The Cast of Kids on Sex, Death, and the NC-17 Movie’s 20th Anniversary

Larry Clark, Rosario Dawson, and Chlöe Sevigny. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

"Fuck, we're old!" That's the most common reaction Rosario Dawson says she gets when she tells people that Kids came out 20 years ago. It was both her and Chlöe Sevigny's first film, and they were both on hand last night at BAMCinemaFest for a love-filled anniversary screening of director Larry Clark's landmark NC-17 coming-of-age film.

Back in the early '90s, Clark, a photographer famous for chronicling the lives of teens, had never directed a movie. He wanted to create something wholly original, and part of that was casting first-time actors against type: Sevigny, a New York City "club kid" (she rolled her eyes when Clark said this), as Jennie, a virgin who gets HIV from a single sexual experience, and Dawson, whose protective mom was always on set, as Ruby, the one who gets around. "Every dude was trying to bone Rosario," said screenwriter Harmony Korine, who was a 19-year-old skater kid at the time and wrote the script in three weeks, mostly while stoned. "And I was on lock," said Dawson. "I only came out to shoot and that's it. It’s hilarious my parents even let me be in this movie." 

"You didn’t have sex with anybody. You just talked a lot," her mom shouted from the audience. 

Call me old, too, but it was actually comforting to know that the kids in Kids weren't nearly as sexually permissive as their characters. Dawson hadn't even had her first kiss. That came some time in her off hours during a game of spin the bottle in Tompkins Square Park. Dawson remembers telling Sevigny all about it in between takes when their characters go to a clinic to get tested for HIV. "I’m like, 'He put his tongue in my mouth like this …' And [Chlöe]’s like, 'Rosario!'" said Dawson, laughing. Then, minutes later, Dawson headed into the scene in which a nurse quizzed her on how many times she'd had anal sex without a condom. "And I’m like, 'Yeah, I take it every way!'”

The entire cast was plucked from the streets of New York City, and part of the audition process, said Leo Fitzpatrick, who plays scrawny, virgin-deflowering Telly, was straight-up talking about sex. "These are all kids from between 13 and 17 so of course they’re, like, acting. You know, they’re trying to seem like they’ve had more sex than they have," he said. "They’re trying to boast, they’re trying to brag. So it’s a good way to tell who’s good about bullshitting. A bunch of guys talking about sex, of course they’re gonna make shit up. I’d only had sex maybe once, and that’s a strong maybe. I’m not even sure. But I’m sure I must’ve spun a yarn when I was in the casting."

Watching the film, it was hard not to marvel at just how young its stars look — and how different its rhythms feel from anything that could come out today. Even the basic through line, of Jennie wandering through the city trying to track down Telly to tell him he gave her HIV, wouldn't work now. "You could never make that movie because she would just call him on his cell phone," said Korine. "You can’t really get lost in movies anymore because everyone has a GPS."

After they wrapped, everyone just went back to their pre-movie lives. Dawson had been cast sitting on her stoop in the Lower East Side, and her family used the money she got from the movie to go on vacation and then move to Texas. When Kids had its smash midnight debut at Sundance in 1995, she wasn't there because no one could find her. Fitzpatrick went from the shoot back to working at a skate shop and said his life didn't really change much, except that after the movie came out he'd get a lot of threatening calls to the shop.

Though, he said, "The one thing I’ve noticed that’s a little weird is how many kids I run into to this day who say, 'That’s the movie I moved to New York because of.' I’m like, 'You know, it’s kind of like a cautionary tale, right?'" 

"I would get a lot of tearful hugs," said Sevigny.

"I get quoted my lines a lot," said Dawson, "which is a bit awkward depending on where you are. Like, 'We’re in Disneyland! Please!'”

"I’d get a lot of, 'Don’t worry, Jennie, it’s me, Casper,'" Sevigny chimed in. The audience groaned. That's a line Justin Pierce's character says to her repeatedly as he rapes her while she's passed out on Ketamine.

The reminiscences, though, were also tempered with sadness. Justin Pierce, who played Casper, took his own life at 25, and Harold Hunter, the pro skater who has a hilarious dick-wagging scene in the movie, died of a drug overdose at 31. Dawson said she used to watch Kids every year, just because it was her first movie and she liked to be reminded of how far she'd come, but hadn't seen it since Hunter's death. He'd been her next-door neighbor and his brother, Ron, who was at the screening, had dated her best friend. "[Harold] bet me a box of doughnuts on the L train we were gonna get married," she said. "I’m still mad at him about that."

The panel went silent for a minute, and it felt profound to see them all there together — Clark as an enduring art legend, Sevigny and Dawson as movie stars, Korine prepping to follow up Spring Breakers with a new James Franco movie, The Trap — as the weight of mortality and the passage of 20 years seemed to hit them all at once. "You have to remember, they were all just kids at that park," Korine said softly. "That really was just it."