Jaden Smith On Playing Edgier Roles — But Never Himself

Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Jaden Smith, the enigma and Gen-Z icon, should be on your radar for more than just his musings and famous last name. The 20-year-old can rap, act, and wax philosophical. Now the performer is putting his best wheel forward in Crystal Moselle's narrative feature film debut, Skate Kitchen, the follow-up to her compelling documentary debut Wolf Pack.
Smith plays Devon, a quiet, illusive, and talented photographer-skater who befriends, and then bewitches, the film's main character, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg). Camille's coming-of-age story is fueled by her desire to become part of the all-girls skate crew, "Skate Kitchen," despite her mother's warning to stop skating after she gets "credit carded" by her board and suffers a cringe-worthy injury. Set against the graffitied Lower East Side of Manhattan, the story is based on real events and encounters inspired by Moselle and the IRL skate crew's real life, but it's Smith's cleaned-up skater boy, with his cherry-red shaved head, leather Supreme fanny pack, and expensive camera, that gives the indie film its Hollywood touch.
Not only is this Smith's edgiest role to date (something he'd like to do more of — Hollywood, are you listening?), he is also the only professional actor in the film. As the emotional catalyst for Camille, his character (accidentally) teaches her the difference between tween lust and adult relationships. Watching the film, you may start to find similarities between Devon and Smith: the age, the swagger, the style — but trust that Smith is not playing himself. "I wasn’t pulling anyone too much from myself at all as far the character," he told Refinery29. "I was thinking of a mixture of photographers, skaters, and even different artists and rappers that I know." (Although all those skate moves are really his, and he's been mastering them for awhile.)
Much like Devon, Smith is still figuring it all out, but he knows he's eager for more. Refinery29 spoke to the triple threat about the serendipity that led him to this role, what's next in his career, and how skateboarding is like a transcendental experience.
Refinery29: I heard that you had already been following Rachelle on Instagram. Do you remember how you first came across her?
Jaden Smith: "My homie texted me and was like, 'This is this person that is so good at skating in New York, and you really need to hit them up.' And then I was like 'Damn, this is really good skating.' So then I hit up Rachelle, but I never really hung out with her because I didn’t want to tell her that I really was good at skating. Eventually Crystal came to the office space and was talking to me about the film, and she was trying to explain the whole Skate Kitchen thing to me. I was like 'Wait.. I think I know who you are talking about because my friend showed me this person.' Rachelle is actually sitting next to me right now."
Were you also familiar with Crystal's work?
"Yes, I was familiar with Crystal as well because I just love her films. I didn’t say anything at first because that would be bad business, but as soon as she started [describing the film], I knew that I was down to be in the movie. I wanted to let her finish before I was like 'Oh, I’m already down' because it is not nice to interrupt people. But I knew I was down for the movie as soon as she started pitching it."
What are the Skate Kitchen girls like in real life?
"The movie is pretty much modeled after their life. The stories that happen in the movie are real. They are very similar to how they are portrayed in the movie, although there is a lot of rowdiness in the movie, and they are actually very nice in real life."
Was that the first time you’ve worked with a woman director? Did that change the experience at all for you?
"You know, I never realized that. That actually wasn’t my first time working with a female director, but it was my first time on a film that was so long with a female director. It was an amazing experience, and I love the way that Crystal directs. It really reminds me of how I want to direct in the future, so she is really a huge inspiration for me."
I felt like your character, Devon, was the token guy messing up the girl crew dynamic, which is the opposite of how a lot of films are. What was it like playing a role that switched that up?
"It was really cool because I don’t think I have ever played the character of the guy that messes everything up. It was cool to experience that."
Do you think that Devon is a good guy?
"Is he a good guy? Well, he’s not necessarily a bad guy. He’s just trying to figure out, and sometimes when you’re trying to figure it out, you hurt people."
How do you feel when people say that you are pulling inspiration from your real life when you’re not?
"That doesn’t make me feel that much of a type of way because people don’t know that much about acting. I only really think about stuff like that if it’s coming from people that are actors, and people who really know how to critique acting. If someone is going to try to critique my skating, then I’m not gonna listen to anyone who is not a skater."
You’ve said you refuse to say misogynistic things or degrading things about women in your songs. Can you talk more about that decision. Is that also a rule you have when it comes to acting?
"That is not something I look for in acting, actually, because I am not trying to be myself in a role. I would play a character that doesn't necessarily fit my morals or is saying things I wouldn't say or doing things I wouldn't do, because that’s the only way that you can tell that someone is good at acting. If they’re themselves, it is easy to fall into that role. But if you are playing a character you don’t know, or don’t agree with, or goes against what you go against, then it really shows talent."
Are you pretty picky when it comes to film and TV roles?
"I do get approached a lot now because everybody in this day and age is trying to be a filmmaker and create art, but I don’t necessarily get approached by things I am really excited about or are really serious."
The main message in the film is for young people to do whatever they want and get rid of whatever’s holding them back. Has being a part of the film inspired you to change anything about your life?
"Yes it has really inspired me to just get out out into the world and just experience what it is like to be around people on a day-to-day basis. It just empowered me to skate and get out there and have a good time, and I hope it does the same for other people as well."
Has your family seen the film yet?
"Yes, my mom [Jada Pinkett Smith] saw it at Sundance, and she really loved it. My sister [Willow Smith] was there. They really loved it. My mom even got a chance to come down and see me on set."
For those who don't skate, can you describe what it's like to skate down an empty road in New York with all your friends?
"It is almost a transcendental experience. You’re thinking, 'Is this real life? I don’t want this to end. Can I do this tomorrow? Why wasn’t I doing this yesterday?' It is always better than what you think it’s going to be. It is the closest thing to flying."
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