By
Jonathan Shia
Photography by
Mark Squires

Styling by Nicolas Klam at Jed Root. Grooming by Homa Safar.

LUCAS JADE ZUMANN


Early in the new film 20th Century Women, Elle Fanning, playing the teenage Julie, asks Annette Bening’s Dorothea, “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Dorothea, a single mother who is enlisting the help of Julie and Greta Gerwig’s Abbie to raise her young son, disagrees, as does, it soon becomes obvious, Mike Mills, the film’s writer and director, who based the story loosely on his own experiences growing up. Similarly, Lucas Jade Zumann, the young actor who plays Jamie, Dorothea’s son and Mills’s stand-in, is quick to shift the attention the film has been receiving off himself and onto his fellow cast members. “I might actually disagree that Jamie is the lead of the film,” he says. “I think it’s actually about the twentieth-century women, from, yes, the point-of-view of a fifteen-year-old living in 1979, his version of them, but I think the movie is really focused on the women in his life.”

20th Century Women is in many ways a classic (if not quite typical) coming-of-age story—Jamie discovers love, life, and the Talking Heads as he passes through his tumultuous teenage years, but the film is, as per Zumann, about much more than that. Taking place in Santa Barbara in 1979, with Jimmy Carter on the television and punk music on the radio, the movie tackles some serious and difficult issues—sexuality, cancer, and the weight of responsibility among them—with the humor and light touch seen in Mills’s previous film, Beginners. As with Beginners, Mills mined his own history for the script, although Zumann is careful to emphasize that the film is not, strictly, autobiographical. “Like Mike says, it wasn’t quite as autobiographical as it seems to be,” Zumann explains. “He writes from his own life because he wants it to be true. He doesn’t necessarily want to portray and to tell a story of his life, but he wants to tell a true story. By using what has happened to him in real life, he’s automatically making it true. There’s nothing fake about it, and that’s what makes it so relatable. That’s what makes it so funny, that’s what makes it so real.”

Left: Sweater by 3.1 Phillip Lim. Jeans by Topman.Right: Shirt by 3.1 Phillip Lim.

Such careful alethiological parsing might seem surprising coming out of the mouth of an actor who just turned sixteen last week, but Zumann’s understanding of the distinction between fact and fiction started at a prodigiously young age. “I think I always wanted to do something like acting,” he recalls. “I always did neighborhood productions, school plays. I did one professional theater production when I was about eleven or twelve years old and right afterwards I knew that I wanted to pursue acting. I just loved being able to portray emotion, to embody a different character and play with it.”

As a child growing up in Chicago, Zumann also made himself comfortable behind the camera early on, filming his own small movies whenever and wherever he could. That interest continues to this day, which means every new project is not only a chance to grow as an actor but as a filmmaker as well. “Even doing photo shoots, I’m seeing myself through the camera, going, ‘Ok, this is what they must be seeing, they have this lens on. I’m going to act to that.’ I have that in the back of my mind so I know what they might be capturing and what they want. I think having both perspectives really helps the other side to get a good image.”

Jacket and jeans by Topman. T-shirt by Bassike.

Given his boundless curiosity, shooting 20th Century Women was, as Zumann excitedly laughs, “like free film school.” After Zumann landed the role of Jamie (his previous roles include minor parts in the television series Sens8 and Chicago Fire), Mills provided an education of a different sort, helping him learn about the time period of the film with a broad syllabus. “Mike sent me a box of books and a list of documentaries to watch, as well as hundreds of photos to look through to get an understanding and a familiarity with the culture,” Zumann recalls. “I remember watching one of the documentaries on my computer, and I had this book called A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, and I would pause the movie every time there was a cultural reference I didn’t get, and I would look it up in the book so that by the time I’d finished the movie, I would completely understand everything that was in it. By the time we started shooting, I was able to have that time period familiar in the back of my mind before I could work on Jamie.”

Still, despite the different milieus Zumann and Jamie find themselves in, the young actor says he felt a strong affinity with his sensitive-yet-serious character, which helped the period trappings fall away. “I related to Jamie a lot, not only because he was a fifteen-year-old boy, but just the way that he perceived the world and the way that he looked at things and talked about things,” Zumann explains. “His perception of the world seemed very similar to the way I perceive it as well.”

Jacket and jeans by Topman. T-shirt by Bassike.

Jamie’s bond with his independent-minded mother forms the core of the film, and Zumann says his relationship with Bening, who is already tipped for an Oscar nomination for her performance, was similarly strong. “We immediately grew to form a mother-and-son relationship—a much healthier one than the one we have in the movie,” he laughs. “She made a point of really leading me through the whole process. She taught me so much and I’m very grateful for that.”

One of the lessons he took away was how to deal with everything that surrounds the movie—the press tours and festival screenings and interviews like this one that are apart from but very much a part of the contemporary filmmaking process. “Something that Annette said is that the work’s done,” Zumman explains. “We’ve already seen the film, there’s nothing we can do to change it at this point. All we have to do is hope they perceive it well and carry that attitude with us. Following what Annette is saying has been a huge help for me to go through what would otherwise have been a huge and intimidating experience.”

Left: Sweater by Topman.Right: Shirt by Polo Ralph Lauren. T-shirt and jeans by Topman. Sneakers by Converse.

With the work on 20th Century Women done, Zumann is currently filming Anne, Netflix’s reboot of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables due out next year. A touchstone for generations of readers—and, thanks to countless film and television adaptations, viewers—the new series offers what Zumann calls a darker and more realistic take on the story. “It was not as flowery and nice and easygoing as they showed it to be,” he explains of previous versions. “They’re showing the grittier, truer side of that time period and what it actually meant to be an orphan in that time, and there’s something really interesting about that.”

After that, if he listens to Bening’s instructions again, he’ll take a break. “There was one thing that she told me—that I need to spend as much, if not more, time off set than I do on set,” Zumann says. “For two reasons: one, so I can have my own life and my own friends and be a real person and develop myself, but also so that I can have something to draw from and real experiences to portray and bring into my acting when I’m on set. Because if I have no real experiences and have no idea what it means to be my age in this time and this place and this body, I can’t bring that into my acting and it can’t be true. That’s something that’s really important for my work. My work continues to happen after the cameras stop rolling. The learning experience is a huge part of it as well.”

20th Century Women is out December 28 in New York and Los Angeles.

Shirt by 3.1 Phillip Lim. T-shirt and jeans by Bassike.
By
Jonathan Shia
Photography by
Mark Squires

Styling by Nicolas Klam at Jed Root. Grooming by Homa Safar.

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