GREATEST / Nico Hiraga
The San Francisco skater turned professional actor turned accidental influencer can’t help but be himself.
As a young star navigating Hollywood for the first time, the value of an industry confidante can’t be overstated. In the case of Nico Hiraga—whose affable, quintessentially Cali vibe has earned him acclaim in films like Booksmart and North Hollywood—that mentor came in the form of storied casting director Carmen Cuba.
Cuba’s credits range from Larry Clark’s gritty Bully to Magic Mike and Stranger Things. With a slew of bona fides like these, suffice to say, Cuba knows talent; she was wowed by Hiraga’s unmannered dynamism from their first encounter at an audition and struck up a fierce friendship over the course of quarantine. Cuba recently caught up with the rising star for a candid conversation for GREATEST.
“When I cast someone young, especially someone who doesn’t necessarily come from a traditional acting background, I feel a unique responsibility and so I make myself available to them if they need any help along the way. Nico connected with that and we soon built our friendship over time (and FaceTime during quarantine) and we just wound up feeling like family somehow; he helps me to see the comedy in what my own teenage sons are doing and will be doing when they’re his age and I help guide him through what he’s experiencing in the present.
Nico and I officially met when he auditioned for a role in a series I was casting [The Power] but I had known about him for years prior, thanks to my then-preteen skateboarding sons. They didn’t articulate what specifically drew them to him, but I understood it almost as soon as he walked into my office—he’s got the most unique ability to be himself in any situation and he’s ridiculously confident at the same time that he is internal and sensitive. As an actor, especially one who is newer to acting, being all these things while inhabiting a role is something that some people never achieve. Nico’s future is bright, not just because he’s talented, but because of the access he has to his own personhood.”
— Carmen Cuba
People are very drawn to you in a room, which translates on-screen. What role has confidence played in your life?
My brother Robert says I told him when we were younger, “Dude, you just got to be confident and be yourself and things will fall into place.”
When I go to an audition, or a skate competition, or if I'm at a fucking formal dinner, I'm completely and utterly myself. Some people absolutely love it, and some absolutely hate it. I've learned that over time. Some people despise me because I'm loud, outgoing, a potty mouth, a California native skate rat. But other people absolutely adore it. Like Amy Poehler—who would expect that?
Would you rather go about your life acting a certain way to fulfill a social norm or be happy with who you are even if some people aren't? If I'm not getting hate from some people, then I must be doing something wrong.
What I love about you is that you do the work, learning how to tolerate not everyone loving you.
[This happened for me] over time, because I'm sensitive and emotional. It does sting a little bit, but shit, I'm not going to change myself so that someone can like me more. I'm not going to be formal and dressed in a button-down when I’d rather have my shirt off.
Does your confidence ever feel like a burden?
I think my confidence is draining. I grew up being the outgoing and athletic kid who's a prankster, and I didn't get the best grades. I always had the ability to make people laugh and smile, which always was my goal, but as I got older I started getting exhausted by feeling like, if someone's having a bad day, it’s up to me to cheer them up. I realize now that it's okay to step back.
Skating plays a big part in your mental health, right?
Absolutely. If I'm angry, I'll go skate and bomb a hill as fast as I can. That's my drug. If I'm super happy or anxious as fuck, I'll do the same. If I'm sad and I'm torn to pieces with a broken heart, I'll do the same. I won't cower in bed with the sheets over my head, unless I'm fucking hungover.
There have been times when I couldn’t skate, and it felt like my favorite toy was taken away from me. I feel super lost whenever I can't skate.
You pull off wearing lots of unexpected things, and they always look authentically you. How do you think about clothes and jewelry?
I love this question because style's always been important to me, but seeing me you would think, "Oh, this guy doesn't give a fuck about how he dresses." I have to feel really good in what I'm wearing. If I don't feel good, it's not going to look great.
In middle school, I was the kid who wore baggy pants with boxers hanging out at the back, shorts down to the shins with the high-top Converse, backwards hat tilted to the side and bleached hair. The moms at school were telling their kids, "Stay the fuck away from Nico. That kid is not the homie." And I remember my mom telling me, "You know what, Neeks? Just keep being yourself. You show up to the fucking debutante [ball] wearing whatever the hell you want."
What did you learn from your parents? What was their style like?
They saw who I was from the jump and were like, "Go for it."
My mom's a hippie and my pop's a strict Japanese man. It's the weirdest couple, but it matches up really well and makes us a solid family. Their style of clothing, their style of parenting—I couldn't have asked for anything better.
I can't imagine you growing up in a family that made you follow anything traditional.
Knowing me, I probably still would've tested the boundaries and broke free to be my own self.
Speaking of cultural identity, we're both biracial, but I think that your relationship to that identity is different from mine, because I'm a different generation than you.
I love being biracial and a person of color. I take a lot of pride in it. My family originates from all over the world, from Europe to Asia. There are people out there that'll frown upon just the way you look, and that in itself just makes me want to puff my chest out more.
What goes through your mind before a film or TV shoot?
I know people at skate competitions that get hammered the night before and go in and kill it. I don't really get too nervous. If I had to do a sex scene, I don't think I would be nervous at all. But if I had a scene with lots of big words, I would be trembling.
My physicality in a film is easier than memorizing the lines and putting them out the way the director wants them. If it's a more physical scene that I have to shoot, I could go to bed thinking about skateboarding the night before. If it's a monologue, then dude, I'm going to be up until like the early morning getting distracted for a really long time trying to get these lines down.
What did you learn about yourself in the last year that surprised you?
I learned that I'm incredibly emotional and loving. That it's okay to not always be the happy person that people see you as. I learned that I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was. That's the big one; both mentally and physically. Parts of this past year tested that in the most brutal ways and I'm still here to tell the tale.
What's your relationship to social media like?
I only have Instagram. I try not to be on it that much and I'm garbage at it. I can tell my mom how to use it if she has questions, but I'm not on social media a lot.
Even if you're not on it, your name comes up, I assume. How does that make you feel?
It freaks me out because I don't care about fame or anything like that. I'm trying to just go about my life at a steady pace and get to where I want to be. But with that comes side effects. It's weird, it takes getting used to. If a fan comes up and takes a picture, I won't shoo them away. I'll take a photo with you. I'm not really sure why—I'm just some fucking little skater dude from SF.
You openly show so much love to your friends. Is there someone in your life who you saw loving people in this way who you then modeled yourself after or is it something that just comes naturally?
I was always such a lover growing up, emotionally and physically. I was also a scrappy little fighter, too. That's my mom in me.
I grew up around a lot of different types of people, like the LGBTQ community. I realized at a young age that you just are. You're just existing, everyone's just existing. You only live once—right now—so it's like, fucking might as well be yourself and who you are. I'm still going to show you the equal amount of love that you deserve and that you show me.