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Set Visit Report: Issa Rae On Filming ‘Little’ & Working With Marsai Martin

The film stars Black-ish star Marsai Martin 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 Issa Rae had to say about the film:

A lot of your career you’ve spent playing a version of yourself, how is this different?

Issa Rae: I get to have more fun. It’s a different kind of tone. I feel kind of uninhibited here whereas, Insecure or even Awkward Black Girl, it’s like my vision and I’m kind of relieved to just be in somebody else’s vision. Tina’s [Gordon Chism] been doing such a great job. This was hard. This was feeling like a vacation coming off of—like I was ready to get off, like “Take me to Atlanta.” I just have to show up and do my job and listen to someone else. I don’t have to have the answers. Nobody’s over here asking me questions, you know. It really is just getting to be a part of someone else’s vision, and I just feel honored to be able to do that.

This film is nothing but Black girl magic. What was it like for you, vibing with your costars and building a bond?

Issa Rae: I’ve loved Marsai because I always see her at, you know, different Black events. I’ve always admired her from a distance from her work on Blackish. To see her killing it here, to hear how all of this came together. What did she pitch this at, like ten or eleven years old? I look at her, and I’m just so in awe and so proud of her. She’s still such a little kid at heart, and I’m so impressed with her. I’ve, like, adopted her as my play cousin. Then, Regina I’ve always been a fan of. Regina and I have actually wanted to work together for like years now. She hit me up in my early Awkward Black Girl days to try to collaborate. This is my second movie—only my second movie and both of them have had her in them. So, I’m going to be like, “I just want to be in all Regina Hall movies.” It’s really fun, and she’s been great in terms of contributing like jokes and things like that. It feels like such a rich, warm project. It just feels like being at home. Obviously Tina as well, who’s just been killing—who I’ve also been a fan of for a very long time. To see her in her element, just knowing exactly what she wants is a blessing.

Was there a movie when you were younger that made you feel what you think middle school Black girls will feel watching this?

Issa Rae: It’s completely tonally different, but it would have to be something like Crooklyn. I came from a family of five—I really identify with that girl. Our movies are so far, and few and that’s why I’m so excited about this. Marsai who—that’s another thing that gets me hype. Seeing her and thinking about the girls that are going to be looking at her and who she’s going to grow up to be—not to put too much pressure on her, but it’s so cool because she is such a relatable person. Obviously, she’s terrible in the movie, but I can still look at her and think, “Oh she’s doing it. She’s killing it.” I didn’t have many examples. I think more on the TV side I always credit like Moesha, but on the film side, there weren’t that many movies centered around little Black girls. This is definitely kind of uncharted territory.

As a female comic writer, what’s the advice you would give to Marsai coming up into it, in such an early point in her career?

Issa Rae: It feels like she knows herself. That’s so key in this industry in general as you’re navigating to just embrace who you are and not kind of shift to anyone else. What I admire about her is that she really feels like she’s coming into her own and not necessarily being bogged down by what’s expected of her. I just love that. I’m not the type to be like, “Girl, let me tell you, back in my day.” I would never have wanted that when I was thirteen or fourteen. I just love to let her be and encourage her because the choices that she makes comedically—she just has a bright future.

Your wardrobe seems really fun. Does it transition when your character takes over as boss for Regina?

Issa Rae: Does it transition? Yes, because my character—Jordan’s wardrobe is really extensive. She has a massive closet, so my character definitely wants to play in it. She plays in a very, very uniquely odd way.

If you could go back in your life, what period would you want to revisit?

Issa Rae: There’s that joke that Black people can’t really go back that far in time, but I always say that I wish I were in college in the 90s. I feel like that would’ve been—the dances are doable, the music was amazing, Freaknik was huge, and I never will get a chance to experience like true Freaknik. But I don’t know how I could handle it. I don’t know how I would come out. I think it’s best that I wasn’t. It feels like it would be fun.

How important is the portrayal of bullying, especially in the times we’re in now?

Issa Rae: We don’t want to make light of bullying. I think if anything, we just want to make it relatable and that’s what this film feels like. It’s just like, “You’re not the only one going through this.” Bullying doesn’t stop at a certain age. It’s really just about confronting—my character it’s about standing up for herself in the face of it. I think for the character of Jordan it’s about accepting it that within yourself, that’s not acceptable behavior to go to that root of what makes you act that way. This is just another approach to that issue. Again it is a serious issue, but we just want to show the multifacetedness of it.

Does your character ever get fed up with Jordan?

Issa Rae: You got to watch the movie.

Your character finds her voice at some point in the film. Have you had any of those moments in your personal life, not necessarily being bullied, but coming into your own power?

Issa Rae: Absolutely. Not only in Hollywood, because as women you’re constantly balancing, “Oh, I don’t want to speak up too much to be the bitch or be seen as difficult.” In Hollywood, once you have that label, it’s difficult. It’s so hard to get work, and I’ve seen how easy it is. Difficult can be like, “Oh no, that’s not really my vision. I don’t think that’s a good idea—‘Oh! You’re difficult.’” I’m just trying to navigate that. I think for me, going into that it was just about not rocking the boat. I didn’t feel like—I was like, “I barely got here, so I can’t speak up. Everybody’s going to know, she doesn’t belong here.” After a while, it was just about like, “Fuck that. I do belong here, and I have something to say.” I would be mad at myself at the end of the day if I did not speak up. Honestly, I only have an obligation to be true to myself in this industry. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve definitely gone through that, and I’ve had examples of amazing women who have encouraged me to do the same, just by either watching their journey or just personally, “I was at a crossroad, similar to you. I wouldn’t be the boss bitch I am now if I hadn’t spoken up.” To be able to see women like that and be like, “If that’s what I want, I have to speak up.” It felt more tangible to me.

How has it been filming in Atlanta?

Issa Rae: It’s been hot. It rains a lot. I didn’t tell you one thing I enjoyed. I love that it’s very—I just love the community. I love the culture here. I haven’t gotten a chance to go out as much. I had a wild weekend. It’s really like—just to be here is so enriching. It’s a beautiful thing to see so many Black faces, to see so many Black business owners. My brother lives here so, that’s also a highlight, and a couple of friends. It’s just fun.

What’s the most valuable part about working with Will Packer?

Issa Rae: I’ve just been watching him for so long, and he feels like he has such—not only a good business sense just a good eye for what works, a good eye for talent, and a good instinct. He trusts his instinct a lot. I tend to be very indecisive. Sometimes I find myself second-guessing. Sometimes I think, “I should’ve just trusted my gut.” to see someone who trusts his gut and pretty much hits the ball every time. That’s admirable. For me it’s goals. I’m just soaking in his approach. He’s such a friendly, happy, jovial, cool person all the time. I’m—I’m working towards that. I’m always stressed, and I’m always thinking about something. To know how much, he has going on and sees he still has a smile on his face. I’m like, “What are you drinking? Can I have some?”

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Watch Trailer & Poster For Director Tina Gordon’s ‘Little’ Starring Marsai Martin, Regina Hall & Issa Rae