[Warning: The following contains spoilers for episodes 6 and 7 of Genera+ion. Read at your own risk!]
Throughout its first season, Genera+ion has been building up to the inevitable crescendo of the relationship between its young protagonist Chester (Justice Smith) and his guidance counselor, Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). In Episodes 6 and 7, which dropped on HBO Max on Thursday, a field trip to San Francisco goes awry, and their slow-burning connection finally reaches its breaking point. Together, the two episodes add up to a harrowing hour of TV.
While stuck in a roadside motel after their bus crashes, Chester finally reveals to Sam that the enigmatic stranger he'd been messaging on Grindr the previous week was, in fact, Chester. A lonely kid who can put on a confident face better than just about anyone, Chester really believes that the special quality of their dynamic transcends all of the built-in red flags and roadblocks: their vast age and maturity difference, the inherent power dynamic, the fact that Sam could lose his job. When Sam firmly rejects his advances, Chester is shattered, and he releases a guttural, haunting scream into the night as Episode 7 ends. For Smith, the scene was emotionally affecting: "I think that this illusion he's built up has really dissolved, and he's left with nothing," he explained.
Smith spoke to TV Guide about Chester and Sam's confrontation, his feelings on straight actors playing queer roles, and the significance of the Britney Spears classic "Lucky" to his character.
I love how Sam and Chester initially connect, and how they bond over both being Black and queer, and how Sam really does see Chester. What was it like developing their dynamic with Nathan?
Smith: Nathan is incredible, and I love working with him. He's not only an incredible actor, but he just gives you so much in a scene. You don't really have to do anything, you just have to respond to what he's doing. But that relationship, for me, I think that Chester confuses being represented for something else, and I think that when you're a teenager you have all these large emotions, and you have just begun the process of categorizing them. And I think he sees this older Black queer man in this community where there's not a lot of Black people, not a lot of queer people, and he's like, "That's me." Not even just on the identity level, Sam also just relates to him on this idea of loneliness and isolation, and so Chester sees himself in Sam, and because he's a teenager, he confuses that with something romantic. It's so heartbreaking.
It's so heartbreaking. That desert island moment, the scene where Chester confronts Sam at the motel is such a dramatic culmination of their relationship. What do you think was going through Chester's head in that moment?
Smith: I think he thinks it's going to go well. I think Chester views himself, because of his persistent isolation, as older than he is and wiser beyond his years, and he forgets that he's still a teenager. He thinks, "If I bond with somebody on this deep, spiritual, and emotional level then that means we have a connection that transcends." I think he knows that Sam is going to have an initial reaction. He doesn't think it's going to be as dismissive as it is. Their connection is so deep for Chester that he doesn't see how it couldn't be as deep for Sam. He's just a kid! I love that scene a lot because Chester has this bravado and does act a lot older than he is, and it's one of the first instances where you see that this is a child. Yeah, I think that scene is just written so beautifully.
And he lets out that scream at the end of the episode. What was it like filming that? How do you even get to that place of emotion?
Smith: It was exhausting. It was so exhausting. How they edited it was great, but that scream actually lasted a long time, and they clip it before it gets into the real chunk of it, which I think is better. It's better to kind of leave things to the imagination, but yeah, I went away from that night feeling really bad...I went into it as an actor having an expectation for the scene, which — I shot myself in the foot by doing so, but when I went away from the scene, I realized that's actually what Chester was doing. He was going into this moment having an expectation of how it was going to go, and then it completely derails. That was one of the most difficult scenes I've ever had to shoot for a variety of reasons.
Other than Chester and Sam, was there another relationship on the show that you liked developing? I really love all of Chester's scenes with Greta (Haley Sanchez) because they're on two completely different ends of embracing their queerness.
Smith: Yes! Haley is the sweetest, too. And what I love a lot about Chester and Greta's relationship is that Chester has a lot of profundity to him, and a real soft, sad-boy center, and Greta is just the perfect lightning rod for that. She brings it out of him. They bond on this really deep, emotional, love-stricken level. I just think that their relationship is rooted in something so nurturing.
Genera+ion feels tonally very different from anything you've done so far. What interested you about this show?
Smith: I thought that it was just really important queer representation. I've always been yearning for queer content that — while our show has hyperbolic moments, it's not camp, and I find that a lot of queer content leans into camp. Which is fine, I love camp, but this had something grounded to it that really intrigued me and accurately represented this community. And rightfully so, because Gen Z is the queerest generation, so that really drew me in. Also, this was just a character that I'd never played before. A lot of the characters I play are more introspective, and this is someone who is so bold and wears his heart on his sleeve, and I knew that I had a capacity to play a character like that.
What was your first impression of Chester as a character?
