss genera+ion and its first season, which airs its season finale today.
Michael-Michelle Pratt: What were your initial thoughts about playing Chester when first reading the script?
Justice Smith: I auditioned originally for the guidance counselor who was originally written a lot younger. I didn’t audition for Chester because I knew that guy existed. I met Chester ten times over with a bunch of different people. I thought they were going to just find the guy through street casting or something. But, they didn’t want me for the guidance counselor and my friend convinced me to go in for Chester. The minute that I started saying the words, I realized that I’m actually the perfect person to play this because I have so much reference for this guy. The rest is history. I dyed my hair, I thought that was really important for him. In the first fitting I was so liberated by wearing these clothes that I wouldn’t normally wear. It was love at first crop top.
MMP: Chester reminds me of many Black queer male classmates and friends that I’ve known. He is sarcastic and hilarious as a coping mechanism and armor. What did you pull from to play him?
JS: I already had some of his identity in my archive. I have similar experiences because we’re both Black and queer, and we both grew up in Orange County. Those things were all really familiar to me. When I was playing Chester, I was playing it like an amalgamation of people who I was in high school in addition to my younger brother, my older sister, and several other people thrown into that pile.
MMP: Chester seems to be the glue to the show and its central character. He seems to be a friend or crush to each character. What do you think makes him so alluring?
JS: Chester is a really beautiful soul. He’s had to be mature at a young age because of the death of his mom, and being Black and queer in a predominantly white community. He copes with that trauma by being bold and brass. He has also become very parental. He’s really good with children which is shown a lot in the show. He takes it upon himself to care for others when they need him most, because has a deep empathy for people, and sees them as his babies. Which makes him a great friend and that’s why I think people are drawn to him.
MMP: How do you hope that Chester’s relationship with Nathan progresses going forward?
JS: [laughs] Chester and Nathan enter a dynamic that is really problematic and fun to play. I’ll say that. Uly Schlesinger is great to work with and a friend of mine.
MMP: The relationship between Chester and Sam is an interesting departure from most teacher/student romantic interest plot lines. Usually the adult teacher is the aggressor. What are your thoughts on that dynamic?
JS: Working with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett was incredible because we instantly had a rapport that was natural. It was never planned to have this relationship come to frustration because they were trying to challenge fetishizing high schooler and teacher relationships. But, it’s something that happens, especially with young queers when they feel that plague of loneliness and are in an environment where no one else is queer. They often look to older queer people to be a judge. I think Chester sees this older Black queer man as representation because he feels so alone. Because he’s a teenager, he doesn’t know how to compartmentalize what that means. He just knows that he feels intensely for this person, and confuses it for love and attraction.
MMP: Sam’s rejection of Chester brings out a drastically different side of his character, in his demor and clothing? What was it like portraying that heart ache and how do you hope more of Chester is revealed similarly in the future?
JS: That scene was one of the scariest scenes that I’ve ever shot in my career. I was so excited when I read it on the page because I thought it was pivotal to Chester’s narrative of queer loneliness and the way he romanticized love and relationship, and the way he refuses to acknowledge that he still a kid. I had so many expectations going into shooting that scene, we did the first take, and it was some of the worst acting that I’ve ever done in my entire life. It wasn’t going how I expected it to go. Retrospectively, I realized Chester also went into this moment with so many expectations. He thought this confession of love was going to be met with an equipable declaration of love. It’s met with the harshest rejection he has ever experienced. It’s such an unfathomable pain for him to deal with, the only thing he knows how to do is pull the fire alarm and let out this guttural yell. I’m glad I was in the headspace of doubt because it really worked for the scene.
MMP: Chester’s fashion sense seems to be character itself within the show. What was the process of creating his style?
JS: I don’t wanna take that much credit because Shirley, our costume designer, is incredible. When I walked into the room during our very first fitting, there were all these crazy tube tops, crop tops, glitter, and jewelry. It really helped me define who this person was. At first it was just what I could imagine by reading the script. It just said “Chester walks across the quad wearing a crop top.” and that was all it said. Shirley really brought that to life. I’m so glad she is on this show and responsible for Chester’s iconic looks. As the show went on, I realized how important his outfits were to expressing himself and making sure he was seen. I was able to go into the closet and know exactly what I needed. Shirley also did an amazing job of making sure everything was in Chester’s price range. A lot of the pieces are thirted or plastic. We never wanted it to feel like he had a team of stylists or that he had no fashion sense. It was about finding the place for a seventeen year old that wants to pursue fashion, how would he present himself. That was just as important as sitting down to analyze the script’s emotional beats.
MMP: What do you think differentiates genera+ion from other teen shows and what do you hope audiences take away from it?
JS: I hope young queer kids see themselves represented. I think this show is so different from other teen shows out there because of how unapologetically queer it is, and how it embraces queer joy and silliness. Which is the driving light of our show. Stories of queer plight are important but I’m glad we can add something joyful to the zeitgeist.
The first season of genera+ion is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO Max