Generation's Chase Sui Wonders Is Finding the Joy in Everything

·10 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

In today’s abundance of teenage, coming-of-age shows, HBO Max’s Generation (styled Genera+ion) hits a soft spot for its relatable approach and inherent joy. Like Euphoria and its contemporaries, it follows high schoolers navigating sexuality, identity, love, and family life, but Generation was actually created by a teenager, Zelda Barnz (with her fathers, writers and producers Ben and Daniel Barnz). Her authentic telling captures the struggles and awkwardness of modern adolescence, but with warmth, humor, and pure fun.

“A note that Daniel gave throughout the filming of the season was, ‘Find the joy, find the joy,’” actress Chase Sui Wonders, who stars as budding photographer Riley Luo, tells BAZAAR.com. “And I feel like that sentiment is totally pervasive, and you can just see it seeping through everyone’s performance. I feel like it’s finding this life-affirming joy in these stories that can be told through a lens of tragedy.”

Though the Season 1 finale of Generation arrived just yesterday, Wonders is already growing her résumé beyond the show. Over Zoom, she calls in from a Tarrytown, New York, motel—her temporary digs while filming the A24 horror film Bodies, Bodies, Bodies in nearby Chappaqua. She actually landed the role while shooting Generation. “I did [my callback] from Riley’s trailer, wearing Riley’s costume,” she says. “I was literally between takes. But I’m lucky it worked out, ’cause it’s a really cool script.”

The 25-year-old Harvard grad, who grew up outside Detroit, has a cool but down-to-earth air that makes her fitting for roles like this one in Generation and Niki in HBO’s skater girl show, Betty. She also appeared in Sofia Coppola’s latest, On the Rocks. As her star continues to rise, Wonders takes a moment to speak about what Generation means to its viewers, Gen Z, and the mid-2000s style she hopes never returns.

When Generation first premiered and you saw the reactions, how did you feel? Were you taken aback by how people were responding to the show?

It was so moving. I feel like the Greta-and-Riley storyline really connected with a lot of people, and believing in this very, very sweet and tumultuous love story. Seeing everyone's reaction to that, and how many queer people reached out to me and told me how real that storyline was embodied, was so special.

What was the bonding off-screen like for you and the rest of the cast?

I think on top of [Generation] being a lot of our first big gigs, it was also [shot during] COVID. So we were in a bubble, within a bubble, within a bubble. We were really only hanging out with each other outside of set. And a lot of us are based in New York, so going to L.A. was another kind of culture shock too. I think having that community, we had no choice but to get super close, 'cause there was no one and nothing else around. I've definitely made some of my greatest friends from Generation.

How would you describe Riley's journey and her relationship with Greta this season?

It's a loaded question. The GRiley fans are screaming. I mean, for Riley specifically, I think what was so fun to play in the second half especially Episode 14, which is all from Riley's point of view, is what lies behind the appearances that Riley's always keeping up. Riley is someone with a lot of social grace and an ability to appear strong and be a sort of rock for other people and not necessarily always let people in. So getting to play that and getting to play what's behind the mask was something that was really, really fun. And especially in 14, you really see what makes Riley tick and what is going on at home that affects how she interacts with other people.

In terms of Riley and Greta, I feel like it's just a deeper exploration of what's going on in the depths of their hearts. In the first block, I feel like so much of it is living on the edge of that build, and that feeling where your emotions are just bubbling up your throat and you're stealing glances, and that was so fun to play. But we get into some deeper conversations, and there are more words exchanged where we actually communicate as opposed to just longing stares. That's really fun.

Riley and Chester are such a great pair. I don't know if you've seen the TikTok trend where it's two opposite people and they go, "Do you want to form an alliance with me?" That's what I think of when I think of them.

I thought you were going to say, "Two best friends, they might kiss!"

I mean, that too!

Justice [Smith] and I were constantly making jokes like, "Are we going to? Are we allowed to kiss?" They would constantly set us up in scenarios where it's like, "Okay, Chase, now look over at Justice like you love him." We would just pause and be like, "Are you trying to get us to kiss? Are you setting up Chester and Riley?"

What is it like working with Justice in that capacity?

