Actor and artist Booboo Stewart Zooms in from his art studio in Los Angeles and I from my living room in London. Dressed in a paint-stained, crisp shirt, it looks as if he peeled himself off a canvas. As we chat about the upsides to this year, my eyes drift to the colourful paintings in the background that generate spectacle on the neutral base of his studio walls. A whirlwind of words and imagery voiced in rich colours using a mismatch of tools; Booboo’s style of painting feels both random and planned in its execution. “I put it out there exactly as it feels,” he says. In contrast to his soft person, his art is loud and bold.
Considering happiness, Booboo concludes that it’s all in the details. He confesses to reading the small print, taking notice of the pieces that make up a whole. This awareness transcends into his work; he takes great care in plotting characters’ details before imitating life through their eyes. From real-life character Kyle Aviak in The Grizzlies to the one-band man Peter Dragswolf in Let Him Go, Booboo puts his everything into the craft. For him, every character is a journey to uncover; a vacant cliff that surveys the tide’s rise and fall; a mountain that no man yet trekked; an unspoiled forest so thick you lose sight of day and night.
During our encounters with Booboo Stewart, we were able to connect with him in personal spaces. I stepped into his art studio virtually. Photographer Elizabeth Weinberg and her team ventured to Booboo’s family ranch, where she captured him playfully scavenging the land, reliving childlike obsessions and games. Stylist Fernando Pichardo made new introductions. After downtown rubbed shoulders with country, a modern cowboy ensued.
Booboo Stewart stars opposite Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in Let Him Go, which premiers 11th December in UK cinemas.
Reflecting on the past year, have you had any positive experiences?
I think many positive things have come out of this year, for me. I've spent a lot more time with my family, which was really great. On Sundays, my family and I started having dinners together. I was supposed to be out of the country for a good portion of the year, but that obviously didn’t happen. There was a bit of a lull at the start of it all, particularly in terms of inspiration, just because I didn't really know what to do. I couldn't come into my studio, so I was forced to paint in my apartment. But fairly quickly, it turned around. I thought, 'alright, let's just create stuff' because that's my favourite thing to do. This year I was supposed to be off filming and since I wasn’t able to do that, I spent a lot more time painting. My girlfriend also taught me how to make music, so I’ve been making music.
2020 was almost like a forced vacation. There were downsides to this year, but if you just focus on those aspects, the year will be gone. While everybody else is sitting around… Yes, I was like that in the beginning, but you can't just sit there and be sad. You have to push forward. The way I dealt with frustrations was by creating. I love making things. That's what I like to do, so I went back to that.
What kind of music have you been exploring?
Pop. I really like pop music, sort of an easy-listening kind of pop sound. I played my music for one of my buddies here the other day and he called it "bedroom pop". It's something you can put on in your room while you're cleaning or something and dance around a little bit because it's funky. When I listen to music, I love good melodies that are really catchy. I love, love, love funk and disco music because the melodies and the undertones of that style are thick and groovy. My music is the bedroom pop of today with the groove of the 70s.
I think your style of painting is really cool, and love how you're using so many different tools, like acrylic paint, markers, crayon, and so on. Can you tell me a bit about the journey you've had with your art and how you landed on this particular expression?
I grew up on set with my dad - he is an actor. If you're not working, it can be very boring on set because everybody's busy and you're just sitting there. You can't make any noise or move around. I always had paper and pencils on hand and would draw all day long. In between times on set, we would sell my mum's art at craft shows. I'd always get clay from the other vendors and make things from it. I drew all throughout school and got it trouble for it. After finishing homework, I would turn all the numbers into monsters and stuff like that. I've loved drawing my whole life, and last year, I really got into art. I was looking for something other than acting to supplement my creativity. When you’re an actor, you’re not on set all the time. You're in it a 100% for a few months and then there might be months of literally auditioning and not getting anything. Suddenly, you get work and you're back in. To jump in and out is really tough, so art came along.
