Mid90s, the new film written and directed by Jonah Hill, follows the story of a young boy who finds friendship and camaraderie amongst a group of older skateboarders at the local skate shop in LA.
We, as skateboarders, are often wary of any outside media that takes an interest in skating. Fashion companies, corporations, and Hollywood movies have a track record of trying to capitalize on skateboarding’s popularity and typically bastardize it in the process. Hill, however, is a lifelong skateboarder – a subject which you will not doubt after seeing this film, in spite of what the message boards may say. He also had the sense to cast actual skateboarders for the film. Seeing the actors playing the roles do the actual skateboarding on screen, as opposed to a stunt man or Rodney Mullen in a wig, added to the realness and joy of the film. And it turns out these skaters can act! Thus, Mid90s is a successful and authentic love letter not only to skateboarding, but to the Los Angeles of the 1990s that helped shape the 13 year old version of himself into who Jonah Hill is now.
On the day of the New York premiere for Jonah’s directorial debut, I sat down with the engaging cast of the film and spoke with them about their roots in skateboarding, friendship, the LA skate scene, and how it all came together to make one of the most genuine movies about coming of age amidst skateboarding culture. I also caught up with Jonah at the premier itself and asked him how he first fell in love with skateboarding.
In the film [the protagonist] Stevie’s first insight into skating is seeing those guys outside of the shop and thinking they’re really cool and then wanting to get into that. What was that experience for you? And, all these years later, how much does it mean to you to have made your first film as a director about skateboarding and the 90’s time period?
Jonah Hill: To me, it was the first time I walked into Hot Rod [Skate Shop] the week it opened. And I always remember that feeling of falling in love and also, yearning for acceptance. This is a movie about an animal kingdom, you know? And, it’s like you’re a young cub and you’re trying to find a group of friends to like, at a time when it’s you and your friends versus the world. And I think anyone can relate. Whether they were the older kid at a skate shop, they were once the younger kid. Whether they were the older kid on a basketball team, they were once the younger kid on a basketball team. Just, if you skated that’s what you know, that’s how you made friends, how you made a family outside your home, and how you fell in love with someone for the first time.
Harmony Korine [director: Kids, Spring Breakers] called directing being a long-term obsessive, and I can be a long-term obsessive if I fall in love with the right thing. So this was the thing [skateboarding] I fell in love with, and I wanted to make this film. If you look at anyone who’s a hero of mine, like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson, their first films were films from a very personal, emotional place, so that’s why I made Mid90s.
Thanks for talking to me. I was just telling these guys I’m with Love Skate Mag, which is like a new-ish mag out of Montreal.
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, fuck yea.
Olan Prenatt: Yeah, I fucks with skate mags yo.
Cool, cool. So, can you start kind of at the beginning and talk about the movie? Sunny, I read in an interview Jonah found you at a skatepark, right?
Sunny Suljic: Yeah, right.
So yeah, I want to hear from all you guys how you got involved and what the process was like for all of you. [Sunny] If you can start.
Sunny Suljic: Yeah, so Mikey Alfred [Illegal Civilization], the co-producer on the film, knew Stoner Skatepark. It’s based in Los Angeles. He knew that I would go there like almost every day. So I think he assumed that I was going to be there one day so he brought Jonah and Lucas Hedges, one of the co-stars, and I mean, I just started talking Jonah. He just thought I was a kid that never acted in anything. And then I sort of just started talking about the films that I’ve been in previously. And then I guess he called your Yorgos Lanthimos, cause I was telling him that I was in the film Killing a Sacred Deer with Yorgos, and then Yorgos put in a good word for me. And um, I’m here.
Gio Galicia: I [also] got introduced by the co-producer Mikey Alfred. I knew him from when I first started skating. I think we grew up in the same North Hollywood area. So he knows like most of the other people that I know, and he came to the skate park one day and he was like “Yo you want to come and audition for this movie for Jonah Hill?”, and I was like “Hell yeah! I’m down.” He got me an Uber there actually to go because I told him that I didn’t know if I can make it. He was like “Bro, come. I’m gonna get you an Uber and you’re gonna come over.” I was like “hell yeah.”
Olan Prenatt: Yeah, Mikey sent me into the audition. He told me Jonah is making a movie, come audition for it. And, yeah, there was like either two or three auditions where we went back and forth with the lines that he wrote.
Na-Kel Smith & Olan Prenatt
It sounds like Mikey had his fingers on the skatepark scene with the kids who were trying to get into acting.
Na-Kel Smith: I mean we really skate. If they are looking for skaters, like we tapped in.
That’s the right way to do it.
Sunny Suljic: I think also that one thing Jonah was saying, previously, he would say that the reason he didn’t really cast, like, popular or known actors is because he wanted to get skaters and teach them how to act instead of actors to skate.
Na-Kel Smith: You can’t teach nobody how to skate.
Yeah, it’s a little more difficult.
Sunny Suljic: You have to be skating for so long to actually understand and respect the culture. So I think Jonah definitely wanted that.
