My “Renaissance Man” guest is fearless boxing prodigy and aspiring Olympian Javon “Wanna” Walton. Though these days, most people know the 15-year-old as Ashtray, the baby-faced drug-dealing enforcer, on HBO’s hit series “Euphoria.” When he landed the provocative role, he was just a tween with no acting experience.
“I tried out one time and … no other kid was naming the drugs properly,” he told me. “And because they were looking for a bigger kid — I was little at the time … but I was one of the few that could [say the drug names]and they loved my performance. They were like, ‘We need this guy.’”
Normally a little kid being able to perfectly pronounce illicit drugs would be worrying, but not here. Wanna is all discipline, preparation and poise. He started boxing at the tender age of 4 and was trained by his father, DJ, who owns a boxing gym in Georgia. His skills and speed caught the eye of Steve Harvey, who had him on his show in 2017, and Wanna, then 11, effortlessly did a backflip off Steve’s desk.
“This casting director named Jennifer Venditti, she saw me on the show. She was like, ‘Hey, do you want to try acting?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I mean, I guess, like, I’m down?’ And then … I ended up trying out for ‘Euphoria,’ and I got it immediately.”
He’s been working steadily ever since. In addition to “Euphoria,” he’s been on “Utopia” and has a role on the third season of “The Umbrella Academy.” This August he’ll star alongside legend Sylvester Stallone in superhero flick “Samaritan.” I’m not sure it gets any more serendipitous than this: the best on-screen boxer teaming up with a potential Olympian.
“Working with him was an absolute honor. Before I even got the gig, he flew us out to his house. And he was just talking to us and just seeing if I’m good for the part. And when I was at his house, bro, it was insane. I mean, like outside there was like a whole golf course and in his house, he had a whole room for boxing memorabilia. You know, all that stuff from ‘Rocky’ or ‘Rambo.’ It was super cool. But when he ended up liking me for the part, it was super great working with him on set. He was a really good person, super down to earth,” he said, adding that Sly impressed him with his knowledge of the sport. “He knows so much.”
Wanna knows his stuff too. Some of his current favorite boxers are Canelo Álvarez and Miguel Cotto. And he wishes he could have seen Pacquiao and Mayweather fight in their prime. Right now, Wanna is focusing on going to the next Olympics in 2024.
“That’s the goal,” he said. And after home-schooling for years to accommodate his grueling training schedule, he is physically back in school.
“But it’s definitely not as intense as ‘Euphoria,’ where you got a lot of crazy stuff going on,” he said, which is reassuring as the father of a high schooler.
Wanna is the polar opposite of Ashtray, but he did help influence his character’s slick style.
“A lot of that clothing is my own stuff. It’s like the shoes, the tracksuits, all that stuff. I usually bring my own stuff to add my own little flavor to Ashtray,” he said, adding that clothing is important to him. “Even like my boxing outfits, I would make sure I had some custom trunks. I’d make sure they fire. You got to add your own flavor so you stand out.”
I don’t know that he really needs help in that department. He is a singular talent walking his own unique path.
“I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now. I love boxing so much and I love acting. They’re both just perfect for me and it’s crazy how acting even came about. It’s really destined for me to do something in that space, since I got it so randomly, my first gig … and I just been growing ever since.”
But he has something extra going for him that other actors don’t.
“I was never afraid of getting hit … When you’re boxing you can’t be afraid of taking hits. It’s part of the game at the end of the day.” That is a credo that will help you the ring, in showbiz and life.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.