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Set Visit Report: Black-ish star Marsai Martin & Dad Josh Martin On Bringing ‘Little’ To Universal Pictures

Also starring in the film are Issa Rae and Regina Hall

When Black-ish star Marsai Martin was only ten years old, she walked into Universal with her father, Joshua Martin, and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, and pitched an idea for a film. Three years later, that film became, LITTLE, a body-switch comedy, loosely inspired by, Big. LITTLE, which comes to theaters this September, stars Martin, Insecure’s Issa Rae, and Regina Hall. While LITTLE has familiar roots in films such as Big, Freaky Friday, and Seventeen Again, its uniqueness lies in its character dynamics and centering of ‘Black girl magic.’

Regina Hall and Black-ish’s Marsai Martin both star as Jordan Sanders — Hall as the take-no-prisoners tech mogul adult version of Jordan and Martin as the 13-year-old version of her who wakes up in her adult self’s penthouse just before a do-or-die presentation.

Insecure’s Issa Rae plays Jordan’s long-suffering assistant April, the only one in on the secret that her daily tormentor is now trapped in an awkward tween body just as everything is on the line. Little is an irreverent new comedy about the price of success, the power of sisterhood and having a second chance to grow up — and glow up — right.

Little is directed by Tina Gordon (writer, Drumline) with a story by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) and a screenplay by Oliver and Gordon, based on an idea by teen actress Martin. The film is produced by Will Packer and his producing partner James Lopez and by Kenya Barris (Girls Trip, Black-ish), and is executive produced by Preston Holmes (Night School), Hall, Marsai Martin and Josh Martin.

Here’s what actress and executive producer Marsai Martin and her father Joshua, had to say about the film:

What is it like to manage your roles for the film?

Joshua Martin: First, my most important role is father, being a dad to a gifted child is amazing in itself. Trying to help her be creative and not be scared of this big Hollywood thing is a really big effort, but it’s fun. We’re learning it together. We’re always listening to her ideas. We’re always listening to what she wants to do and as parents, and when I say, parents, I mean myself and her mother, we’re always trying to push her to be better than she was the day before. She’s bought in ,and now you see what this is. This is my first film, of course, and being an executive producer, I didn’t even really know what that meant. I had to read it, and Google it, and understand what that—what I was going to be doing. Sitting here learning from the best, Will and James and watching how all of this stuff is working together; it’s been fun. It’s been really really exciting. I know this is what you guys get to see but I’ve been here the entire time, and this film is going to be absolutely amazing. I think you guys are really going to enjoy it. It still feels kind of surreal because we were sitting in our bedroom three years ago, talking about this on the bed, just like, “What can we do? What could be fun? What do you want to do?” when she came up with this idea.

What’s it liking having to teach (Marsai) about criticism and feedback from fans?

Joshua Martin: I can tell you this: the social media has been like a gift and a curse because before she was fully engaged in being this Hollywood actress, she was following people, like Beyoncé and people that she just liked on YouTube. She got to read comments and see that a lot of these people just wanted a reaction. She kind of understood how social media worked and what she wanted her voice to be on social media. When she saw something, she knew not to react. One of the things we always used to teach her is, don’t look at the comments. Comments are just comments. People start things just to get a reaction out of you.

One day we were sitting up, and I can’t remember who it was— I think it was her friend Skai Jackson, and somebody had said something to Skai Jackson, and it was really mean, and Skai replied, and all she said was, “Oh my gosh, she replied to me.” and was excited. Then she was like, “oh this is what they want?” and then she bought in, and she was like, “I’m not even worried about what these people say.” She’s a really big fan of Beyoncé, like stupid fan of Beyoncé. It’s crazy. She used to read a lot of the comments that people say about Beyoncé, and she was like, “It’s Beyoncé.” She saw that Beyoncé didn’t give these people any kind of attention and [Marsai] decided she wasn’t going to give these people any of her attention. I also make sure that my presence is known, wherever we are in the Hollywood thing. Let them know that she has a father and a mother, and I’m here, and I will make a scene because I don’t care. I’m going to make sure that y’all know that up front.

What have you had to learn to adapt to parenting a gifted child in the social media age?

