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Mid90s — winter 2018
Olan wears hoodie Fucking Awesome, beanie hat GucciPhotography Ari Marcopoulos, styling Avena Gallagher

Mid90s: easy riders

Mid90s — winter 2018

A gang of IRL skaters came together for Jonah Hill’s heartfelt coming-of-age film— here, they reunite to discuss freedom in skating and ‘weird bonding’ rituals

Taken from the winter 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

“A lot of things in the 90s were at their core, you know?” So says skater Olan Prenatt, who, like the rest of the non-actors in the room, isn’t old enough to have actually experienced the decade’s pursuit of authentic expression. But it’s thanks to this unlikely gang of skater kids that the nostalgic coming-of-age film finds gritty new traction this autumn, with Jonah Hill’s screenwriting and directorial debut, Mid90s. Set in Los Angeles, and bolstered by a killer Wu-Tang Clan-meets-Nirvana soundtrack, the film follows a group of skateboard-wielding teen libertines as they navigate the thrilling, sometimes brutal community lines of their neighbourhood subculture. Here, skating is no mere sport: it’s a street brotherhood, complete with rough-and-tumble bonding rituals and the emotional weight of what it means to choose your family when your own flesh and blood fails you. It’s no coincidence that Mid90s captures a near-mythical moment in time before mobile phones were commonplace. Loneliness, boredom and a skin-crawling need to escape leads these kids to find each other – and, eventually, themselves.

Hardcore yet heartfelt, Mid90s is more uplifting than Larry Clark’s infamous Kids, but shares with it a taste for unconventional casting. Hill, honouring skate culture’s affinity for the ‘real’, risked it all by opting to hire actual skaters over actors. Fortunately, the gamble paid off: skateboarders Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, Sunny Suljic (who also acts) and Gio Galicia, alongside actress Alexa Demie, steal the show by simply skating, scheming, existing – by coming as they are. Plus, they knew each other already. To meet them – which I do in early October, as Mid90s scores early awards-season buzz – is like stumbling into a casual group hang, where inside jokes and jabs are traded with carefree ease. Turns out Hill was right: sharing the soul of skateboarding is really just letting the people who love it show you why – scars and all.

So, you’re all real-deal skaters?

Na-Kel Smith: We all official!

How did Jonah find you guys?

Na-Kel Smith: I think Jonah searched for Sunny and then (producer) Mikey Alfred brought in the rest of us to Jonah.

Sunny Suljic: We auditioned parts from the actual film but they got rewritten a little bit, or taken out. Actually, it’s funny watching the movie, ’cause there’s so much stuff we filmed that just isn’t in there. There’s about an hour and a half of the movie that didn’t make it.

That can be the director’s cut! What was your first impression of the script?

Sunny Suljic: I mean, with my character alone... so many people can relate to it. Everyone goes through that phase where it’s like, ‘I’m trying to find my friends, my place in the world.’ Jonah was really able to create something special.

Na-Kel Smith: I was surprised with certain turns it took. I don’t feel like anyone has made a skateboarding movie that made it feel like real life, except for Lords of Dogtown, maybe. But that was based on a true story. Jonah’s is original, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is kinda deep.’ Like, drugs, sex and all that shit is pretty normal, but not necessarily what you expect in a skating film. He went in from one of the best angles, where it was less about the physical act of skating and more about friendship, camaraderie and shit like that.

Olan Prenatt: I agree with Na-Kel. It was like an intense book. I was in awe.

Na-Kel Smith: Jonah’s fucking insane.

Olan Prenatt: Jonah’s fucking insane!

Sunny Suljic: The skating in the film is so real and genuine. Most of the time skating on film is directed by people who have nothing to do with skating, so to actually capture that feeling in the film... I was impressed.

Ryder McLaughlin: I was a little sceptical, because skateboarding movies have been kinda misinterpreted (in the past). I saw this old video where Jonah listed his top five favourite skate videos, and it was all videos I’d never heard of. I was like, ‘Why? I know this stuff!’ So he knows a lot about skating and has really good taste – it’s not just, you know, Supreme hype stuff. As I read it I was like, ‘Wow, this is, like...’ He hit the spot. (coughing and laughter)

Olan Prenatt: He definitely hit my spot. (laughter)

Alexa, your romance with Sunny is definitely a surprising element in the movie.

