Algee Smith is incredibly humble. Having a stellar year with the release of BET’s The New Edition Story and subsequent promotion, he’s gained fame quickly. But that fame hasn’t made him arrogant or entitled in any way.

“There was so much love out there,” Smith told ESSENCE about going to New Orleans for ESSENCE Fest 2017. “I didn’t expect that. The most shocking part for me, honestly, was to see how many generations that we tapped into it. And that was just the weird part about it.”

“We had people that came up in the New Edition era that used to go and see New Edition live, that were watching it. Millennials were watching. Little kids, like three years old, were doing the dances on Instagram. To cover that many spectrums, that was the biggest shock for me. That the movie did that. And that we got that type of response. That was what blew my mind.”

While filming the biopic about a group Boston kids that become one of the most iconic R&B groups of the 1990s, Smith auditioned for his role in Detroit. Similar to ‘New Edition’ the actor plays Larry “Squirrel” Demps, a member of The Dramatics, an all-male singing group formed in the last ’60s.

Despite being from Saginaw, Michigan, Smith was unfamiliar with the tragic story the group was involved in.

“I didn’t have a lot of research to study. The director, Kathryn [Bigelow] didn’t want us to prepare at all. I didn’t even get the full script until three or four weeks away from being done shooting the whole movie,” he admitted.

“She wanted everything to be like real reactions. As far as like knowing the character, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even meet the guy I was playing until we were done shooting the movie, which was crazy. It was a completely different thing from ‘New Edition’ because I got to be with Ralph and he got to help me out. But with Detroit, it was like, ‘You on you’re own boy. You gotta swim.'”

For context: The film delves into the days surrounding an incident at the Algiers Motel during the Civil Right’s riots of 1967 that subsequently led to the torture and deaths of three men. Eerily similar to current events, the officers involved in the killings were dismissed of any charges.

“We want people to empathize,” Smith said. “We want people who aren’t black to really understand why this happened —why these people felt like this. It wasn’t just a random day, where they was just like, ‘OK, let’s riot.’ This was years and years of oppression stored up, and you see riots breaking out all over the U.S. and you just get fed up.”

“I just want people to —as a cast— we want people to empathize. We want people to be educated, bring healing and bring change to our justice system.”