Ryan Lee is sitting in a downtown Austin restaurant, fresh off a three-week press junket in London and Singapore. He’s gotten much of the Hollywood thing down pat: He shakes hands like a businessman, speaks in complete sentences, and has a blond, Bieber-esque mop of hair. But the fifteen-year-old still can’t resist setting a chip on fire while he waits for his fish tacos—fitting, since in his latest movie he plays a pyromaniac.
Lee’s one of the young actors who stars in Super 8, the monster movie written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, which opens nationwide on Friday, June 10. Set in the 70s, the film’s a hybrid of E.T. and Cloverfield. It centers around a crew of six kids who capture an ominous train crash on Super 8 film, and become entangled in what the wreck unleashes. Lee plays Cary, a funny kid who keeps the movie down-to-earth by cracking wise—and setting off firecrackers—at its most serious moments.
Lee got his start in the films of UT grad students, and from there jumped to guest appearances in Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and My Generation. When he got the call to audition for Super 8, the project was still top-secret: He thought he was reading an ordinary script about math homework. Not until the callback, when someone mentioned the name “J.J,” did he realize the enormity of the project. I caught up with Lee last month to talk about setting things on fire, pranking Kyle Chandler, and leaving Texas for Hollywood.
How does it feel to be back in Austin?
It’s good to be back in my own bed—there’s no place like Texas. I was definitely a little homesick.
J.J. Abrams is famously secretive. What measures did he take to keep the movie under wraps?
From the first callback, my mom and I signed confidentiality agreements, and they even had two more agreements sent back home to Texas from L.A. for my sister and my dad. I couldn’t tell my grandparents until about two months in, and even then I was like, wait, can we tell our other family, and they were like uh, maybe later.
Your Super 8 character’s pretty funny. How much do you have in common with him?
I get to wake up in the morning and play myself. I do like fire, though not as much as Cary does. He’s a bit crazy. Ultimately my character just wants to have a good time.
What was the highlight of your time on set—any good stories?
We played a lot of pranks on each other. We would ding-dong-ditch Kyle Chandler. We hid in other people’s trailers when they were coming back from set. Me and Riley [Griffiths] hid in Joel [Courtney]’s trailer one day. Riley hid in the bathroom and I hid in a little closet, because I’m smaller and could fit. Riley scared Joel first, and Joel jumped back and then I scared him a second time.
Sounds like fun.
So much stuff I do, I’m doing it with adults only. And here, being with other kids, it was so fun. At the beginning of the movie, J.J. got us all the new PS3, and they all have webcams, so we talk over Skype and stuff on it and keep in touch. We’re lifelong friends.
The film’s set in 1979. How were you able to relate to that?
Not at all. Yesterday someone asked me what a rotary phone was, like ‘Oh, Ryan, how did that rotary phone change your life?’ And I was like, ‘I’m sorry but I have no idea what a rotary phone is.’ The first day I walked on set it was like a time warp, because there were hundreds of extras and they were in ‘70s clothes, and the school was the ‘70s and the gas station was the ‘70s and the cars were the ‘70s. You would look towards the set and you saw the ‘70s, and then you would look the other way and see all new cars.
When did you first get to see the film, and what did it feel like?
Three weeks ago. It was crazy because all six of us were sitting in a room together, and it was so surreal. It felt like a five-minute thing, not like we were watching a movie at all, but more like a flashback. We would know what was happening behind the scenes that day, we would remember what we were joking about. The second time I saw it is when I really started to notice little, tiny things that I could change, or that I did well.
Are you thinking about moving to L.A.?
I think we’re about to move. I think it’s time to make the switch, so I’m going to beg my mom.
Alright, give me the 30-second plug.
Well, the movie’s for everyone. There’s action, comedy, sci-fi, thriller, romance. You can’t put this movie into one category. I hope, for the adults, it’s like a flashback, and for the kids, I hope they’re inspired by it. J.J. was inspired by Steven, and we’re inspired by J.J. I hope millions of kids and/or adults will be inspired to make movies by Super 8. It’s like a ripple effect.