Turtleneck by Ermenegildo Zegna. Trousers by Tom Ford. Ring, worn throughout, Sulkin’s own.
Most adults are happy to leave their high school days behind them, but not, it would seem, Gregg Sulkin—or at least not quite yet. The British actor first came to attention several years ago playing a charming teenager who is not exactly who he seems on the Disney Channel series Wizards of Waverly Place—as the love interest of Selena Gomez, no less—and his latest part, in the new Marvel series Runaways on Hulu, follows a similar vein. But this, he insists, will be the end of the line. “I do think this will probably be my last high school role,” he says. “Mentally, you grow up, and soon I’ll be too old to play a high schooler, but while I can do it, I will.”
If Sulkin has a tendency to be typecast as the high school heartthrob, the characters he portrays often reveal greater depths than are immediately apparent. On Runaways, for example, which focuses on six teenagers who use their newfound superpowers to battle a villainous supergroup composed of their parents, his Chase is a lacrosse player first seen lifting weights without a shirt on, but he also has what Sulkin describes as “untapped flashes of brilliance in engineering,” a trait he shares with his Elon Musk-like father. “In the original comics, he’s a bit of a dumb jock, so we’ve made him more layered and we’ve made him more relatable,” he explains. “We’ve made him not just one-dimensional.”
At twenty-five, Sulkin may still look like a prom king, but it is clear that after over a decade in the industry, he has survived the perils of childhood stardom and become a fully-fledged, mature adult. He got his first taste of acting at the age of eight, wearing a dress on stage in a school play, but says he never seriously considered pursuing it until he was thirteen, when his mother saw an advertisement in a newspaper for an audition and encouraged him to go. He landed the lead role as the son of Helena Bonham Carter in the comedy Sixty Six on his first try and has “continued to fall in love with the industry ever since.”
It is not exactly common to receive top billing as a prepubescent on your first film, but Sulkin does not recall any nerves heading into the project. “When you’re young, you have no fear,” he explains, “so I was just excited to be part of something.” Still, the filming took a while to get used to, and he is unashamed to admit that he had a lot to learn at the beginning. “I knew nothing about the industry, so when I got to set I assumed that we were going to act in front of the backdrops and they were going to CGI us in for the whole film,” he laughs. “It never even crossed my mind how a film is made until I started being involved in the industry and I remember looking across and seeing all the sets and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s the backdrop for the set because we’re going inside the set.’ It’s now been twelve years and hopefully I’ve learned my craft and how a set works.”
Another invaluable educational experience came with his introduction to American audiences, when he was cast as the werewolf Mason on Wizards of Waverly Place, at that point one of the most popular children’s shows on television and a recent award winner. “The show had just won an Emmy the week prior to me arriving,” he jokes, “but I still claim a part of that Emmy.” He quickly became an object of tween adoration—despite having what he describes as a mullet at the time—and says he still hasn’t quite gotten used to the level of attention he sometimes received. “How does a human being deal with girls coming up in the middle of the street and screaming in your face and running off?” he laughs. “I don’t know if there’s a normal way to respond, but I’ve always been thankful that they watch my work. Without them, I would be nothing.”
Living half a world away from his parents, Sulkin says he was forced to grow up quickly and still considers the Wizards cast and crew a second family. They kept him grounded through his sudden success, which didn’t exactly extend as far as one might expect. “I was staying on my own on my friend’s garage floor for the first three months when I moved to LA,” he laughs. “I was working on the most popular Disney Channel show and then going home at night and sleeping on my friend’s garage floor to be woken up by him driving in at two o’clock in the morning when I had to be on set at five. I was literally lying in the garage sleeping next to his car, engulfed in fumes, so it was a very weird time in my life.”
After nearly two years, Sulkin moved on when the show ended, working on a number of independent films and logging a run on Pretty Little Liars, which came with its own very rabid, if slightly older, fanbase. In 2014, he debuted in the lead role of Liam on MTV’s progressive comedy Faking It, which broke boundaries for featuring television’s first intersex main character and the first transgender character portrayed by a transgender actor. “There are some great positive movements in society right now and one of them is towards accepting people no matter their sexual orientation,” he explains. “For me, it was a great opportunity as an actor to do something that’s actually going to benefit society and not just my bank account.”
To that end, he sees a similar value in Runaways, which offers complicated, nuanced backstories for all the teenagers and adults, and in Chase’s difficult relationship with his father. “The comic books are fantastic, but we’ve dug a lot deeper into the characters and we’ve added something special to the show,” he explains. “These characters aren’t superficial, they’re all going through their own problems.” Still, he acknowledges that the series, from The OC and Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, takes liberties from the original source material, and risks putting off some rabid Marvel fans with high expectations. “There’s a lot of pressure that I put on myself to make sure that I do the company proud, I do myself proud, and I do the comic book fans proud.”
Looking to expand himself offscreen, Sulkin has also turned his hand to producing recently, having already sold a few series and with more ideas in development. “I was wrapped one day and it dawned on me that I was leaving set and there was another six hours to go,” he recalls. “I love sets so I wanted to stay and I didn’t like the fact that if you’re not in the scene as an actor you’re irrelevant at the moment. Maybe I just want to control everything, but I have the mind of a producer. I’ll think about the logistics of things, like how are we going to get chairs to set and how are we going to get locations. My mind has always worked like that and I’ve been an actor for so long that I’m ready to take a leap.”
With Runaways set to premiere next week, there’s no telling how long the show will run, but it is obvious that Sulkin is intent on pursuing his work wherever it will take him next, as he continues to grow and develop. “I’ve never felt the need to make drastic career changes,” he explains. “I feel like I naturally chose roles that made sense to me and there has been a natural progression. Over time, I feel like things will work out the way they’re meant to.”
Runaways premieres November 21 on Hulu.
- Jonathan Shia
- Photography by
- Max Papendieck
Styling by Ahnna Lee. Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen at Statement Artists using Oribe and La Mer. Photographer’s assistant: John Spyrou. Stylist’s assistant: Davian Rodriguez. Special thanks to Korean K9 Rescue.