Don’t be surprised if you recognize the actor playing Will Robinson in Netflix’s “Lost in Space.” If you’ve attended a performance of Midnight Circus in the Parks since 2009, you’ve probably applauded Maxwell Jenkins.
Founded in 2007 by his parents, Jeff and Julie Jenkins, Midnight Circus does an annual tour in Chicago parks to raise money for the parks system. Maxwell, who will be 13 on May 3, has performed in his family’s circus since age 3.
“I started doing a partner acrobatic act with my dad where I would balance on his hand,” Maxwell told the Sun-Times. “My feet were so small, he could just hold me in one of his hands instead of two.”
In the past few years, the North Center resident has expanded his repertoire from acrobatics to acting with roles in the film “A Family Man,” ABC’s “Betrayal” and as Young Will in Netflix’s “Sense8,” among others.
Beginning Friday, Netflix subscribers can see Maxwell playing another Will, 12-year-old space adventurer Will Robinson, in the update of the 1965 Irwin Allen classic “Lost in Space.”
While the Netflix series jettisons the original’s campy tone for family drama and eye-popping special effects, the robot who shouts “Danger, Will Robinson” remains.
Getting to act opposite that robot suited the Coonley Elementary School student just fine. He said he “grew up” loving science fiction and robots. He and a friend used to visit Robot City Workshop at 3226 N. Sheffield Ave. to build and play with robots, but his interest was sparked even before that.
“I’m a huge robot fan,” Maxwell said. “I learned how to read off of ‘Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot.’ My parents didn’t want me reading ‘Captain Underpants’ … because it had bad grammar in it.
“And when I was 4 years old, I watched ‘The Iron Giant,’ and that is still one of my favorite movies today.”
Just like in the original series, Will and his family — mom Maureen (Molly Parker), dad John (Toby Stephens) and sisters Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) — are flying light years from Earth to the Alpha Centauri colony for a new life. When their Jupiter 2 spacecraft crash lands on an unknown planet, the family has to work together to survive. Their plans are sometimes spoiled by the mysterious Dr. Smith (Parker Posey).
While Will’s family members each have specific expertise to contribute, he feels pressure being among a family of geniuses. Maxwell said the sensitive Will struggles from anxiety because “he feels like he doesn’t belong.”
Maxwell said when he first read the script, the relationship between Will and the robot reminded him of his relationship with his family’s two rescued pit bulls, Junebug and Rosie Rae.
Despite the bad reputation pit bulls have as dangerous dogs, they are incredibly loyal, Maxwell said.
“They are super sweet but fierce protectors, just like the robot is with Will,” he said.
During the show’s seven-month shoot in and around Vancouver, Maxwell was missing his dogs so much he wanted to bring Junebug out for a visit. But the dogs, who also perform in the family’s circus, get too sad when they are separated, he said.
The long shoot was challenging for his family, with his parents “crossing in mid-air while on planes” while trading places to stay with Maxwell in Vancouver and with his 10-year-old sister Samantha back in Chicago.
“One of the biggest challenges of being on set was being away from my sister,” he said of his “best friend.” “Luckily, she got to come up for spring break and some of the weekends.”
To remind him of his life back in Chicago, Maxwell brought his rolla bolla — the tube and balance board he uses for a circus act — with him to Vancouver. He balances on the board while juggling and doing other tricks.
Keeping his life in balance is important to Maxwell and his family, he said, so they carefully plan his acting projects and his time away from home. Dad Jeff Jenkins also is a candidate for 47th Ward alderman.
Besides going to school at Coonley, Maxwell takes classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music. It was there where he and fellow students started a band that has played locally called Cowboy Jesus and the Sugar Bums.
Despite his acting success, Maxwell said he wants to continue playing in the band, performing in the Midnight Circus and “being a normal kid back at home.”
“Shooting ‘Lost in Space’ was fun but really intense, so I wanted to go home and take a break,” he said. “It’s just about how long [the work] takes me away, and really it’s just about my family and my friends.”