how the gen-z cast of netflix's 'everything sucks!' transformed into 90s kids
The young actors star in a gnarly tribute to the perennially cool decade.
It can be argued that Netflix’s latest coming of age show, Everything Sucks!, removes some of the nostalgia Gen Z has built around the 90s. The charmingly quirky show illustrates that adolescence was just as awkward then as it is today. The clothes were a little too baggy, the dial-up internet was dreadfully slow, and sexual exploration was limited to stealing copies of your dad’s Playboy magazine.
The realism of Everything Sucks! Are surprising, considering its young cast was born post-Y2K. However, the internet has allowed these budding actors to become impressively familiar with 90s pop culture. During our conversation, the actors ping pong a dizzying mix of 90s references, including Beavis and Butthead, Kris Kross, and Reebok x Shaq Instapumps. As I sit there and talk to the budding stars, I quickly realize there is one big difference between today’s teens and those of the 90s. These young stars casually dive into conversations surrounding identity issues, politics, and cultural trends and then swiftly go back to goofing around. They’re woke and youthful at the same time.
“This is us presenting the 90s to our generation in a way they’ve never seen it before,” says Jahi Winston, who plays the hopeless romantic, AV Club member Luke O’Brien. Everything Sucks! presents us with hyperrealistic portraits of American adolescence, harkening back to the quiet, slow pace of 90s shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. Glamorous parties, fever-dream romances, and buff jocks are noticeably absent. Instead, the dramedy focuses on the interior lives of Boring High School’s outcasts, presenting us with plenty of acne, bad kisses, and nerdy jokes. “You’re seeing young kids be vulnerable in an unmanufactured way,” Jahi says. “It’s not this grown up’s idea of what it’s like to be a teenager.”
Peyton Kennedy, who plays Kate Messner, echoes a similar sentiment. “It’s teenagers playing teenagers,” she says, her voice filled with a Gen-Z brand of confidence that some Millennials would kill for. “There are so many shows where like 30-year-olds are playing teens. People grow up and think, ‘Oh, that’s how teenagers talk, look, and act.’”
There was a swift, unanimous answer when I asked the cast what they related to most when playing their characters. “Insecurities,” they answered in unison.
Here, the cast of Everything Sucks! talks to i-D about 90s fashion, playing queer characters on screen, and Ring Pops.
There’s the obvious fact that a lot of you did not get to experience the 90s. How did you learn about the decade?
Peyton Kennedy: The music and the movies. Because it’s exactly what’s going around. Our show is so real and it relates to nowadays because the same themes keep coming back. High school is high school.
Quinn Liebling: My character Tyler is supposed to be this pop culture junkie. So I studied shows like Beavis and Butthead because I do a lot of impressions. Our script supervisor would always come on set and be like, ‘Okay, this is the video. You have to study and you have to say it exactly the way you are!’ I made a playlist of all the songs that were mentioned in the script. We also just studied the relationships between the characters.
Elijah Stevenson: It’s funny, once you’re in the setting and you have the outfits on, I felt like I didn’t need a lot of research. I just naturally turned into a 90s kid. I was doing things I normally don’t do and have never seen people do, but it worked somehow. There’s just a flow you kinda get into.
The throwback fashion is one of the most distinctive elements of the show — especially when so many of today’s designers are gleaning inspiration from the 90s. What are some of your favorite pieces you wear in the show?
Jahi Winston: I had these like Shaq shoes. And they pump, and as soon as I put them on it felt like 90s hip hop. [ Sings Kriss Kross’s “Jump.”]
Peyton: I had this sweatshirt and it looks so much like the things I wear now. All the 90s thing are coming back now, like fanny packs and chokers. It’s exactly what I wear.
Sydney Sweeney: I want to dress like my character, Emmaline. I loved all her Ring Pops. I ate so many of them.
Tyler: Yeah, we got all of our costumes from stores that are selling these clothes today. It’s funny, because I’d go to Urban Outfitters and see half of my costume pieces there. My favorite piece was these tiger-striped Zubaz pants. And these skater shoes that looked like loaves of bread on my feet.
Elijah: Mine was my trench coat. I had a love/hate relationship with it because it was so warm. I think how they found it was this lady had this garage — it looked really sketchy, there were cobwebs everywhere — and they found this old Cold War-era trench coat. As soon as I put the jacket on, I was Oliver. It was like a superhero putting on his mask.
As teenagers, you’re probably going through some of the same issues your characters face in the show. What parts of your coming of age experiences did you tap into for the show?
Jahi: What makes me mad is when an adult says, ‘You’re a kid, what do you have to be stressed about! You don’t have any bills to pay, you don’t have a job to be at.’ That’s such a close-minded and selfish comment —
Peyton: Yeah, we’re figuring out who we are.
Jahi: When people say that, they’re saying it as if their struggles are the only thing everybody else has to worry about. We’re exposed to so much as kids. It does get stressful. School is stressful. Whoever made up that lie that school is the most wonderful thing…
Peyton: Right now we’re becoming the people that we’re going to be for the rest of our lives. That’s stressful!
Peyton, your character spends a lot of time discovering her queerness — and keeping it a secret. What was it like to explore that as an actor?
Peyton: As the season goes on, Kate really finds out who she is. I think at the beginning of the series — although no one has told her “I hate you for being gay” — you can always feel that. It’s this bubble that surrounds the entire town. Because that’s what it was like in the 90s and there’s still so much we can reach with acceptance. I think people are going to see the show and know that it’s okay to be who you are.
All images courtesy of Netflix