Mikey Alfred Makes L.A. Feel Small
Ayesha Siddiqi Speaks To The Gen Z Mogul About Working With Friends And Hollywood Gatekeepers
- Interview: Ayesha A. Siddiqi
- Photography: Aidan Cullen
A day spent with Mikey Alfred feels like a movie montage of warm greetings, congratulations, and words of encouragement. For the 23-year-old Los Angeles-born skater-turned-entrepreneur, it’s only natural that people return the energy Mikey brings to them. His charm may help him navigate L.A., but his honesty makes him stand out.
While he’s directed music documentaries (Tyler, the Creator’s Cherry Bomb) and videos (Rex Orange County’s “Sunflower”), his ambitions have always been set on the big screen. When we first met a few years ago, Mikey showed me a video of himself in the 7th grade articulating the same goals he’s achieving now, which include co-producing Jonah Hill’s critically acclaimed Mid 90s. Mikey was responsible for one of the film’s most crucial elements: delivering a cast of skaters.
In an era when brands can exert pressure over the lives of their sponsored skaters, Mikey established his own skate team: Illegal Civilization. Under his leadership, what started out as a group of friends in a North Hollywood skate park—printing t-shirts to fund skate trips—morphed into other ventures, ultimately launching the careers of its members. Mikey Alfred’s dreams are big, but he makes L.A. feel small.
His latest scripted release, The Dispute follows two women from South Central L.A., Kasey Elise and Andrea Ellsworth, whose tastes and aspirations challenge their friendship. He directed the feature, mentoring the friends who both wrote and starred in it. The limited edition merchandise following the film is in Mikey’s signature illustration style, which also decorates their forthcoming Converse collab dropping in August.
In the time I’ve known Mikey, he’s continued to scale up. Some would be quick to call him a mogul in the making, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s more impressive that he creates models for creative success that support the people he cares about. I spoke to him about the many choices that have made his ambitious world possible.
We were just talking about your parents, let's start there and their view of your career. How did they take your choice to not attend college?
My parents are dynamic. When I would say I want to make movies, I want to make a company, they knew exactly what I was talking about. Sometimes the dilemma comes when your parents are confused or they’re like, “How do you make that a real job, how do you make that a real career?” They knew exactly. They grew up around all the people that are icons today. My mom has been Robert Evans’ assistant for 25 years. Because they knew it so well, that was why they didn’t want me to do it. Because the entertainment [business] is really skeevy, they would always tell me, “You can’t trust people, it’s not stable.” There’s like ten percent at the top and everyone else doesn’t live the best life. But I knew what I wanted and I know what felt right to me. And college didn’t feel right to me.
That’s such a big part of making those choices—gut instinct. You don’t have anything else until you make it. How did you hone your instincts?
Life is all about chasing truth. And when it comes to instincts, what you’re doing is saying, is this true to me? Is this true to my end goal? But the only way to know if it is, is to know yourself. And since I’ve been a young kid I’ve always known myself. I know where I stand. I know what type of role I play in other people’s lives. And that self awareness is what helps me make decisions in my career.
How do you distinguish between instinct and impulse?
With art, it’s all about the immediate. How do you immediately feel? And that’s what you translate into the screenplay or into the short film, or feature film. Because that is the truest emotion. Don’t think about it too much because then you’re intellectualizing it. But then when it comes to business it’s all about the three-day rule. Meaning, am I going to care about this in three days? Is this going to matter to me in three days? If it’s not, don’t do it. And that rule also translates into the thirty-year rule where every choice you make with the business—where to move it, what type of collaborations to do—is this going to help me be here in thirty years? I try my best not to chase anything that’s a white hot flame. Meaning, if it’s really popping right now but next year no one’s going to care about it. It’s better to do less with people who are going to be here forever than to do more with people who are not going to be here in six months.
And that’s really part of the long game, too, preserving your own creative impulses and drive, and investing in things you stand behind and feel good about having been a part of.
That’s something my friend Andrew Kimble talks about a lot. It’s about ethics in your business. He talks about how when you build a business off of what’s ethical as opposed to what’s legal, you’ll be around forever. I think that can translate into creativity too where if you make projects just because you can, they’re not going to do well.
A lot of what you’re describing circles the idea of timing, and being good at timing. How do you strike a balance between aiming at what you want for your future and knowing what to do in the moment?
