Jaden Martin is only 12 and he’s already acting alongside Hollywood heavyweights. After Earth opened Friday, a father-son tale starring Will and Jaden Smith that takes audiences on a futuristic journey as the younger Smith fights for survival on an abandoned Earth. Aside from having two Smiths, the film also features two Jadens—with 12-year-old Jaden Martin making his film debut as the young(er) version of Jaden Smith’s character, Kitai Raige.
“I kind of felt like he had something early on,” says Martin’s mother, Nicole Hampton. “People would always tell how intelligent he was, how well he conversed and followed directions. By 4, he was already telling me he wanted to be on TV.”
Hampton says although she believed her son had what it takes, as a single mother working full time, she exactly couldn’t afford to immediately pack up and move to Hollywood to jumpstart her preschooler’s acting career. Instead, she waited and enrolled him in a performing arts school near Atlanta. There, at the ripe old age of 6, Jaden learned to sing, dance and act. Hampton says that before long, her son was entering and winning local competitions, and after a win in Florida, she found Jaden a manager.
In 2010, the family finally moved to Los Angeles.
“Jaden was auditioning and I was bicoastal for nine months due to work, but everything happened very quickly,” Hampton says. “First he started getting modeling work, then he booked a spot on All My Children in November of the following year. Right after, he booked After Earth.”
The sci-fi flick—filmed in nine locations, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and costing a reported $130 million to make—is Martin’s very first, landed after just one audition.
His favorite parts of the experience, he says, were experiencing the tricked-out, futuristic set and meeting Will Smith. “He was really cool, just like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” says Martin.
Although some of his friends think he’s famous, having a budding acting career doesn’t seem to keep Martin from having a semi-normal childhood. When he’s not studying on sets, he attends school and stays grounded with the help of his mother.
“I remind him that he’s still a child,” says Hampton. “I want him to keep with his same friends. I tell him all the time that acting is just his job, and it’s a privilege to be able to do what he loves and get paid for it. I remind him of who he is and tell him to honor God first. As long as he does, that he’ll go far.” Mother and son agree that he’s learned a lot about life as a young actor, lessons that other kids might not get so early.
“I think it was a great experience for Jaden to meet Will Smith, someone he thinks the world of,” Hampton says. “There’s a lot of work that goes into making a movie and a lot of different people and jobs. He’s learned from seeing all of that.”
Martin says that his biggest lesson from filming After Earth was one of the themes of the movie: thriving out of your comfort zone. “I think it’s good to not be afraid of something that’s new,” he says. “When I was shooting the movie, in the scene, I was supposed to be in this bubble and I got nervous. I was like, ‘what if I can’t breathe?’ But I was fine. It’s like, don’t be afraid to do crazy or scary stuff or even be embarrassed sometimes.”
After Earth just premiered, and already Martin has filmed two more movies—including Reach Me, starring Kelsey Grammer, Nelly and Terry Crew, to be released later this year. He says he wants to continue acting, maybe one day starring in action films like Iron Man or Batman. It’s a goal his mother supports. “When he was younger, he wanted to be an astronaut, then it was a baseball player,” she says. “I just want him to have his heart’s desire, whatever he wants in life.”