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Entertainment

How the Awesome Skater Stars of HBO's 'Betty' Are Coping in Quarantine

We Zoomed with the coolest girls on TV to see how they're holding up without being able to skate.

Betty is not really a TV show that is supposed to make you cry. But that's what I found myself doing a couple of weeks ago when I was binging the new HBO series in preparation for interviewing four members of the supremely cool cast. Airing on Friday nights, Betty is a spinoff of the 2018 movie Skate Kitchen, directed by Crystal Moselle, and follows a bunch of skaters over the course of a couple of summer days in New York. The six episodes -- and, oh, how I wish there were more -- perfectly capture the experience of sweatily traversing the city with a number of small urgent tasks at hand but nowhere to be in the grander sense. The joy of hanging out with the people who have your back permeates every frame, but the series from Moselle and writer Lesley Arfin (a co-creator of Netflix's Love) also has threads examining white privilege and sexual assault. Still, it's not what anyone would call sad. So why was I bawling? 

"It's literally New York," star Rachelle Vinberg says of the show, "the opposite of quarantine." That's it: Betty is a depiction of crowds of young people roaming around a vibrant landscape that is currently shut down. It features dance parties in Bushwick's Maria Hernandez Park, early morning bodega sandwiches, and late night diners. It's a romantic vision of women congregating and rolling with their random encounters.  

But I was primed to love Betty. I was at the raucous premiere of Skate Kitchen at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, and was sucked into Moselle's dreamy depiction of girlhood from the first moment I laid eyes on it. (During our conversation, Vinberg asks if I made it into the after party in Park City; I did not. "Usher just pulled up and was dancing. He tried to dance with me and I remembered I don't know how to dance. It was so embarrassing," she says.)

Legend goes that Moselle, a documentarian, first encountered some of the members of the female skating collective known as Skate Kitchen on the subway, asked if there were more of them, and then integrated herself into their lives. Betty might even improve on its source material, allowing more space for each character to flourish. 

Late last month, I hopped on Zoom video call with Vinberg, who plays Camille, an outsider more used to hanging with dudes; Dede Lovelace, who plays the gregarious and stalwart Janay; Moonbear, who plays the shy Honeybear; and Ajani Russell, who plays Indigo, a secret rich girl and weed dealer. Vinberg and Moonbear were calling in from different rooms in the Bushwick apartment they share, which Vinberg revealed at one point by popping into her friend's frame. Lovelace was nearby in Bed-Stuy, while Russell was in LA, where she's in art school.

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Nina Moran, who plays Kirt, in HBO's 'Betty' | HBO

How they got started skating

Dede: I went to a middle school on 12th and A called East Side. During the time, it was a really popular after-school skate spot. So at 3pm, all the boys were there skating after school in the courtyard. I would see them all the time. They would just be doing these crazy tricks off walls and all these cool things. I was like, "Whoa, that looks so fun. I want to do that." That was my introduction to skating. Then I asked my dad for a board. It was a Zoo York board. It was pretty dope. It was a decent board for somebody who didn't really know about skating. My dad doesn't know about skating. Then I didn't really skate. I wasn't trying to learn tricks then because it was just really intimidating and a lot of guys were mean in their crew. It wasn't until high school when I met [co-star] Nina [Moran] that I actually got with her and we were like, "We'll go to Chelsea and we'll skate together and do this."

Rachelle: I went to visit my cousin, who was living in Canada at the time. He's a year older than me. He skated and I saw him do it. I was like, "That's so cool. I want to learn that." He ended up buying me a board. He was, like, 12. Then I just kept doing it. I moved to a new town, so I didn't have anything to do but skate for that summer.

Moonbear: I was watching TV and then I saw Tony Hawk and he was doing whatever he was doing on the ramp. I was like, "That looks so cool. I want to skate. I want a skateboard for my 12th birthday." My dad got me one.

Now, Moonbear and some of the Skate Kitchen crew hang out with Hawk, who cameos in the show’s finale. 

Moonbear: That was crazy.

Ajani: I didn't even know he was on set that day.

Moonbear: It's crazy because some of us were hanging out with him the day before, and then he was there. He has a skate thing every year, and then he had a dinner or something. We were at this bar, I forget what it's called. Something Flower Shop, I think. He was just chilling. He was being really chill, and we were all eating and stuff. 

In the show, Nina Moran's character Kirt teaches Russell's Indigo how to skate: Art imitating life.