Alexa Demie & Sunny Suljic
Yeah, and you don’t have a year to teach someone how to do a kickflip or something.
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, you can teach someone how to dig deep and pull an emotion out of you, but, yea….
Alexa Demie: So, I have a friend named Mikey Alfred who got me in to audition for the movie.
Awesome [laughs]. Do you have previous acting experience too, or were you guys all just friends with Mikey?
Sunny Suljic: I was also part of the casting too. I got to help decide the kids. I was with Jonah and Eli [Bush], we all sat down and I watched people audition. It was like my first time picking people.
Being on the other side of the table?
Na-Kel Smith: So, Alexa, say thank you. [laughter]
Sunny Suljic: It was crazy.
Alexa Demie: You didn’t pick me! [laughter]
Sunny Suljic: I 100% picked you!
Alexa Demie: You picked me? So there was another girl doing a chemistry reading that day?
Sunny Suljic: There were like two or three other girls.
Alexa Demie: You all knew the moment I walked in the door it was a wrap.
He was like, “I want to do that scene later in the movie with her!”
Alexa Demie: Wow, okay. Okay. Okay. Yeah. [laughs]
Ryder, it’s the same case for you or…?
Na-Kel Smith: Hell yea! It was the same case for everybody. I remember, when Mikey was trying to get involved with the movie and stuff, he would kind of keep me updated because I mean, I’m pretty sure he kept all of us updated, just because like we’re all really friends.
Ryder McLaughlin: We had a group chat.
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, I remember literally being like [to Mikey] “Bro, last night was crazy. I got to talk to you last night, I met you on the hill and we was chopping it up.” It was like I knew him forever. He explained it all and I was like, “Damn bro, that’s dope!” Especially knowing Mikey wanted to get involved with the film industry and start making movies and stuff. I was like, oh that’s lit. It’s really a thing – you’re really about to do this. And then it came time to cast, and he was like “Nak, bro you gotta be part of this.” So, then he was helping me. I don’t know if this is something that I can say now or later or whatever if I’ll get in trouble, whatever, but we was like going over scenes, we would all link up because he wanted to make sure that we could bring it.
Lucas Hedges, Sunny Suljic & Jonah Hill
This was with all of you guys?
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, not a lot, but it was like one or two times we got together and practiced our scenes just to see different emotions and shit you know?
Gio Galicia: Yeah, Mikey would meet me at the skatepark to rehearse scenes.
You guys did scenes in the park?
Gio Galicia: Yeah.
I mean, one of the reasons I think the movie’s so successful is the chemistry that all you guys have on film, and I was wondering, so you knew each other beforehand? What was the process of getting to that point where it feels like that?
Na-Kel Smith: I mean, yeah, I’ve known or have seen everybody sitting at this table around from skating and shit.
Sunny Suljic: Yeah, definitely. Olan goes to Stoner, that’s his local park too. So, I grew up just like watching Olan skate. So I knew of him. We would say “wassup?” – so it’s like we were friends. The only person I didn’t know was Gio. No disrespect, I’m just saying [laughs]. I knew of Nak cause he’s a professional, really good skater. Same with Ryder, he’s on Illegal Civ.
Na-Kel Smith: Except Alexa, I don’t know where she came from [laughs]. Nah nah, I knew Alexa too.
Alexa Demie: I don’t even know why I’m here [laughs]. We’re all from LA right?
Na-Kel Smith: Like, more or less, yeah.
Alexa Demie: Like, we all just grew up here in the same city.
Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin & Sunny Suljic
Right yeah, so it’s kind of a natural setting for all of you guys.
Alexa Demie: It’s crazy how we were all together like that.
Na-Kel Smith: It’s dope.
Alexa Demie: It was destined.
So what was it like to kind of go back in time and recreate the LA from that era for you guys?
Alexa Demie: I mean for me, most of us were small children, except Sunny, he was like, not even a fetus. So it was like, I don’t know how to relate to it too much, but Jonah did such an incredible job of making every single detail so authentic, and then like the wardrobe and the makeup and the hair, like every single deet. So you just felt it. And we weren’t allowed to have our phones or anything, so you just felt like you were there.
Yeah, the detail is crazy when you’re watching it.
Alexa Demie: Yeah, like you were saying right now, like from the trash that was on the floor it had to be trash from the 90s, you know? It just all had to be so, you know, accurate and authentic and I think it helped all of us really live in it.
Sunny Suljic: I’ll say one thing, and this is not a spoiler because it’s not in the movie, it didn’t make it exactly, but it was like there is a bunch of food in the background, ’cause I was supposed to eat this thing, and the food was so specific and accurate to all the food of the 90s and chips and everything. So I thought it was pretty cool to see that because I probably would never really see that in person. Very sick.
Alexa Demie: Cool story Sunny.
