Justin Pierce: The Lost Boy

Just over a month before 25-year-old actor Justin Pierce hanged himself in a posh suite in Las Vegas' flashy Bellagio Resort, the enigmatic star of Larry Clark's film Kids took a trip to Sweden and England with several close male friends. One very late night in Sweden, the guys had a serious talk. "It was weird," recalls director David Perez Shadi. "Me and Justin and Russell Karablim had one of these male bonding things. We all had something in common with our fathers not being there for us. We were talking about our lives and relationships. You could sense that [Pierce] wasn't happy.

We were like, 'Look, you have a lot to live for. You got a lot going on.' We couldn't understand how he couldn't be happy." Pierce's acting career was definitely "going on" and his work kept getting better. Scooped up by Clark for Kids when he was a skate-punk teenager in Washington Square Park, Pierce went on to star in director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's A Brother's Kiss opposite Cathy Moriarty, John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez. "We grew up in a very similar way," says Rosenfeld. "Michael Rapaport said I had to meet this great actor. And then I started to hear all these things about what trouble Justin was. But I met him and he told me he wasn't like that at all. He was always prepared and a natural actor. Justin hadn't had the easiest life. He had a lot of wisdom for such a young age. He had an old soul, but underneath his tough street exterior was a really sweet kid." Actress Marianne Hagan, who played opposite Pierce in the independent film Pigeon Holed (1999), also saw him as wise beyond his years. "He was 21 going on 80," she recalls. "He had this expressive face that you don't have if you've had a happy-go-lucky life, and he wore it like a badge of honor."

Pierce, who was born in London but raised in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx, had a tumultuous childhood. His schoolteacher father, James, and Welsh mother, Meryl, divorced when he was 15. With his father absent, Pierce went through a "hoodlum" phase -- hanging out in parks all night, skateboarding and stealing beer, cigarettes and food. Soon after, he started cutting class to skateboard, eventually nixing high school altogether and moving into a warren of rooms in a basement of a building on 176th Street. "The basement was this spot we called the Dungeon," explains Alex Corporan, who grew up with Pierce in the Bronx and Washington Heights. "No one had any money at the time because all we did was skate. Justin had a room there, and we all hung out."

After the success of Kids, Pierce relocated to Los Angeles in 1997 to focus on acting. When I interviewed Pierce in Hollywood at the time, he seemed restless in California. "I'm becoming more and more bored in La La Land every day," he complained in his gravelly New York accent. "People in L.A. don't seem real to me. All they care about is fucking movie stars."
Soon, though, Pierce himself was on the road to stardom, with acclaimed performances in the HBO prison movie First Time Felon (1997) and a comedic turn in Next Friday, starring Ice Cube. Pierce fell in love with stylist Gina Rizzo, and the couple married last year in Vegas. They lived in Silverlake with Pierce's two beloved pit bulls, Mr. Jones and Isis. Perez says that Los Angeles "chilled" Pierce out somewhat, but that "he was a bit isolated in L.A., living in a house. He would come to New York to see his friends and unwind." Still, his notoriety hadn't changed him. "Justin was always himself," says Perez, whose film King of the Jungle was one of Pierce's last. "He didn't care who was around. He never tried to impress anybody -- that's how you knew he was real."

Although no one will ever know why Pierce ended his life that day last July, rumors of drug use had trailed the actor for years. One person who worked with him on a movie in Pennsylvania claims that Pierce found a crystal meth dealer in Philadelphia and would disappear for days from the set to binge on speed. Photographer Bob Richardson remembers shooting the actor after Kids. "He seemed misguided," Richardson says. "I don't think he was high. I remember he had no money to get home, so I gave him cab fare." Hagan believes Pierce's rough upbringing played a part in his troubled life. "He's one of those people that's so completely damaged already," she explains. "That's why he was such an amazing, natural actor. There was so much going on underneath. He had seen so much at such a young age that sometimes things were just too painful. You just don't want any more pain in your life."

A Catholic service for Pierce took place on July 15 at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Manhattan's Little Italy, which was attended by Kids co-star Chloë Sevigny. But it was the memorial his friends held at the Public Theater that revealed the most about the actor. On a hot, sticky July afternoon, dozens of Pierce's tight family of skaters converged a few blocks uptown from the skateboard store Supreme, where Pierce was a fixture. As "Knocking on Heaven's Door" played over the sound system, the crowd wept openly while friends rose to memorialize Pierce. "It's like losing a limb," Corporan explains. "We will never, ever get used to losing Justin."

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