It all started a little over three years ago, black-ish star Marsai Martin's dad Joshua says. When the sitcom actor, known for playing the indomitable Diane Johnson, was only 10 years old, she sat on a bed with her mother and father and talked about a movie she wanted to make. In the summer of 2018, Martin is holding court, perched on a director's chair in front of a group of journalists visiting the Atlanta set of Little, the body-swap comedy that took shape from that conversation. Now 13, Martin is not only starring in the film, which is out April 12, but also serving as an executive producer, counting people like What Men Want writer Tina Gordon, Girls Trip producer Will Packer, and costars Issa Rae and Regina Hall among her collaborators. Not bad for a teen. Not bad for anybody.
"It’s crazy. I mean, what were we doing at 10 years old?" Executive producer Packer asks the room with a laugh. "She had a vision for a movie ... and I could see the movie, even back then."
Martin tells us that she was inspired by her mother's love of Big, and, in the way that many storytellers do, began to think of a way that she could approach a similar story from her own perspective. In Little, the young actor plays the young version of a future businesswoman named Jordan, a role she shares with Regina Hall, who's also an EP and has been on board with the film since the day Martin, her father, and black-ish creator Kenya Barris pitched it to Packer. Jordan was bullied as a teen, which turned her into a tough adult to be around. (The word "monster" is thrown around a couple times during our visit to the set.) Though she's a professional success, heading up her own tech company, she continues to push people away, until a little girl with a drug store magic wand sends her back to her worst days: Middle school.
"We just started brainstorming, and seeing how [a body swap] would be turned into a Black Girl Magic-type situation," Martin recalls. Though the adults around her profess that their young colleague is wise beyond her years, she still seems a little in awe of what's happening around her. "They were saying yes to this 10-year-old little girl who popped out with this blazer," Martin says.
Signing up as director, Gordon took inspiration from Martin's own achievement. "Any black girl knows that making anything happen in this world, you’re like, OK, to achieve this, it’s going to be a miracle," she says.
Asked what advice she has for her young costar, Rae, who plays Big Jordan's assistant, April, seems to think Martin's already got Hollywood down. "It feels like she knows herself, and I feel like that’s so key in this industry in general as you’re navigating to just embrace who you are." Rae and Martin share lots of scenes, as April has to take on the persona of Jordan's aunt once she's made 13 again, as well as taking over running the company in time to nail a huge pitch. "What I’ve learned about [Martin] is that it really feels like she’s coming into her own and [is] not necessarily being bogged down by what’s expected of her," Rae adds. The Insecure star also praises "the choices she makes comedically," no doubt honed over five seasons of her award-winning sitcom.
Gordon notes that the script for Little changed a lot over time, and she continued writing as filming was happening. That's not always a good sign, she points out, but in this case, part of the reason for the flexibility of the script was that she was able to ask for more of Martin, who says it's her dream to host Saturday Night Live someday. "When you see her up and on her feet and see what she can do, you’re like, 'Oh, she can handle that,'" the writer-director says.
Hall, meanwhile, worked with Martin in their producer capacity than as actors. They won't share any scenes, since they're playing the same characters at different ages, but "everything I do is connected to her," the older actor says. They developed their performances together, so audiences can spot the "nuances" of Jordan as an adult and a child. "It’s interesting to watch someone experience your character’s arc," Hall says, praising Martin's work.
After years of watching her in their living rooms, audiences will no doubt be seeing Martin more frequently on the big screen in the future. And Packer promises that Little also won't be the last film that the young actor produces. Her perspective was hugely beneficial to the adults in the room, since they want the movie to appeal to girls like Martin. And of course, being in the room with them was a learning experience for her.
"She was able to tell us things about the script, about the character, about the movie that her demographic would like and would relate to," he says. "On the flip side of that, she was a sponge in this process."
When Little hits theaters this spring, Martin will be adding a pretty heavy bullet point to her resume, and she hopes that her success can inspire her peers who see it.
"I’d say that they can do anything," she says. "It doesn’t matter if you’re 4, 84, there’s no age limit to what you can do. If you think you can do it at this time, you don’t have to wait."