Nick Robinson hits a high point with ‘Kings of Summer’

Nick Robinson stars in "Kings of Summer."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

He may only be 18, but Nick Robinson can teach you how to skin a rabbit. The trick to the gruesome procedure, the young actor learned while filming the new indie movie “The Kings of Summer,” comes at the start — cutting away at the rear flap of skin right above the ankle.

“That’s the hardest part,” said Robinson. “Once you get past the legs, it’s just like taking off a sock, a very sticky sock. It’s gross.”

Separating a dead animal from its hide may have proved Robinson’s Bear Grylls-style survival skills but that was a minor difficulty compared with the rest of the challenges Robinson faced on “Kings of Summer,” his feature film debut. On set he had to deal with grueling hours and the pressure of being the lead actor among a cast that included veterans such as Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. (Don’t get him started on the stress of trying to grow his own beard.)

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The film, from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta, marks a huge opportunity for Robinson, best known from his three seasons playing Melissa Joan Hart’s nephew in the ABC Family show “Melissa & Joey.”


“Kings of Summer,” opening Friday, is the antithesis of the half-hour sitcom. Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s early Amblin films or Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me,” the movie centers on Joe Toy (Robinson), a 15-year-old who runs away to live in the woods with his best friends after his strained relationship with his widowed father (Offerman) reaches a breaking point.

“Fifteen is such a weird age to be. Nobody treats you like an adult but you desperately want to be one. You still have these childlike aspects but you’re just kind of coming into the world,” said Robinson, who at 6 feet tall looks like the Disneyfied version of an adolescent: floppy limbs, giant feet, gleaming smile and a very expensive haircut. “These guys desperately want to be mature, be their own men, yet running away from home is really the least mature thing you can do.”

The film premiered at Sundance, where the cast was praised for striking “a nice balance of cultivated teen knowingness and awkward vulnerability” by the Hollywood Reporter. CBS Films quickly snapped up distribution rights at the festival.

Robinson has an ease to him that reaches beyond his years. Meeting for this interview, he suggested perusing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition on Stanley Kubrick. Robinson said he has seen every Kubrick film except “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita”; “A Clockwork Orange” is his favorite and he desperately wants to hang the giant “2001: A Space Odyssey” movie poster in his bedroom.

He’s even stayed in the hotel that served as the exterior location for “The Shining.” Walking through the gallery room dedicated to Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King psychological horror tale, Robinson asks: “Do you believe in ghosts?

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“I guess I don’t,” he offers. “I don’t believe that people die and come back as spirits but I think there might be some unexplained events.”

It was Robinson’s natural charm that led Vogt-Roberts to him, even though the director was looking for a slighter, scrawnier version of his main character. The chemistry Robinson had with costar Gabriel Basso (“The Big C”) was undeniable — and essential to make the film believable and accessible.

“If the kids didn’t work, the movie didn’t work,” Vogt-Roberts said by phone. “It’s their story, their story completely. You don’t walk out of ‘Stand by Me’ and think, ‘Oh man, one of those kids is really good.’ They are all good. They are great. I think that’s really important in a movie like this as an audience member to think, ‘OK, which one do I relate to?’”

Vogt-Roberts, a commercial and television director who previously scored at Sundance with his 2010 short “Successful Alcoholics,” was adamant that his actors in “Kings of Summer” would not be twentysomethings but actual teenagers who could intimately relate to the challenges of adolescence. Still, the director was conflicted about casting children.

“There is a very real part of me that doesn’t believes that children acting is an ethical thing,” he said with a laugh. “Legitimately I can’t process in my brain how are you able to do that and also grow up and go through the things that make someone who they are. Which is what this movie is about.”

Robinson grew up doing community theater in Seattle and moved to Los Angeles when he was 14 to begin his career with ABC Family. He says he has treated his fledgling acting career as a passionate hobby, not as an aspirational lifestyle. Most of his friends are non-actors and his routine, he says, consists mostly of school and acting — work that he says finally fueled him with a passion other kids found through activities like sports.

“I never felt a passion for something before so it was very cool to experience that for the first time,” said Robinson. “You get nervous and excited — it’s a very cool feeling. I always describe it to my mom as that fire in your belly.”

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The “Kings of Summer” shoot, which took place over 25 days in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, reminded him of camping with friends and his large family (he has six siblings) in Washington. “This shoot was about childhood — it was about being a kid,” said Robinson, who will graduate from high school next week. “I got to go play in the woods. Be with friends. It kind of felt like summer camp — summer camp with very, very long hours, and a camera following you around.”

Robinson has been admitted to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and plans to pursue a major of history, psychology and literature. First though, he will take a year off to fulfill his agreement to ABC Family. (The successful comedy just got picked up for its fourth season.)

Both Vogt-Roberts and TV costar Hart are hopeful the actor won’t let his career get in the way of his education.

“He wants desperately to go to school and I’m trying to help guide him through that. Do you go for the jobs, the money and the career or do you go to college, which is an experience unto itself even if it doesn’t further your career?” asks Hart, who was in a similar situation during her college years; she herself attended NYU sporadically but never graduated.

“I always think, especially in this industry, you need to have a backup plan but it’s going to be tough for him in the next few years to figure out whether he takes off four years of his career when it’s just revving up,” she said. “I think if you put off school, you never go back.”

Robinson seems to be getting the message. “Right now my whole lived experience has been acting. It’s taken up all my time, which I love, but I want to experience other stuff,” he says. “A worldly actor is a better actor. It sounds pretentious, but I think having these experiences can translate back into your work.”


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