Lucas Jade Zumann has practiced Buddhist meditation since the age of six. As the oldest of four brothers from Chicago, he's always been pretty plugged in. Kind of a whiz kid. The type of kid that gets hand-picked by Mike Mills to play his teenage alter ego in 20th Century Women, his slam dunk of an autobiographical auteur film. You've got to imagine that Mike saw more than a little bit of himself in Lucas, who made his film debut at eleven in Sinister 2 and is an aspiring director himself. Lucas plays Jamie, a soulful dreamer being raised in Santa Barbara by three very distinct women: his feminist mom (Annette Bening), their new-wave photographer boarder (Greta Gerwig, in a role modeled after Mills's sister), and his unrequited love interest (Elle Fanning). Lucas's role is the kind of realistic performance that makes you wonder about the line between character and actor. Does he skateboard, like Jamie? (Yes, but there was a skate double for the more complicated scenes.) Is he into music? (Yes, but mostly different stuff.) We called the home-schooled high school sophomore at the beginning of the new year to learn more.
How did the role of Jamie come to you?
I think that one of the reasons that Mike chose me was because I already related to him in many ways. Actually one of the things I didn't really get was punk, I don't live in a time where that's still a relevant culture. So he had me do a ton of research on that, he sent me a box full of books to read and he sent me a list of documentaries to watch, and a drive full of pictures and stuff with inspiration for the time period. So I could be super familiar with what it meant to be alive in 1979.
Jamie's coming-of-age is really pushed along by music. Were you aware of the music that your character discovers in the film?
The music I'm very familiar with. I wasn't really into punk, but I'm a huge Talking Heads fan. Particularly their '77 album. I was super happy that appears in the film. My favorite shirt was the Talking Heads '77 shirt.
There's this great scene where the Greta Gerwig character gives you a mixtape, and I was wondering what you would put on a mixtape for someone you wanted to teach about the world?
That's interesting. I'm kind of in one of those phases where I'm exploring different types of music right now, because I've been bored of everything I'm listening to, so I'm going around and asking people to give me music and tell me what to listen to. I really like anything indie, I don't really like pop culture music at all. I don't think that really represents anything true, it's just kind of, Oh it sounds cool, which I don't really Identify with.
Did Mike Mills play music on set?
Yes, in between scenes he would have his laptop out and would be playing different sorts of songs for the specific scene. There was one day that he actually had a violinist to come play music while we were doing our scene. They stood in the hallway where the violin echoes through the entire house. So in between every shot this violinist would just be playing violin. Mike has a sensitivity to sound and music and I think that's really special.
Which scene did the violinist play for?
I actually think it was the menstruation dinner party that he brought the violin for.
Very cool. So how was it different acting with the three very different women in the film?
I think with Abby (Greta Gerwig), Jamie kind of looks up to her and studies her, so the whole time they're in the bar together he's studying her every move and trying to understand that. Because he's trying to figure out what it means to be an adult. With Julie (Elle Fanning) he's studying her but he's also being her companion. With Dorothea (Annette Bening) he's constantly trying to relate to her and she's constantly trying to relate to him but they live so far apart from each other emotionally and mentally that it's kind of hard for them to do. One thing that I love that Mike said that kind of sums up Dorothea and Jamie's relationship, is that the whole movie is just a series of gestures of them trying to grab over this wall, this language barrier of age and time, and culture.
Wow. Do you have a lot of women or girls in your life?
I think at least when I was in middle school I hung out with older girls because they seemed more mature and I related to that more. I didn't get along with the guys that were my age, which I didn't really realize until after the movie. I totally could have used that and [Mike is] going to kill me if he reads this interview but yeah, I definitely think, at least in middle school, I related much more to older women and older girls than I did with men and boys.
Were you conscious of the fact that you were playing a version of Mike?
I think I was overly conscious of it! During the process I thought it was more of an autobiographical thing than it actually was. Now looking back on the movie and Mike's writing I really see that he was drawing from his life to make the movie true and real.
Did you find yourself studying him or wondering about his interior life?
One hundred percent. I would just have casual conversations with him on set and go, What's the story behind this scene? because there was always a story behind the scene and what motivated him to put it in the movie. I would be studying him and writing notes at a thousand miles a second. Okay, he just made that twitch with his eye when he said that kind of thing and it means this to him. I think I was studying him way too heavily. But he was so good at bringing Lucas into it that it didn't really matter in the final product.
One question that keeps being asked in the film is, "How do you be a good man?" So do you feel like you have more of an answer for that now?
I do have a male role model in my life unlike Jamie. I don't think that was ever a question I asked myself. I guess from practicing mindfulness at a young age I learned to live in the now and take things step by step and just stay true to myself. If moment to moment I do that I'd end up as a true person in the end.
I've heard you have aspirations to be a filmmaker.
Yes, one hundred percent. I worked at a restaurant all summer last year and this last summer and I spent all of the money that I earned from it on film equipment. I'm currently writing a short movie that I want to film with my best friends this summer.
That's so awesome. Did you ask Mike for any advice?
He asked me to send my first ever film to him, that me and my friends made two years ago. I did not love it, but he told me that he loved it but that he wanted me to make a film based off of Dogme 95 rules. So it's a very simplistic way of approaching filmmaking. You don't use a special camera, he wanted me to use my iPhone, you're not allowed to edit it very much, you can't edit the sound, all the sound has to be recorded in the moment. And you can't talk about the past and you can't talk about the future, you can only talk about what's happening in that moment. You can't use any props, [you have to use] real locations, and all the shots have to be handheld, no color correction, none of that. Before that I was really complicating it for myself, where I needed this type of camera gear to film this shot, I needed to buy a steady-cam so I could make this short film. He was like, You can make it as complicated for yourself as you want it to be in the future, but before you do that I want you to have the Dogme 95 experience. So I actually finished the first scene of it and it's on my laptop, but I filmed it in fall so now that there's snow, I need to wait for it to go away.
Text Rory Satran
Photography Merrick Morton, courtesy A24