To Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the pint-size protagonist of the coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade, few things are more important than attracting the attention of her dreamy classmate, “Best Eyes” winner Aiden. As played by rising star Luke Prael, Aiden is a classic middle-school heartthrob who also embodies the awkward liminal space occupied by today’s teens: One minute he’s blowing raspberries and stretching strands of gum from his mouth, the next he’s asking Kayla to send him nudes.
It’s the first feature role for 15-year-old Prael, and in just a few scenes, he makes a big impression — one he’s set to build on with a larger lead performance in Boarding School (out this Friday). In writer-director Boaz Yakin’s horror-thriller, Prael plays Jacob, a boy sent away to an ominous school after his father catches him trying on his late grandmother’s dresses. Trapped in the remote institution, he discovers unsettling truths about his lineage, as well as the two potentially murderous instructors in charge.
EW recently caught up with Prael about starting out in the industry, why Eighth Grade is a “classic” movie, and his career-best summer break.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on both Eighth Grade and Boarding School. What’s it like to be seeing yourself on screen so much this year?
LUKE PRAEL: It’s kind of weird. I don’t really like watching myself on screen. Especially when I first saw Eighth Grade, I found it almost cringe-y watching myself. It’s nice to hear from people who’ve seen the movie, and I think my friends have been getting a kick out of it, though, so it’s been fun.
How did you first get into acting?
Basically, a lot of my friends worked, like [Boarding School costar] Sterling [Jerins] and Charlie Tahan [of Netflix’s Ozark]. They all worked in the business, so I was around that life. Also, my dad works as an actor, and in fifth grade I went up to him at one point and said, “I want to do this stuff.” So I started going to acting classes, got an agent, started modeling, and then started working with Innovative [Artists].
The first thing I got was [the short film] “Boy in a Backpack.” I played a kid with locked-in syndrome, which meant his whole body was paralyzed and he couldn’t move. It was a very hard role to play, and I was very young at the time, so I was scared to play it. But I learned a lot from the role, like basically I had a big role in the movie but I didn’t even say a word. Presence and expressions can mean more than words in acting, sometimes.
Your two movies this summer are so different. Eighth Grade is this frank and funny look at adolescence, whereas Boarding School is much eerier, a little campier, and definitely rooted in the horror genre. How did you connect with your roles?
Eighth Grade is a very relatable movie for most, and Boarding School is a very out-there movie, but the two roles you can compare because they’re both teens growing up. It’s very interesting, playing those roles. I think that the thing with Eighth Grade is that my character, Aiden, is very overconfident. With Jacob [in Boarding School], he’s a young kid who’s getting bullied and stuff, so they’re both trying to find their way through teenage life.… [Horror] was a fun genre to work in. I do like scary movies, so it was fun to actually work in one. When you go in for the next audition and you have to be scared for a scene, you can know how that feels and incorporate it into your acting.
You also wear a dress in Boarding School, which is part of this powerful connection Jacob has with his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. What was your way into that element of the character?
Wearing the dress was very hard for me. I didn’t know how a lot of people would take it, and it kind of scared me. It was difficult for me. But I really enjoyed the whole experience, and I had my friends and my dad supporting me along the way, which was really fun. The dress bothered me, but I ended up getting over it. Boaz explained it to me, saying the dress wasn’t really about cross-dressing or anything like that. It’s like a superhero outfit for Jacob, him taking on the power of his grandmother. So when I put it on, I’m taking the bravery and power that my grandmother had during World War II.
How did you get involved in Boarding School?
I went into a regular audition, two scenes: one when I first met the character of Christine [played by Jerins], and one that was looking at stars with Phil [played by Nadia Alexander], talking about galaxies. They’re both very interesting scenes in the movie. And then 10 days later, I got a call from my agent that I’d gotten a directors’ session with Boaz. I never knew who Boaz was, but I was always a big fan of his movies, like Fresh and Remember the Titans. So I was pretty excited about that. I went in and read the same scenes I’d read in the last audition, and then Sterling — who I’ve known my whole life — came into the room. They wanted to have Christine and Jacob read together. So we end up getting matched up together, and it felt kind of awkward just because we know each other so well, but I guess Boaz saw a connection between us and so really liked us playing against each other, so we both got cast.
What was it like to work with a longtime friend on set?
I’ve known her since I was 2 years old, so we grew up together. I thought it would be fun, even before I started acting, to work in a movie with Sterling. It was a lot easier making friends on set because of her, because I knew her so well.
Last question. Eighth Grade has been greeted so warmly, both by critics and audiences. What has that been like for you to see as a young actor?
I get a lot of Instagram DMs from random people saying, “You were really good in Eighth Grade,” and it’s just like, “Thank you, man.” It’s very cool. Being surrounded in the Eighth Grade project is really cool, because I think it’s a very classic and relatable movie that, even if you’re 70 years old, you can relate to. It’s more than just a 13-year-old girl struggling; it’s about anxiety. Everybody has anxiety, so even if you’re 70 years old, you could relate to this 13-year-old girl going to a pool party. For that reason, it’s a really cool movie.