The most incredible benchmark for SXSW, in any facet, must surely be that, in 2018, a major movie studio brought a world premiere to the Paramount Theater. In essence, the story was coming home, as the author of the film’s inspiration, Ernest Cline, has adopted Austin as his city. So, although it was rumored, it was still an inconceivable surprise when “Ready Player One” was announced as the secret film – a ‘TBA’ at a marquee time and premiere location – to be shown at SXSW Film. This film – hotly anticipated by fans who are nostalgic for the 1980s, for fans of science fiction, and for fans of Steven Spielberg – was an impossible get for the festival, and firmly places SXSW on the same playing field as Cannes, for the first time in its already storied history.
Texas Lifestyle Magazine was fortunate enough to grab a few moments with some of the stars of this blockbuster film, to talk over a few things nerdy, a few things personal, and more than a few things nostalgia. But, not to be outdone in ‘firsts,’ Philip Zhao, whose role in “Ready Player One” grants him plenty of screen time in his first film outing, was on a red carpet for the first time in his life, after starring in his first film role. The weight of the moment and the attention was not lost on the young actor.
“I want to do it again!” the exuberant actor exclaimed, once he’d reached the end of the red carpet. He then ran back to the beginning of the carpet, then occupied by screenwriter Zak Penn, and proceeded to photobomb more than a few celebrity appearances. His excitement was too infectious for any of the A-listers to fault him for, so all took it in good fun. It’s a roller-coaster ride for a young man who, when his father let him know that he’d won a role in a huge-budget film directed by Steven Spielberg, asked, “How much money will I make?” to a surprised father. On a star-studded night, Zhao showed all the nonchalance and humor that youth can and should bring to a film of this nature. Despite all of the pressure on a film of this magnitude, he inspired his co-stars to have as much fun as he clearly was.
“Win [Morisaki, Zhao’s co-star] is so much better at FIFA than I am,” Zhao confesses. “We had this Xbox one in his trailer and we will play FIFA and madden every. I beat him in Madden, but he beat me at FIFA.”
Morisaki, who is no stranger to stardom, having fronted a boy band in Japan, not only indulged Zhao’s red carpet enthusiasm, he embraced it himself. But, even as he was walking through flash flares and questions galore, he did admit that it wasn’t the only place he wanted to be while at SXSW 2018.
“I would play here,” he explains. He’s not talking about games like the ones in the film or in the trailer on set. He’s talking about stages. Because, from those days in front of the J-pop crowds to now, everything has been a whirlwind.
“I did the audition in Japan,” Morisaki recalls, “and then I got a call back. It was in 2015 and I got a call back and when I did it, it took me to L.A. I met Steven [Spielberg] at that time and uh, yeah, I was so nervous. I don’t, I don’t remember anything, myself.”
The star-stricken nature of the experience perhaps didn’t end there, but it paused. “I waited for a month,” he exclaims, before admitting, “And then my manager called me.”
It was a call that would eclipse a myriad of memories and is enough to give anyone tunnel vision, even during SXSW. But Lena Waithe, whose star was blindingly on the rise at SXSW thanks to star turns in both “Ready Player One” and “The Chi,” was not so singularly focused. When asked if she had any plans outside of appearances for SXSW 2018, the impossibly cool Waithe responded, “Ah, well, I mean, who’s playing? Is he [points to ‘3’ hat that represents rap superstar, Chance the Rapper] here?”
She’s excited by all of the world that has come to her doorstep, in this moment; and then she remembers that she’d have known, asking, “Would you say he was here? He’d have texted me.” It’s a fantastic view into the casually cool world of Chicago superstardom, of which Waithe is a proud and worthy member.
But SXSW is not the ideal environment for the relaxed confidence Waithe shows. And the red carpet of a film isn’t conducive to a relaxed air. After all, this is a world premiere of a movie that has been years in the making. With both a science fiction and literary fan base, the material has the potential to be polarizing to a very vocal fan base. Nevertheless, screenwriter Zak Penn shows that, so far as this crew is concerned, attitude may well reflect leadership.
“I’m not nervous because I’ve worked in the X-men universe where I changed someone’s hair color and people wanted to shoot me,” the “Ready Player One” screenwriter explains, “so I feel like it’s probably not going to be as bad, but I also feel like I have the author, Ernie [Ernest Cline], on my side. I mean, he’s the one who’s been aware of everything that we’ve been doing, signing off on it and we run stuff by him. So I’m a lot less nervous.”
Even still, he won’t put a crazy response past the audience. “You know, there’s some people who literally wouldn’t be happy unless someone read the book on screen,” he conjectures. “We dealt with others and comics (fan bases) to where it’d be like, ‘would you prefer that we just filmed a comic book and its pages opening?'”
A valid question, but even the prospect of a critical response cannot ruin this event for the main star of “Ready Player One.” Tye Sheridan is no stranger to SXSW or Austin, having made a handful of films that had a direct Austin or SXSW tie. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” was his first film, shot in the Central Texas area, while “Mud,” his second film, saw a co-starring role with notable Austinite, Matthew McConaughey, along with the red carpet treatment at its SXSW showing. “Last Days in the Desert,” a 2015 release starring Ewan McGregor, also featured Mr. Sheridan and saw a premiere at the Austin Film Festival. Needless to say, Tye Sheridan is familiar with Austin, and was happy to share his excitement when asked if he felt like a veteran, because he’s done this ‘red carpet at the Paramount’ thing a few times.
“Not like this,” the star humbly explains. “It’s so special for me to be here with this movie. My whole family’s here – my parents and the grandparents are here; and because my cousins and my little sister are here, it’s awesome.”
All in all, it’s a humbled and excited red carpet, full of talented actors who poured sweat and pride into their work, and are at the end of one adventurous journey, but also the beginning of the next. It’s a lot like the film’s plot boasts and a lot more like SXSW’s arrival on the world film premiere stage – fun, exciting, challenging and a sign of all the possibilities to come.