When it comes to constructive self-criticism, 13-year-old actor Sunny Suljic is unsurpassed.
Sitting on a couch inside Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria alongside fellow co-stars and film newcomers Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin and Gio Galicia, Suljic looks like any ordinary teenage boy, wearing a pair of sweatpants and a plain t-shirt. But talking to the young actor reveals a different story.
After proving his acting chops in several films and TV shows, including “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “The House with a Clock in its Walls” and “Criminal Minds,” Suljic snagged a lead role in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid90s,” pushing the promising film starlet even further into the limelight. Suljic’s role in Hill’s film also granted him a chance to hone his skateboarding skills, as his character struggles to find his way in the rough-and-tumble world of skateboarding in ‘90s L.A.
In “Mid90s,” which hits theaters in Chicago Oct. 26, Suljic portrays a teenage boy named Stevie, who visits his local skate shop with dreams of becoming a true skateboarder. After meeting a group of angsty skateboarding teens who hang out at the shop, Suljic realizes his cool kid aspirations might be fulfilled.
Under the somewhat paternal guidance of the uber cool and intimidating Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the other skateboarders, with the quintessentially angsty names Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Ruben (Gio Galicia), welcome Stevie into their club. With a desire to be one of the cool kids, Stevie starts to smoke, drink and skate like his new friends — leading him into some questionable and unexpected situations.
Stevie’s tedious relationships with his brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and complications within his new circle of friends serve as a rude awakening for a teenager coming to terms with himself and the chaos surrounding him.
Considering Suljic’s character in “Mid90s” constitutes his first lead role, one might assume the young actor loves watching his hard work play out onscreen — but that’s not the case.
In Suljic’s opinion, watching the film for the first time was a practice in self-criticism.
“It was so hard for me to watch it. I was just criticizing myself — I’m not saying that for sympathy, like, ‘Oh I did so bad[ly],’ Suljic said. “It was so hard for me to watch it, and I was just like, ‘Oh I could have done that, I could have done that.’ But I love the film … it was just so overwhelming, and I want to watch it more.”
In the film, Stevie is faced with some tough situations — including a few heated fights with his brother. Suljic said he grew close to Hedges during film production and was able to learn a lot from him.
“I think I give a lot of props to Lucas. He definitely has a lot more experience with acting and he definitely helped me out,” Suljic said. “It was one of my first times doing a fighting scene, making it look really realistic, especially [since] it was wide shot, it wasn’t too graphic … so I think we had to put a lot of effort into that, but he definitely helped me out with that.”
For Prenatt, McLaughlin and Galicia, skateboarding is second nature. All of them skate for the L.A.-based group Illegal Civilization. When they’re not shredding boards, they can be found doing other things — like working in videography or modeling. But landing a role in a feature film was an opportunity none of them had encountered before.
McLaughlin said the experience of filming was overwhelming and exciting. He said he vividly remembers the feelings of nostalgia and pride, which overcame him upon watching the film for the first time.
“I almost started crying just from, like, the first sequence … and after that I was like, ‘I remember filming that, I remember being there,’ McLaughlin said.
Like his co-stars, McLaughlin discussed Hill’s skill as a director. He said he always felt comfortable when asking Hill questions relating to his character.
“If I ever had a question about how [my character] was feeling or how I should react to something, I would just go to Jonah and he would explain it to me,” McLaughlin said. “It didn’t feel like it was his first time directing — it felt like he knows what to tell me and he knows how to make me feel like I know what I’m doing.”
For Prenatt, breaking into acting was stepping into a new art foray. In addition to travelling around Europe and Australia to skate for Rogue Nation and Illegal Civilization, Prenatt has modeled for several top designer brands, including All Saints, Gucci and Versace. Prenatt said acting is a unique art form he wishes to continue working in.
“Acting is cool, it’s an amazing art — how you can take words off of a paper and create this living being,” Prenatt said. “I really enjoy that art and want to continue in it.”
“Mid90s” could be described as Hill’s love letter to skateboarding. Over the course of the film, Stevie and his ragtag group of skating friends bond over their mutual love of abandoned concrete backlots and the ambitious, after-school adventures they offer.
As Hill captured in “Mid90s,” skateboarding offers a tight-knit community, which can serve as a refuge for people from all walks of life.
Galicia said he thinks skateboarding creates a judgment-free zone that can be home to anyone, regardless of where they come from.
“Skateboarding brings a community where there’s no judgment on what you look like, what your ethnicity [is],” Galicia said. “If you’re just a good person at heart and get along with everybody, it’s just going to build up a really good community.”
Reflecting on his favorite memories from filming, Suljic said there was one scene in particular that captured the heart of Hill’s film.
After Stevie and his fellow skateboarders find themselves unexpectedly blindsided by a tragic event toward the film’s end, his mother is forced to acknowledge the unbreakable bond between Stevie and his friends. It’s this particular sequence filmed at the end of production that resonated with Suljic the most.
“When Dabney sees everybody in the skate shop, their appearance isn’t the best, but at the end … they’re all there,” Suljic said. “They’re so supportive, they’re so committed … she understands that it is honestly like a family.”
Rated R, “Mid90s” will begin playing in Chicago theaters Oct. 26.