Introduction by Douglas Greenwood
Grooming Rachel Lee
Sunny Suljic is a boy with his heart set on skating; being an actor, the profession that brought him to the world’s attention, is a side hustle he just happens to be brilliant at.
So when those two passions intersected in the form of Mid90s, a California-set coming-of-age movie from an Oscar nominated Hollywood hero, practically no one else on America’s East Coast could have slipped into the shoes of its protagonist so perfectly.
It’s a performance that Sunny, a Georgia native who now resides in Los Angeles, was destined to play. Directed by Jonah Hill and set in the LA skate scene at the peak of its international notoriety, Mid90s tells the story of Stevie. Teased by his older brother and loved, albeit at a distance by his dysfunctional mother, he’s a plucky 13-year-old who opts to find his own chosen family in a group of much older high schoolers that hang at a local skate shop. They’re crude, prolific weed smokers and bend the law to turn every spot that they find into a new skating set. Lured in by their communal spirit and a desire (one we all feel at that age) to be considered cool, Stevie tags along on their escapades over the course of one long, scorching summer.
Gifted his first skateboard at the age of three, Sunny has been riding almost every day since, refusing to stop even at the insistence of overprotective movies producers who fear he might break a bone mid-shoot. It’s a conversation he must have had several times before, perhaps most notably on the set of his biggest film before this, Yorgos Lanthimos’ psycho-horror ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. In that celebrated work, a prize winner at Cannes Film Festival, Sunny played the son of a surgeon tormented by a strange teenage lad who tries to tear a family apart.
Mid90s might have a sullen streak, but it’s far more freewheeling and energetic than Lanthimos’ movie, and perfectly captures the spirit of that era. So who better to quiz Sunny on his love of all things skating than the man who dominated the scene in real life? A skating legend who transcended the sport and became a pop culture icon in his own right, Tony Hawk is perhaps the most iconic name in skating, and has maintained a decades-long career. Exclusively for SUPER, the duo jumped on Facetime to chat about how Sunny won the role, Jonah Hill’s unwavering respect for the scene as a director, and how skateboarding will always be tethered to its roots, no matter how commercial the culture of it may become.
Tony: Hey Sunny! How’s it going?
Sunny: Pretty good, how are you?
T: All good, I’ve just been rushing around trying to maintain my career as a skateboarder at 50! I don’t have acting to fall back on, so the struggle is real.
S: You’re doing great!
T: Well thanks man! I’m hyped to talk to you. Congratulations on all the success from Mid90s. I feel like there’s been a few cinematic attempts at covering skating but it kind of always ends in the 80s. Nothing has really covered it from that era going forward.
S: Thanks! Yeah, Jonah did a really great job, especially coming from a skater's point of view. I just watched loads of videos [from that era], and seeing the film, it actually resembles how it was during that time period.
T: It’s obvious that he loved skating through those years for sure. So, I’m wondering, did you start acting or skating first?
S: Oh, I started skating first! I started skating when I was like 3.
T: Before Mid90s, did anyone discourage you from getting into it, because they were afraid you were going to get hurt?
S: No actually, my mom was always very supportive. Obviously acting is nice and stuff, but skateboarding is my passion. Aside from the fact I could get hurt, I always wanted to maintain both, but if I had to make a decision, skating would come first.
T: I’m only asking that because I hear from musicians and other sports athletes a lot where they say ‘Man I love skating but it’s under my contract that if I get hurt, I can’t do [a project] – so I can’t even try anymore!’
S: Oh! I’ve signed contracts not to skate but I still do it.
T: That’s brilliant! There you go!
S: I signed a contract for a film once. I was in Ohio shooting for three months but every single night I would go to the skate park. They had lock-ins sometimes, so I’d do a lock-in when I wasn’t shooting the next day, and would literally just be skating all night. They eventually found out, and I just told them ‘If I break something, then that’s on me, but nothing is going to happen’.