It's so great. I mean, Justice and I immediately became super, super close and spend so much time together off set too. Justice has so many little kernels of acting knowledge that he tossed my way. So playing off him is like, he makes you make better choices in every scene. I think definitely the scenes I have with Justice are some of my favorite stuff in Block 2.

Does Riley's experience in high school make you nostalgic at all? Does it reflect any of your personal experience in any subtle ways?

I feel like it would have been awesome to be somewhat like Riley in high school. She's very cool. She's much cooler than I was. I was really trying to be a little bit invisible. I think it's really cool. And I think it's something that's native to Gen Z too. She's so unabashedly herself. And I think all her idiosyncrasies become something that she is okay with showing off and doesn't shy away from. When I was in high school, I was very much trying to be like everybody else. And my quirks and my idiosyncrasies I felt like were something that should be kept private and hidden. So I think that part of Riley is so cool.

It's like cosplay that she's embracing all these things and she's not shying away from who she is. And I think it's such a funny contradiction with Gen Z, how weirdness is such a premium and embracing all your quirks is totally valued. There seems to be all these devices for how to categorize yourself and all these subcultures to join and everything is on the table. And yet—and you see in the series, too—there are aspects of yourself that you don't show to everyone else, and you don't necessarily have all the devices to reach to the deepest part of yourself and share that with people. I think that part is still so universal and something that I experienced in high school too.

That's so true. That time of your life, you're still very insecure and figuring out who you are, and you don't have all the tools to really express, maybe, what all those other layers of you are.

I mean, Gen Z, they're so inundated with information that they know exactly that this person is on this spectrum of sexuality or this socioeconomic spectrum, and I know their struggle and I know their story. But there is this, like, quintessential, unknowability about kids, and it's because you don't even know yourself yet. That is really interesting.

That's true. Are you technically part of Gen Z, or are you on the cusp?

I guess I'm technically a cusp. I think '96 or '97 is the cutoff, but I feel a part of neither. I mean, the high schoolers I know now, everything I do to them is cringe. I could do anything. I could say exactly what they just said and they're like, "Cringe." But also, all my older siblings are millennials and I think they're cringe.

I also wanted to talk about Riley's wardrobe. It's really cool, and I love that it kind of reflects the 2000s kind of pop-punk revival that we're seeing right now. Did you have a hand in choosing the clothing at all?

I love the on-the-nose printed tees that are like, "Alienation generation." And again, it points to that thing where you can talk about your angst in this ironic sort of way, but it's so layered with irony that you're not actually talking about your angst. I think that sort of sentiment and the irony of wearing early-2000s stuff and bringing that back is so emblematic of Gen Z. So Shirley Kurata, who's the costume designer, is so brilliant at picking things that seem so one of a kind for Riley's wardrobe. That was super fun. And the [bleach-blonde hair] tassels too.

What was fashion like for you growing up?

When I was growing up, it was the worst style. I don't understand. I don't think that style will ever come back, because it was just flat ugly. Like, 2007?

It was a rough period of time.

Hideous. The most unflattering and uninspired ... I don't see how that could ever come back. Although, I am weirdly starting to wear a lot of my clothes from that time period. After dressing like Riley for so long, I went back home and went through my entire closet and I was like, "Is this kind of cool?" ... But I played ice hockey growing up. I was a big tomboy. So I wore khakis and sweatshirts.

I want to ask you some rapid-fire questions. Who would you say your dream collaborator is?

Paul Thomas Anderson

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Probably leaving the theater after watching Austin Powers and reciting every line and feeling so energized by Dr. Evil's lines. Like, when I was seven.

I was also going to ask what movie you couldn't stop watching growing up. So is that the same answer?

Austin Powers was a big one. Rush Hour was a big one. I had two older brothers that were constantly force-feeding me all these, like, action movies that I had no business watching, like Saving Private Ryan and Air Force One, Executive Decision, Training Day. I was watching all those movies every weekend.

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Lola Bunny from Space Jam. But also Seth Cohen from The O.C.

What do you hope people take away from Generation?

I hope that people can pick up on the authenticity that everyone brings to the characters and the authenticity that is written in these characters and how, again, just being yourself living in your authenticity is going to be the greatest way to feel okay and feel good and feel like you're shining.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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