At 13 years old, Jaeden Lieberher is far more dapper than I will ever hope to be. When I met him for a recent interview, he bore a sports coat and slacks that could make a Calvin Klein model envious. He answers questions in a measured, thoughtful way that carries little of the "aw, shucks" precociousness expected of too many child actors. You can have a conversation with Lieberher, and a rather intelligent one at that.
For his latest, Lieberher stars in "Midnight Special," playing Alton, an 8-year-old whose supernatural powers attract a cult that thinks he's their spiritual beacon and a government agency that thinks he's a threat. Along with father-son dramedy "The Confirmation," it's one of two movies that find Lieberher returning to the big screen this weekend. (What have you done with your life?) He broke out as Melissa McCarthy's charming son in 2014's "St. Vincent," had a seven-episode arc on "Masters of Sex" last year, and in "Midnight Special," he shares the screen with Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton. How this kid keeps his cool is beyond me, especially when your co-star is the one and only Kylo Ren.
How was "Midnight Special" first described to you? The movie is pretty open to interpretation.
Well, I read the script and I tried to understand it by myself. But I think what [director Jeff Nichols] wanted to do was let me be, in a way, and see how I understood it and how I reacted to it, I guess. I also think I wasn’t supposed to have the best understanding of the film because in the beginning Alton doesn’t exactly know what’s going to happen. No characters really do understand it. I really didn’t fully understand the movie and what was going to happen because in the script, when reading it, it’s much harder to imagine than when actually seeing it.
When you first saw the movie, did your idea of the visuals and the way the story unfolds surprise you?
Yes, it did surprise me. I would say I actually learned a lot about the movie and what it was about after seeing it. And doing these interviews, the questions that people ask, and hearing Jeff’s answers, I learned a lot about the movie. It did surprise me when I saw the different elements that they put in with the CGI. I didn’t expect it to be like that. I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to ruin it, but it was very interesting to see it.
What would you do if you didn't like a script? Are you in a position to turn something down?
[Laughs] Um, yes. Obviously this wasn’t the case because I really loved the script, but yeah, if I didn’t really like the script I guess I wouldn’t go for it. Usually when that happens, there’s other people to say no. My agents always read it first, so I’ve never experienced saying no. I think when I’m older, I’ll have more of that. Of course I have a say in things, but I’ll maybe read it first and have more of a say.
So do you tell your agents the types of movies you’re looking for?
No, not really. I don’t tell myself what I’m looking for because I don’t want to only do a specific type of movie. All the movies I’ve done are pretty different. That’s what I enjoy. I enjoy doing different films and playing different kinds of people, so I definitely don’t want to stick to something. I wouldn’t tell them that I can only do one thing.
How familiar were you with the “Midnight Special” cast when you signed on?
I knew Michael Shannon from “Man of Steel.” I’m not saying I watched it, but I knew him in “Boardwalk Empire” and other things he’s done. I knew Kirsten and Joel from different things, and they’re all amazing actors.
Are you a “Star Wars” fan?
I am. Adam!
Right! When you were making “Midnight Special,” did you know Adam was going to be in the new “Star Wars”?
Actually, during filming, it was in between scenes that I found out he was rumored to be in it. And then the next scene that I did with him I talked to him about it, but he was being very secretive. He was like, “I cannot talk about it right now.” He was very classified. But it was just rumored then.
At what point did you know for sure?
Well, I think I got a vibe that I was pretty sure he was going to be in it. But for a long time I didn’t. After I shot it, I didn’t know who he was going to play. But in the advertisements, Kylo Ren was everywhere, so I was wondering if that was going to be Adam. But maybe not; I didn’t know who he was going to be until it was released that he was going to play Kylo Ren.
Adam seems like a nice guy, so was it weird to have spent time with him and then see him as Darth Vader’s grandson?
Yeah, it was very interesting because he’s such a nice person. I had a lot of fun. I got along with him. It was interesting seeing him as this guy in “Star Wars,” but he was so big in it and people loved him so much in it. So did I. He was really good in it, and of course I love “Star Wars.” It’s wild because he was doing this movie and then he was in “Star Wars,” the biggest movie ever. Now he’s huge.
Yeah, he hosted “SNL” and everything.
Yeah! It’s crazy.
Is it weird to go see a movie now and think, “Oh, that’s my friend!”
Um, I don’t really know how to feel about it because when I see a movie sometimes I don’t even think about it that I know that person. I mean, they're completely different. But some movies, their character is so different than their personality. Like, Adam is this lighthearted, funny person, but then in “Star Wars,” he’s super dark and mysterious. So I don’t really think about it at all, but I definitely just think of them as friends and just people I know when I see them. When I watch them in a movie, I just think about them as that character.
Your first movie was with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. It doesn't get much better than that. What do you think you’ll take with you from “Midnight Special”?
Well, like when I said I didn’t know what the movie was about until I watched it afterward and got a better understanding of it, I also got a better understanding of hearing everybody’s answers during interviews. Kirsten made me feel better about being a child actor and got me a little more excited because she talked about how, as a child actor, she at first didn’t feel like she was doing it for herself. She felt like she was doing it to please the director. That surprised me because it just made me feel better about the future and what I’m going to be doing. Because I want to keep acting and obviously she’s been acting, and she stayed an actor and is amazing and very successful. It made me more optimistic about the future.
You and Jacob Tremblay are starring in "The Book of Henry" together. What did you make of all awards success with "Room"?
It’s great. It’s crazy. That was right before he was getting the nominations and all of that. It’s so interesting because he’s just a normal, crazy kid. He’s just young and now so much has happened to him. All these people. He’s grown, I guess.
Did you talk to him about what it was like to go through that experience?
No, not really. He’s the type of kid who doesn’t talk about it. I was his older brother in the movie, so we had to be close and we became closer with each other. I felt happy for him because he’s just a normal, funny kid, almost my little brother. It’s just awesome to see how successful he’s become.
"Midnight Special" is now open in limited release.