Joshua Martin: Her mom handles a lot of her social media. Her mom is like—she be on it. She keeps me abreast of the things that are going on. Everything she posts she asks, “Hey is this cool? Can I do this? Can I do that?” We monitor what’s going on or the responses that she’s getting. In this age of social media, I’m not really big on that, I just got an Instagram, I don’t have a Facebook—none of that stuff. For me, it’s a distraction…for me. Trying to navigate work, raising kids, being a father, I try to distance myself a little bit from that because I know her mom is all on top of that. It’s kind of a balance that we share. She keeps me abreast of what’s going on, and her mom is always on top of everything. I think she knows it before you guys know it.

Marsai Martin: With that being said, go follow him on Instagram @professional_gee.

Joshua Martin: It hasn’t been hard to transition. This is the only social media I really kind of care about—is hers.

Where did the idea come for you for this film?

Marsai Martin: Before the whole situation happened, we were talking. It was me, mommy, and daddy—we were actually talking about the movies they were watching back then and one of my mom’s favorite movies growing up was Big. That’s really how the idea was brought out to us. I think that’s where it all started and we just started brainstorming and seeing how it could be turned into this sort of Black girl magic type situation. Then after, it was like the season finale of Blackish, and my dad went to Kenya [Barris] and was like, “Marsai has this dope idea that we want to talk about real quick and we just want to get your info and see how you like it.” Then Kenya ended up liking it and then right after he was just calling Will like, “You know Diane from Blackish? She’s got this dope idea.” After we went to have a meeting with him and James and he bought it, and we went to Universal, and then they bought it. It wasn’t that long until we shot it, I mean like… three years. I’m very grateful and very honored that they were saying yes to this ten-year-old little girl that just popped out with this blazer and all of a sudden—because you know they could’ve had said no, but they actually believed in me and what our story—what we wanted to tell.

Who’s your onscreen and off-screen biggest inspirations?

Marsai Martin: That’s a good question. I actually don’t have like an actual person I really look up to. People have their different stories and it really all starts with you. If I did say, I would have to say I look up to my mom because she’s a very brave and strong person. She’s super hilarious. I think that’s where I get my humor from. Would you say?

Joshua Martin: Mhm.

Marsai Martin: Yeah, you’re funny too but…

What’s your favorite Beyoncé song?

Marsai Martin: You know what—it can’t be like a certain song. What I actually like to jam to? Right now would be ‘Nice’ from their new album. My favorite one would probably be ‘4’. My favorite album would be ‘4’, but, yeah, I have a bunch of them. And I have a bunch of artists that I love.

You’ve already accomplished so much at your age, what are your aspirations growing up? What else are you going to do?

Marsai Martin: I’m honestly not sure. I have a goal, and I have a dream, but I don’t know what 18-year-old Marsai will want or 21. My big goal that I would want to do is host SNL or host the Emmys and probably make it lit because every time I’m there it be like a tea-sipping like situation. To the point where I could retire by the age of 18, even though I’m not, but trying to do that at a young age.

Joshua Martin: I’m going to build a little off of that. One of the things that we kind of teach her is to live in the moment. Just live in your moment. You don’t have to worry about what two years from now looks like, just live now and do what you want to do now and enjoy it. That’s what we kind of try to teach her—both our kids, even though the little one is young.

Marsai Martin: She’s like one.

Joshua Martin: Just live in your moment, you know what I mean. It’s no rush. Don’t rush to grow up. Don’t start thinking too far ahead because a lot of times, plans change. Life happens. I always tell her the hardest thing she’s going to experience is life. If she doesn’t embrace the highs, then it’s going to be hard for her to embrace the lows. Just live in the moment.

We saw you with Regina on Blackish before, how is the dynamic now with you two both starring in this film?

Marsai Martin: It’s very great too. It’s hilarious because it turned into her being ‘Black Nanny’ and being on the set of Blackish and us being enemies to us being the same person and being just this mean person in general. It’s very cool. Regina is very sweet. I’ve watched all her movies. I’ve always looked up to her in that way. She gives the best hugs. I love her very much.

What would you like for kids to take away from this film?

