Marsai Martin insists she knows what an awkward phase is. Yet, if you click on a February Instagram video of the 14-year-old TV star-turned-movie star, you’ll find the Martin lip-syncing her way through Aminé’s “Dapperdan,” vamping for the camera like teens have since the invention of the camcorder. Though, instead of the pimples, frizzy hair, and dripping eyeliner, you’ll find Martin’s painstakingly prepared waves artfully cascading down her forehead as she repeatedly mouths, “'Cause I'm fresh, I'm fresh in the flesh.” Her legs kick out from a well-tailored mint trench coat on a curving staircase. At one point she does a spin, removing the jacket in one fell swoop to reveal a fabulous Alice + Olivia circle dress.
If you keep swiping through Martin’s Instagram feed, you’ll find that unfiltered youthful silliness Martin was talking about. In a gallery of selfies taken the same day as that aforementioned lip sync, the Black-ish breakout tries to “get some wind action” in a car. In the last photo, her face is scrunched up — eyes closed, mouth pursed like she just ate a lemon. If you go a decade back in time, every millennial took this same picture via Photobooth at the Apple Store in their local mall.
“I’m still me — I’m still a regular teen girl who still has her problems and is going through puberty,” Martin tells me over the phone. The Texas native, an executive producer on her leading lady feature film debut Little, premiering April 12, just wrapped up a home-school session minutes earlier. “Even though I’m in this industry, that you guys see me every day on TV, or in articles or any of that, that doesn’t define who I am as a person. I am just like [my fans].”
It’s unlikely many of Martin’s young supporters are also EPs on multi-million dollar movies debuting this spring. Not because of their own shortcomings, but because the actress is actually a history maker — with Little, Martin is Hollywood’s youngest-ever executive producer. In February, she signed a first-look deal with Universal Pictures, a billion-dollar studio. Now, whenever she has idea, Universal gets to hear it first.
Martin is a SAG Award-nominated performer, producer, and CEO — all before she can drive.
“Jordan actually had a good point in the beginning when she was like, ‘I’m still running, and I continue to run every single day,’” Martin says. The Jordan she speaks of is Jordan Sanders, Little’s heroine. Regina Hall plays the Atlanta tech mogul as a rampaging adult — someone who has no qualms physically tossing someone out of her way or roasting employees until they start bringing prescription medications to meetings. Jordan is forced to confront her own monstrousness when a child magician (Marley Taylor) accidentally makes her, well, little again. That is where Martin comes in. Through a reverse Big situation, Martin plays Young Jordan in the modern day. Relegated to middle school once again, Jordan relives her painful youth and opens her heart, all while learning her assistant, Issa Rae’s fantastic April Williams, is so much more than a lap dog. Impeccable tiny pantsuits are involved.
Martin famously pitched the idea at age 10. Hence the executive producer credit on the film, which Drumline scribe Tina Gordon directed and wrote along with Tracy Oliver, who penned both Girls Trip and The Sun Is Also A Star (led by Martin’s TV big sister Yara Shahidi). Now, at 14, Martin’s Little dream is a reality. “There’s a lot to take away from Jordan, but the lesson that stuck with me is to keep pushing and striving for what you want to do,” she says. “When you’re at the point where you want to stop, but you want to keep going at the same time, still keep on pushing.”
Little’s mastermind is certainly living by that ethos. Although she helped produce the comedy, Martin stresses that she used the project to “learn” from the more seasoned decision-makers around her. “I was excited just to get to know more people. I’ve been on Black-ish for a while now,” she explains. The sitcom's creator Kenya Barris produced the movie, alongside Girls Trip producer Will Packer, and co-star Hall. “But to actually get to experience something different in a different light and from a different side of the industry, which would be producing, it was lots of fun.”
Fast forward to today, and Martin has grown comfortable with calling the shots. “With Little, when they asked me questions [on-set], it was like, Oh you care what I think? Interesting,” she admits. But now, the longtime ABC star has her very own production company, Genius Productions, where she is the CEO. When Martin has an idea, she asks her parents/collaborators Carol and Joshua Martin to drive her to the company’s “creative space,” a Los Angeles office, to brainstorm. “That was pretty cool when I realized, Oh, I can speak my mind about this because I created this,” Martin says of life after Genius’ launch in 2017.
Martin is already speaking her mind about one important subject as more adult projects loom ahead: on-screen romance. She isn’t interested, and doesn’t have to be as the boss of her own production company. As the creator, Martin can choose which projects she wants to star in and which ones she simply wants to produce. “If there’s a boy anywhere in it, it’s like, ‘Eh, nah,’” she says with an obvious smile in her voice. “‘I gotta kiss him? Nah. Next. You know?”
Those around Martin have noticed a change in her behavior between Little’s production and the lead-up to its premiere. Veteran actor Luke James plays Adult Jordan’s boyfriend Trevor, who eventually assumes magicked Little Jordan is his lady’s secret child. That means a lot of “awkward” scenes, in James’ words, where Trevor is in Dad mode, and Little Jordan, still harboring the appetites of a grown woman, would rather call him “Zaddy.”
“In shooting, we were just having fun, because that is what we have to do to be in that space,” James. Martin proved to be a “trickster” during the shoot, according to James. “There’s this little hand gesture thing that she and the other young castmates do to distract you,” he tells me with a laugh. If Martin and her friends could break your attention with the gesture, “basically you’re a loser,” James continues, confessing, “I was emotionally involved in it. She kept getting me.” You can tell the actor-singer is still shocked such a young person was able to con him.
Those same tricks are gone as Martin, James, and the rest of the Little crew screen their film for live audiences. “We have conversations after the screenings, and that’s definitely where her mindset is: How’s the audience feeling? Did this line work? Editing, et cetera. She’s very hands-on with the whole thing,” the actor says. “I think now — it’s business.”
With Little hitting theaters April 12, the actress-EP is already onto the next project. Or, rather, projects. StepMonster, announced this past February, is the only one she can speak about, confirming the comedy is pre-production. “It’s mostly about family dynamics and how you have to be comfortable in the one you’re in,” she reveals with excitement. “Whether you’re trying to adjust to a new addition in the family or a loss.”
Still, it sounds like there’s far more on Genius Productions’ plate than that. “The other stuff going on, I’m just going to say it’s a lot,” Martin teases, adding, “It’s [about] telling stories that haven’t been told before … Just because it has a young Black girl as the face and the CEO of it, it’s for everyone. It’s more diverse and inclusive for everyone to enjoy.” That’s why she has hosted a revolving door of mystery Hollywood friends in Genius’ offices to hear about their latest passion projects.
Black-ish and Little producer Kenya Barris is one of Martin’s friends, and just so happens to have a brand-new Netflix deal. Does Martin have any streaming ideas percolating? “Yes,” she says with a coy laugh. “This is all just the beginning … Like I said, I’m still running.”
Little celebrates Black women, from the actors onscreen to the team behind the camera to the costume design. Support the film, which comes out April 12, with the hashtag #Ladies4Little.