Rehashing the angst felt during your teenage years on screen is no joke. Just ask Chase Sui Wonders, who, on HBO Max’s Genera+ion, plays the confident, cool Riley, a character who hides behind her photography skills and internally struggles with her relationships with her family and classmates. In actuality—and quite unlike Riley, who confidently moves through the halls of her Orange County high school—the 24-year-old actress remembers her own high school experience as looking different. It was not as multicultural as the school presented in the fictional television series, but it was a place that instilled students with a strong love of the arts.
“The emphasis my school placed on art allowed me to play into exploring aspects of my creativity,” Wonders said, calling W from a motel in Tarrytown, where she—along with actors Myha'la Herrold, Amandla Stenberg, Rachel Sennott, and Maria Bakalova—has been stationed while filming the upcoming A24 slasher film, Bodies Bodies Bodies. “It’s been fun and kind of a crazy life,” Wonders explained, adding that while she can’t say much about the project, her role involves a lot of physicality when it comes to battling the elements. “We film all night because it takes place at night, so it’s crazy to come alive when the sun goes down in this nightmarish landscape,” she said.
The actress grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where life felt “monotonous” for her as a very shy kid. “I would get my family’s attention by quoting every single line from Austin Powers movies and that was my way of expressing myself,” she said. “I would write short stories about misanthropic characters and that was my version of escapism, and a method to entertain myself. Inhabiting different characters was always something I was doing in my head, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I studied film and did some theater.”
Wonders played Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters during her freshman year of college, but the student body was not impressed. “It got horrible reviews in the school newspaper,” she explained. “The quote was ‘Chase Sui Wonders is the nail in the coffin on this play’—that is a direct quote.” In the moment, she considered ending her fledgling acting career, but eventually pursued it “to reclaim my power.” One creative activity, however, that has remained a constant in Wonders’s life is drawing. “It was seen as a weird, alternative path, but I remember finding power in visual art,” she explained.
Last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic started to get real, Wonders moved home with her mom for six months. For many creatives, jobs started to dry up, and the very act of finding inspiration in the surrounding environment felt futile. “It was totally regressive and maddening, and I feel like everyone experienced a mental fry where your brain just turns to applesauce,” Wonders reflected on the early days of quarantine.
But even if she did nothing else all day while stuck at home, Wonders made a point to pick up a pen or a pencil and put some lines on the paper. “Even if I didn’t do anything all day, I would make an attempt to draw because even as quiet and mundane and maddening as that time was, drawing taps into a meditative state,” she said. “It’s such a quiet and calm act and not always stimulating, but I tap into a state where I’m spending time and attention doing something and it feels like a recharge. You can just laser your focus in on something creative. I definitely turn to it as a coping mechanism.”
Inspired by Robert Crumb and his process of exorcising his inner world by drawing characters, Wonders finds the ability to create narratives out of her drawings to be just as freeing. “I’ve always drawn weird, borderline freaky characters,” she said with a laugh, noting that movie stills—scenes from Body Double and Scarface, particularly—can also serve as inspiration for her work. “I’ve always gravitated toward fringe, misanthropic characters in the shadows.”
Wonders enjoys playing with black lines, with the occasional exploration of color, in her drawings. “I took a Japanese woodblock painting class in college and I remember nothing from it except for the fact that I thought the Hokusai and Hiroshige prints were so pretty,” she said. “I like how definitive the line is, and you fill in the color after. I look back at a lot of those prints for line inspiration. I like Alice Neel, Alex Katz, David Hockney—line and cartoonish imagery.”
For Wonders, drawing “is like a portal to another dimension, where you can make a new friend.” Some of her cartoons do contain speech bubbles, but while she’s a big fan of reading graphic novels, for now, she has no plans to write or illustrate her own. “It feels pretty private,” she said. “Sharing these drawings feels vulnerable, because I see them as this collection of little freaks that I have. I like the idea of drawing into the void, with no intention of having an audience.”