ISAIAH STONE: AMERICAN SPIRIT
His authentically raw portrayals of backwoods American life have made him one of cinema’s most compelling new outsiders. Fresh from his role in Leave No Trace, midwestern misfit Isaiah Stone reveals how he became the face of the new Hollywood realism.
Isaiah Stone has made just three movies so far, including this summer’s excellent Leave No Trace, a hit at Sundance 2018. Yet with each of his naturalistic performances, a compelling aura of ambiguity has grown around the 23-year-old actor – who exactly is he? What is his own reality? Because on-screen he gives more than dialogue, inhabiting his roles with what seem like flickers of himself.
This celluloid blurring begins with his skateboard, a prop from his first moment of screen-time in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010), made when Stone was just barely into his teens. By the time of his performance in American Honey (2016), his deck pretty much never left his hand, written in for extra dimension.
“A typical day (for me) is probably just skateboarding: skateboarding and hanging with friends, seeing my mom and whatnot,” the actor begins over Skype, calling from home in Missouri. Against a wall punctuated with surf and music posters, he wears a pale blue t-shirt nabbed from a stay at his brother’s house – “I don’t even know what’s on it, maybe ‘I am not the norm’? I think it’s a character off something.” Stone confesses that he usually goes around shirtless – the tee was grabbed out of the cupboard and thrown on “real quick”. His long, blonde hair dances about his shoulders every time he opens his mouth.
“With Winter’s Bone, honestly, I just brought my board to the set and Debra was like, ‘Maybe we could throw that in,’” says Stone. “She brings little pieces of reality into her films. When I auditioned for American Honey, they asked me, ‘What talents do you have?’ I sent them some photos of me skateboarding, and they liked that. A lot of the improv in American Honey was me talking about skating, too.”
In fact, there are more clips of an 11-year-old Stone performing tricks on YouTube than there are film scene-teasers or junket interviews. His Instagram feed is essentially one long paean to mini-ramps and oil drums, Stone flipping his way around abandoned go-kart tracks, nose-grinding and riding rails at every opportunity. “Being on a skateboard in films is like being able to bring in a piece of me,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was three; I always wanted to be a pro skateboarder when I was growing up. Rodney Mullen is a real big hero, the first guy I looked up to, because he blew me away with the stuff he was doing.”
For 30 years, cult cinema has been lit up by auteurs like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant casting street-surfing youth as first-time actors to capture the teenage experience, so a jump from skating to screen isn’t particularly strange. But what’s interesting about Stone is that he hasn’t seen any of their films. Any of them. There isn’t an awareness to play up to, knowing that there’s a place for him if he plays it right. He’s entirely pure.
When Stone fell into acting, he fell harder than he’s ever fallen off his skateboard. “I was around 13 and my mom had seen something in the newspaper, an extra try-out for the film Winter’s Bone,” he explains. “It was a Saturday and I was sleeping in; she woke me up. Anyway, she took me to this audition, which was more about filling out some paperwork, and a week later, I got an email asking me if I wanted to come and audition for the role of Sonny.”
This would be the beginning of Stone’s journey into American realism, and his first collaboration with Debra Granik, the director turning the spotlight from Hollywood to the midwest, an America largely edited out from your average trip to the flicks. “I’d never looked into how movies were made, so when I got to set for the first time, it was mind-blowing,” he says of his first experiences on set. “Obviously, there were a lot of people, and a big old camera pointing at you. I was really nervous; people had only filmed me skateboarding (until then).”
As Jennifer Lawrence’s kid brother in Winter’s Bone, Stone got to learn a few new tricks, too, shooting a rif le and skinning a squirrel on screen. “I’d shot a rif le before that, but I’d never skinned a squirrel,” he says. “We had an expert come out, a wilderness guy, who showed us how to do it. We were doing this take where Sonny was supposed to be scared (to do it) but Jennifer was actually really scared – as soon as they called it, she was like, ‘Get it off!’ That was funny. I remember that scene a lot more than the others.” What did he make of the film?