One time I played bocce ball with a really dope executive and he explained to me how he looks at the movie business the same way he looks at bocce ball. It’s not about who has the biggest muscle, it’s not about who has the best ideas even. It’s just about precision. Who can do the right thing at the right time.
Precision is a great way to balance being authentic while keeping your goals in mind. What has your experience in the film industry been like?
Through Jonah [Hill] I was able to gain access to people in such a special way. He really helped me get to the level I’m at right now. What I’ve realized is that a lot of the “gatekeepers” are either really open to me and want to collaborate, and the other half are really scared and insecure, which then causes them to be scared of me. The idea that a 23-year-old black kid can build a business, be distributed on a wide level, do shoes with Converse, do a film with Jonah Hill, do this TV show with HBO—that can be really off-putting to them. They haven’t seen someone like me before.
Who do you credit for your strong sense of self?
I have great parents. And I have great aunts and uncles. I grew up in a cul-de-sac in North Hollywood and everyone in that cul-de-sac was a part of raising me. My foundation is so strong, how could I not know who I am? I try to look at my life and my career and say, how am I gonna be deeply rooted? That’s why whenever I go into a corporate space, I try to be really good friends with people’s assistants. I try to be really good friends with the people who check you in. Because that just extends your roots. It makes you stronger. When you’re only friends with the people at the top, when the wind blows, you’re gonna blow with them.
It’s so fascinating how both you and your parents have been around pivotal cultural moments and modern icons. Your dad knew Basquiat, too. You know many of today’s greatest musicians. How do you feel about those parallels?
My parents knowing a lot of cultural icons and being in those circles, to me, comes from them chasing the truth, and being honest with people. For me in my life, my relationship with Tyler [the Creator] is so strong because we can be real with each other. That’s how I’ve been able to make great connections and be connected at such a high level.
For you, friendship, business, mentorship, are all overlapping circles. Do they come into conflict? How do you navigate that?
They do come in conflict. People always say don’t do business with your friends, but what I believe is don’t do business with bad friends.
“It’s better to do less with people who are going to be here forever than to do more with people who are not going to be here in six months.”
How important is it to you to create access as you gain access?
Right, talking about Mid90s I was able to include Na-kel, and Ryder, and Sunny, and most of the people in the movie are people I had relationships with. It’s really important for me because it’s like what Jay-Z said, what’s the point of the mansion when there’s no one to fill it? That’s what Jonah, and Tyler, and Frank Ocean, and Spike Jonze, and all the people that have mentored me have done. They gave me tools. They gave me the language.
How did your sense of style develop?
In high school, freshman year, I went to a private Jesuit school in L.A. called Loyola. You have to wear a polo and you have to tuck your shirt in—every day except Friday. And I remember some of the other kids dreaded it and they would wear these shirts that were too small to tuck in, or just do anything to try to fight it. And I remember I liked it. I liked the look of having the shirt tucked in. I liked being proper. I liked having to get dressed. I like to really make myself presentable.
Before we even became friends I remember seeing pics of the IC white cardigan and the North Hollywood sweater in the Nantucket red. The source code was preppy clothing, but on these black and brown L.A. skaters. The associations between race, class, and certain uniforms as cultural signifiers are losing their relevance. They’ve been appropriated and reinscribed with new meaning, which is great because some corny white dude shouldn’t get to own how good a “preppy” outfit can look. We can improve on that visual legacy and styling. Your personal style is definitely part of that wave. Is that something you ever think about, as someone who’s so self aware and deliberate in how you present yourself, and how much of your professional life is about cultural fluency?
You know my dad always tells this great story that I love so much I’m gonna put it in a movie one day. He grew up in South Central. To him what it meant to be rich was to wear these Stacy Adams black dress shoes, to wear a handful of gold, to have a chain. My father also went to Loyola. And on his first day of school for the first time ever, he met kids who were rich. And their parents had hundreds of millions of dollars. There were kids at Loyola whose parents were real captains of industry. And they wore Sperry Topsiders, and dirty white Vans. And my dad switched. And he always told himself that when he has a kid, his kid is never gonna have a Stacy Adams phase. They’re gonna know you wear Sperrys. It’s something that my mom and dad instilled in me—what it means to be black and dress preppy.
You’re someone that learns from other people’s mistakes. Have there been moments that were real lessons for you? Because despite having mentors and people putting you on, you never had a map. A lot of the things you’re doing you forged on your own.