People are unreliable, so I wanted to make things myself, without needing anybody else. First, I got into stop motion. Eventually, as I started to take it more seriously - not just doodling - I got a space to do it in. I used to only draw in black, which is so weird to think back on because all my stuff now is extremely colourful. I only started painting in colour last year, but now I don't paint anything in black anymore, which is probably a good thing. I think the black became limiting because there's only so much expression to derive from black, at least for me, that is. Colour always scared me because I'm not someone who can paint a perfect sunset or a perfect portrait. I never went to school so I don't know how to do it. Maybe if I practice I could, but I don't know. I decided to just do whatever I want with the colour, and that's sort of how I ended up where I am now. I take it straight from my brain to the canvas without trying to overanalyse. I put it out there exactly as it feels. It is what it is.
It’s very healthy for me, too, because I'm someone who, if something's not right, will do it over and over again until I feel it's perfect. With painting, there's something so great about the times when I mess up, unless it's a pretty big mess up and I need to fix it. But for the most part, when I mess up, I'm like, 'alright, leave it, it's supposed to be like that’. Today, I messed up and have to fix it, but, for the most part, I try to use it as an exercise for my mind.
What do you hope to convey through your art?
I think it's going to be different for the viewer. For me, I have a list of notes on my phone and come up with a lot of titles that are usually a series of sentences. My painting feels like a healing process as I definitely grew up as someone who would not talk about anything and kept it all shut until I got really angry. I'd get almost physically mad, but not even then would I talk about it. Painting is a great outlet for all the thoughts I have going on. I just form them into weird little sayings, sentences, or images. Ultimately, it's up to the person who's looking at my work to decide what it’s about for them because I wouldn't want to force my idea of it on them.
Do you have any artistic influences?
The person whose art I saw that really inspired me in the sense of 'I can do this' was Danny Minnick. He's a huge one. Basquiat, of course. He's so great. Every time I see his work, I just think, 'this is next level'. Robert Rauschenberg has a lot of different styles, but he did this thing called the 'Combines' where he walked around New York finding things on the street and then put them together to create a piece of art. I love that freedom of 'you can do anything'. It's such a great training ground for the thought process of just doing it. You want to make a painting? Get paint, a canvas and put the paint on the canvas. Don't think about it, just make something. It turns out however it turns out.
Julie and The Phantoms released on Netflix in September and was received really well. We don't know yet if there'll be a season two, but I was reading that you’d love to see more of Willie and Alex's connection. How do you hope that relationship will develop in a second season?
I really hope it develops into an actual relationship, but it's going to be really sticky because of the whole scenario with Caleb and how Willie works for him. I would also like to see Willie’s relationship with Caleb develop too and to learn more about why they are the way they are. Why does Caleb have this control over Willie? If you develop that relationship further, and you develop Willie and Alex's relationship further, then it creates so many obstacles to conquer. I think that would be really fun. Learning more about the past of Caleb and Willie, and then diving further into Willie’s future with Alex. There's so much tension there in the centre.
What was it like playing a ghost?
It's really interesting when you take something fantasy and make it real to you because you easily forget that you are a ghost. Everyone's intention was to make this as grounded as possible, so I didn’t try to make it a ghost character, but at the same time I had to remember that I was playing a ghost because there are certain things that Willie does and laws of the world that he has to live by. It was actually kind of complicated sometimes.
You've worked with Kenny Ortega on many projects now. What's it like working with him?
It's kind of crazy. We met on the street like 10 years ago. I was walking down the street with my dad, and he stopped to talk with us. Then years later - this was right after I did Twilight - I was brought in to audition for Descendants. And he was like, “Yeah, I remember”. It's crazy because I didn't think he'd remember. From there, we just developed a great relationship and a great friendship. Julie and the Phantoms is our fourth project together, and yeah, I want to have a lifetime of working together. I have learned a lot from working with him, and we have a very good rapport with each other. He could just say a few words and I immediately know what he wants. It's really nice working with someone you really understand. I respect him and he inspires me. I show up every day wanting to make him proud.
In December, Let Him Go is coming out in cinemas. What can you tell me about the film and your role, Peter Dragswolf?
