We catch up with actor Jaeden Martell on one of his rare days off in-between filming his new Apple+ limited series Defending Jacob. The young actor made his debut in 2014 with St. Vincent and has been scoring roles left, right, and centre since, including the lead role of Bill Denbrough in 2017’s It
adaptation. At only 16-years-old, Jaeden has a career equivalent to someone twice his age. Having been a bit of a shy kid growing up, he surprised his familiar surroundings when this occupation came calling.
Photographer Noa Grayevsky captures Jaeden skating down surprisingly quiet avenues in Williamsburg, making correct use of fire escapes, and blending well with the Brooklyn backdrop in a just too cool for school Beatles AW19 Stella McCartney shirt. Stylist Jamie Ortega presses play somewhere between teenager and young man. Draped in Saint Laurent varsity and leather jackets - pulled together by some classic loafers - Jaeden is caught mingling with adulthood. Dispersed across a red carpet thrifted from some bygone era in Bushwick, Jaeden's at ease when Noa pushes pause to eternalise him in polaroid.
With a whole host of projects in the works, Jaeden is kept busy with projects currently in the works and movies soon to be released, including It: Chapter 2 on September 6th and the star-studded Knives Out releasing November 27th. With Lowtide, The Lodge, and The True Adventures of Wolfboy coming out later this year and next year, his filmography expands further. A young heart and a wise soul are revealed as we discuss fame, happiness, and the film industry. As our questions ripple the surface, his mature responses envelop the shore.
How would you describe yourself?
That’s a hard question. I’m an actor - that’s the thing I’m most passionate about. I’m obsessed with movies and if you know me, we’re going to be talking about movies and music. That is a tough question. I guess I’m defined by the people around me. My mum and my friends are very important to me and I value those relationships a lot. I try to model myself after people I admire. For example, my mum - I try to work hard as her and try to be as selfless as her. I’m not nearly as selfless as her but I try to be. I strive to do things for other people and be kind.
Do you have any role models?
My mum is my number one. But I have a couple of actor role models, like Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. I respect the decisions they make as actors, as well as professionals and human beings. They stay out of the spotlight and don’t share too much of their personal life, which I like a lot. I would like to be in a place where I can have the freedom of a normal person while acting.
How do you balance fame and your personal life?
I try not to let it affect me, but if you’re in a mall with your friends, people are going to recognise you. It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes but I try not letting it affect who I am. If I’m having fun, I’m just going to have fun and be myself.
What makes you happy?
Being with my friends. All the kids in It are best friends. We talk about movies and we make little short films and listen to music and just spend time with each other. Those are the things I’m passionate about and I love being surrounded by; being on a film set, talking to a director or a writer, and getting lost in a character. Being an actor is the most amazing feeling - it’s indescribable. It feels magical.
What’s your go-to movie?
My favourites are gangster and crime movies. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and a couple like The Godfather. Those are my all-time favourites. I love anything with Robert De Niro where he’s fighting someone or doing something illegal. I love antiheroes where they’re someone you shouldn’t root for but there’s something about them that you fall in love with and they need to win even though it’s worse for society. It’s the same thing with villains in movies, like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Night. There’s something so intriguing about him that you almost root for him.
What makes you sad?
What I’m scared of most is not being able to do what I love. I feel like that happens a lot to people, especially in this industry. It’s a very heart-breaking business because you could have a break-out role and then you could never act again, or you could be acting for 40 years and never get a role. That’s a thing that makes me sad; it’s one of my biggest fears. I try my best to keep doing this because I do love it. Directing and acting is something I want to do forever.
You've been in many films since your debut in 2014, can you tell me about your journey into acting?
When I moved to LA, I became very close to my current manager and her family. I spent a lot of time with her family and they watched me while my parents were working. The whole family acts and her three children are actors. I’m very close to them and they’re like my siblings now, and she said that I should try it out and see if I liked it or not - because, why not? It’s a very big part of LA culture.
I was unsure because I was a very quiet kid. When I told my mum, ‘I want to try acting’, she was super surprised because she would have never thought that I would be interested in something where you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. For a year I went out for commercial auditions and I did a few which were super exciting at the time because for a long time I wasn’t booking anything. It was hard for my mum because she was working full-time and picking me up from school and having to drive me to sometimes two auditions a day. It was a lot and one day she was like, "I think if you don’t book anything, we might have to stop going to auditions, I think it’s too much". I said 'okay' because I understood how hard it is; there are so many people who want to act but who it never works out for. So I thought, 'okay, if I don’t book anything, then fine, I’ll stop. But then, right after that, I booked my first commercial - this Hot Wheels commercial. I kept working, and eventually, I got St. Vincent. From there, I kept working.
What's your favourite thing about acting?
Becoming someone else. In real life, you only live one life and usually only have one profession, but with acting, you live hundreds of lives. You get to become different people; you can be a superhero and you can also be a lawyer. I’ve done all of these things through acting that I would have never been able to experience. You become so exposed to the world around you. I gain insight into other people’s minds and how different characters react to different things. For example, I wouldn’t get angry at a certain thing, but because I’m playing this character, I become furious and I start crying. That’s a beautiful thing that no one else but an actor can experience.
