For Philly native Jaeden Lieberher, working on a movie about chronic bullying, grisly child murders, and a homicidal clown was definitely the best experience of his professional life.
Lieberher is the 14-year-old star of It, adapted from Stephen King’s horror novel featuring all the above ingredients, but also a big cast of actors in his age group, and that was the fun part.
“I had such a good time. It’s the first movie I did with a bunch of kids my age, and we all got along right away. I remember thinking, like on the second day, that I felt like I’d known them forever. And the whole shoot was really like summer camp. Almost everyday you spend outside, and we had dinner together every night, and every night was a sleepover,” said Lieberher, who spent the first seven years of his life in Philadelphia — he attended Independence Charter School — before moving to Los Angeles.
It was there he shot a commercial that led to an acting career that’s been going strong since he starred with Bill Murray in St. Vincent. He shot Midnight Special with Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Adam Driver, and The Confirmation with Clive Owen and Norristown’s Maria Bello.
Things are different with It, in theaters Friday. Lieberher plays the ringleader of a group of Maine children – misfits and outcasts – who band together to research the mystery of the town’s deadly curse, and to confront the evil clown at the center of it. The script called for the young cast (Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor) to do what young teens and preteens normally do — ride their bikes, swim in the lake, wade through creeks, and explore the countryside.
“The first few months of shooting, it was like there was no acting involved. They were really just shooting our experiences, and we were just having a great time, and I think that shows on camera,” Lieberher said, although the vintage bikes (a lot of banana seats and sissy bars) were hard to manage. “There were actually a lot of accidents. And my bike was the heaviest. It weighed a ton.”
The role calls for his character to stutter, which presented the young actor with one of his first real technical challenges.
“I watched a million YouTube videos of people stuttering, and took tutorials on how to do it and be authentic. You don’t want to have to think about it, you want it to be automatic, so it’s just part of your character,” he said. “I got so used to it that it started popping up when I was reading for other movies.”
I asked Lieberher how he’s managed to develop such a good eye for scripts. He ascribed it to his mom, and to luck.
“She usually reads them first, then I read them. I think I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “I’ve been able to work with some great directors and great actors, and when you work with people like that, it’s always a positive learning experience.”
He mentioned Kirsten Dunst, his costar in Midnight Special, who talked to him about starting out as a child actor.
“For me to know that she started so young and to see how well she’s doing now, that really motivates me,” he said.
Lieberher is growing as actor, and just plain growing. He’s shot up to 5 feet, 6 inches, and has taken on a more angular look.
He’s also taken on age-appropriate challenges — he has his first screen kiss, with adorable redhead Lillis.
“It was OK. I mean, it was good. Like, I’m good friends with Sophia, so I wasn’t thinking of it that way exactly. But you do what you got to do.”