Most people in the world, they need to do it and then learn that it’s wrong, and then change their behavior. I don’t think that I’m special in any way from other people, but for me personally, I don’t need to do it and make the mistake. If you tell me don’t do it, I just don’t do it. I listen to other people.
There’s this through line in all your work of the balance between hard work and luck, and being in the right place at the right time. Do you believe in fate?
I believe in fate. I’ll take this back to something else Robert Evans told me. When people go to college they study, and when the test comes they get a good grade and then they move on. It’s the same thing in life. You have to study and do your homework, and know what you’re talking about so when the test comes, you can pass it. Meaning, know about movies, know about writers, know about how something should unfold. So when you meet that Jonah Hill or you meet that Ryan Coogler, you pass the test. People worry so much about the connections. Okay, I’ll introduce you to Barack Obama, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about it’s not gonna matter. The connection is gonna be irrelevant. When you get into that room, when you get into that space, if you haven’t been doing your homework, it’s gonna show.
What do you study?
Right now, on my bed stand, I have the Variety top thousand executives of 2018. I try to know who everyone is. And I try to know where they sit and why they do what they do. Then I also study the old execs. I study the Warner Brothers, the MGM guys, Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramount. On an artistic vibe, I study movies. In my living room I have a bookshelf filled with DVD cases. If you look on my Amazon, I’ve bought over a thousand movies. And I really take it seriously. I have a red notebook with the name of the movie and everything I felt inspired about, and everything I responded to. When I’m working on my own stuff I crack that notebook open and look through it. I study film and I study music. I go on YouTube for hours and hours and just listen to mad music.
What do you recommend for those who see where you’re at and feel like, “Well I didn’t know Robert Evans, and I’m not friends with Tyler, the Creator.” Who maybe don’t live in a city where connections like that can happen. L.A. and New York are magic for being able to facilitate connections between people with a lot of access in the creative industries. What about someone who’s reading this online, in some small town, and feels inspired but too far away?
That’s a great question, and I tell people this all the time. When you’re from Idaho or Ohio or Arkansas, in the entertainment business that makes you more interesting. Because now you have a different perspective. The idea is always to move to L.A. or move to New York and chase the dream. But what I think is smarter is to really focus where you are and be a big fish in a small pond. So make your films, make it incredible, and have everyone in your town know who you are and know that you’re the tightest one. And that is a magnet.
I think a lot about the N.W.A. Compton’s finest. Everyone in Compton knew who they were. And when everyone in your town knows who you are, that’s how it spreads. When you think about Odd Future...Fairfax. Everybody who hung out on Fairfax knew who Odd Future was. Then when people would come to Fairfax, they would find out who Odd Future was. If some famous person—Kendrick Lamar—is touring and he goes to a city in Minnesota, because they do, and he says, “Who’s the dopest person in Minnesota?” And someone says it’s this guy or it’s that girl, and Kendrick says, “Ok I’m gonna check that out.” And then they blow up. I just believe it’s about being the most known and respected in your home town. Everybody knew who Illegal Civ was in North Hollywood five years before anyone knew what it was, anywhere else.
Skating as a sport is unique for the kind of community it produces. I've found it to be a really welcoming group of people and its whole ethos is about effort and comfort with failure. It's about persistence and encouragement. What did skating teach you? what do you think it can teach others?
Skating taught me to be okay with giving something effort. It taught me real patience.
Skating as a sport and industry, it’s transformed in our lifetimes. What do you want to see for that world in the future?
I want to see skateboarding be more comfortable with corporate success. People often associate things like success with selling your soul. And that’s not true. You can be completely yourself, and still achieve high levels of success.
What’s the meaning of life according to Mikey Alfred?
The meaning of life is to think positive, work hard, be as nice as possible, and spend time with the people who love you. Chase those who chase you.
Ayesha A. Siddiqi is a writer and trend forecaster based in London.
- Interview: Ayesha A. Siddiqi
- Photography: Aidan Cullen
- Styling: Mikey Alfred
- Production: Emily Hillgren
- Styling Assistant: Alondra Buccio
- Special Thanks To: Aramis Hudson, Davonté Jolly, Ryder Lee Mclaughlin
- Location: All Amusement Fun Center, Circus Liquor, Pinocchio’s Restaurant