When Maxwell speaks, you see warm brown eyes that know bittersweetness, that deeply feel both bliss and compassion. Escaping the winter chill of Chicago and the last few moments of a physics class, Maxwell shares memories that bring him joy from the front seat of his car. “There are so many!” he says thoughtfully, looking down at his dashboard as he flips through a mental catalogue like pages of a well-worn script.
Captured on film, Maxwell stares down the lens of Amanda Peixoto-Elkin’s camera. There’s a softness to her photographs: like fireflies in a glass bottle, she manages to capture Maxwell’s youth and the last few glimmers of autumn before the changing of the seasons. Styled by Sky JT Naval in clean cuts, Maxwell playfully performs a version of adulthood that hasn’t yet outgrown him. There’s a gentleness in the way his fingers clasp each other and tug at the grass beneath him, as if, having felt the power of being in the air, he still longs to be grounded to the earth.
For Maxwell, his talent for telling stories is part hereditary and part curiosity. As the son of an actress and a former Ringling clown, he grew up around the art of play-pretend: embracing the uniqueness and differences of others and understanding that is what makes the human race so extraordinary. Since he rifled through the script of Lost in Space at his kitchen countertop aged eleven, Maxwell has grown up on screen through the laughter lines and lion-heart of his empathetic Lost in Space character, the young Will Robinson. Merging Will’s character traits and life lessons with his own public-school experience, Maxwell has grown up on the right side of confident, soft-spoken, and a little bit stubborn when it comes to his art. As we settle into our conversation, he speaks about his chosen family around the world, his time on Lost in Space and the importance of telling someone else’s story.
'Lost in Space' Season 3 on now available on Netflix now.
Actor, musician, Jedi, circus performer. How would you introduce Maxwell Jenkins?
Honestly, I would introduce myself first as a public school kid. I’ve gone to public school here in Chicago my entire life. I’m in high school now. I’m a junior. I like music. I play guitar, bass, mandolin, violin, piano, drums. I also do some acting on the side.
How would your family describe who you are?
I come from a really creative family - a family of artists - and from a young age, they instilled the belief that creativity is a really important attribute. I think that they would describe me as creative.
What is something that people would be surprised to find out about you?
I would say that I’m a circus performer, but I feel like a lot of people know that now - people definitely know that! A little known recent fact is that I’m a huge Formula 1 fan and a Charles Leclerc fanboy. I would also say that something not a lot of people know about me is that my best friend in the entire world is my sister. That’s something that is a little bit unique.
Are you close in age?
She’s a freshman at the same high school that I go to. We’ve been close ever since we were three years old. Her name is Samantha but I call her Sammy-Rae. She’s definitely the tough one in the family! I hate to admit it, but even though she’s a freshman at school, she still looks out for me as a junior.
Where in the world do you feel the most at home?
I’ve been lucky in the respect that I’ve been surrounded by really great people ever since I was a young kid. Growing up in the circus, I’ve been surrounded by circus performers from all around the world - whether that be France, Quebec, Vancouver, San Francisco… I would say that over the filming of Lost in Space, Vancouver really became a second home. I have chosen family in almost every country around the world. Home is wherever those people are.
At the age of 11, you were cast as Will Robinson on Netflix’s Lost in Space - a reimagining of the 1965 series. Your character goes on to form a strong, human-like bond with the Robot. In what ways were you able to relate to that character?
Something I try to relate to is Will Robinson’s empathy. That’s his superpower in a sense. He’s not a Marvel superhero, he’s not a DC superhero. He doesn’t have super-strength or super-speed. But what he does have, and what often does save the day in our show, is his empathy. If there is one thing I have learned from Will Robinson, it is to always lead with empathy and understanding.
What are his strengths and weaknesses? What are yours?
Will Robinson’s strength is his empathy, but I think his strength is also his family. In this third season coming up, you’ll see that strength be tested in some situations. His biggest weakness is his inability to ask for help in certain situations, and this hinders him from growing up. He feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. In terms of me, I would say that my biggest strength is my work ethic. My parents are hard workers. They always say that nothing is harder than the circus! I’ve always led with that mindset in anything that I’ve done. In terms of weaknesses, I hate to admit it, but I can be pretty stubborn sometimes! I think that comes from having a hard-working attitude. If things don’t go perfectly the first time, it can be a bit of a challenge for me.
