May 16, 2021

Marsai Martin on Her World Record and Shooting “Black-ish” During a Pandemic

5 min read

As we close out the chaotic mess that was 2020, there’s a shiny beacon of hope and possibility awaiting us: 2021. It’s a blank slate, filled with promise—and for actor and producer Marsai Martin, the new year is already off to an encouraging start.

Earlier this week, Guinness World Records officially announced that Martin, 16, had been entered into the 2021 edition of the Guinness World Records book as the youngest executive producer in Hollywood, a title she earned at just 14 years old. “It feels crazy, honestly,” Marsai said in a video announcing the honor. “A world record? Like, that’s insane. Like the world, and then I hold the record.”

Fittingly, Martin nabbed her EP credit on a 2019 film titled Little, a Black female-led twist on the Tom Hanks classic Big, an idea that Martin pitched when she was 10 years old. (She ultimately starred in it, alongside Regina Hall and Issa Rae.) At the time, she had just wrapped her first season of Black-ish, the ABC sitcom where she plays daughter Diane Johnson, and quickly her resume started building: At 14, she also became the youngest person to get a first-look production deal with Universal.

To celebrate her world record status, ELLE.com caught up with Martin, in between filming season 7 of Black-ish, to hear more about what it was like to make Hollywood history.

Congratulations! Can you walk me through the process for getting into the official book?

What’s funny is I never really knew exactly how it happened. Usually they present it to you, but of course since COVID happened, it came in this box. I opened it up, and it was the certificate. I was like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute…” I was confused because it just came out of nowhere. It was me and my mom and my dad—I’m pretty sure they knew. My team loves to surprise me with different things, and that was one I’ll never forget.

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When you started working on Little, did you know you were making history?

Honestly, when I pitched the film, I was 10 years old and in the beginning, it was just me having an idea that I thought would be really cool to tell people and see if it could get done. I feel like the more we were creating it and filming it and then having press for it, that’s when it grew into something different for me. It became an actual passion beyond just acting. I never expected Little to go this far. It was just something I thought was really fun and exciting and, of course, something you had never seen before from a representation standpoint. I never expected to break a world record; that was insane.

Looking back now, what would you tell that 10-year-old version of yourself?

The more I grew up, the more I was really aware of my surroundings. With my 10-year-old self, I was just so outgoing and so out there and just said what was on my mind, and that’s really how Little came to be. I would just say: Never lose that, never lose the confidence that you have. Use your voice.

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Have you gotten any career advice from the women you’ve worked with that you really take to heart?

I’m not the type of person to ask for advice, but when I work with them, I like to witness how they take part in their craft. Whether it’s how they memorize their lines or how they even move, it’s really the little details that matter when it comes to acting or creating—or even press as well. Just seeing Tracee [Ellis Ross], how she speaks her mind, she’s not afraid. That’s really something I got from Black-ish as well, and Tracee, to use my voice in ways I feel are important. Jenifer Lewis, the mother of Black Hollywood, I learned from her just to be yourself. She is always herself no matter what, unapologetically her, doesn’t matter where or what circumstances she’s in, she’ll always speak her mind. She doesn’t care about being cancelled; none of us would cancel the mother of Black Hollywood.

How has it been to shoot Black-ish during the pandemic?

It was very wild in the beginning. We had Zoom meetings, two or three at least, about how people would be comfortable on set and what their plans were. Disney is really strict, so we were trying to figure out a good medium between what we were comfortable with, where it’s not too out-of-the-ordinary, versus still trying to be safe. It was a lot to get used to. [The cast is] such a loving family, we would go in with hugs, and we can’t do that anymore. It was a tough adjustment, but now we’re right in the middle of our season, and I think we’re getting way more comfortable with the safety precautions. It’s like a routine. We’re trying our best to still have that loving vibe that people love to see through the TV.

If you could channel Little and switch bodies with anyone right now, who would it be?

During this pandemic time, I don’t know what people are going through mentally, so I don’t know if I’d want to switch bodies with anyone. It took me a long time to get comfortable in my brain right now. You know what, maybe a TikToker. I kind of want to see what their life is like. Being a social media influencer, what is that really like? I’d say some type of TikTok star.

What would be your “thing” on TikTok?

I definitely like the aesthetic-type TikToks, where they show different views or different vacation spots or even clothes, those calming aesthetic vibes. That’s my side of TikTok. Or food. I like food. I get a lot of BuzzFeed-type tutorials.

I read that when you were younger you wanted to grow up to be a “legend.” Do you feel like you can cross that off the bucket list now?

I am not a legend yet, in my perspective. Breaking a world record in something that is so historic is definitely a legendary step, but of course I’ve got a long way to go, physically and mentally.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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