Smith: I initially auditioned for the guidance counselor. I know so many guys who are like Chester, so I assumed they were going to just find the guy. And the guidance counselor was originally written as someone a lot younger, and when I didn't get that my friend was like, "You should just go in for Chester," and I was like, "I don't really want to play high school anymore." I'm like, 25. [Laughs] And then they didn't find the guy, and I was like, "Why not? I'll go in." As soon as I went into the room and embodied the character, I realized I had so much reference for him and I was the perfect person to play him because of that archive of references that I had.
Did you have any part in his development or was he kind of fully formed when you got the role?
Smith: For the most part, yes. I made some aesthetic choices, like, I wanted to dye my hair blonde. I just thought that this is a person who wants so badly to be seen and his aesthetic is incredibly important in his journey to be seen, so whenever I go into the costume room, I'm very particular about every ring and every bracelet, making sure that it aligns with his soul. I think he just really wants people to see him, and see him for who he is, because he's provocative and bold and confident, but that breeds a lot of loneliness because it pushes people away. He just desperately wants to be loved for those qualities instead of being tolerated.
Did the clothes make a difference in how you physically inhabited him?
Smith: One-hundred percent. The minute I get dressed, I'm in character, and the minute I take the clothes off I leave Chester with the clothes. His clothes are an expression of his soul. Every ring, every bracelet is important, because it's reflective of how he feels about himself that day. And I also learned through playing Chester that fashion is just as much of an art form as any other. Like, fashion is all rooted in storytelling. Shirley Kurata, our fashion designer, deserves literally all the credit, but with her, I would try to just edit and take pieces off of this amazing closet she created for Chester, and tell a story about how he felt that day.
In Episode 4, he's wearing all of his grandma's clothes, and he does this whole grandma chic look, all of these pearls, and he has "pussy power" written on his nails. That was that provocation of the pussy power, but it's also the maturity of an older woman. He's wearing these clothes to signify, "I am of your level." But then when you look at Episode 5 and he's in this Princess Peach-y kind of outfit and he has this bunny rabbit thing on, he's hanging out with his friends. He feels like a kid again, so it's a bit more childlike. It's all very important to the story, and it's just a reflection of who he is.
It's interesting that you bring up him embodying his grandma. Are we going to get to see more of them together?
Smith: Yes, we do. She's incredibly important to him, because she's one of the only people that he has left, and he is also one of the only people that she has. And he takes care of it, like in Episode 2, he cooks for her, he makes breakfast for her. She stepped into that maternal role after his mom died. It's that thing, you know, when a parent dies when you're very young, you grow up really fast. You often start to take on a role that you need someone else to take on for you, which is why Chester is incredibly maternal and protective of other people, specifically his Nona. He's stepping into that void that his mom left after she passed, even though his Nona takes care of him. I think in this disillusionment, he very much takes care of her, or he thinks that he has to provide for him in some way. It's like a symbiotic relationship where they just are there for each other.
One of the things I enjoy about this show is the fact that queer actors are actually playing queer roles, which is constantly a topic of discussion, and no one can ever seem to agree on the answer, or if there is one. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Smith: I saw this tweet the other day that was like, "So happy Justice Smith is doing Genera+ion, but why are all the other actors straight and playing queer characters?" I was like, "Where did you do your research?" No, I definitely don't want to out anyone, but the majority of our cast is queer, and it's really refreshing to go to work every day and tell these stories that are our stories and feel safe to do so. I don't think that there's anything intrinsically wrong with a straight actor playing a queer character, I just think you can't separate from the historical context. Straight actors are always playing queer characters and getting lauded and being called brave for playing these characters, and that's really condescending. It also strips us of our own autonomy in telling people who we are. Now our story is in the hands of someone who has never lived our experience. I think the role of the storyteller is to tell stories regardless, so I don't think that everyone should just tell their own stories, but I definitely think that the majority of people telling their stories should be them.
I love the way music factors into the show, like that scene in Episode 2 where "Lucky" is playing over Chester getting ready in the morning. Did you listen to anything to help get you in character?
Smith: Oh, I have a whole Chester playlist.
What's on it?
Smith: Oh, my gosh. Here, I can pull it up right now. Chester loves a female singer with a tragic past — Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, we got a lot of that. We also have some Frank Ocean, but then you keep scrolling and it's all twerking music. Doja Cat, Flo Milli, we have Megan Thee Stallion, we have City Girls. Literally, every time I get dressed in the morning in my trailer I just play this playlist out loud. Every single song has the word "pussy" in it. Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, all the hits. But I love that scene specifically because in the script — a lot of times the music is written into the script but then it's changed in editing, and that was one that stuck to the final product. And that is a song about somebody who everybody thinks has this glamorous life, but on the inside, they're actually suffering. It's the perfect anecdote for Chester.
Genera+ion airs new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.