The Kid Behind Allen Strange
Arjay Smith has already had the kind of career a lot of actors dream about, and he's barely started high school. The ninth grader stars on Nickelodeon's Journey of Allen Strange, playing an alien stowaway who got stranded on Earth; a major success, the show has been picked up for a full forty-episode season even though it only ran for half a season previously.
But success is nothing new to Arjay, who starred in his first commercial opposite Shaquille O'Neal, then made his film debut in John Singleton's Higher Learning. His guest roles include appearances on E.R., MAD TV, and Nick Freno, Licensed Teacher - the latter in the role of Jared, a sixth grader too smart for his own good. He has appeared in ,music videos with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Soul Asylum, and he has his own dance troupe. And when he's not busy with those, he plays soccer and goes to band practice at school.
Allen Strange is a genius by human standards who learned English in one day and can read books at one glance. He's a little homesick, but he basically likes Earth and has already made some friends here (of course, two pretty typical kids who appear to be his own age). It's not hard to guess why Smith related to the character.
"I've always wished I could be a superhero, like Superman," says the young actor, who admits that he sleeps on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sheets and has a large collection of action figures. "So I really enjoy playing an alien who has magical superpowers, who helps people, And I still really enjoy just playing a normal kid. Allen's naive about certain things, but he's a very nice person."
Smith got the part after a series of auditions, and thinks watching Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation was the key to his success. His coach suggested that he do something "a little bit different, like talk like a robot - aliens wouldn't really talk normally," so Smith - a Star Trek fan - studied Brent Spiner, as well as Jeff Bridges from Starman.
"Watching those characters really helped me, because I saw how they were different from everybody - they had a distinctive talk, a distinctive look, and a distinctive walk. So when I went on the audition, I was very robot-like, and they really liked that."
Smith claims the role hasn't been too strenuous so far: "The one stunt that I have had to do, I just had to jump into a bunch of cardboard boxes. And I climbed a mountain once." Allen Strange can morph into an alien form that looks like a giant blob of light, but since it's computer generated, Smith doesn't have to do much more than stand in front of the green screen for the effects. "It's mostly pretty easy," he says.
A fan of his network's shows Rugrats and The Secret World of Alex Mack, Smith finds working for a kid-oriented network to be a pleasure. "It's a lot of fun because there's kids around, so when we go the Nickelodeon parties and stuff, we can hang out. We get along fine on the set. One episode I really liked was when I got to wrestle for the first time - one of the kids on the show was a professional wrestler, and he showed me a few things, like where I should put my head and stuff."
A performer in pageants at the age of four, Smith became uncooperative at his first audition, so his mother thought that perhaps acting wasn't for him. "Then Macauley Culkin came out with Home Alone, and I saw that movie and said, 'I think it would be really cool to do that' So my mom said, if that's what you want to do.
Despite his early reluctance, Smith's experiences had prepared him well for acting. "I wasn't afraid to meet new people, and I played a lot of sports and my parents always taped me, so I was used to being in front of a camera," he recalls. He appeared in several print advertisements before making his first television ad.
Though he has taken a class and works with a coach, Smith's philosophy of performing is to act naturally: "The one thing I can say is, in acting you try to act like yourself as a normal person. Acting has to come from the heart." Smith admires Joe Pesci "because he can do different things - he plays a bad guy in one movie, then he plays a really nice fun character in another movie - I really admire people who can do things like that, I hope I am able to do that."
The young man is still capable of being starstruck, and was disappointed not to get to meet Michael Jackson when he worked on the "Childhood" video. He did get to meet Stevie Wonder, whom he found to be "a really nice person. It's fun working with people like that, because it shows other people that they're down to earth."
"If I don't act, I plan on being either a producer or a writer - something in the entertainment industry," says the Southern California resident. "I want to write a script where I'm in it, and have someone else do the producing and directing. But when I get older I plan on writing, producing, and acting. It would be nice to do a big movie with Will Smith, too!"
"If Ninja Turtles were still really popular like they used to be when they first started, I would probably want to be a Ninja Turtle," he added. "I've always been into karate. I stopped at orange third-degree belt. I'm thinking about taking tae kwon do."
Smith attends an independent study school which allows him to work with a teacher when he's on the set, and at home with his parents when he's not. "It's actually a lot better than regular school - in regular school, you have to worry about your assignments, if you missed out on something. Being in independent study, you have a syllabus that tells you what you need to do for the whole year, so you can do things pretty much at your own pace. It's a lot easier."
When he's not working, the performer likes to draw, write music, skateboard, rollerblade, play basketball with his father, and dance with his troupe. He is very close with his mother, who is also his manager; Smith credits her with "driving, giving people my picture, getting my agent."
Smith has three half-sisters, plus a cousin that used to live with his family who is also considering a career in show business: "He did an episode on my show, and background stuff in Primary Colors." The family is quite religious, which Smith feels has contributed greatly to his success. "I'm a Christian, I feel Jesus has really helped me in this business, my mom and my have dad have always been there for me, Lord Jesus Christ has always been there for me, and I feel that's why I'm very successful right now, because I have faith."
Despite his youthful fame, Smith isn't worried about burning out. "I'm a very grounded person," he notes, sounding older than his teenage years. "Sometimes it's the parents who are pushing, not the kids, but I was very committed to it. Sometimes you have to go to school dressed up for an audition and then you can't play outside at recess, you can't get messed up, and then right after school you have to go straight to the audition. You're performing for people, it has to be something that you enjoy and not for the money and the fame."
Though he is often recognized, the actor is happy to sign autographs and shake hands. "It's a lot of fun, especially when little kids come up and say, 'You're Allen Strange!' Those are the things I enjoy. The way I treat people is the way I want to be treated - if I went up to Will Smith and asked for his autograph, I would want him to be nice and give it to me."
Still, he tries hard to be a normal kid. His mother recalls several instances when he opted to skip auditions for school dances and band practice, and though he spent much of last summer shooting the television movie Toothless and appearing on Disney's Movie Surfers, he also spent a lot of time just hanging out with family and friends.
This alien seems well-grounded on Earth.