“I thought it was a good movie, although not my type of movie when I was younger,” says Stone. “It’s pretty much true, you know. People don’t understand what really happens around Missouri and a lot of other places, too.”
Set within a small Ozarks community, the film follows 17-year-old Ree (Lawrence) as she cares for 12-year-old Sonny, six-year- old sister Ashlee and mum Connie, who suffers from severe depression. Ree must find her father, Jessup, who put the family home up for bond and skipped bail after he was caught manufacturing methamphetamine. Faced with losing everything, Ree must keep the family together – yet everywhere she turns, she’s told to keep her nose out of other people’s business. It’s a story of blood ties and the code of silence, in a place rotten beneath the surface thanks to the drug’s influence. Even when she’s beaten up and spitting teeth, Ree keeps on going. It’s the performance that made Lawrence, the root of where she sits today as one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed (and highly paid) performers.
“The first time that I met her, I thought she was a local, too,” says Stone, a Springfield, Missouri native who attended school a short drive from where the film was shot. “Then she told me she did a television show and I realised she was an actress. It was wild that this was her start, for sure.”
“Brad Pitt is from Springfield,” Stone continues, citing another local who made the journey to the big screen. “His brother, mom and dad still live around here. Supposedly he has a house out in the country, so I might have driven by him a couple of times and not even known it.” It’s clearly a source of pride, though when asked which actors he looks up to, Stone insists that “I try to really do my own thing.”
“(Growing up) I got along with everyone but I probably didn’t fit in,” recalls Stone of his teenage years. “I come from a place where there’s a lot of country, a lot of big trucks, big old belt buckles, and I had a little car and a skateboard and tattoos.” He also has a white ferret, Fiona, who he introduces me to. “She has just woken up so she’s going to be chilling, she’s not going to care about anything,” he says.
Stone is used to being “the little guy of the family”, with four half-sisters and a half-brother who just turned 30. (His other half-brother passed away a few years ago.) Since appearing in Winter’s Bone, the young actor has been taken under Granik’s wing, returning with a pivotal role in Leave No Trace, her latest project.
Leave No Trace tells the story of Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), living illegally but thoughtfully in a Portland park – the film’s title refers to the pair’s ecological philosophy as well as their status as outsiders. Through a trip to the hospital to pick up his meds, we learn that Will is a war veteran with PTSD, selling on his prescriptions for cash. In a fraught moment, they are commandeered by social services, separated and interrogated, before being rehoused on a Christmas tree farm and slowly integrated back into society (for a while, at least).
With typical sensitivity, Granik shows that Will has done his best to raise a polite, knowledgeable daughter with a sense of curiosity. Yet his actions have unwittingly prevented her from having a chance at life. This is where Stone comes in, playing a young man called Isaiah (though his name is never acknowledged on screen). As the only friend it appears she has ever had, Isaiah gives Tom the chance to explore her sense of self. They bond over his pet rabbit, Chainsaw.
“I did agriculture classes. I was in all of the classes they offered in school, so I related to the 4-H stuff,” says Stone, referencing the US youth science and agriculture initiative. (In the film, real 4-H kids are cast in a scene where a youth group prepares for a Crufts-esque rabbit show). We see Isaiah in his workshop, building a cabin he one day plans to move to “Colorado, maybe Utah”. Here, fiction overtakes fact: Stone has no experience in carpentry. Or in clipping a bunny’s nails.
“Debra is not a director to me, in a way,” Stone explains. “She’s kind of like a second family, you know? I’ve grown real close to her, to her husband and kid, and other people on the east coast that I’ve met through her.” The feeling seems to be mutual: apparently, Granik had Stone in mind for the part from the beginning. And though his is a modest supporting performance in what could very well be McKenzie’s breakout moment, Stone is crucial to the arc of the narrative.
