Published Oct 24, 2018Like hardcore punk or heavy metal, skateboarding is a highly specific subculture that Hollywood almost always gets wrong. That's changing this year, however.
Following Crystal Moselle's excellent Skate Kitchen, Jonah Hill's Mid90s is another skate flick that manages to capture just how cool skateboarding really is.
"He knows what skaters think about skateboarding movies," pro skater-turned-actor Na-kel Smith tells Exclaim! "I think he just related to a time when he actually skated, so he knew what it was like. It wasn't really an outsider's perspective trying to shape up something they think is cool or fun-looking into a movie. He's taking a lifestyle that's a part of him. He's telling that story."
Smith could've sniffed out any posturing from a mile away. After all, he's skated for hip brands like Supreme, Fucking Awesome and Adidas, and served as a member of the Odd Future collective. In fact, it was skate renaissance man Mikey Alfred that bridged the gap between Smith and Hill.
"I remember when [Mikey] first met Jonah. He was like, 'Dude it was crazy, we chopped it up for like an hour,' and I'm like 'Damn that's dope,'" Smith recalls. "We're choppin' it up, and then the casting period comes up and he's like, 'Yo they're about to start casting for the movie.'"
Alfred was later hired as a co-producer on Mid90s, and he reached out to his old friend Smith to audition. "The casting period came along and he was like 'Yo, I want you to audition for it bro. You gotta. I think there's a role in here for you.' On the strength of this being my brother, I'm like, fo sho. You know? Fo sho, fo sho."
Don't confuse Smith's casting as mere nepotism, however. With Mid90s, he's proven he has some serious acting chops. "It's definitely a form of expression that I didn't know I had under my belt," he says. "The thing about acting is you want it to feel real. It's kind of more about taking life experiences and life emotions and bottling those up, and being able to open that bottle and take a sip."
He's managed to do just that with Ray, a character that serves as a source of wisdom and kindness in a film packed with toxic masculinity. Fed up with his home life, pre-teen Stevie (Sunny Suljic) finds his way in with a pack of skate rats who bond over debauchery and trash talk. When he needs it most, however, Ray is there to offer some sense of guidance.
"That's how you know who your true friends are," Smith says. "Because anybody can make a joke and laugh, but what's somebody going to do when your back is against the wall or when you're upset or when you're depressed. That's how you know who you want around you."
Those conversations are another aspect that makes Mid90s feel like real life for Smith. "I've been in pretty much every person's shoes in that movie," he says. "From having friends that take me away from my home problems — you can ask anybody, any of my friends, if they know about me, they know what the fuck I be going through and shit. And they always help me. And then you could ask all my friends that are a little younger than me, and ask about the kind of conversations we have and the type of advice I give. It's very similar."
Smith will now face the push-and-pull between skating, acting, making music and his various other creative pursuits. But one thing that might keep drawing him back to filmmaking is that skating in movies is easy. "I would say it's a little less pressure, because nobody on set expects you to really — they don't want you to get hurt. You're not really even supposed to be skating," he explains of his onscreen work in Mid90s. "It's less pressure, because when you're really trying to film a trick, you take yourself all the way to hell. And you'll try something that might scare you, might make you nervous, might make you shakey sometimes. You're really fighting. You're just always in your head. Doing it in the movie, I had to downplay my skating; it wasn't like I was pushing myself to do something I haven't done before."
A sense of authenticity comes through in every sentence from Smith. He's so centered, in fact, that he hasn't entirely fallen prey to the movie's romanticized version of a bygone era. "I don't wish that I grew up in the '90s," he says. "But I definitely feel like an older soul, or maybe I'm just a newer soul. I'm really not sure yet. But I appreciate when I grew up, because I have an understanding for stuff that people who grew up in the '90s don't. I've never wanted to be anybody other than myself or come from anywhere other than where I come from."
Along with where he's from, Smith is equally surefooted with where he's going. "I want to film another skate video part, and I want to kind of push myself even further than I ever have, just because I miss skating. I want to do more movies. I want to maybe do one movie a year until I'm probably like 30. Just because any time before that I'm going to still want to skate. I love skateboarding so much. So I want to maybe do one movie a year. This is just in my dream world. One movie a year until I'm 30-something. Then start doing some more big movies, then direct and write my own movie," he says excitedly.
"I've been making a lot of music. I want to sell out shows. Probably start making my own merch, just to get my own clothing ideas out. Keep making shoes with Adidas. Hopefully one day I can get a pro shoe, but that comes from skating and I haven't been doing that as much as I want to, or as much as I need to, to get a pro shoe. So I have to figure that out. Yeah, just keep going. I'm still very open to every opportunity."
Mid90s is in theatres October 26.