Na-Kel Smith and Jonah Hill Interview
By Aaron Meza
I sat down with Jonah and Na-Kel to talk about the making of Jonah’s writing and directing debut Mid90s, a coming-of-age story set in 1990s’ Los Angeles, in which Na-Kel plays a role. Well aware of Hollywood’s shitty track record for botching skateboarding in films, they discuss the efforts they made to do right by skateboarding.
What do you learn from hanging out in a skate shop in your formative years?
Na-Kel: How to talk shit. I learned about different types of music, different types of movies. You just get opened up to—I don’t want to say a whole new world because that sounds corny as hell, but it just makes you mature a little faster, I think.
Where were you hanging out?
Jonah: Hot Rod, which I found out is a barber shop now. That’s so weird. You learn incredible and horrible lessons. And especially back then, people were way less tolerant than they are now. I think the one thing I like about more modern times is the tolerance. Back then we were just so negative. But it was also so cool. Yeah, I learned about taste in music. I saw every great video. I learned such a subversive sense of humor from just hearing older people tell jokes. I felt like I was getting put on to a world that everything else just seemed so much lamer than. But I look back and just wish people were a little nicer.
Na-Kel: It gives you a tough skin. I remember being a little-ass kid, I’d be chilling in the back of Supreme asking a bunch of questions and they would be, like, “Go. Leave. You gotta get out of here. Go do something.” And I remember being, like, “Damn, I got kicked out.” And it made me, like, a little scared to go back. Then I started realizing, like, Oh, y’all at real work. I’m just a little ass kid, so then I was just, like, “I don’t give a fuck what y’all are talking about, I’m just getting a board.”
Jonah: It definitely makes you have to learn to be able to talk shit. You have to be able to give it back very fast or you won’t be able to survive.
So knowing that, how was it making this movie knowing how judgmental skateboarders can be?
Jonah: I think that was the thing I was most hyper aware of was for people to understand that this wasn’t coming from a place of authority, but from a place of reverence and respect. And that it’s always butchered. Anytime you want to do something for the movie that would disrespect skateboarding we’d always put skateboarding first, even over making the movie more interesting. And it’s just a story where these people do skate, but it’s not a history of skateboarding or like a Rudy for skateboarding, which is why skateboarding in movies have always been so corny and fucked up. That was the scariest part, but also it left the most room to get it right because it’s never made from people who came from that experience. I wasn’t ever a very good skater. I sucked. But I loved it more than anything in the entire world.
What about convincing people in the movie industry that you wanted to make a film with skateboarding in it?
Jonah: Just as much as skaters don’t want people to make a movie about skateboarding, movie people don’t want movies about skateboarding. I picked the hardest shit you could ever do, which is have an 11 year old be your lead, work with all first-time actors, make a movie about a subculture—which everyone doesn’t believe I came from—and then pick a subject matter that movie people don’t even want. It was basically me having 360-degree middle fingers up to everybody and just knowing that I was telling a story from my heart with people that I loved. We all made this thing together that we’re all proud of.
Na-Kel: I’ll tell you right now, that shit was scary as fuck. Especially because I’m really in the middle of my skateboarding career.
Did it give you pause to do the movie?
Na-Kel: Well, yeah, because we were filming for the Supreme video at the same time, so my clips suffered. But I wanted to do something a little different. One thing I can say that is good is that since my life isn’t just about skateboarding right now, I am fiending to skate, bad. It reinstilled my love for skating. Now it’s, like, Let me get my fucking skating in because who knows when’s the next time I’m gonna be able to do this shit.
Because during the movie you weren’t really able to skate much at all, right?
Na-Kel: Hell, nah. I went out skating a couple of times to get real tricks and you just think in the back of your head that you can’t get too broke. You can’t really try something because if you scrape your face or scrape your arm you’d break the continuity. Before, I never really thought about that shit. It made me pull back, so I’m still trying to get back into my real groove of going out and getting clips. I’m also super critical of myself. I’m super proud of the movie because I gave it my 100 percent. I didn’t give the Supreme video my 100 percent, so I’m really trying to give back to skating. Yeah, I still owe skateboarding a lot, so—
How did Na-Kel and his friends get on your radar?