It's a slow burn period piece that I believe is set in the 60s. I got to work with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who I learned so much from. It's a movie about these grandparents who set off to essentially rescue their grandson from this crazy, horrible family. Peter Dragswolf, the character I play, is someone they meet along the way, whom helps guide them to where their grandson might be. My character is a residential school survivor. Way, way back in the day, people took young native kids from their families and put them in these schools to try to force religion on them. They would cut their hair and wouldn't let them speak their native language. There was a lot of punishment and abuse that went on in these schools. I don't want to speak for every resident, but pretty much every story that I've heard has not been good.
Peter is a residential school survivor who escaped. He lives by himself on the land in this little shack with his horse. He's this one-man band out there. Somehow the grandparents run into him and he helps find their grandson. A crazy character to play that required a lot of hard research. I really enjoy learning about other people's lives and getting to experience life through the eyes of the character or spirit of the person I am embodying. In my choice of movies, I always ask myself, 'is this going to give me an experience that I want?'. I'm looking for some kind of journey that enhances my life. In the big picture, what can I learn from doing this? What kind of memories will I take away from this?
You also have Paradise City in post-production, which is a spin off of American Satan.
Yeah, that's a spin off of American Satan, which is about a rock band that makes a deal with the devil. The story is done in a modern way with great, real-life rock stars, which is so cool. People that I listened to growing up. But yeah, we got to get back on it and made a TV show. I had a blast hanging out with those guys again. Every time they come to town, we hang out.
I also just had a movie called The Grizzlies come out. It's a true story based on this small town called Kugluktuk in the Canadian Arctic where they have the highest suicide rate per capita in all of Northern America. It's a tiny town of like 1500 people. A teacher was sent up there on a program and saw what was happening to the kids in the school. The suicide rate was so high. He taught them lacrosse and it totally changed the whole entire town to this day. They have a full sports program now and everything. It's a really powerful movie and something I'm really, really proud to speak about any chance I get.
Can you tell me about your role in The Grizzlies?
I play a real person, who is an adult now. His name is Kyle Aviak. He was a student at the school who dealt with a lot of issues with his dad - a lot of violence. He dealt with homelessness and just so much pressure. I feel like he was someone who just tried to escape so deeply, trying to almost be invisible in a sense. While we were filming, he was there. We would hang out. It was very interesting playing him when he was younger versus seeing the person that he is now. He's strong and so powerful now.
We've spoken at length about your art and your acting, so I wanted to ask the most basic philosophical question there is. Who are you?
I'm someone who constantly overthinks things, which in turn, makes me dive deeper into why I do that. I'm someone who constantly tries to get better. I feel like I'm constantly changing. I'm someone who likes to create. I’m someone who feels the need to create. I’m someone who tries to be the best. I push myself really hard, but I try to convince myself not to push so hard sometimes because it's not healthy.
What makes you happy?
Simple things make me really happy. When the light shines through my windows and it catches me off guard. When I notice that a breeze feels really nice or that a setting is really beautiful or when I look down at my food and I'm just really thankful for the food. When something out of nowhere, like a day-to-day thing, feels really special and right, that makes me happy.
Where in the world do you feel most at peace?
I honestly feel very at peace when hiking. Yesterday, I hiked up this hillside by myself super early in the morning and just sat there reading and looking out. When I’m hiking, I run through all my thoughts as they pass. Some get stuck for a bit. Some just pass. I think about the sound of my shoes crunching the dirt. The sun rising. Everything is in tune.
What’s your dream?
To climb Mount Everest. Even if I don't make it, I can at least say, 'I got there and I started the hike'. My other dream is to do what I'm doing now, but - I hate to even use the word - on a bigger scale. I love everything that I'm doing. The movies I’ve worked on are coming out and I'm so proud of those. I love painting. I love being physically active. I want to do it all on a larger stage. I don't want to make everything else that I've done seem like it doesn't matter, but what I mean is that I want to keep growing from where I am. I want to do more of the things I love.