Ajani: I started skating last out of everyone in Skate Kitchen. I always wanted to skate because I would watch Rocket Power [on Nickelodeon] and Reggie was so cool to me. I was like, "One day I'm going to be her." I remember one summer I forced my grandma to buy me a skateboard when I was in Puerto Rico visiting her. I would skate at the basketball court. When I went back to New York, it didn't stick. Then I met Nina and I was like, "Oh my god, she skateboards! She's so cool!" I was like, "Nina, I think it's so cool that you skate." She was like, "You want to skate? Say less." One day she called me and she was like, "Where are you?" I was like, "I'm here." She's like, "Oh my god, don't move." She pulled up with a full set up. She was like, "Now you can't say that you can't skate," and she gave me a board. That was the first real board that I had.

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Dede Lovelace and Rachelle Vinberg | HBO

How Skate Kitchen came together

Rachelle: Actually, it was before we met Crystal. Me and Nina were like, "We want to make some sort of group or Instagram that shows girl skaters on the East Coast and maybe post trick tips." That was the original thing. Then we met Crystal and then we all met each other. We were all like, "Why don't we just make an Instagram for us to show skating?" It was not really a thing we thought about it. We didn't say, "We want to make this group and this." It just kind of happened.

[The name] goes really way back. When I was 12, I used to skate with these two boys, my really good friends. One day we were talking about if we were to have a skate shop -- because every little kid is like, "I'm going to have a skate shop one day" -- what we would name it. When I was younger I'd watch videos of girls like Alexis Sablone and Vanessa Torres. The comments would always say, "She should be in the kitchen." That's my first experience with that idea or whatever, things people would say. Even my friends that were boys, they'd sometimes joke around with me like that. So I was like, "Oh, I would name it The Skate Kitchen." It just kind of stuck.

Why the series is named Betty 

Dede: [Crystal] was just talking to [a friend]. She was telling him about the show. She was like, "I can't come up with a name for it!" She was like, "Why don't you call it Betty?" Then that's how he came up with it.

Rachelle: Betty's like a meaning though. We're not old enough to understand it. "Betty" was a name that, back in the '90s, guys would call girls who either skated or hung out at skate parks. It wasn't necessarily probably a bad thing. It was just, "you're a Skate Betty." But that within itself is [like] why are you calling them a Betty? Why not just a skateboarder? Kind of like a reclaiming for her generation of that.

Moonbear: It also meant "a girl that was hot." So, yeah.

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Ajani Russell | HBO

Why the series borrows heavily from their own experiences

Shortly after Skate Kitchen came out in 2018, Moselle called Vinberg telling her that HBO was interested in turning it into a show. Throughout that process -- from the initial meetings to the script stage -- the cast was involved in shaping the plot. The skaters were invited into the writers room and sent scripts before they were finalized. 

Ajani: Crystal has integrated into our lives in more ways than just being a director. I lived with her for a period of time. She knows us really well. After we did the short film [before Skate Kitchen] That One Day, she would come to the skate park, and hang out with us, and get to know us. A lot of the adventures that we go on, she's there just behind the scenes. With the stories that are told in Betty, she was probably there in real life, too, and saw it, and was taking notes.

Rachelle: Times that she wasn't there, basically what Ajani was saying: She's so involved in our lives that we talk to her like a friend. We'll just be telling her about something that happened casually, not even with the intention that this is going to be in the show. But then sometimes we'll be like, "This thing happened recently and you should hear about it because it's crazy." Then she'll take notes on it.

For instance, a scene where Ajani’s character Indigo takes a modeling gig where the models are forced to act out racial stereotypes actually happened.

Ajani: That was a true story. It was a couple summers ago, I was really excited to do this project. They just sent over a list of names, a bunch of people who'd be [involved]. They wanted it to be a girl gang sort of shoot. I was like, "Oh, yeah. That sounds cool." I got to set at 7 in the morning. They didn't have breakfast. They were rude, and then they were cornrowing the Russian models' hair. I was speaking to the other models. I'm Puerto Rican and I was like, "What's going on?" They were like, "Oh, they're trying to do a chola uptown girl gang thing." I'm like, "We're in New York. What do you mean? What are you talking about?" The makeup artists were like, "Make it more ghetto. Yeah, more lip liner. More." And it was just so infuriating.

