For Justice Smith, his new movie is more than just another franchise under his belt. It's more than the chance to topline a film that will make many millions overseas or to have his face splashed on trading cards and lunchboxes and be immortalized as an action figure. For Smith, starring in Detective Pikachu is the very definition of a childhood dream come true.
"I played all the Pokémon games growing up. I had all of the original Pokémon cards and I watched the anime," the actor, 23, told ET by phone. Which is to say, signing on to be the human lead of a Pokémon movie didn't require much research, though Smith did revisit some of the original anime and now plays Pokémon GO. (His level? "Something low, like, seventeen.")
Detective Pikachu tells a new story, anyway, albeit one adapted from a (relatively new) Nintendo video game of the same name. Smith plays Tim Goodman, not Ash Ketchum or any of the other characters fans know from Kanto canon. "[But] I realized this was the first live-action Pokémon film and I just, I had to be a part of it," he says. The movie sees Tim travel to the utopian Ryme City following the disappearance of his father and begin sleuthing around with the help of a talking Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds.)
Considering Smith's last role was in the Jurassic World sequel, Fallen Kingdom, it's a safe assumption that he's comfortable acting in a blockbuster production full of computer-generated creations. "[This] was a little harder because in Jurassic, all I had to do was run away screaming from the CGI characters and in this, I actually had to interact and respond in real time. So, that proved difficult from time-to-time," he explains.
"We had puppets for some scenes, we had tennis balls for some scenes, and we also had just, like, tape or a mark on the floor," he elaborates on what he would actually work opposite as a placeholder for his Pokémon scene partners. And then there was a Pikachu. "This life-like Pikachu puppet," Smith excitedly recalls. "It was more a statue and it had fur and was soft and its nose was I think, wet, honestly, and its eyes had depth to it. I mean, I had seen the pictures of how they were going to look, which already was crazy enough, but then seeing it, like, in three dimensions, it just blew my mind. I nerded out."
Nevertheless, nothing could prepare Smith for the moment he saw footage of himself interacting with a real (or photoreal, as it were) Pokémon for the first time.
"I remember I was on set and they were doing animation tests and they had taken a piece of me walking and they put Pikachu on my shoulder," he says. "They animated Pikachu to my movements, so it looked like his hand was on my head or he crawled when my shoulders adjusted. It was the first time I was like, 'This is going to be good! This is legit!'"
Pikachu is only one of 807 Pokémon that have been introduced into the universe and one of 50-or-so that make it to the screen in Detective Pikachu, along with the likes of Psyduck, Jigglypuff and Smith's personal favorite and his go-to starter, the water-type crocodile Pokémon, Totodile.
"He's one of the starters in Pokémon Gold and I would always pick him," he says. "And I had a figurine of Totodile growing up. I love his evolutions, Croconaw and Feraligatr. He is also my favorite color, which is like a teal." Hence, why director Rob Letterman made sure that Tim crossed paths with a wild Totodile in the movie. "Rob actually did that for me, because he knew that that was my favorite Pokémon. He put a lot of time just to get a quick flash of it and it meant a lot to me."
Smith has begun imagining what his further adventures in this world might entail, considering a sequel is reportedly already in the works. ("I feel like there's, like, a bottomless well of content that we could mine from. I would love to see more about Pokémon trainers.") First, Detective Pikachu must open (on May 10) for the rest of the fandom to see. While Smith is excited for their response, he is content knowing the movie has pleased one fan in particular: Himself.
"We worked on this project for a couple of months and it was intense. It was a lot of fun, but it definitely was a lot of hard work," he chuckles. "So, it's cool to see it pay off and I'm happy if the reaction is positive, but regardless of the reaction, I know that we made a good story. That I can confidently say. And I know, moving forward, we have the integrity -- the artistic integrity -- and that's what matters to me the most."