A quick search on The Get Down, now out on Netflix, will turn up some pretty disparate opinions. On one end, critics have called it a "gigantic hot mess," less than coherent, and worse than that, like Vinyl. Other reviews describe it as bursting with energy, a show that is "vital, radical work." If you ask me, it's a little bit of both. The Get Down is disorienting and messy, but what saves it is some of its characters. The first 15 minutes or so of the premiere episode is almost unwatchable in its excess, but the show suddenly becomes so magnetic the second its main character, Ezekiel, works up the courage to read a poem he wrote about the devastating strife he's been put through living in the Bronx. It's a monologue delivered with so much passion and heart—and so much rhythm—that from then on, you're tied to his character. The same thing happens later, as Ezekiel breaks down after having his heart stomped on by his high school love, Mylene.
The two characters are played by Justice Smith and Herizen Guardiola, two relative unknowns, just 21 and 20 years old, respectively. The roles are huge spotlights for both Smith and Guardiola, and since the show relies on their characters' relationship and performances, they're roles that carry a huge amount of pressure. The task would be daunting, and maybe insurmountable, for most young actors, but Smith and Guardiola both deliver, and The Get Down is better for it. The chemistry Smith and Guardiola have on screen is present when I meet them at The Get Down's production offices. In between teasing each other incessantly, they talked about what it's like being in the midst of their big breaks.
What was it like for you, two up-and-coming actors, to have your first big roles in The Get Down?
Justice Smith: It's amazing. Working with Baz is a dream come true. He made me feel very safe and supported in his hands. The cast is like a family now.
Were you ever nervous on set, knowing Grandmaster Flash is there, that Nas is involved?
Herizen Guardiola: I wasn't actually. Just really excited.
Smith: I was nervous, just about rapping. I'm not a rapper in any sense, so I think the first couple classes with Kurtis Blow, I was trying to find my footing, and just embarrassing myself and being awkward.
Guardiola: As you do.
Smith: As I always do.
You pulled it off though. The scene where you read your poem—
Guardiola: Have you seen the pilot?
I've seen the first two episodes so far.
Guardiola: First two? We haven't seen the second. You've seen more than we have, why is that?
I should give you my login to Netflix's screening website.
Guardiola: Yes, give us your password... We were talking about this earlier, but it's nerve-wracking to see how people are going to react to the show because we've been working on it for so long.
Smith: I'm looking forward to the critiques so I can be like, "Oh, that was nice" or "Whatever."
Guardiola: I'm curious to hear from people from that time period, to hear what they say about it.
Smith: Just having people come up to us like, "Oh, this reminded me of this" or "This brought me back!" That's a huge compliment. That means we're doing it right.
Getting back to that moment where Ezekiel reads his poem—it's so powerful. Justice, how are you tapping into those emotions in that scene?
Smith: Zeke's main flaw is his abandonment issues because he lost [his parents], the two people who are supposed to show you unconditional love, at a very young age. When you have to raise yourself, you're constantly trying to find that love from somewhere else. That's why he's been off and on with Mylene, and he doesn't really understand his love for her, he just knows he doesn't want someone to leave him again. So just knowing that helped me, playing what it's like to feel less-than got me there.
You guys seem to have some pretty good natural chemistry.
Smith: It's all fabricated.
Guardiola: It's all fake. In real life, we hate each other.
Smith: Just hate each other.
Guardiola: It's pretty difficult to look at him half the time. And when we have to—especially when I have to kiss him, it's terrible.
Smith: Yeah, it's like kissing an onion.
So you were both really acting then. That's tough.
Guardiola: It was so hard, actually.
Okay, that's interesting. So this is obviously a pretty big step for both of you, what has the spotlight been like? I saw you got to go to Met Ball this year.
Guardiola: The Met Ball was fun after.
Tell me some Met Ball stories.
Smith: It was great; beautiful, all the dresses were cool. Herizen is very friendly, so she was talking to Jennifer Hudson and all these people.
Guardiola: I said hi to Beyoncé!
Smith: You said hi to Beyoncé!?
Guardiola: Yeah! I was walking alone around the Met and—oh my god, I hung out with Jared Leto and he was so amazing to me! I had the biggest crush on him growing up and I met him and I was like, "Hey man, how's it going?" He was actually really nice and he gave me hug, I was happy about that. And I did say hi to Beyoncé. I was like, "Hey Beyoncé, you look great. Slay girl!" And she was like, "Oh, you look good too, girl!"
Smith: Yeah, no one said I looked good.
Aw, I thought you looked nice in a tux.
Smith: Thank you, man.
Guardiola: He looked terrible.
Wow, this is getting heated.
Smith: I told you—this is my life!
Guardiola: You're in my space. Could you scoot over?