Jonah: I was a fan of his skating and always had Na-Kel in mind when I was writing the script. And then Olan, I was aware of him from Mikey Alfred and Illegal Civ. I originally hired Mikey to shoot skating on the film but then I bumped him up to a co-producer because he did a wonderful job helping us with everything. He brought in Olan, who I always found him to be this colorful character. I had written a part for Na-Kel and I had written a part for Sean Pablo, but Sean Pablo was too cool for school trying to be James Dean. I still give him shit for it and he missed out on a big opportunity. Ha! But I love Sean and I’m friends with him. But I think Na-Kel was very brave. I mean, I don’t blame Sean, I just give Na-Kel props. Because Sean, like anybody else, would be hesitant and Na-Kel was very brave and believed in me and believed in himself. Now I show the movie to Joaquin Phoenix and Gus Van Sant and they’re like, “Who is that actor?” and they’re talking about Na-Kel. Na-Kel trusted me and to have him seen in those people’s eyes the way I see him is amazing. I don’t blame Sean or anybody else who was hesitant, but the one thing I mean about growing up skating is that so much of it is limiting in a way because people are so fucking bitter when you try and do anything else. Even being in comedy, when you try to do drama they’re, like, “Hey, fuck that shit, bro!” I don’t live my life like that. Na-Kel doesn’t live his life like that and it inspires me.
What was appealing about Na-Kel and his group of friends for you?
Jonah: When I would watch him skate, I mean anyone who reads Thrasher knows, you can tell people’s soul and their whole energy through their style. It’s not just his tricks. Like how I watch a director—it’s not just how complex their shots are it’s their soul coming through. I can watch Na-Kel skate or watch Mike Carroll skate Embarcadero in ’92 and know his whole vibe. Just the way he skates and holds himself is impressive.
So you knew there was a depth there and a character you could write to?
Jonah: Once I met Na-Kel I understood I had to make the part deep enough to do him justice, basically.
You changed the character after you met him, right?
Jonah: Yeah, when it became him and Olan. Olan is goofy and fun and amazing, but even when Nak is being fun he has this real weight to him. It’s weird talking about when he’s right here, but he’s a serious dude and I respect that. A lot of my friends say to me that even when I’m joking around there’s just like heavier shit going on. I love that quality in somebody and I wanted to make it special for him. He was also cosigning this project and cosigning me, so I was, like, I’m not going to let you down. I’d rather die than embarrass you. You’re giving to me by being a part of this project and I’m giving something to you by bringing you into this world. And we owe it to each other to give it our best to make sure we don’t fuck it up. He was my partner in crime. Everything we tried gets done horribly in movies, so the goal was to just do it right.
Na-Kel, were there any aspects of acting that you weren’t anticipating?
Na-Kel: I mean, shit, I didn’t expect acting to be one of the forms of expression that I would have under my belt. I can rap some, you know? I have a good sense of style. I like clothes a little bit more than some other people. I can do some stuff like that.
So this was little bit more of a step outside of yourself?
Na-Kel: Yeah, because I know I’m a very emotional person and my energy is high. Like if I’m mad, everybody going to know it. If I’m happy, everybody going to know. But it was kind of crazy to be in a position to turn that on. Me and Olan did a scene where we were beefing and we ran it back like damn near 30 times or something. And I remember once we got it and we were on to the next scene, I walked up on Olan and I was, like, “Bro, we cool? I love you, brother.” ‘Cause I started to really feel like that, and had to think like, This is weird. I’m going too deep! Step back. Step back!
Did you and the rest of the skaters in the cast have to feel Jonah out at first or did you know he’d do right by you guys?
Na-Kel: It was one of those things where it was on all of us. It was my job. I got hired to give it my all and to help it be as authentic as possible. Luckily, Jonah didn’t do anything that was super strange where I had to be like, “Yo, Jonah, come on, brother. You can’t do this.” Me, Olan, Ryder, Sunny, Gio, Jonah, Mikey, you, Bleauvelt, everybody had a real history with skating to be able to be, like, This is going to work. So we all had that trust in each other and it really worked out great.
So now that it’s all over, do you feel like you served skateboarding well?
Jonah: I personally don’t ever feel like it will be my place to say that. I know that everyone we showed it to has been very happy with the result. And, to me, that was the thing I was serving the most. Like showing Ed Templeton and Koston or Dill and Strobeck and hearing them say to me, like, “Good job,” or “That was awesome.” That, to me, was very cool.
Na-Kel: I’ll tell you right now, Jonah’s not going to say it, but this was probably the best skateboarding movie that has ever or will ever be made. Hopefully it sparks some other kid that’s skating right now to get into acting or directing to make an even better one, but I’ve seen every movie that has anything to do with skateboarding and this is the best one, to me. Because it’s real. It’s honest. If you skate for real and you really get deep into it, then this is the movie for you because it tells your story.
Jonah: That means a lot to me.
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