In Booksmart, everything is not as it seems. That is not to say the characters are imposters, but there’s definitely more than meets the eye to the hot girls, jocks, or stoners that make up the suburban high school milieu of the film. Studious Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have a holier-than-thou perspective: they staunchly believe that hard work yields big results, like getting into Yale and becoming the youngest-ever Supreme Court justice. But when they realize that most of the cool slackers in their high school have also secured positions at top tier universities, they experience a little bit of an identity crisis. It turns out, all of that hard work might have caused them to miss out on what they believe to be crucial, pivotal experiences in every young teen’s life. So, in order to course correct, they plan to score an invite to the biggest high school party of the year on the night before graduation.
That party happens to be thrown by Nick, one of the coolest kids in school, who was voted Vice President to Molly’s Class President because of his charm, popularity, and knack for throwing good parties (“Nick only ran for VP because they plan the dances. That position is basically a popularity contest. He’s useless,” Molly scoffs in an early scene). But Mason Gooding—the 22-year-old actor who plays the high school senior—wants to be clear he was nothing like Nick growing up. In fact, he felt that his persona in high school was more in line with Molly’s—but “with horrible grades.”
“I was very cynical. I didn’t necessarily think that people wanted to be friends with me because of some snap judgment I made, and I assumed they were doing the same,” Gooding admitted when describing the type of guy he was about five years ago. “It wasn’t until I got older, particularly around the time I booked Nick a year or so ago, that I realized it’s not the people who are the most guarded or the most closed off to others, but the people who are the most positive that end up reaping the benefits of social success.”
Coming from a family of entertainers (he is the son of the Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., and nephew of Omar Gooding, another fellow Hollywood actor), and growing up in Los Angeles, his dad had two rules: he could go to college or he could act, and if he chose to act, he would not be allowed to do so professionally until he turned 18. “Once I turned 18, it really hit me as something that not only did I love to do but something that was viable to do, and something I was passionate about pursuing. Ever since then, it’s really just been a learning experience every day,” Gooding said.
Still, Gooding chose going to college and enrolled at New York University to study dramatic writing and psychology, “which is pretty much as close to learning about acting without actually doing it.” But, similarly to a couple of his Booksmart cast mates, he left school after he booked some projects during his junior year and pivoted to acting full time. “I haven’t gone back to NYU yet, but I certainly plan to in the future,” Gooding said. “I kind of, in a way, chose both, much to my dad’s dismay I’m sure.”
For the first glimpse of Nick, he is seen smashing his head against a locker for fun, and surrounded by a bevy of girls from all sorts of social scenes. When Gooding read about the role of the handsome and seemingly dumb (“seemingly” being the operative word here) Nick in Booksmart, he was instantly taken with the character. “I loved the idea of a character, specifically in my case a black character, that sort of is brought up as this positive, popular, loving character, that is able to be a positive outlook and epicenter for the other characters in the movie. He’s the confident, popular guy,” he said. “I could say ‘jock,’ I just don’t know if you want to stick to archetypes at this point.”
And when he found out Olivia Wilde would be directing the film, he couldn’t wait to jump in. “Olivia Wilde is brilliant and I wouldn’t know until she actually became my director that she is this amazingly gifted talent both in leading and directing, and orchestrating the entire cast and crew,” Gooding continued.
In some ways, Nick is the “epicenter” of the movie, as Gooding put it—after all, it is his pre-graduation rager that drives the motives of Molly and Amy. He also happens to be extremely charming. “When I read the script, he sort of transcended the idea that a specific type of person could only act a specific type of way,” Gooding said. “I love that everyone in this film has such a duality to them. At one point they look like they could be the typical jock or the typical skater kid, but upon further inspection, once you give them a little more time, just like in real life, they sort of peel back these layers and become so much more complex than they seemed at first glance. That, I love.”
Although he doesn’t see himself as similar to Nick, Gooding was able to tap into his memories of how other popular guys in school behaved to informed his performance of Nick as the popular guy who—much to Molly’s surprise—also has a few quintessentially nerdy interests up his sleeve. He also found the role to be somewhat cathartic. “It’s funny because people ask stuff about playing the cool kid in high school, and they think that if you were that in high school, it’s so much easier. I actually think on the contrary,” he admitted. “In being a sort of dorky kid who wasn’t so socially adept, I sort of was able to watch the cool kids and see how they move and go, ‘Oh this is why people like them.’ I would bring that into the role of Nick. Things I watched as a kid and learned from made up who Nick is as a character.”
As far as on-screen authenticity goes, Gooding said he felt that the reason the movie feels as relatable and real as it does is because of its director, who would play music on set and encourage the actors to film smaller scenes in which they could bring some of their own experiences to the table. “If there’s one thing you should know about Olivia, aside from how talented she is as a director, actor, et cetera, et cetera, she is the coolest person on the planet,” Gooding said. “It’s because of that that she has such an insight into that lifestyle, or even the lifestyle of others, that she can direct other people to recreate that on screen.
“When we play beer pong in the party scene, if you’ll notice, we don’t use typical red solo cups. We use vases, mugs, and dinner glasses because in high school, you don’t really have access to things like red solo cups unless you have a job or an allowance and you can go buy those things,” Gooding continued. “In high school, it’s not really about an aesthetically appealing party; it’s about making the best of what you have. And what you have in high school is whatever your parents happen to keep around the house. So that definitely contributed to that feeling of a high school party that really felt authentic and true when it comes out in the movie.”
When he graduates from Booksmart fame and wades into deeper Hollywood waters, Gooding is eager to become a triple threat. “Writing is a love of mine, and I feel like directing is a natural progression of things, as far as a Hollywood career goes, but acting is the thing I started doing, and it’s the thing I hope to do until I’m dead,” he said. He’s already nailed the hapless cutie in a teen comedy, so moving into rom-com territory is on his list for the future, too. He’s also a big fan of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (“That movie touched me like no other,” he admitted). After he conquers the rom-com, he’d also like to try his hand at playing a superhero because he has aspirations to be a role model (“I’d love to be something I’d look up to as a kid for the kids of today.”). But above all, he’d be content to work with the same crew from Booksmart, over and over again. “If we just want to keep the same cast and rework it into either a rom-com or a superhero movie, I’d be more than happy to be a part of it,” he laughed. “A dream come true.”