Nathan Stewart-Jarrett on Playing Gen Z’s Guidance Counselor and Anticipating ‘Candyman’
The actor set to appear in HBO Max’s Generation and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman has a big year ahead. But he’s been working toward this for quite a while.
If you were on Tumblr in 2010, there was one television show, immortalized in reblogged gif-sets and captioned stills, that you probably could not escape: Misfits, the British sci-fi dramedy following a group of young people who develop superpowers while doing community service.
That’s likely where you first encountered Nathan Stewart-Jarrett—for four seasons, he played Curtis Donovan, an Olympic prospect who gets caught carrying cocaine and becomes blessed (or cursed, depending how you look at it) with the ability to bend time and gender. His performance on Misfits made him something of an object of obsession for British teens in the 2010s. "I wouldn’t really leave my house between 3 and 5 P.M. because the kids would get me," he joked one afternoon on a Zoom call from Ojai, California.
The actor has steadily built up a presence for over a decade by appearing in conversation-starting projects, whether that be on stage or on screen. "Before Misfits, I was mostly a theater actor, and I was a little too serious. I’d done a few things on camera, but I really learned how to do a series there," he explained. A few years after Misfits ended, the London-born actor did go back to his theatrical roots, playing Belize—a former drag queen turned hospital nurse who ends up caring for Roy Cohn when he discovers he has been diagnosed with AIDS—in Angels in America at London’s National Theatre and on Broadway, opposite Lee Pace, Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. The notoriously long play (it’s about seven-and-a-half hours not including intermission) was "the most rewarding" experience for the actor, but it did not come without some blood, sweat, and tears. "There was hard work, and being so nervous that my stomach flipped out before performing, but that has solidified into something else that is just pride, love, and joy, and it meant so much to those who saw it," he said.
Stewart-Jarrett has had recurring and series regular roles on other shows, from Freeform’s Famous in Love to Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral to AMC’s Soulmates. His next project, though, is a series that has already generated buzz after dropping a flashy trailer. On HBO Max’s Genera+ion, he plays Sam, a Southern California high school guidance counselor who is the object of obsession to the school’s most rule-averse attention-seeker, Chester (Justice Smith).
Just before Stewart-Jarrett auditioned for Genera+ion, it was the height of last summer’s protests for racial justice, and he was feeling depleted. It wasn’t until this script came along that he felt he could finally jolt himself out of the inertia brought on by the pandemic. "I was just energized. I thought nothing would take my malaise away, but this did," he said. "With the absence of socializing, traveling, and movement, the arts have really saved us. It might seem frivolous, but ome actors like to say we aren’t saving lives, but we really are doing something important with this piece."
Genera+ion, which is produced by Lena Dunham, will inevitably draw comparisons to Euphoria (or another uninhibited British teen drama, Skins) but it stands out as the first story, on this scale, told from a Gen Z perspective (the show’s creator, Zelda Barnz, is only 19 years old). "There are so many buzzwords now, but I feel that it really is authentic," Stewart-Jarrett said of Genera+ion. "I can really feel [Zelda’s] voice. I’m not a teenager, but I can definitely feel an element of truth, and it’s about what kids are going through now, a lot of which is universal."
Stewart-Jarrett is right—figuring out one’s own identity is an age-old dilemma. In Genera+ion, the biggest plot device involves the teen characters grappling with labeling their sexuality while being politically aware. The actor defines himself as a teen as "stoic" while also wearing "mad things" like lime green suits and straightening his hair. "I did my own thing," he said, "But I didn’t have as much confidence."
On set, Stewart-Jarrett said he and the cast discussed old teenage movies that had stereotypical cliques, but they found that today, it’s not really like that anymore. "It’s slightly different now because to be oneself is celebrated in a way that wasn’t so celebrated before," the actor said. "Which is also very hard because, what if you’re a boring kid? What are you meant to do then? That brings its own challenges."
"Not to sound like the old man on the porch," he laughed, as he sat forward in a porch chair during the call. "But I watch this cast bond and I remember that feeling. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age, but it’s so wonderful watching them."
Playing the only adult in the room did occasionally leave him feeling left out—particularly during one sequence in the show’s second episode, in which the students are all huddled together around a phone, and their guidance counselor stands to the side. "I really wanted to be a part of it, and I couldn’t be," he lamented with laughter. "I had to be an adult."
Later this year, Stewart-Jarrett will be seen in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, alongside Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo. Much of what’s being called the "spiritual sequel" to the 1992 original horror flick that investigated what it means to be a Black man in urban America has been kept under wraps, and after months of Covid-induced release date rescheduling, DaCosta’s film will finally hit screens this summer. But Stewart-Jarrett has a theory that this delay is actually a good thing. "It will continue a conversation that has already been started," he said. "I’m not American so I like to tread carefully because my experience as a non-American Black person is entirely different to the Black American experience. When I come here, I’m treated differently as soon as I open my mouth."
"What is amazing is being part of a legacy, being a part of that conversation," the actor said, just before finishing up our call. "The film would have had an impact last year anyway, but I think with the distance between the movements of last year and the film coming out this year, it might elongate the conversation, rather than it just being a part of that moment. We’ve got some more perspective on what happened last year, and all of the years before, and how the pandemic has affected that. I anticipate that conversation."
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