Marsai Martin Wants to Show Young Black Girls That “They Can Get Anything They Want”
Hollywood's youngest producer talks voicing the new Paw Patrol movie, being underestimated for her age, and having a "YOLO" approach to life.
In our new WFH reality, we all crave an excuse to dress up every now and then—including celebs. And what better time to do it than a photoshoot with HelloGiggles? In Dressing Up With HG, stars pick from a handful of outfit-based prompts, reach into their closets, and reveal their best cute, silly, or throwback looks on camera, all captured on Polaroid film.
Marsai Martin knows a thing or two about defying expectations. At age 17, she has 11 NAACP Image Awards to her name; runs her own production company, Genius Productions; and holds the title of Hollywood’s youngest executive producer for her film Little, which was released when she was only 14. On top of that, she’s known for playing the beloved Diane Johnson in the long-running, Emmy-winning series Black-ish. Talking to HelloGiggles for her role in the new Paw Patrol movie, out Aug. 20, Martin explains what it’s like to be *that* young and doing it all.
“In so many ways I’m being underestimated a lot because of my age,” she says when we chat in July. “Especially in the space I’m in, it’s very unique for a 16-year-old [editor’s note: Martin turned 17 in August] to be a producer and creating her own content and being in these rooms with grown people.”
Martin adds that she knows that seeing a teenager accomplish things that very few adults will in their entire lifetimes (like already being halfway to Beyoncé’s record-number of NAACP awards) “can be very weird at times for people,” but that doesn’t stop her from doing it anyways. Besides, at this point, people know better than to tell the star she needs to wait her turn.
“I used to get ‘you’re too young to do whatever’ a lot, but I think now that people see the work that I’m doing and how busy I am with trying to bring out content…they don’t say that anymore,” Martin says. “[Now] it’s more of them witnessing the unexpected.”
But Martin isn’t just concerned with defying expectations for her own sake—she’s doing it for all those who are watching. Her work, from acting to producing, is about “showing young girls, especially young Black girls, that they can get anything they want at any age,” she explains.
For Martin, that starts by showing more Black women and girls on screen. “My whole production company is about telling different perspectives of stories that have been told before,” she says,” …something different than like, a white kid with a dog.” In fact, Martin’s producing debut, Little, was the remix of a cult classic film with a famous white lead. In 2019, she told The Hollywood Reporter that she got the idea for the movie when watching the 1988 Tom Hanks classic Big, thinking, “What if we do this with a modern perspective? Give it a fresh take and make it more our time and have it be a female empowerment, all Black women cast.'” So that’s exactly what Martin did.
Little made $15.5 million in it’s debut weekend, and while the overall film received mixed reviews from critics, the three leads—Martin, Issa Rae, and Regina Hall—were called “a comedic dream team.”
The star adds that she plans to keep creating opportunities for POC-led entertainment again and again, in order to help color in an industry that has long told primarily white narratives.
“I think a few things are missing [from Hollywood],” she says. “I feel like we are making an impact in showing people of color in film and being at the forefront of it, but I still think there is a hiccup in different genres and in kind of showing the story arc on how they present Black women, especially.”
Martin says that she wants to portray more Black women and people of color in a “different light that people haven’t seen,” showing them in everything from superhero flicks to rom-coms to sci-fi movies.
Right now, the production company is working on StepMonster, a comedy film about a teenage girl (played by Martin) who is adjusting to life with a new stepmother, and Saturdays, a comedy series for Disney about a young girl (played by Danielle Jalade) and her competitive roller-skating crew. While little details are available about the timelines for the projects, Martin is set to executive produce both, and she secured the first-look deal with Universal Studios for StepMonster when she was just 14.
“I’ve always told myself to try everything, whether it’s different genres or different projects or any type of thing,” she says. “It’s kind of like the YOLO spirit. I like to say, ‘You know what? You only live once, go for it.'”
In Martin’s most recent role, starring as Liberty in Paw Patrol: The Movie, she voices a golden dachshund who’s eager to save the day alongside the rest of the small-but-mighty crew of rescue dogs. Having watched the animated series “all the time” with her little sister and cousins, Martin says she was excited to participate in the adaptation, which premieres in theaters and on Paramount+.
Plus, “hearing how amazing the franchise is and how it’s so important to not only kids, but first responders as well, really pulled me into the film,” she adds.
Although the movie’s voiceovers were filmed individually due to coronavirus (COVID-19) protocols, Martin did star alongside some big names, including her Black-ish co-star Yara Shahidi, plus Jimmy Kimmel and Kim Kardashian, among others. The teen says she didn’t realize Shahidi was in the film, though, until after she had started working on it. “She texted me and was like, ‘Um, are you in Paw Patrol too?'” Martin recalls. “It was a really funny coincidence, and that’s how I knew this cast was going to be super dope because she was part of it.”
Throughout her acting career, the star has already worked alongside many A-list actors, including Tracee Ellis-Ross, Issa Rae, and Regina Hall, but there’s one person in particular whose career Martin aspires to mimic most of all.
“I love Regina King and how versatile she is around acting, writing, directing,” she admits. “She’s always like on top of everything, which I love.” On top of that, Martin adds, “she always pulls the most amazing, dopest red carpet looks. And I mean, she’s just an overall sweet person. So, seeing how she is in her career is very inspiring.”
With Martin’s impressive awards count and diverse resumé, we have no doubt that she can follow in King’s footsteps. The bigger question, however, is how she’ll manage to keep doing it all while still juggling school, life, and just being a teenager.
“It’s been pretty hard, I’m not going to lie,” she says about managing a work-life balance. “I’m one of those people that tries to kind of figure out how to work everything out.”
Don’t get it twisted, though—Martin’s busy life isn’t all work and no play. “I try to balance it as much as possible by saving the weekend, taking time for myself, swimming, and drawing—doodling is one of my favorite things to do,” she explains. She also emphasizes the importance of her close friends circle, who she notes are “always there to give support.”
Martin adds that she prioritizes her self-care by working towards chasing her own joy, rather than meeting specific metrics of success, when it comes to her career.
“I don’t have any true certain goals that I want to reach, but it’s more of just doing what makes me feel good and what makes me happiest and just seeing how things turn out,” she says.