T: You made the movie at such a formative time in your life: about to go through puberty, which is such an awkward phase. When my type of skating wasn’t really accepted and I was looking for any kind of validation, all of a sudden I went through all those changes too. You’re doing that in real life but also playing the part of someone in a movie who is going through it. Did you connect those, or were you just playing a part?
S: Oh, completely playing a part. I would never feel like I could be acting if I was just playing myself. In my opinion, to make a character, a director or writer form it and then you bring that character to life. I’ve definitely tried to bring personal connections making it a little easier for myself, but on some parts I even have too much of a connection.
T: I just wondered if that was a difficult process, because you don’t see that a whole lot with younger actors going through these adult experiences like you did.
S: Oh, that was probably the easiest part! I actually have – with not as bad an influence – a pretty similar friendship group. All my friends are about 16 and we do go street skating.
T: That parallels your real experience for sure, so that makes sense to me. So when you tried out for the movie, was the first call for a skater? Was that how you looped into it?
S: Jonah didn’t know I acted at all actually. I met Mikey Alfred, I know him through [skate crew and art collective] Illegal Civ, and I didn’t know he was a producer on the film. Jonah was looking for actual skaters and not actors because you can’t really act out what skating culture is. So Mikey brought Jonah to the skate park. I was just skating and then I see him and Jonah walking towards me and he introduced Jonah to me. It came to the point where he asked if I’d ever acted before. I told him what I’d been in and he was like ‘Oh, you really act!’, so I went to an audition.
T: Were you familiar with his work before that?
S: Oh yeah! I was definitely fanboying over him when I met him for the first time. I remember early on he told me that, through his writing process, it was difficult because people had a lot of negative responses. They were like ‘Jonah, you’re going to make a skateboarding movie?’. No one knew how it was going to turn out.
T: Because people have covered skateboarding and the community want to keep it so pure. People think it’s going to sanitise what we do. It’s as much as a lifestyle and an art form as it is a sport and it all depends on which aspects you are drawn to.
S: It’s so interesting. Someone that doesn’t skate would just be walking up an 8-stair, but then from our standpoint we’ll be like ‘Wow, look at that spot’! We make everything an art form. That’s what I love about skating. It’s insane that we’re able to do that.
T: For sure. So what’s next for you? Are you gonna put out a [skating] video?
S: That’s my goal, yeah! It’s just difficult because my schedule is unpredictable. My team will be like ‘You’re going to have an audition!’, and I’ll be like, ‘but I was going to skate today! I’m really encouraged to skate now because I feel like I have to make up for that time of press touring. Street skating is just the best feeling. Going out to a spot and just messing around and maybe getting a clip; there’s just so much adrenaline!
T: That’s still what keeps me going, even at my age, if I do a trick that I’ve never done before, even if someone else has done it, that’s the buzz that I’m always chasing.
T: It’s really hard to grow out of!
S: Yeah, people always ask me if I’m going to do skating or acting and I’m like ‘Why can’t I do both? It’s not stopping me now so I don’t get how it’s going to get any worse. I don’t get why it’s always got to be one thing!
T: Exactly! [Doing both] keeps you healthy and sane for sure. Well, hey, congrats on everything! I think it’s super exciting and I want to thank you for representing skating so well and really giving it that same energy it had in the 90s. We were all misfits but we all found each other as a community, as a family, and a lot of people were going through much harder real family issues but gravitated to skating because of that community. I feel like you presented that really well and that was a big responsibility!
S: Thank you, I appreciate it. Now I know that it is set in stone, I feel good. I know you lived through and fully know that time period, and you’re definitely a big influence on me. You’re one of the godfathers of skating!
T: I mean I appreciate it. It’s super cool that you still have this hardcore passion for skating when your trajectory for success in acting is probably overwhelming, so I think it’s great that you stay grounded like that.
S: I don’t think I’m planning on just switching off acting because, with skating, I just have to do it. No matter what. I have to do it.
T: Cool man, it’s really good talking to you!
S: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.
T: Hey, next time I’m Santa Monica I’ll do a drive by Stoner Park and see if you’re there!
S: Sounds good, man! Peace!
Mid90s will be released in UK cinemas in 12th April