When we first meet 13-year-old Jacob in Kat Candler’s Hellion, he’s hopping on his motorbike and furiously speeding away. In the next scene, he’s demolishing a vehicle in the parking lot of a high school football game as heavy-metal guitars scream. He bashes in the windshield with a bat as his friends decorate the doors with red spray paint. Jacob even seems to get one last shot in after he realizes that a few angry adults have spotted them.
These are deeply angry young men, but Jacob is more nuanced than a rage monster thanks to the stunning breakout performance of Josh Wiggins. As the eldest brother of a Southeast Texas family in turmoil — mom’s dead, dad (played with stoic gruffness by Aaron Paul) is basically a shell — the now 15-year-old Texas native is a revelation, reminiscent of a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio in his breakout role in 1993′s This Boy’s Life. With his intense brow, angular face and piercing eyes, he even kind of resembles DiCaprio physically. “I get that… sometimes,” Wiggins laughs.
Unlike Leo, though, Wiggins was discovered on YouTube.
In a strange melding of casting worlds, Candler found Wiggins through her friend Summer Shelton, who only discovered him because she was looking at YouTube videos of the star of the Hellion short, Tommy Hohl, to try to cast her film Little Accidents. Hohl, it turns out, is a somewhat prolific amateur director and star of a series of online videos, and Wiggins was one of his frequent collaborators.
“She found one of these videos that they’d made with Josh, and she was like, ‘You’ve gotta look at this other kid. He’s kind of awesome,’” Candler told EW at the Friday premiere of Hellion at the Sundance Film Festival. “So I started watching those and brought him in for an audition. The light shone down and I was like, this kid is rad.”
“[Jacob] is kind of a misunderstood kid and he does all these bad things, but he does have a good heart. I felt like I could connect with him very well and get inside of him very well,” Wiggins said at the Q&A after the film. Though the surprising climax may make your heart stop, another emotionally resonant and thrilling moment is an amateur motocross race that Jacob competes in. “Everything that has happened in the story is kind of culminating in that moment. [He thinks] this is my chance, this is my chance to prove that I’m more than just some rebellious, stupid kid,” said Wiggins.
But the logistics were another thing. “I had never ridden a bike before, other than like once or twice in my life,” he laughed. “I do some of the falling.”
“He’s just so honest and authentic,” said Candler. Paul, who Wiggins said would often run around the set screaming “Yeah, bitch!” to lighten the mood, was equally stunned by his performance. “I didn’t need to give Josh any acting tips. He believed every moment that he was in. I was so impressed by him.”
Despite the effusive praise, Wiggins still treats his casting as somewhat of a lark. He hadn’t really considered acting before. “It was kind of something I just got the opportunity to do,” he said. “I kind of thought ‘Why not?’ So I auditioned and got the part.”
But his casualness about how he got involved doesn’t mean he’s not incredibly serious about his performance. His acting role models include Sean Penn, Bryan Cranston, and “Leonardo DiCaprio, obviously,” he said.
Hours after the world premiere, he already seems to be on the rise. Just yesterday, he signed with UTA. “It’s weird when everyone’s talking about you and you’re not used to it,” he said. As for what’s next? Wiggins smirked and said diplomatically: “There’s some stuff that I’ve got planned out but I’m not sure yet.”