It broke numerous box office records and received many awards and nominations, including two Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association nominations, one of which was Best Acting Ensemble, and it was nominated for the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie. How does that feel?
It was crazy! It felt unreal. It didn’t feel like it was really happening. It’s a crazy thing because we didn’t expect it to happen. We knew this movie would be big because there were so many fans of the original 1990 miniseries and the book, so we knew people were going to go out and watch it. But because of those die-hard fans, we were all afraid that they would judge the film. It was a weird moment when It became the most viewed trailer in 24 hours, but we still didn’t understand, like ‘okay, that’s crazy, but people still might not like the movie’, but it did really well and it was surreal! Us kids are lucky to have each other and to keep each other grounded. We’re normal kids and because we had each other, it felt normal.
How does your role as Bill Denbrough in It differ from the previous roles you've had?
He is pretty different from most people I’ve played. I’ve often played timid, 'follower' type characters, whereas, in this one, Bill is a leader. Even though he has this stutter and people bully him, he is strong with a sense of courage that I don’t think I have ever played before. I really had to go out of my comfort zone, yell at people and rally the other Losers. It was a different experience for me.
An important feature of Bill Denbrough is his stutter. How did you learn and perfect the stutter?
I developed it before doing the movie and before the auditions. I did all my research and looked up YouTube videos of kids stuttering, how to stutter, different types of stuttering, and stutters in movies like The King’s Speech. I had to find a balance between it and not have it be over the top which people wouldn’t believe. People do have crazy stutters that really affect their speech, but if I put that in a movie, people would think it’s fake. I had to tone it down, but it had to be noticeable and it had to be big enough in the moments where Bill felt frustrated with not being able to get his words out. That was another thing - the pain that came with not being able to say what you want to say. I think that was most important because there’s something so diminishing about not being able to say something when you want to say it, especially for a leader like Bill.
At first, I went over the script and marked off where I wanted him to stutter, then after a while, it became second nature so I would stutter when it felt natural. For a while afterwards, when reading scripts and going over lines for movies or auditions, I was stuttering. My brain was putting the stutter in. I wouldn’t stutter in real life, but I would when rehearsing lines. It was strange - it kind of stuck with me for a while.
How important do you think the visibility of speech impediments are in film?
I think it is important. The most amazing thing to me is when someone comes up and says that they felt well-represented because of my stutter. It really made me feel satisfied with my work. I think it is important because seeing someone like themselves on-screen made them feel happy. There’s something empowering about that. I think that’s very impactful. I’m really glad that people are happy with that.
How did you prepare for a role as a kid growing up in the 1980s?
It really did feel like that being with all the kids. We would walk around at night and we would hang out in the city. We would explore as our characters did and just talk. It was almost like research for the film; we became those characters. We weren’t focused on technology and our phones, but on spending time with each other. We didn’t have to tell ourselves to do that; we didn’t have to be like, ‘okay, we’re not going to use our phones’, it happened naturally. That’s what we wanted to do and so when we were filming, those things felt natural: riding our bikes and the banter we had with each other. It all felt real because we would do that every weekend. We would see each other every week. It was just a lot of fun and all of those laughs and smiles were genuine because of that.
What's your favourite thing about the 80s?
I’ve always loved everything about the 80s. I grew up watching 80s movies and listening to 80s music, so I feel very close to that era. The Goonies is one of my favourite movies of all time. A lot of people in this generation say they’re cheesy, but the more I watch them, the better they get; they’re timeless! Yeah, definitely the movies. Probably not the hair, but the style was pretty cool!
It: Chapter 2 is releasing on September 6th, with James McAvoy playing grown-up Bill, and yourself reprising your role for flashbacks. Where does Chapter 2 take us and what can we expect to see from yourself and the rest of the Losers Club?
I definitely can’t say such much about what the younger Losers do in the movie, but the older versions come back after 27 years of becoming successful in their own right. They all moved out of Derry and completely forgot about Pennywise and their experience in Derry. Bill even forgot about his brother; he knows that he died but he never really thought much about him afterwards. He didn’t know how he died, so when he’s finally reminded of that when Mike calls everyone to come back, he feels very guilty. The pain of coming back is especially hard for him because of the fact that he forgot about his own brother. I think it’ll be interesting because you’ll see these characters still have that chemistry because they were best friends for so long, but then forgot how to be friends. It’s them coming back into themselves and remembering who they were and reforming that relationship that was lost for 27 years. I think this movie will be scarier and I’m excited to watch it. I barely know anything about it! I haven’t watched it yet so I’m very excited to see James’ performance and all the older versions' performances. It’ll be great.
Did you work with the older versions of your characters before shooting?
Yeah, we did this ‘speed-dating’ thing. We would sit at a table and then we would switch, and we would talk to each of the older castmates. We got to know each other and talk about the character. With James, we talked mostly about the guilt and the pain of losing his brother and remembering that loss again. All the younger Losers wrote our older selves a letter in character. At first, when I heard about it, I was like: ‘okay… that’s so difficult, I don’t know if I can do that’, but it became a learning experience for myself. Writing about yourself in character is a very powerful thing. Once you start learning about yourself, even though you’re making things up and you’re creating things, it feels like it’s coming out naturally, as if this had really happened to you. It was really cool to do that. We all gave the letters to our older selves and they read it while filming and we were gone.