Alexa Demie: I had a lot of anxiety about that (at first) because obviously there’s somewhat of an age difference between Sunny and I. But he is just so cool and it felt very comfortable and safe, and after thinking about it... There’s no way I didn’t want to be a part of it. I’ve always wanted to do a film that was set in (another) time – that felt like a dream, you know? I knew these guys growing up in LA and also two of the other girls. So I love the way it turned out.

Na-Kel Smith: In a few years, she gonna forget us, though!

Alexa Demie: Can you fucking stop? (laughter) He loves to say I’m Hollywood, but no – I was just born there.

Na-Kel Smith: It’s all right, we’re all about to be Hollywood.

Alexa Demie: You were walking around wearing a fucking Variety hat... You’re Hollywood!

Na-Kel Smith:  I know!

What does skateboarding mean to you guys?

Olan Prenatt: Skateboarding makes you forget who you are. Everybody shows you who you really are, because there’s no jealousy and no embarrassment.

Na-Kel Smith: You know damn well that is a lie! But skating does make you more open to different cultures, music and (other) types of stuff. It’s my spirit and my soul. It taught me a good work ethic – if you fall down, get right back up and try again.

That’s basically the movie’s catchphrase, isn’t it?

Na-Kel Smith: Yeah! Skateboarding gave me all my friends. If I didn’t skate, I wouldn’t be in this movie.

Sunny Suljic: It kinda sounds corny, but there is no age, race or gender in skating. Everyone is super open-minded. We meet so many types of people – we can adjust to a specific crowd. Like, you’ll see a homeless person and you’ll talk to them like a normal human being!

Olan Prenatt: I had a lot of homeless friends growing up in Venice.

Sunny Suljic: My friend went to rehab for smoking weed because his parents are really protective. But looking at it from a skater’s perspective, we just see that as a part of growing up! Some people from the nice suburbs aren’t open to a lot of things.

Na-Kel Smith: I mean, I don’t even come from the suburbs, but everyone always says to me, ‘What you doing skating – get a job!’ Especially when I was younger – it was like, ‘You’re doing that white-boy shit, that shit (is) for nerds.’ Even my parents are like, ‘Na-Kel, you better get a job.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m telling you: this shit is going to pay off. I’m getting good; I know what it takes.’ But nobody understands it. No one does unless they skate!

What drives the characters in the movie to skate? They all seem to have something they are trying to resolve through it.

Na-Kel Smith: You know, everyone got shit going on. (My character), Ray, wants to take skating somewhere where it could help out his family and his life. I relate to that a lot. Whereas (Prenatt’s character), Fuckshit, is trying to have fun and not worry too much about the future. Stevie (Suljic) is going through shit at home and starting to have feelings against it. He’s starting to be like, ‘I don’t fuck with this.’

Sunny Suljic: When Stevie gets beaten up by his brother or argues with his mom, the next day he goes to the skate shop with his friends and is a whole other person. It’s like another family, really. And there is the commitment to skating itself. It’s like, you’re only gonna stop skating when you either get really hurt or get kicked out somewhere – it’s not just like you’re not feeling it any more.

Gio Galicia: I do feel like it’s an escape. (My character), Ruben, gets beaten up by his mom but then he goes skating and he’s a different person: he’s happy, he’s having a good day, he doesn’t wanna go home.

“Jonah used pieces of how we are in real life. He wrote the characters one way and then, after seeing how we interact in real life, (the movie) changed” — Na-Kel Smith

I could also imagine it being a meditative experience, because you’re not really thinking about anything except doing what you’re doing on your skateboard.

Na-Kel Smith: Hell, yeah!

Ryder – your character, Fourth Grade, is kind of like the documentarian of the group, making videos of his friends.

Ryder McLaughlin: Filming gives Fourth Grade a purpose in his group of friends; it’s how he is able to contribute. You know, he’s not there to talk but (he expresses himself through) his camera, and capturing everything makes him happy.

As you said, the characters form their own family. Do you see Ray as the protector of the group?

Na-Kel Smith: I think it’s equal between Ray and Fuckshit, but then morals come into play. We’re kicking it with younger kids and stuff – so, you know, it’s like an angel-and-devil type of thing. Overall, Ray is down to party and all that shit too, but he’s more focused on succeeding.

Olan Prenatt: Fuckshit has no mental process before anything. He sees something he wants to do and he does it – he doesn’t think about how dumb it is. Ray is definitely smarter than Fuckshit.

And what about the boy/girl dynamic?

Alexa Demie: I think it’s accurate. I grew up with all boy cousins. I don’t really go to skate parks but I can imagine there’ll be a couple of girls hanging out there, right? They’re also escaping their shit at home, which is why they have parties and invite the guys over. Girls also just want to have fun and smoke some weed and drink some drink.

