Tonight, MTV and co-creator Bryan Elsley launch the Americanized version of the UK hit TV show Skins by pushing boundaries for casual sex and recreational drugs. What makes this unusual is that the cast is comprised of teens — not the twentysomethings posing as teens that usually populate high school shows. Elsley cast all unknowns, understandable considering Hollywood’s growing infatuation with discovering new stars. Of course, the Skins’ newcomers were only too happy to take low salaries for the chance to pop the way X-Men: First Class’ Nicholas Hoult and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel did when they starred in the UK version of Skins.
The U.S. version’s lead is James Newman who plays the Hoult-originated role of the manipulative ringleader Tony. James is the 18-year old son of Peter Newman, producer of indie films like Smoke and The Squid And The Whale. He was the only kid in that family not interested in acting, instead planning to fight in the Golden Gloves tournament before studying business in college. He spent his pre-teens haunting Gleason’s Gym in downtown NYC and boxing camps. (He was bloodied by fighter Yuri Foreman during a sparring session.) Newman was training hard to enter the 143-pound division when his actor/comedian brother Griffin first urged him to audition for Skins. (Griffin was too old). James missed the audition, but while away visiting colleges, his brother told him MTV hadn’t yet found its lead. At 5’7”, Newman is hardly a clone for the 6’2” Hoult. But he showed up anyway and eventually won the role.
“Not only was it my first audition, it was my first acting experience of any kind,” Newman told me. He delayed college to shoot the 10-episode season in Toronto. He also hung up his boxing gloves. “I didn’t read the full contract but assumed there was something there about not sauntering in to shoot the season with a broken nose.” Newman thinks he got the job partly because the whole thing was so improbable. “I would have been more nervous in a boxing ring because that’s what I wanted to succeed at,” he said. “At least when I started, I didn’t feel in a position to crush my own dreams if I screwed up. I’d just go on to college. Usually you’re nervous in the first audition and then you loosen up. It was the opposite for me.”
He signed with ICM and manager Paul Young, and now, like the rest of the cast, is waiting to see if Skins takes off and what it means for them. After months of heavy hype, it launches this week with two episodes airing behind Jersey Shore. Elsley said he casts on instinct and saw a natural edge in James that would help distinguish the series from being a clone of the UK original which Elsley created with his son. “It’s not giving too much away to say that this will be a much more vulnerable and easily-damaged Tony in the USA show,” he said. A recent ranking of young stars in Entertainment Weekly placed Newman #4 behind Rooney Mara, Adam Scott, and Megan Fox’s Transformers 3 replacement Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, but ahead of Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, and Alex Pettyfer. “There’s nothing for me to process,” James said. “How can you take it seriously when people haven’t even seen the first episode?”