“I’ve met a lot of people in my life who have had troubles (being) homeless, having no family and stuff,” says Stone. “I think (these movies are) important and there should be a lot more of them. There’s truth to all of Debra’s films, and what she’s working on for the future is similar to Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace. It’s real-deal stuff about the hardships people go through – that’s what she does. She gives light to the people that don’t have it.”
The theme of makeshift communities in an America blighted by poverty, violence, drugs and the state’s failure to protect individuals also pervades American Honey, a road movie written and directed by British auteur Andrea Arnold. But the expression and temperature couldn’t be more different.
Sasha Lane debuts as the film’s protagonist, Star, who lives in an Oklahoma trailer park, caring for two children who aren’t her own. After searching in a skip for food, the three of them head to Walmart, where a band of teenagers cause merry havoc while Rihanna’s “We Found Love” plays in the background. At the invite of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Star finds a life on the road with the troupe of teens selling magazines across the country, f leeing sexual abuse and leaving the children with a mother who doesn’t want them – a situation she has to physically run from. From all over the US, each teen has a reason to be there, and they’re making the best of it, with reckless days and hedonistic nights. Stone plays Kalium, from – you guessed it – Missouri. He speaks less than he smokes and skates even more.
“It was the wildest thing I’ll probably ever do,” says Stone. “We travelled across the midwest, from Oklahoma all the way up to North Dakota, hitting states on the way and staying in cheap hotels. I don’t know if you’ve seen that video of us going to Mount Rushmore? It was mostly Shia yelling (stuff) like, ‘America!’ (LaBeouf made headlines with his antics at the national monument during the shoot.) We had some drinks on the way, quite a few, and we caused a little scene. That’s on the internet, I’m pretty sure.”
Music is the fuel of Arnold’s film, with the group bonding in extended good-time scenes, dancing in motel car parks and posturing in the van. From E-40’s “Choices (Yup)” to Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” and Carnage featuring iLoveMakonnen’s “I Like Tuh”, the lyrics often mirror the collective character outlook.
“We freestyled in American Honey a lot, it was fun,” laughs Stone, further emphasising the gonzo energy of the project where life would imitate art. (Or is it the other way around?) “We had improv where it was just us being natural in the van, taking a trip to the next location. I think you can tell when you’re watching the film.” Stone shows off a tattoo of the number 071, the name of the fictional mag crew in the film, that most of the cast had inked during filming. It’s just one of many.
“The old-school skateboard is a drawing from an artist that I follow,” says Stone, explaining some of his other inkings. “My dad passed away when I was younger, so I got work done for him – his initials and the surfboard that he used to surf on. And my brother passed away. I got a lot of memory tattoos, and a lot of other stuff (that’s) hidden – they’re not bad, I love every tattoo that I have, but stick-and-poke is what it is. My buddy’s really good at it. My manager doesn’t know until he sees on Instagram and says, ‘Did you get more?!’ I like tattoos a lot. They’ve always been my thing.”
Stone is sure in his sense of self and as laidback as can be – he’s surely the only actor who has worn a Volcom t-shirt to the Cannes film festival (and been praised for it). One wonders if working with the relative subtlety he has done so far, bleeding into his roles, could be argued to be a problem at some point. But Stone has been able to work in a way most actors don’t get to experience in his short filmography, effortlessly holding his own amid some distressing narratives and stellar, award- baiting performances.
“I want to do more independent films,” he says, with one eye on the future. “I would like to do a horror film or a thriller; I want to taste that and see what it’s like. I always liked (them), ever since I was little. Films that are real scary. Not, like, crazy make-up and CGI, but things like The Strangers – because stuff like that really could happen! Or movies about sharks. I like being scared. Being scared is nice.”
Stone is ready to be surprised. Call him and find out.
PHOTOGRAPHY BEN TOMS
STYLING DANNY REED
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
DAZED, AUTUMN 2018