Sunny Suljic: Thank you so much! [laughter]
Olan Prenatt: Wait didn’t you get Alexa in the movie?! [laughter]
Na-Kel Smith & Olan Prenatt
Yeah, so I watched it at one of the screenings in a room full of skateboard nerds and and we were all bugging out, like “I can’t believe they had that board on the wall in the shop!” It just made it so real, and I know Jonah really went to lengths re-doing the Courthouse too and getting it back to kind of what it was like then.
Na-Kel Smith: Not even kind of, it is pretty dead on. Shit, yeah, it’s pretty much the exact same.
Olan Prenatt: They put the tree inside of the pond. Yeah, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.
Yeah. That was one of the most fun things I think to watch, at least for me in the film, that scene where you guys are all at the Courthouse and just getting that vibe of what that was like. Do you think there’s anything now that kind of recreates that, as far as skate hangs? Everything is so central around parks and stuff, you know?
Sunny Suljic: I mean the vibe has never changed, except maybe with technology and all that. Yeah, but I mean skaters are still pretty much like the only ones or…I actually don’t want to speak for everybody, but when I skate, I don’t really use my phone that much unless I’m filming a video, but during like the process of like filming everything, even when we were behind the scenes, when we would have taken back our phones, we would be communicating and actually talking.
Na-Kel Smith: Wait, what’s the question one more time?
Just if there’s anything now that you think is like the LA Courthouse was in the 90s to skaters then?
Na-Kel Smith: Oh like, like a hub kind of?
Yeah, what’s the hub now?
Na-Kel Smith: I feel like Love Park was kind of like one of the last ones where it’s like, alright we really link up here… as far as like street spots go.
Ryder McLaughlin: JKwon is kind of like that.
Na-Kel Smith: JKwon is trash. [laughter]
Ryder McLaughlin: But it’s the closest thing LA has like that.
Na-Kel Smith: Nah fuck JKwon and everybody that goes there. Nah I’m playin’, I’m playin’, I’m playin’.
Olan Prenatt & Ryder McLaughlin
JKwon is kind of close to that? Because I mean in New York, like for forever was the banks, and then it was Tompkins, which you know has been one of the hubs for the longest time. Does LA have a spot like that for you guys right now?
Na-Kel Smith: I mean now? Now they crackdown JKwon, so that’s not even one though really. Skating is uh…it’s…they cracking down on that like kicking and shit. Yeah, go get your clip and get the fuck on.
One and done.
Na-Kel Smith: Facts.
Did you guys have to, because as you were saying most of you were really young during that time period, did Jonah give you a ton of homework? Like, you have to watch this video, you have to listen to this album?
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, like he gave us movies, he gave us ipods, just to get familiar with what was going on.
Gio Galicia: Even after he gave us all that we would still have nights where we would all get together and watch movies and stuff.
Na-Kel Smith: Yeah, we watched This is England. We got together, everybody, and watched that in a little studio. And that shit was crazy. ‘Cause I’ve tried to watch that movie before, but it’s weird because the very first time I ever heard of that movie I seen the ending first and I never seen it again. And it was so brutal. I was like, “what the fuck?!”
Yeah, it’s really intense.
[Editor’s note: This is England is director Shane Meadows’ coming of age film about a young boy who befriends a group of skinheads in a working class town in England during the 1980s, and also features a young cast of first time actors.]
Na-Kel Smith: So, I tried to watch and I’m like nah, bro, like I gotta see how this part got to this part.
Sunny Suljic & Na-Kel Smith
Any skate videos from that time period too?
Ryder McLaughlin: We watched skate videos after This is England, but I don’t remember what they were.
Na-Kel Smith: We watched skate videos before This is England. We watched like Trilogy, and like Menace videos. We watched one video that combined like three videos, maybe like World Industries, Menace, and maybe Blind or some shit.
Like Video Days or something like that?
Na-Kel Smith: Something like that. I swear, I know that they used to play this shit at Supreme all the time. I used to just sit there like “what the fuck bro?” I’m not trying to watch these old ass skate clips. Like, I’m tryin’ to see people get buck right now. But yea, I gained an appreciation for it. We watched skate videos, we watched movies, listened to music, all that shit, and we did it all together. So, we could talk about it afterwards – like what this means and what this meant to this person.
Yeah, cool. I mean congrats guys, the film was awesome! The authenticity was amazing, I think, because, like you guys said, you all live the parts, you know? It was really good. So, thank you. Thank you for your time, and let’s take some pictures and then you guys can go do the rest of your day.
Na-Kel Smith: Hey hey, before you end that [recording]…you feel me? Alexa Demie gonna be in a skate mag! It’s lit! Alexa, who’s your favorite skater?
Alexa Demie: Na-kel!
Na-Kel Smith: It’s lit!
Ryder McLaughlin, Na-Kel Smith, Alexa Demie, Olan Prenatt, Sunny Suljic & Gio Galicia
Interview & and Cast pictures by Cole Giordano
Pictures on set by Tobin Yelland
Mids90s is written & directed by Jonah Hill, produced by A24
And will be available in theatre the 15th October in U.S. and the 26th in Canada
Love Skate mag would give a big shout out to Tobin Yelland for the help to make this interview possible, thanks man!