In the years that you’ve been getting to know Will and exploring his personality, in which ways do you feel he has developed as a character?
Something that myself, the writers and the whole creative team on Lost in Space talked about from the first season was that no matter how many seasons we ended up doing, by the end of the show, we wanted Will to have grown into a young adult. What is so great about the show is that even though we’ve only done three seasons, they’ve taken place over the course of five years. I’ve grown up alongside Will Robinson. What’s interesting about his character, is that yes, his situation is extreme and some might it deem unrealistic - although maybe in twenty years it won’t be - but any normal teenager can find something in him to relate to. He’s really just a normal kid going through different situations. It’s a coming-of-age story set in space. He has his own hero’s journey. He becomes a young adult: he makes decisions for himself in our third season and he deals with those consequences.
What did you do in order to prepare for this role?
As soon as I get a script, I’ll read it once over and I’ll try and find something in it that I can connect to in my everyday life. For Will Robinson, and specifically his relationship with the robot, it was my relationship with my rescue Pitbulls. Pitbulls - and I’ve talked about this with our showrunner Zack Estrin a lot - are our real-world equivalent to the robot in Lost in Space. They can be the kindest, sweetest dogs and the fiercest protectors, but they also have a bad reputation because of the way that they were programmed, the way they were treated when they were young, and the way that they were trained. Obviously, not all Pitbulls are like that, but they get that reputation. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street with my dogs, people will cross the street to avoid them. Little do they know that they’re the nicest, most well-trained dogs on the block! My rescue Pitbull June-Bug helped me emulate the relationship between me and the robot. June-Bug didn’t feel like a pet. She was just my best friend and the robot was too.
Exploring your filmography, I’ve noticed that in several of your projects such as Lost in Space, A Family Man, and Joe Bell you play characters that are trying to prepare for the adult world, and as you say, you grew up on screen. What was that experience like for you?
You hear a lot of horror stories about going to set and not working with nice people. I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced a situation like that. Over the past eight and a half years of being in this acting world, I’ve never worked with a person who I didn’t have a great experience with. I’m really lucky to have great parents who always make sure that acting is something I’m able to do, but also that it only enhances my childhood. I’ve always grown up as a normal kid. I hang around in the neighbourhood with my friends, I play baseball in my local park, I was on a soccer team. I did everything that a normal kid would do, but for six months out of the year I also worked on Lost in Space. Or for two months out of the year, I was in Salt Lake City working with Mark Wahlberg. Those experiences only enhanced my childhood and only prepared me for the future. Going into every project, my parents always want to make sure I have the attitude that I’m there to learn something new every single day. I’m lucky to feel that is what I’ve done.
What do you feel that you’ve learned over this time?
A lot of stuff! On the surface, I love cinematography and I love filmmaking. Specifically with Lost in Space, the camera crew took me under their wing and I learned how to operate a crane and about all the different camera lenses. It lit a fire under me in a sense, and hopefully as I’m getting older, the opportunity becomes more open to me to make my own films. In terms of life lessons: specifically on Lost in Space, because filming is so intense and we do a little bit of everything, we’re on set for six months and it’s not in very easy locations - we’re filming on the sides of mountains during snowstorms, rainstorms, and we’re in deserts. You name it, we’ve probably been there! Something that always struck me, was that a common theme on our show is that the Robinson family stick together, and every single crew member and castmate on that show became a Robinson and stuck together through it. I think that something that I’ve learned, on every single job I’ve done, was the value in working together to solve a common problem or tackle a certain challenge.
How are you feeling post-filming? Do you ever experience a sense of attachment to the crew and castmates on set?
It was bittersweet wrapping up our final season but I don’t think it really hit me until a little bit after. I’m still waiting for the big moment of realisation, but as more time passes and we get closer to our final season dropping, I’m realizing that the experience isn’t going to go away. I had that experience and it’s always going to live on Netflix, so I can go back and watch it if I want to. We went through some crazy stuff together. All of us. Every crew member and castmate. It wasn’t really a goodbye. It was more: ‘I’m saying goodbye now, so I can say hello in a year or two.’
