Sunny Suljic will talk about Jonah Hill for as long as you’ll let him. Suljic’s Mid90s director is everything to him, and he speaks more effusively about Hill than the way Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga talk about each other, combined: “When I first met Jonah, he was really chill,” the 13-year-old star of Hill’s directorial debut says. “I wasn’t, like, fanning over him. I actually am a huge fan of Jonah. I mean, I love all his films. I love War Dogs, Superbad, Wolf of Wall Street.” Here, Suljic, sitting in an A24 conference room, pauses to consider. “That sounded, like, super planned out. But actually, I just know those films, and I know all the scenes that Jonah was in. I love those films.” Suljic pauses again, determined to get it right. “I think Jonah’s such a great actor and — that sounds like such an actor response — Jonah is a really talented actor.” Suljic really admires Hill, and when he chooses his words so preciously, it shows.
Mid90s is a skate movie mostly about this same process of trial and error, the way skating and growing up both require that same sort of patience and consideration. Suljic plays Stevie, a preteen novice skateboarder adopted by a friend group of older guys who are much better skaters than him. He looks at them adoringly, but he’s also studying them: Stevie is learning how to skate, but also learning how to be a best friend, how to be a teenage boy, what to think about girls — how to talk to them and about them — and how to deal with his own family at home. Many of the movie’s shots linger on Stevie’s searching face, his furrowed, curious brows. “I’ve never ridden in a car without someone’s mom or dad before,” he says, taking a ride with the older boys.
Suljic still isn’t sure how he feels about his performance, but he loves the movie (and his director). “Jonah is so experienced and he’s gone such a long way,” he says. “He’s definitely a mentor for me, he’s taught me a lot of personal things to do and I, I’m just super grateful that I could be in the first film that he’s ever directed.” Suljic talked to Vulture about the movie, skateboarding, and this up-and-coming director Jonah Hill, too.
How did you meet Jonah?
The co-producer, Mikey Alfred, knew me from skating. I was actually skating at my local skate park in Los Angeles. One day he brought Jonah Hill and Lucas Hedges [to the park], then we just started talking. I told Jonah that I’ve been in films, because he had no clue who I was. He just was, like, scouting for skaters — they had to teach [skaters] how to act, instead of finding actors and teaching them how to skate. I went through the casting process and I went in for a couple auditions.
Can you tell me about those auditions?
We did one of the skate-shop scenes, and then one of the scenes with my mom [Katherine Waterston]. I think it was the screaming scene where I’m frustrated with my mom after the skate shop. It’s a blurry memory because I did a lot of improvising there. Jonah was just throwing stuff at me to see if I could go with it, but, actually, when we did the whole movie there wasn’t really any improv. I thought it’d be more respectful if I stick to the script, because Jonah, this is his first film that he’s ever directed and he wrote the script and he took about four years.
I love the way you talk about him.
I love Jonah. I have so much respect for him. It’s not a fake, I’m not being fake, I’m being really genuine. I mean, I love Jonah as a person and I’ve learned a lot of things from him.
What was your first impression of Stevie? What did you see in him that you liked?
I liked that it’s a very relatable character, ’cause a lot of people went through that moment where they’re trying to find where their place in the world is, and what they’re doing. Stevie’s trying to find a friend group. The movie isn’t based on skateboarding, but everyone in the skate community is very supportive. It sounds pretty cheesy, but it is a family. It’s super hard to explain, because I’ve been skating for so long. You have to be a skater to understand the skating culture and I think a lot of people make mistakes with skating movies, because it’s cheesy, it’s corny — you have to be able to understand what skating is all about. It’s just a very strong feeling and the atmosphere is insane.
I’ve watched some of your skating videos on Instagram. You’re so good in real life, but in the movie you’re playing a beginner. Was it very difficult to act worse at skating then you really are?
It was insanely hard. With acting it’s a lot of facial expressions and you can dig deep in that moment. But when I first started skating, I didn’t really remember the process of me learning. I actually started skating transition, like, bowls and stuff.
What does that mean?
You know when, like, the bowls …
Like in the park?
Yeah, like in a skate park. So, I actually didn’t start off with the street, like how to ollie. I just started rolling on the board and then the process of me, like, learning an ollie was …
When did you get into skating?
I was about 3 or 4. Yeah, so about 10 years ago. It sounds so crazy saying that, 10 years ago. I mean, I’ve been skating all my life. My mom loved the skating culture, not even really as a sport, just as a lifestyle. You have to have that drive. A lot of people can’t just fall and instantly get back up.
Your mom was very supporting of you skating, but in the movie Stevie’s mom is not. Was that weird consider?
It’s completely different, because in the ’90s, skating just started evolving into actually, like, street filming, and you could actually make a living out of it. I think that it was something different and she didn’t know any of the people. The first impression of skaters is like, “Oh, they’re drinking and smoking,” that it’s just a bad influence.
But me growing up in skating, it’s a gateway, it’s a therapy. You know what I mean? You release a lot of negative energy and you just forget about everything. It sounds so fake the way I’m explaining it, but it’s unbelievable, like, skating, you don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to have the money, you could just be skillful at it.
You love acting and you love skating, so this seems like a dream role for you.
Yes, 100 percent. Before Mid90s, the closest thing to this was probably a Cadillac commercial I did, and I had all pads on because of liability. I did, like, one trick. That was exciting. But this — doing a whole film, being a lead character — and showing what skating is actually about is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do again.
When did you want to start acting? Was there a particular performance that inspired you?
When I was about 4 or 5, my favorite movie was Austin Powers. I love that movie so much, and I would always re-create some of the scenes. Then for Halloween, I was like 6, I was Austin Powers and would do those little things, so I always thought to, like, bring a character to life was like super cool to me.
My mom’s very supportive and I mean, she really helped me out. I actually didn’t do any acting classes, I just wanted to get right into it because — I mean if you do it then that’s perfectly fine — but I don’t think it’s authentic. You have to be self-taught, if it comes naturally, and I don’t think anyone can teach you how to play a character, except Jonah.
What did you think the first time you saw the movie?
I was shocked. I did not like my performance.
No, no, no, and I’m not saying that as like a “Oh, can I get some sympathy please, I didn’t like it, what do you guys think?” The skating, it didn’t look too believable to me, so that like caught me off guard. I’m a critic, and I was just criticizing myself the whole time, just like covering my eyes every time I would see myself. But I loved the movie, the way it played out.
My first time seeing it was at the TIFF film festival, where there’s so many people who could really enjoy it with me. I started tearing up at the end. Not because like, it was so emotional like, “Oh, Sunny what’d you do?” It was just like, Wow, it’s really, we made it, we finished filming it, we’re at the TIFF film festival, and it was the craziest thing. I watch the movie differently every time, and I think it wasn’t until my third time watching it that it really processed and I was like, Wow. But then the first two times were like, Wait, it didn’t process, it was insane.
Since this movie is so much about friendship, and growing up, can you tell me about your best friend in real life?
I don’t like saying a category as like “a best friend.” I was never like that kid that’s like, “This is my best friend,” you know what I mean? I’d probably say it’s my friend Brandon, he’s just super supportive and he doesn’t, like, have anything against me. Over this process of filming, really there’s like fake people and jealousy kills. Everyone gets jealous, but I mean, it’s what you do with it, you know what I mean? Some people can turn it into motivation, some people can turn it into hate, and over the process of filming and after all this I just realized who’s actually my friend. I realized that there’s only two people, and that’s probably my two other friends, so I guess I would say that those are my best friends. We all skate and it’s a really nice environment and very supportive. It just feels like family.
This interview has been edited and condensed.