Many young people have had the experience of their parents showing them their favorite movies and shows from when they were younger. Marsai Martin did, too. Only as she made her way through her parents’ catalog, her Hollywood intuitions kicked in big time.
Watching Tom Hanks-starrer Big, Martin had a thought: Why not give this classic film the update it deserves? “It took me a minute to process the whole situation and how we could make this in a different way, not necessarily a remake, but make it more of a modern and fresh perspective; make it diverse and inclusive, and that’s how Little came along,” Martin told MTV News.
Little, which hits theaters April 12, tells the story of a tech mogul with a serious attitude problem (Regina Hall) who is cursed to return to her 13-year-old body (Martin) until she rediscovers her true self, and the only person who can help her is her rightfully disgruntled assistant (Issa Rae).
The 14-year-old got her first taste of the limelight when ABC’s Black-ish premiered a month after her tenth birthday in 2014. She stars as Diane, the way-too-clever youngest daughter (but older twin!) of Anthony Anderson’s Dre and Tracee Ellis Ross’s Bow. Now, just four-and-a-half years later, she’s making history as the youngest executive producer in Hollywood after launching her very own company (with her parents, Carol and Joshua, by her side), Genius Productions.
“We wanted this to be something that is more than a movie,” she said. “I feel like everyone says that, like, ‘It’s more than a movie.’ But it’s something that’s about female empowerment and how there is a such thing as second chances and … just be yourself.”
Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, and Regina Hall at the Little premiere
Martin talked to MTV News about feeling empowered, the benefits of a good support system, and what she wants to change in Hollywood. Check it out below.
MTV News: As a young person, what makes you feel empowered to go after what you want?
Martin: It can be in several ways. One, it’s seeing the things that are missing in the industry, you know? I was 10 when I had pitched a film. There weren’t a lot of young black girls out there — well not a lot of them, but there were barely none. Like none. Like no black girls that I would actually see. This has been my passion for a long time, and seeing that there was no one like me that is doing this and being a part of this amazing industry is… it was kind of hurtful. That empowered me to do something that is out of the ordinary and make something where everybody feels welcome and … they feel comfortable in who they are.
MTV News: On that same note, what were you not seeing in films that you wanted to make sure you included here?
Martin: Oh, the big thing is Black girls. It’s people who look like me, just seeing representation of everyone. I didn’t get that when I was young. I only saw one Black girl that was on a Disney show, that was known for being the sassy, coocoo, that type of girl … Even in reality shows, how they look at Black women like they’re the monsters: snatching wigs, and weaves and wigs, weaves and wigs, basically, and throwing water and stuff. That’s how people see us often, as we are the enemies of things. I wanted to change that because that’s not a good example.
MTV News: Your Black-ish family was on board with this project, creator Kenya Barris produced and Tracee Ellis Ross voiced the Alexa-like HomeGirl. What was it like having their support on Little?
Martin: It means the world to me. It’s very rare to have an amazing cast who supports you and loves you for anything you do in the future. Having their support is amazing. Kenya was with us from the start. He helped us create this and move forward and gave us the best advice for everything that we needed. And Tracee is just, she’s the definition of Black girl magic in itself. Of course I needed as much Black girl magic in the film as possible and she was definitely a part of it! … And it’s not just them either. It’s the whole cast that is rooting for me. We’re all rooting for each other in anything that we do. I’m beyond blessed for those type of relationships in my life that will last forever.
MTV News: In what ways have those relationships been so important?
Martin: They will actually tell you the truth and tell you their stories and how they really survived this industry … We really are going through the same things. We are all wonderful Black women — I’m a kid, but Black women in this industry are just trying to make a statement for ourselves. We are all really in this together and I think having a mentor is really important because they lead by example.
MTV News: What part of you do you hope always shines through as you continue to build your empire in Hollywood?
Martin: Sense of humor … I’ve had to learn that not everything is so serious. This is really all just having a great time and just playing around. Because I kind of struggled here and there, just stressing over things and having anxiety, but … when I start talking and just being myself and my humorous self, then everything goes well. I think my sense of humor and how I look at life. I feel like I want to keep moving with that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.