I'm just really glad that I can always come back to Chicago and take a couple deep breaths and live a real 16-year-old life.
Last month, Netflix rolled out its latest original series about the beloved story of Anne Shirley, an adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables. When the scrappy smart, red-headed orphan is mistakenly sent to live with an older pair of siblings on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, she must persuade them to keep her, despite them having requested a boy to help out on the farm. From the start, the cutely titled Anne with an E leans into darkness, straining to break away from the homespun charm of the tale’s earlier origins. Unlike the pleasant world of Avonlea we once knew, Anne’s problems stretch far beyond schoolhouse antics. She’s haunted by flashbacks of abuse from past homes. Whereas Anne’s unwavering optimism was once funny and sweet, her positivity appears delusional, given the invented hardships of Anne’s life in this latest incarnation.
The reception has been rather mixed, although it’s worth remembering that Anne with an E’s gritty realism is much closer to what life would’ve been like for turn-of-the-century orphans. And viewers have universally embraced key players like Lucas Jade Zumann as this generation’s Gilbert Blythe. The 16-year-old already wowed us last year in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women.
Yet another example of a film that finds multiple lives on the festival circuit and with international audiences, 20th Century Women is currently playing at the Shanghai International Film Festival, where Anthem is stationed this week. A follow-up to our recent portrait session with Zumann in Los Angeles, we sat down to discuss his budding career, his other passions, and Anne with an E.
Anne with an E is now streaming on Netflix.
What are you doing out in Los Angeles, Lucas?
I was actually originally taking my GED tests—my “real 18” tests—so I can, you know, work more hours on set. I don’t have to do school on set either, so that will give me more hours.
Very cool. And congratulations on Anne with an E. I’m late to this one, but I binge-watched the entire season over the weekend. How did this project come to you?
I actually taped for it. It was an audition that came in. Then I taped for it a couple more times before they flew me out to meet the creator, Moira [Walley-Beckett], and some of the producers. I read with Amybeth [McNulty] who plays Anne on the show. It was a pretty fast casting process, I think. It was like, “Okay, cool, we’re shooting now. Let’s do it!”
The show is full of life in many other ways, but it’s consistently heart-wrenching. I think a lot of people were maybe expecting more whimsy. Anne’s put through the wringer.
I was familiar with a lot of the material from the actual book. But if you look at Moira’s writing style, she likes to write in-between the pages of the book. It’s not like she’s adding aspects to the book that weren’t already there, but it’s almost like she’s highlighting a lot more. She’s really emphasizing what it actually would’ve been like to be a young female orphan in the late eighteen hundreds. That would’ve been something really hard. I think the book doesn’t touch on it nearly as much as Moira does. That’s something really, really cool and really interesting. It maintains the flowery, tea party aspect of the book that people were drawn to. And yet, it adds more genuine aspects when it comes to exactly what it would’ve been like for Anne in that situation.
I appreciated that because, not only is it truer to life like you’re saying, the gritty realism makes you root for her even more as a result. This was shot on Prince Edward Island?
For the first couple weeks. I actually wasn’t there for any of the Prince Edward Island stuff. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit Prince Edward Island at all. All the stuff that I shot was in Pickering, Toronto, which was beautiful. It’s just acres and acres of farmland, which was lovely. We shot a lot of the exteriors along the coastline, but they shot that before they even cast me.
I’d imagine this is all stuff you take into account when you’re considering projects: Where are we shooting this? What kind of life experience might this project give me?
For sure. The environment plays just as big of a role in your experience as the actual material. I think simply being out in the farmland where we were shooting kind of set the very slow, very relaxed pace for the shooting schedule. It was a new experience. It was snow-covered farmland as far as the eye could see. That was something that I knew going in. I knew that we were going to shoot in this very beautiful place, which takes us back to the late eighteen hundreds in a way.
I know you live in Chicago with your close-knit family. You come from a family of musicians and actors. Is that what sort of opened your arms up to acting and film in the first place?
I think my whole family was always supportive of pursuing the arts in general. I played musical instruments, as did many members of my family. I never really made a conscious choice like, “I’m going to become a professional actor!” I liked doing things like neighborhood theater and making my own little home videos. Then I slowly moved into doing professional work, and it took off. It just felt like we were a family of artists. We want to pursue art in one form or another.
What’s this about you getting discovered by Disney? How does that play into your narrative?
That was mainly about getting in front of a casting director. It was a Disney call that was about reading some material for a casting director. Basically, I went into casting director Mickie Paskal’s agency and taped for them. I sang a song and played guitar. They were like, “Do you have an agent?” I didn’t. “Okay, we have to hook you up with an agent.” In a way, I got discovered from that. It was just this 20-minute thing at a casting agency. I got an agent and booked the first three things that I auditioned for: a commercial, a TV show, and a movie. Then I booked another movie and, a couple months later, 20th Century Women. It happened very, very, very fast. It was a blink-of-an-eye kind of thing. It was a pretty crazy experience.
At 16, you’re still so young in my eyes, but you’re also the eldest of four brothers. Do they see all that you’re doing and want to follow in your footsteps?
I think they’re all very different in what they want to eventually pursue. They’re all very different in their talents. But they’ve all done a commercial already. And my father has done a commercial as well. My mother, on the other hand, doesn’t show any sort of wanting to act. All the boys in my family have dabbled in some sort of acting. So, yeah, they enjoy it. My brother is taking a camera class right now. The second youngest did two or three commercials now. They’re all exploring.
I was going to tell you this earlier: I’m actually at the Shanghai International Film Festival and all the screenings for 20th Century Women sold out before the festival even started. This movie must feel like a long time ago now. What do you remember from it?