Marsai Martin: I’d say that you can do anything. I don’t care what age you are. I said this one, “I don’t care if you’re like four or eighty-four.” It doesn’t matter. There’s no age limit. There’s no lit to what you can do. If you think you can do it at this time, you don’t have to wait. You can just do it. I think that’s what I want them to take out of this film, where this thirteen-year-old created this film. It turned out to be this wonderful, Black girl magic, fulfilling and loving film. I think that’s what I want to let kids know about it, like, “Oh wow. She made this really dope film at this young age. That means I can do it too.”

As a father, at what point did you recognize something special in her and at what point did you go about cultivating it?

Joshua Martin: At two. She wasn’t able to talk but when she was two she used to watch Lackawanna Blues. Her favorite movie was Ray, Shrek, and she could mimic these movies without even watching the actual film. It would be playing behind her on a screen, and she’s doing every move that they’re doing on TV.

Marsai Martin: If you don’t believe it, look it up. It’s on YouTube.

Joshua Martin: It’s on YouTube.

Marsai Martin: That was like first when YouTube just started, and they were like, “Oh snap, we should go on Ellen.”

Joshua Martin: And it was just funny. She became like this family party favorite. Take her out, and the grandparents would be like, “Do the—do the—do the thing.” She started just doing it, and it was amazing. We kind of stumbled up on all of this. This was not in our plan. This was not my goal. I thought I was going to own a car dealership and make money doing that and she was going to go to college and study economics or something.

Marsai Martin: I mean I still can do that.

Joshua Martin: Yeah, but that was the vision that I saw for here and then all of this kind of just fell into place and I’m happy it did because this is what she really loves and as a parent you want your kids to do what they love.

How has it been seeing this all come together as you’re coming into your own as an actress?

Marsai Martin: It’s very surreal. I look on set all the time like, “Oh my gosh.” Having this idea in our bedroom, just talking about to having this whole production. It’s very surreal. I’m kind of glad it took as long as it did because I’ve learned so much now than what I learned when I was ten years old when I actually pitched the idea. I’ve gotten wonderful advice. The love and support and growing up to be a great person in general. I think it just came out at the right time, you know. I think it’s all from God. God really knows what He’s doing, and it’s like—it’s been three years. Just wait. Just be patient. So, I feel like it happened at the right time and I’m very grateful.

Why was bullying so important for you to talk about?

Joshua Martin: Bullying was—when we came up with the idea that was one of the things that we kind of mentioned that we wanted to see through this film because kids every day go through bullying a lot. She went through it when she was really really small. There was a small little section of that used to call her weird because her thought pattern was different than everyone else. She saw things differently. They didn’t understand her mimicking movies and how that was fun to her and how she enjoyed being in front of the camera on your phone or taking pictures. We used to teach her, “Don’t worry about what people say, just be you. Do your thing.” Another reason why bullying was important to us because we get to hear our stories through social media or other people’s experiences, but we never get to tell our stories on the big screen. Black kids get bullied just like everyone else, sometimes if not more. To show how you can bully someone at a young age, go back, relive that, and change that, to tell—let people know it’s never too late to stop being that person. You can change whenever you’re ready to. You see the outcome of this woman–

Marsai Martin: There’s one part where Jordan, where she’s regular thirteen—she’s this sweet, quirky girl, doesn’t care what anyone thinks. The more she grew up, she realizes, “Oh snap. People are bullying me. What do I do to stop this?” So she started bullying people first, and she thought that was the solution for people to stop messing with her.

Joshua Martin: She has a cousin who is in school and a lot of kids—the curriculum that they learn, sometimes it takes others longer to get and because she was being bullied in school it kind of made her act out. Now she became the bully because people were laughing at her. When she started bullying people and acting bad and acting up, they started laughing with her. She thought that was her way of being cool and fitting in because learning was so hard for her. It took the attention off of that. She’s just a good kid, but she feels like she has to be a bully in order for people to like her and going through that transition and talking to her mom and us sitting down and talking to her, us trying to help her through this process. The root of it was school, learning—that was the problem that caused her to act out and be this person that she was. If you don’t know what the root of the problem is, you can’t change it. We have to hold discussions about these topics and try to figure out ways to fix it.

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