What attracts your character, Estee, to Stevie in the film?

Alexa Demie: I created this story for Estee that she has been hurt by multiple men in her life, be it her dad or whoever, and she just sees these dudes around and the way that they talk to girls. She thinks Stevie is a genuine pure soul.

She makes the comment, ‘You’re right before the age where –’

Alexa Demie: ‘...guys become dicks.’ Yeah. Maybe she’s seen some guy fuck with her friends. It’s that age where boys wanna be little pimps and players. (Laughter all around)

Na-Kel Smith: Boys can get hurt too, though. Hurt people hurt people.

How much do you guys feel you were able to shape your roles?

Na-Kel Smith: Jonah used pieces of how we are in real life. He wrote the characters one way and then, after seeing how we interact in real life, it changed. Our humour, how we hang out, how we talk, all of that stuff. Jonah would ask, ‘Is this something you would say? Do you feel comfortable saying this? How would you do it?’

Were there any challenges during the shoot, given that most of you don’t come from acting backgrounds?

Na-Kel Smith: Hell, yeah. Wait, oh my God, OK – so there’s a scene in the movie where I’m supposed to be beefing with Olan. And I remember we did the scene so many times; afterwards I was like, ‘I love you, bro, it’s all good, we don’t got no real beef or nothing like that.’ ’Cos we started to really get into character; it was crazy.

Olan Prenatt: We did this one scene where both of us just turn around and look at each other. We literally did that scene, like, ten times and it still didn’t work. Every time Na-Kel turned around and looked at me, we were dying laughing.

Sunny Suljic: One of my favourite scenes is where Fourth Grade talks to Teresa (played by Liana Perlich) about his film, Strong Baby. Throughout the film, everyone always has the most negative response when he tries to talk about it – and he’s not too open because of that. But then he finally gets to express his idea to Teresa and she’s like, ‘That’s sick.’

Alexa Demie: Yeah – she’s like, ‘That’s a sick idea.’ She’s so sweet, I love that scene. I find it weirdly emotional watching it.

Na-Kel Smith: You know what’s crazy? That says a lot about homies and girls.

Alexa Demie: Mm-hmm.

Na-Kel Smith: Especially Alexa. All my other friends just say, ‘Shut your dumb ass up, that’s stupid.’ Like, boys can really crush your dreams, ’cause we rough. But it shows how nurturing women are. No matter what the idea is, it’s like, ‘Oh, I think that could be possible.’ That one moment on the couch could have sparked his whole life!

Exactly. Did you feel it was important that Jonah set this film in the 90s?

Na-Kel Smith: It was definitely really cool that the film was set in the 90s; it kept it very period, but the story doesn’t have much to do with the actual 90s.

“Skateboarding makes you forget who you are” — Olan Prenatt

Why do you think it’s set in that time?

Na-Kel Smith: I think it’s a part of Jonah’s childhood he wanted to recreate. It’s just something he knows well. You can look back at (an era) and know everything about it more than you can predict things. And, of course, there is the music that comes with it.

Ryder McLaughlin: It also gives all of us a reason to not have a cellphone or be on the internet. And to have, like, real conversations and weird bonding moments between skaters. 

Olan Prenatt: Also, a lot of things in the 90s were at their core, you know?

Why do you think a lot of us are nostalgic for that time?

Na-Kel Smith: It’s comforting for people who were teens in the 90s. Those are the years when you’re doing a lot of shit for the first time; you’re experimenting. Communication has changed. In society today, there’s an older/younger divide. There are people I meet on Instagram who will just immediately FaceTime me. Being a little older, I would never just FaceTime somebody! I would have to meet them before or at least text them. But a lot of people build really good relationships that way.

Sunny Suljic: There’s a lot of hypocrisy, too. I was on my phone and this older guy looked at me like this (gives judgmental look) at the dinner table – and then five minutes later he was doing the same thing! Even now, you could have a phone on and not use it – just have it on you for emergency contacts.

It’s a choice.

Sunny Suljic: Yeah.

Alexa Demie: We couldn’t have our phones on set. And I liked that. On other projects that I’ve been doing (since), I haven’t had one either. I like what you said, Sunny – it’s a choice. You don’t have to be that person who lives in their phone 24/7. Using it as a tool but still being a human in the real world – that’s the way to go. 

Mid90s is out now in US cinemas