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Nico Hiraga answers our Zoom call on the road — and topless. “Oh, fuck. I got the interview right now,” he says while in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. “I was just at this skate park, so I'm all sweaty.” So starts my interview with Hollywood’s newest teen heartthrob.
Clearly, Hiraga is not your average movie industry striver. For one, the actor – who you might recognize from his roles in Booksmart, or Netflix’s Moxie – never intended to get into Hollywood in the first place. Sponsored since he was 14, Hiraga had his sights set on becoming a pro skater. Then, after an injury forced him to take a break from skating, Hiraga somewhat fell into acting, seamlessly transitioning from the occasional modelling job to on-screen roles. “I wasn't able to skate and I was like, what am I going to do?” he says. “So I was like ‘let's try acting’ and that's when it all just kind of fell into play.”
Luckily, Hiraga already had some experience in that department thanks to his friend Mikey Alfred, founder of skate crew Illegal Civ. As an aspiring director, Alfred would round up his friends to act in his short movies. Hiraga only took part to help Alfred out, but it ended up being an entry way into his new career. “Mikey definitely gave me a bump to acting because I didn't always want to do it,” Hiraga says, “but that’s how I learned some of the ins and outs of acting.” Now, Hiraga is bringing his Hollywood experience to Alfred’s first feature film, North Hollywood — it’s all come full circle.
Hiraga is honest about his new-found career, revealing that he doesn’t have a true passion for acting and describes it “like a job.” Well, it’s a job he’s exceedingly good at: from playing a skater jock to a sensitive love interest to the goofball friend, he brings an emotional openness and authenticity to all of his roles, embodying the transitory nature of his teenage characters.
Hiraga is also getting attention for his looks, earning the moniker “alt heartthrob,” a title which he’s ambivalent about. “I read somewhere it said, ‘alt heartthrob’ and I was like, ‘is that a backhanded compliment?’”
While he eventually decided the term wasn’t meant in a negative way, Hiraga is sure that if he were a “a buff Caucasian dude with a cut-from-glass jawline,” the “alt” qualifier wouldn't be there. People like Noah Centineo and Timothée Chalamet, “wouldn't be considered alt-heartthrobs. They would just be heartthrobs,” he says. “You wouldn't have expected this Hapa Japanese skateboarding kid with a potty mouth to be your heartthrob. And here I am.”
When asked if he thinks he’s placed separately to mainstream Hollywood actors because he’s Asian, or because he’s a skater, Hiraga replies that “it's a little bit of both, honestly,” before going on to explain that he thinks his non-traditional route into the industry places a role too.
“I grew up in the city of San Francisco, didn't know anything about Hollywood, didn't watch a whole lot of TV,” he recounts. “I was skipping school to go be in the streets with my buddies when I was younger, skating, and causing havoc. I didn't go to Julliard, didn't even go to college, barely made it out of high school.”
Whether there’s an alt qualifier or not, Hiraga has the makings of the next big teen star — if you don’t want to be him, you want to be with him. Case in point, his Instagram comments, which are a strange mixture of skate rats hyping him up for landing tricks and teen girls posting writing “wish that was me” on a picture of the actor kissing a dog.
Despite his rising fame, Hiraga’s main goals still revolve around skateboarding.“Don't get me wrong, an Oscar would be so sick, but a Thrasher cover is something that’s on every little skater kid’s bucket list,” he says. But above all else, “I would want to be pro.”
The professional side of skateboarding is confusing, so let's break it down: there are three levels to it — flow, am, and pro. Hiraga was flow from aged 14 to 16, where he would get free product (boards, sneakers, clothing) from brands, but he wasn’t getting paid. “I was like, Oh my God. I don't have to pay for shoes? My feet will never bleed again because I have a fresh pair of shoes? Wow,” he remembers. Then he turned am, first for skate sneaker brand Lakai (where he went from being hyped to get free shoes to designing his own, a cherry blossom-adorned pair inspired by his Japanese heritage). Then he joined the am team at Illegal Civ when he started actually getting paid to skateboard.
“I think my mom and dad were like, 'Oh, finally.' Because they didn't always want me skating. They wanted me to go to college, but I was like, 'Fuck that. I'mma skate.' So when I started getting paid, I think we were all pretty relieved.”
Currently, he’s managing both sides of his career. Recently putting out a part in Illegal Civ’s anticipated video “Godspeed,” alongside major skaters Ishod Wair and Zion Wright. However, acting is increasingly impeding on his freedom to skate. Ironically, the thing that got him into acting in the first place — injuries — is now holding him back from skating. When we spoke, Hiraga was back in San Francisco on a break from filming a new project in London. He was skating, sure, but he had to be careful not to do any big tricks. “I haven't been able to skate as much as I would like to because when you're part of a big budget film, you can't afford to get hurt, or else it's on the production,” he explains.
“I would love to be like, ‘Ooh. Let's go fucking skate. Let’s put our bodies on the line for this clip.’ But in the back of my head it's like, 'Dude. These guys are putting in a lot of money to make sure you're safe until you come back on Wednesday.'"
Between projects though? "Okay. Now, let's toss our carcasses,” Hiraga laughs. Right now, he’s still trying to work out the balance between the two. “I'm a diehard lover for skateboarding, but I don't have tunnel vision towards skateboarding,” he says.
In a lot of ways, Hiraga is an archetype of a celebrity. He’s charismatic, good-looking, and is a natural people-pleaser, telling me that whether he’s doing goofy dances (a signature of his Instagram), acting, or skating, his aim is to make people happy, even his interviewer. “Seeing you smile is awesome, so that's what I'm going for,” he says after I laugh at one of his jokes.
While he’s good at celebrity, he’s also really new at it. “Just three years ago I got into Hollywood. I'm still adjusting to it because it's such a wild world. I mean, I'm not used to it at all,” he says. Hiraga explains that he appreciates his fans but at the same describes the spotlight as “really weird.”
“I saw somewhere recently that something said like I had a secret girlfriend. And I was like, 'Well, that’s completely false. I'm 100% single,'” he says. “I don't know where they're getting stuff from, but I’m definitely feeling some waves. If people are already being like, ‘Nico Hiraga's secret girlfriend that he has tucked away.’ It doesn't make me want to be too public about anything that's personal to me."
With two more teen-orientated projects on the way — The Power and Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between — both adapted from popular YA novels, Nico Hiraga is about to get a lot more attention, but he’s not fazed. “I'm definitely not walking on eggshells or changing who I am because I'm this new up-and-coming actor.”
“At the end of the day, I have no interest in being famous. I don't go to these big Hollywood functions,” he says. “I'd rather be at a tiny little SF apartment in the hood with my buddies drinking a Colt 40. Honestly, throw back to your roots. Never forget where you came from.”
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