Last year, Liam James won the lottery. Out of an improbable amount of hopeful adolescent boys, James was picked as the lead for The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s debut feature. A summer vacation spent working alongside Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph, and Toni Collette followed. And now, the 16 year-old actor has ascended to the enviable social status that allows him to call Sam Rockwell a friend. Though conscious of his good fortune, James was neither snobbish nor obnoxious, as this writer would have undoubtedly been, after spending a month working at a Cape Cod water park with the latter. Instead, he was a sweet and true 16 year old—taking our half-joking questions seriously in his thin red tie and button down. Read on for more on James’ lucky turn and having to play the awkwardly stooped teenager in a sea of comedy greats.
I have to say, after watching this movie, I’m a bit envious of your experience. Have you been hearing that a lot?
No. You’re the first person who’s actually said that, but I’ve definitely made a point to say that people should be jealous. I was working and I had a summer vacation that was probably better than a lot of people’s. It was the funniest people on earth all coming together and I got to watch it.
And you had Sam Rockwell acting as a father figure—
Yeah. He’s a great friend and a great guy.
What secrets can you tell me about him?
He likes Diet Pepsi, not regular Pepsi. I think he’s a little self-conscious about his weight. I’m just kidding, but he does like Diet Pepsi. And he’s a boxer as well, very technical. He doesn’t boxe, per se, but he loves to practice it.
Did he teach you any of his dance moves?
Not particularly, because, in the movie, I’m not allowed to have dance moves as a good as his, not that any of mine were, because those were all my best moves. But watching him, especially in the party scene that we had together, I was like, “Oh my god.”
What was the audition like for the film?
Well, I put it on tape at first, because I live in Vancouver and after that they asked me to come down and come see them in Los Angeles. It was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had in audition because we were just laughing and having a good time in between takes and then they asked me to come back 45 minutes later and read with Toni Collette, so I was like, [slightly hyperventilating] “Okay, I can do that for you guys.” They gave me some new material and I quickly learned it and I came back in, and Toni was so sweet. Then I said goodbye and they called me about a week later and told me I’d gotten it.
How did it feel making a movie that really showcased your teenage awkwardness?
For me, I thought it was almost a little bit funny that I was playing this character, because off-screen, I was having a blast. In the scenes that Duncan had to be upbeat and happier, I could really let that show through, because I was having such a great time, but other than that, I had to play quite sullen. That’s the funny thing about it—there’s all these big scenes where you have all these amazing actors doing these funny bits and then you have me as that contrast.
Tell me about Nat and Jim’s directing style.
Their style, I don’t know how to describe it. We talked a lot before we started shooting and we read through the script and me, Nat, Jim and Sam would sit down and discuss it more. On set, I would go over to them and I’d let them make jokes in front of me, even though they were probably stressed out. I’d be like, “No, you guys are here to entertain!” I had an amazing time with them. They really got it right, I think.
I know there was hazing in the movie, was there any hazing on set?
There were jokes, not at my expense, but Nat would make fun of me and we’d poke fun at each other, but nobody was calling me a 3 or trying to break me down on set. It was definitely an uplifting mood the whole time.
Who was the funniest person on set?
Honestly, they were all so funny, and especially everyone who had an improv background, but Sam as well is such a funny guy and so is Toni, even though they’re not the ones with improv backgrounds. They definitely had different style jokes, but I can’t—Sam really made me laugh a lot, but that’s not to say that Rob Corddry and Nat and Jim didn’t. Sam just liked to make jokes.
So you’re 17?
I’ll be 17 in a month yes.
Wow. So you’re just 16?
Yeah. I was 15 when we filmed this.
And you were on The Killing for two years before that. You’ve had a decently long career for teen actor. Are you happy with where you’re at?
I’m very happy. The Way, Way Back was a great part to get, but so far, I’ve been working with lots of kind people. I’ve never had a bad experience on set. And the TV shows were just as fun as the movies. I’ve made a lot of great friends over the course of my acting career and I’ve never really wanted to turn away from it. I think I’ve had a good time so far.
When did you start acting?
I was about 10 years old when I started doing some extra work. I loved that atmosphere on set, so I started auditioning and I got Psych almost right after that.
Do you still go to school?
Yeah. I’m in public school there. I just finished the 11th grade.
How do you figure that out?
I’ve been pretty lucky, all the stuff I’ve done was once ever 10 days and The Killing was once ever 2 weeks or so. In 2012, when I did that, I had a tutor on set and that was fine. But I was very happy for The Way, Way Back to be filmed in the summer, because we were on such a tight schedule and there’s so much going on, I don’t think there would have been anyway I’d be able to figure that out with a teacher on set.
What’s up next?
I’m going to be enjoying my summer vacation. I just got off school, so I’m going to keep auditioning and hopefully whatever happens happens.
The Way Way Back premieres July 5. See its trailer below.