It was two years ago. It does feel like a while ago. And yet, when I wake up in the morning sometimes, I still feel like I’m about to go to set. It’s like, “I’m going to the big house now. We’re going to shoot in that orange kitchen. Now we’re going to shoot in the upstairs bedroom.” I spent a lot of time [in that house]. It didn’t feel like we would just stop shooting 20th Century Women. It felt like I was gonna go again the next day. I learned something new every single day on that set from the actors, from Mike [Mills]—from everyone. It was such an enriching experience.
Didn’t Mike give you a hard drive full of stuff for preparation? What was on there?
He sent me an entire box full of different drives and books and pictures. On these hard drives were just hundreds upon hundreds of photos that he wanted me to look at and to have in mind. He wanted me to do a ton of studying on that particular era so I wouldn’t have to think about the time period while we were shooting. It would just be at the back of my mind. It’s kind of like how you and I are talking right now in 2017. We’re not thinking, “It’s 2017 and there are iPhones and we’re talking online with our laptop computers.” We’re not thinking that at all—it just exists. I think one of the things he wanted to do was to train it into my head. It worked. You look at this stuff months before the shoot and even before rehearsals to get an understanding of it. You listen to all this music and watch these documentaries and read the books. It helped calibrate my mind to that era.
Mike is known for his intimate storytelling and coming from a deeply personal space. Are you a stand-in for Mike in the film or was Jamie painted much broader?
When we were shooting it, I think I overthought it a little bit. I was saying to myself, “I’m playing Mike.” I was very nervous and anxious. I worried that, if I didn’t do it right, he was going to look at the finished movie like, “Lucas disappointed me.” [Laughs] I had this image in my mind of Mike watching the movie and being dissatisfied with it. So I was kind of examining him whenever we would have conversations. I was taking notes in my mind at miles per second, trying to breathe him into the role. I wanted to get a sense of him. But after watching the movie and kind of taking a step back from it—looking at it from the audience’s perspective—I now see that Jamie is Jamie. Jamie is a 15, 16-year-old in 1979 with a single mother. It’s just like what Mike had, but that similarity is only there because he was trying to draw from his own life to make the experience as real as possible. Jamie wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a stand-in for him. He can correct me if I’m wrong about this, but that’s my interpretation from taking a step back and looking at it now.
You’re always levelheaded. People write that about you. You don’t seem at all concerned with fame. You’re also into things like sustainable living, mindfulness, and meditation.
I think I’m very lucky to have the ability to differentiate my professional life from my real life. [Laughs] When I’m out here [in Los Angeles], I’m in work zone and meeting with people. When I come back home [to Chicago], I come back to my homey neighborhood and my bedroom. My family and friends are real. It’s very grounding. I don’t aspire for fame. That’s not really my goal. I like doing this kind of artwork. If that gets me to a place where I have enough voice to be able to push the agenda of sustainable living and push the agenda of veganism, that’s just a bonus. I’m really happy that I have the opportunity. I’m just really glad that I can always come back to Chicago and take a couple deep breaths and live a real 16-year-old life.
You mentioned in another interview I read that you were interested in becoming a spiritual healer. If you had to choose one, does that override your acting ambitions?
I don’t necessarily want to become a spiritual healer. [Laughs] I want to do filmmaking as well. And I want to do both acting and filmmaking. I want to spend as much time behind the camera as I do in front of it. I want to put myself in my work, too. So it’s not like I have this life where I’m practicing Buddhist meditation, and then I have an acting and filmmaking life. I want to be able to merge the two and have them feed each other in a way. But I think that will be challenging. From some perspectives, the acting life and the Zen Buddhist life are two very opposing things. Finding a balance with the two is something I aspire to do.
Did you spend much time with James Ransone on Sinister 2? He’s super into meditation and altered states of consciousness. He gets really intense about it, actually.
I was around 12, 13 when we did that. [Laughs] I think that was at a time when I drifted away from practicing meditation. I started up again when I was around 14. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t have conversations with him about that. We actually didn’t have a ton of conversations on set, but that would’ve been cool. That’s cool you got to meet him. I might have to follow up with him now.
I know Annette Bening once told you to live off set as much as you do on because life is what feeds your work. It’s true. But what are some invaluable things you can learn on set?
I mean, I don’t have a ton of experience. I’ve only been doing this for a couple years. But from the small amount of perspective that I do have about the business and acting, especially with 20th Century Women, it’s almost like meditating on one’s own life. To take my own life and jam it into Jamie as much as I could, I found that I really needed to take a step back and almost generalize my existence. I had to look at it as if I was reading a book or watching a movie to really study myself. So it called for a lot of self-examination that, at the time, was very hard and kind of painful in a way. In the end, it was really, really beneficial to me. It’s like having a different perspective. That was something I hadn’t done for any other projects before. That’s the main thing.
Now I’m wondering what kind of stories you’re interested in telling on the other side of the camera since you mentioned wanting to make films as well. Do you write screenplays?
Actually, I’m currently working on a feature length film. My friends and I are prepping to shoot this summer. It’s no budget, favors and friends, and as much camera equipment as we can find. I’m really attracted to character-driven stuff, even if that means sacrificing the traditional arc of a story or a movie. Even if it’s very dull and straightforward, as long as it’s true to people and relatable, that’s the kind of stuff I’m really into. I find that my writing tends to be that way. I’m not even done writing the script yet and what I did write is 40 or 50 minutes of just dialogue between people. One of my friends were like, “Listen—something needs to actually happen.” [Laughs] So we’re creating an actual story that goes along with it.