How did your comfort zone as an actor change as a result of your work on the series?
What’s awesome about growing up as a young actor is that if you really want to, you will learn every day. It’s not hard to sponge up everything on a set because things are constantly happening. If you choose to, you never will have any downtime and you’ll always be able to learn something. Every time I do a specific role, it adds to something that I’m able to do because every role that I’ve done has been different in a way. This might be part of the reason why I feel weird about going back and watching stuff that I’m in. When I go back and watch it, I’m constantly critiquing myself, and thinking ‘oh, if it were me now, I could have done that so much better’. But I’m also grateful for that, because it means that I’m still growing and I’m still learning. I think that transcends being a young actor. Obviously, we’ll find out, but I’m hoping that in any role that I do, whether I’m a kid or an adult, I will still learn.
Growth has to be a constant, otherwise, the whole idea of creating something loses part of its magic.
Totally. Acting is just playing real life. It’s playing pretend. Every time you do it, it’s just like how every day in your life you add more experience. Every time you step onto a set to play a role, you’re adding more experience.
You chose to stay in public school rather than exploring home-schooling options. Why is that distinction between being a normal kid and being on-camera so important to you?
It came from my parents but I completely understood it as I got older. You only get one childhood. I didn’t want to waste it. I wanted to be able to hang out with my friends every day after school and I wanted to be able to run around my neighbourhood. If anything, being a normal kid for X amount of months out of the year allows me to be a better actor. I’m playing real people, just in different situations, so it’s helpful to be a real person.
I’d love to talk to you about Joe Bell (2021), a film based on the true and heartbreaking story of Jadin Bell. In this film, you play Joseph Bell, Jadin Bell’s younger brother. Can you tell us about the main message of the film?
It teaches us the importance of acceptance and acceptance of our differences. No one person is the same. Coming from somebody who grew up around a whole bunch of people in the circus. in school, and traveling around the world for acting, I’m fortunate enough to be around a whole bunch of diverse people. However, some people aren’t. Some people don’t understand and I think that it’s important to spread that message around the world: people need to accept each other’s differences.
When you learned that you were cast in Joe Bell, what went through your mind? What were your emotions?
I instantly knew the gravity and the magnitude of this project. I immediately talked with Rei – Reinaldo Green – our director, and he set up a talk with the real Joseph Bell. When we talked my first questions were: ‘What in the script do you have concerns about? What do you want changed? What do you want added?’. There’s a scene with me and Mark Wahlberg in the bathroom, and Joseph said, “I actually didn’t cower to my dad. I got up in his face, and that was one of the moments that he realised he needed to make a change”. So, I emailed Rei, and he said “That’s great! We’ll work it out on set”.
Coming from Lost in Space was an incredible experience but a whole different beast in the sense that you have to work things out before you get to set. For Lost in Space everything is planned and everything is approved. With Joe Bell, you figured it all out on the day. I show up on the day, and Rei is like, “Alright, do you think you would push Mark?”, and I said, ‘I mean, yeah. Should I tell him?’, and he says, “No, just do it”. It was my first day on set. I was a scared little kid who had to get up in Mark Wahlberg’s face - this jacked dude - who I had grown up watching. I had watched The Fighter before I came and worked with him on this, so I immediately knew him in my memory as The Fighter. But he was really just the kindest, most professional guy to work with. After the scene was over, he said, “Hey man, are you good? Let me know if you need anything”. He was super professional and he made that whole process really fun and amazing. It was a crazy, creative, fun process.
How did you approach telling someone else’s story?
It was really important to talk with Joseph of course, but also our producers, directors and every other castmate. I had made sure to talk with the people that were involved in the real-life situation. They were all educated and aware of the story that they were telling and it very much felt like we were telling this story for Jadin, for Joe, and for Lola and Joseph. I realised it was really important to come to set every day super prepared but also ready to change it up because we’re telling real-life stories and sometimes those don’t get translated down onto the page and you have to change it up.
