Actor Skylan Brooks is describing his current obsession, the action-packed video game The Division. “It takes place in kind of a post-apocalyptic New York. The story behind it is really, really deep. I'm a story guy.” It’s not lost on Brooks, who, at his young age, has already been a part of many movies and series, that the two universes in which he dwells typically, are starting to meld. He’s observed that video games are becoming more and more like films. “A great example of that,” he enthuses, “is God of War which recently came out, and they use live-action acting. I watched a video on the process of doing that. It's rare to take an iconic game at this point and take a risk and go out and use live actors to do it.” More innovator than traditionalist, he states, “I think it's a great thing that video games are starting to go in that direction because it means that the people who are making the game pay much more attention to detail. I think in the future of movies and entertainment, it would be a really dope thing to see; especially because you can get so immersed in it.”
His latest film, The Darkest Minds, at specific points, also plays like a video game. Based on the Alexandra Bracken young adult novel of the same name, The Darkest Minds follows a group of teens, who, having survived an epidemic that has wiped out 98 percent of other adolescents, develop superpowers. Subsequently seen by the government as threats, they are kidnapped and thrown into internment camps where they are then segregated by category of powers (telepathy, mind control, exceedingly high intelligence, etc.). Eventually, a large number of them break out. Separately, Ruby, who is played by Amandla Stenberg, escapes and stumbles upon three of the other escapees.
In a year where children have dominated headlines like never before (children in Trump immigration camps, Mari Copeny, Naomi Wadler, the Parkland students), a blockbuster young adult film featuring teens fighting for their survival resonates even more. As is the case in many of its siblings in the genre (The Maze Runner, Hunger Games, etc.), the adults who are there to protect them have become, for the most part, the enemy.
The film also stars Mandy Moore of the hit TV series This is Us and Gwendoline Christie, who plays the popular character Lady Brienne on Game of Thrones, in a somewhat similar role here as Lady Jane. Where the skilled fighter Brienne is a heroine, the bounty hunter Lady Jane is just plain scary as hell. Moore's character has moments where her do-gooder actions seem performative. Viewers will find themselves picking up on the fact that some of her intentions may not be pure. Golden Brooks (Girlfriends) also appears as the mother of Amandla Stenberg’s character.
However, of course, Brooks and his co-stars are at the center of this dystopian timeline: Ruby (Stenberg), Liam (Harris Dickinson), Zu (Miya Cech) and Chubs, played by Brooks. Chubs is in possession of a ferocious intellect. Brooks explains, “I would say Chubbs’ power is hyper-intelligence, and he’s a know-it-all and also very sarcastic. He uses his sarcasm as his way to protect the people that he cares about, which are Liam and Zu and later Ruby. He’s also the navigator for the crew. He gets them everywhere they need to go. So he understands that he's an essential part of their survival.” Chubs is also the comic relief, often lightening the mood in scenes that are tough to watch.
The pre-production process for the group to gel into their characters included time hanging out and getting to know each other and an excess of time becoming acquainted with the material under the guidance of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Brooks explains, “We had rehearsals first, and it was just the four of us, and then it became one-on-ones after a while; each of us with Jen.” The preparation process provided great dividends. Brooks and his co-stars created and acted out four distinct characters, each engaging in their way, and their chemistry is impressive. While they're each unique, together they are self-sacrificially loyal to each other. “When we were each with Jennifer, we’d just focus on where we wanted to aim, detail for certain scenes and getting right intentions. Being in the right mind. And we spent a lot spent a lot of time in Blue Betty.” "Blue Betty" is the name of the van the teens used for desperate dashes away from menacing pursuers for much of the film. “We also hung out outside of work, too, when we had the chance and things weren't so busy.” The cast also had to get used to the environment. The Darkest Minds was shot entirely in the Georgia woods. Not exactly avoiding a shudder at the memory, Brooks says, ”We were in the forest, forest. Like woods!”
Among his co-stars, Stenberg being kind of an old soul with a strong maternal instinct surprised Brooks somewhat. Regarding the actress, he says, “She's like a sweet mom. I don't know anybody my age who carries themselves like that and who cares very genuinely about everybody.” Stenberg was not the only old soul on the set. Brooks admits to being a huge fan of both old-school R&B and jazz, a habit he picked up from long drives with his mother. “My mom always, to this day, she still plays jazz in the car. I listened to that and R&B from the '90s and '80s--what we would call classics today.” His passion for hip-hop also fuels his interest in jazz. “Later on when I started listening to music on my own, I listened to Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. I listened to the samples and think their use of jazz music is masterful. It’s crafted it so well. Hip-hop is like poetry, too, so it’s the best of both worlds. I just love it.”
Before The Darkest Minds, Brooks appeared in the Netflix series The Get Down helmed by renowned director Baz Luhrmann, the acclaimed independent film Crown Heights alongside Lakeith Stanfield and Antoine Fuqua’s searing boxing drama Southpaw. For the 18-year-old Brooks, who also finds the time to indulge in his burgeoning hip-hop career, it all comes down to the right type of support and a blistering work ethic. "The amount of time and research you've put into your work, is really what matters. Sticking to it and sitting down, whether it's for hours and hours, rehearsing the lines and giving it your absolute best. Also being an actor and really taking part in the craft and enjoying it is what helps through the times when it’s extremely difficult.”
He underscores the importance of having a strong, supportive parent as part of the process. “Also my mom, who taught me the importance of discipline and a good work ethic on those days where I might not be feeling it. Then there are all the people who took a risk and did give me a chance. I'm grateful being on that journey with them."
Skylan Brooks is on Twitter and Instagram @skylan_b.