Justice Smith Explains How His New Movie “I Saw the TV Glow” Taught Him 'About Letting Go' (Exclusive)

Justice Smith tells PEOPLE his obsession with his own performances "was making me miserable" prior to make the A24's film

<p>Monica Schipper/Getty</p> Justice Smith on March 14, 2024

Monica Schipper/Getty

Justice Smith on March 14, 2024

For Justice Smith, making his new A24 movie helped give him a new perspective on acting.

While speaking with PEOPLE recently about I Saw the TV Glow, Smith, 28, referred to a climactic scene in the psychological thriller in which he lets out a blood-curling scream — and how it's exemplary of how he adjusted his approach on the job.

"It's funny because that scene, a lot of this movie taught me about letting go," he says. "I think for a long time I'd been obsessed, I'd been so obsessed with quality, the quality of my performances that it was making me miserable. I was super hard on myself."

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<p>By Spencer Pazer/Courtesy of A24</p> Justice Smith in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

By Spencer Pazer/Courtesy of A24

Justice Smith in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

In I Saw the TV Glow, Smith portrays a teenager named Owen in the 1990s who bonds with another high schooler, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), over a late-night television series they each obsess over. The actor portrays Owen over a significant period of years in the film, written and directed by filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun (We're All Going to the World's Fair).

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Rather than overly worry about his performance, Smith says he decided he would "just accept that whatever I do is enough" when filming. After wrapping, he felt better about his acting and says it "gave me a lot of solace, a lot of trust in myself and acceptance of myself, which is the exact opposite journey that [his character] goes on."

"He really does not believe that him authentically is enough," he says of the part. "And meanwhile I'm having this beautiful, liberating experience playing him."

<p>Courtesy of A24</p> From Left: Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

Courtesy of A24

From Left: Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

Smith adds that making the new movie reflects a shift in how he approaches his career, more than a decade after he made his big screen debut in 2012's Trigger Finger. "I finally was saying no to things that didn't light me up, even if they were financially viable or a big blockbuster. I just was like, 'I want to do something that lights me up,' " Smith says, noting that he has found his "life has to come first and my career has to come second, and my career has to inform my life in some way."

"I can't live in anticipation for my next job. I can't dishonor my inner child's reason for being a part of this, for getting into this craft," Smith continues. "But I also think that as I become more of an adult too, I am learning to balance, 'When can I do art that really lights me up creatively and then when can I just — I need to pay my mortgage.' "

I Saw the TV Glow is playing in limited theaters now; the film releases nationwide Friday, May 17.

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