Did working on this film change any of your existing views on masculinity?
I wouldn’t say that working on the film changed my views on what it means to be a man - not because it didn’t have any effect on me, but because in the circus I grew up around a whole bunch of different people. The people I grew up around had lots of different views and ways in which they carry themselves and present themselves to the world. It wasn’t really a question of: ‘this is what a man is’ and ‘this is what a woman is’ because I never really had those set definitions because I grew up around people who fell all over the spectrum.
Is the Midnight Circus quite a significant part of Chicago culture?
Yeah, totally. We’ve been performing in the city for how long…fifteen years now? Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been performing in it and going to the shows. Even when I’m filming Lost in Space, I try to come back on the weekends so that I can perform. It started in our neighbourhood park when I was three years old. They were threatening to shut down our playground because it was old and dilapidated. So, my parents, who were trying to get out of the circus at the time, said, “Alright, we’ll do one weekend to raise money for the park and re-build the playground and then we’re done, we’re getting out of the circus”.
Fifteen years later…
It ended up being quite successful. Over a decade since and we’ve expanded over the city and now it has become a real point to go to parks on the south and west sides of Chicago. Chicago is an incredibly segregated city so our message is that we need to bring the whole community together - one circus at a time.
Circus and carnival culture has often been trivialized as something to be feared in modern culture and can be seen in Stephen King’s IT, Joker and American Horror Story: Freak Show which play on fears of the wacky and wonderful. You’ve spoken about the artistry of circus performers before, so I was interested in your view of these perceptions?
A running joke in our family is that when my mum was growing up, she was afraid of clowns. Then she married a clown and had two clown-children! On a serious note, ingrained in our society and global culture, we have a fear of what is different. It goes without saying that our differences are what makes our world so cool. As of now, we’re the only life-form that we know of in the universe. We’ve got to do everything that we can to protect our differences and to protect what makes us unique. I think it’s our differences that make us beautiful and interesting.
What is your idea of happiness?
There are definitely things that make me happy, but I don’t know if they are my idea of happiness. I would say that my idea of happiness is having a purpose - finding something that you love to do and keeps you having a drive. It’s so easy to fall into a rut when we’re not working or when we don’t have something that we love to do. It could be as simple as a hobby. But when we don’t have something that brings us joy like that, then we’re truly unhappy. To be happy is to follow your passions.
You’re an old soul. Has anyone ever told you that?
It depends. Sometimes my friends think that I’m pretty immature for my age but I appreciate you saying that!
Is there a person that you’re particularly grateful for in your life?
There are many: my parents, my sister, Billy Mumy – the original Will Robinson. Without Billy Mumy, my Will Robinson wouldn’t be who he is and Lost in Space wouldn’t be what it is. But I love sci-fi, and if there is ever a Hall of Fame for sci-fi, Billy Mumy should be at the front of it because he revolutionized sci-fi with his portrayal of Will Robinson. My teachers at school are also really big inspirations to me and I’m grateful to them because they taught me what I know but also they allow me to travel the world and do what I love. They put in the time and the effort to make sure that I don’t fall behind and that I’m still able to have the best of both worlds. Our teachers here in Chicago don’t get the credit that they deserve. There is a reason that they’ve had to go on strike three times in my Chicago public school experience. It’s really important that we protect our teachers across the world, but also specifically Chicago.
Last question. What do you love most about what you do?
The people that I get to meet and the places I get to go are the things that I love most about what I do. Something I’ve always understood is that the job is temporary - the work is temporary - but the people are forever. The relationships that you make are forever. If you really work on connecting with someone when you’re working - which is not hard because you’re bearing your soul every time that you show up to an acting job - you become closer to them and they become your family. Everybody on that set, not just the people acting opposite you in the scene, but the cameraman who is in charge of looking at you through the lens and making sure that it all runs smoothly, the director of photography who is in charge of making sure that you look your best and that you’re able to do your best performance, the director, the writers, ADs, PAs - everybody! The people that I get to work with, the places that I’ve been able to travel, and the connections that I’ve made in those places are what I love the most about being an actor.