You have a lot of projects coming up this year, including Knives Out where you play Michael Shannon's son alongside a star-studded cast including Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, and Toni Collette. What's it like working with some of the biggest industry names?
Being on that set was crazy. It was really an honour because I got to meet them and spend time with them and get to know them. Watching them act was an unforgettable experience. It was a fun environment to be in and a great learning experience; they’re all incredible, well-respected, and legendary actors. Not only did I learn from watching them act, but also from how they carry themselves and talk to all of the crew. They were all just great human beings.
You also have Lowtide coming out this autumn and The Lodge later in the year, can you tell me a little about each of these films and your characters in them?
Lowtide is about these four kids who rob summer homes in New Jersey, and I play the younger brother: the mature one who does all of the planning. I’m brought into it by my older brother and his two friends. It’s a really interesting film about modern-day pirates. It’s these kids who rob and steal and are kind of left on their own. The acting is incredible; it's some of the best young performances I’ve ever seen. I think the relationships between the characters are really interesting, and each character is very unique with its own set of flaws. I think it will be a great movie.
I’d call The Lodge a psychological thriller. It’s a slow burn; there are no jump scares or anything but it makes you feel uncomfortable and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s about two siblings and their dad. The brother and sister have to spend the week with their stepmother in this lodge, and it’s about their intense relationship. Some things happen there and it’s a wild ride. It’s creepy. The atmosphere is very intense and creepy. It’s not for everyone but it’s a beautifully shot movie and the story is very unique. I think that’s what the directors, Veronika and Severin, are incredible at doing: taking a simple idea and making it mind-blowing. The main reason I wanted to do this film was because of watching Goodnight Mommy, which Veronika and Severin also directed, and I was amazed by that movie so I knew I had to work with them.
You also play the title character in both the new limited series Defending Jacob and the movie The True Adventures of Wolfboy. How would you describe your characters in each of these projects?
In The True Adventures of Wolfboy, I play Paul who has this excessive hair growth condition, and his dad wants to send him to this school for people with disfiguring conditions or who has trouble fitting in. He runs away from home and tries to find his mum, and along the way, he meets all these interesting characters. I think it’s a beautiful film about people who don't really have a place in this world and who stand out. The director always says this: everyone has their own fur. No matter who you are, you have that fur, and that fur makes you unique. The thing is to not hide that under a mask but to embrace it and be proud of it.
In Defending Jacob, I play Jacob who is accused of murdering someone. It’s about the trial and the relationship between Jacob and his parents and what they’re going through. You don’t know whether he did it or not, but you still want him to win regardless. You feel close to his character and I think that’s super powerful. I like those characters that you shouldn’t root for but you do anyway. I feel like those are the most impactful roles because they force the audience to feel something that they wouldn’t feel in real life, and so it’s very powerful. It’s based on William Landay’s novel of the same name, but it is a little different from the book in certain regards. It’s going on Apple+. It’s been such a fun role to play because he’s such a complex character. I’m the only person with a clear vision of his motivations and what’s going on behind the scenes. That will be a wild ride for people where they’ll be like, "I think he did it. Wait! I don’t I think he did it". It’ll be interesting to see people’s reactions.
How do you deal with so much success at such a young age?
My friends and I keep each other grounded and it’s the same thing with my mum and my manager Emily and her whole family. They all remind me that I’m a normal person. I feel very grateful for all the things I’ve been able to experience. It’s always been an important thing for us that you love what you have.
How do you think growing up with social media has affected your generation?
I’m not the biggest fan of social media. For instance, people going to a concert nowadays - I think people don't focus on the music and the experience but rather on getting videos so they can post it on social media. I think their motivation to do something is so that they can post it and show people that ‘hey I did this’ instead of actually doing it. I also think social media can be a positive. I think it gives people a certain voice, and they can use this voice for the good.
I personally try to stay off of social media because I’m not the biggest fan of it. Everybody says I don’t post enough! I wish people wouldn’t pay so much attention to it as they do. It’s not that important. The real experiences are more important; they’re more valuable than what you post on social media. Just because you post it doesn’t make it real to you. It’s not about what other people think, it’s not about the comments or likes, it’s about what you think of it.
What do you get up to on a day off?
I watch a lot of movies. I go to the cinema quite a lot. I’ll probably do that today - I’m going to watch the new Quentin Tarantino movie. I like to play basketball. I like to skateboard. I love to draw. I like to read. I’m always with my friends - or I try to be. That’s why it’s kind of hard being on a set like this where it’s all adults in Boston. I have no friends out here so it is a little tough, but I am used to hanging out with only adults. I miss being at home with my buddies.
What does the future look like for you?
Still acting. I also want to be a director, so hopefully, that is something I’ll be doing soon. I just hope I’m happy and surrounded by people that I genuinely love.