I was speaking to all the other models, and a lot of them were really uncomfortable doing the shoot. They were in a compromising position because it was a situation where they were like, "My agent sent me and they said I had to do it. If I don't do it, then they're going to drop me." These were models visiting from all over. I was speaking in particular to this one girl from Brazil. She was like, "It made me so uncomfortable. I don't know about this culture. It's not me." I was talking to this other girl who's Native American. They had put a fake scar on her, and they were giving this other girl face tattoos. Of course, the people of color were the last models to get shot. The look they put on me, it was such a worse version of what you saw on the show. I got to the location where we were shooting. They were going to put this nasty ponytail on me and not brush my edges. I was like, "I'm not shooting this. Are you dumb?" I was just really infuriated and angry tears started falling. The hair stylist was like, "You don't have to do this." I was like, "You're right! I'm leaving!" 

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Moonbear | HBO

Now, they've tried to recreate the show in real life

In at least one instance, Moonbear and Vinberg used an invented scenario from the series to facilitate a real-life interaction. On screen, Honeybear grabs Camille to help her break the ice with her crush, Ash. After filming, Moonbear and Vinberg decided to see if that would work in real life. 

Rachelle: [Screaming] Oh my god! Okay, this is funny. You want to tell this story or do you want me to tell this story?
 
Moonbear: You tell the story. 

Rachelle: Okay. In Betty, you know the scene where she wants to talk to Ash and she grabs Camille and she's like, "Yo, help me with this shit. I don't know how to do it"? Fast forward: I think this happened in December, right? 

Moonbear: February. 

Rachelle: Moonbear was talking about this person that she really likes. And then we get to this event and they're there. I was like, "Moonbear, this is your chance. You have to say something. You were just talking about it. It's not a coincidence that they're here right now." You were nervous. And then I was like, "All right, why don't we just recreate the scene and see if it works?" We copied it. I went up with Moonbear and I was like, "Hi, this is my friend Moonbear. She's cool and stuff. Yeah." And then I left them, and then it worked out. But then it didn't work out.

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Rachelle Vinberg and Edmund Donovan | HBO

What they wanted for the show that wasn’t in the movie 

The first cut of Skate Kitchen was about five hours long, according to Vinberg, which is to say: There was a lot of material that it didn't have the time cover. There were certain scenes that were cut from the movie that were recreated for the series, but in other instances, Moselle wanted to expand on themes that were important to her actors.

Rachelle: I know of one for you, Dede, that you specifically [wanted]. The one with the whole gentrification and all that. 

Dede: Yeah, I'm big on that in general just because I've experienced it firsthand. It's not always the greatest feeling. There's pros and cons to it. That's just something that I talk about in general. They incorporated it into the show because it's very relevant to right now. It was an experience I had and something that I felt like Janay could relate to.

In both Skate Kitchen and Betty, however, Vinberg plays the outsider who takes a while to come around to female friendship. 

Rachelle: I guess, according to Crystal, I do well when I'm awkward. They tried to just put me in those situations. I think specifically in Betty, Camille is very different than she is in Skate Kitchen. I think the main point that we wanted to get across is the idea of someone who is a "girl's girl" or someone who isn't, someone really doesn't see that as important. I think she's that girl. I don't think she's a bad person at first. But her intentions and her priorities aren't set as straight as all the other girls, who value authentic friendship and how things actually make them feel rather than what they think is cool. I don't think she has that yet, and she develops that throughout the story.

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Dede Lovelace | HBO

On what the series made up 

Of course, they aren't playing themselves. While Moonbear says their characters' style was based on their own, Russell is clear about the line drawn between Indigo and herself. 

Ajani: I would probably never wear most of the outfits that she wore. It's a character. Her personality traits are like me, but her circumstances and her style is not. The only thing that really translated was my love of anime. The Goku [from Dragon Ball Z] shirt she wore, I liked. Everything else is not really my style. 

The writers also introduced storylines like Janay's conflict with her best friend/ex Donald, played by Caleb Eberhardt, who is accused of sexual assault. 

Dede: The writers had come up with that one. When they presented it to me I was like, "Oh, wow. This is really sensitive but also really important to talk about." What I did appreciate about it was they explored both sides of it because this is obviously something that, unfortunately, a lot of people have experienced. It's also interesting to see what that looks like with someone who's close to you and how complex that can be, and the struggle and the internal battle of that, and how it also affects your environment. I appreciated that they came up with that dynamic between Donald and I. It was something really important that I'm glad Betty got a touch on.

What they miss about New York during lockdown

Rachelle: Tompkins and Washington Square Park.

Moonbear: I'd say I miss skating, just cruising with a bunch of people. We used to do that from Washington Square to Tompkins or just wherever we were. I should actually make a video because I have clips of that that I never uploaded.

Dede: I'd probably say skating around the city, Lower Manhattan as well. I'd probably be hanging out down there skating with this group of boys that I skate with sometimes. They're really funny, but like reckless.

Ajani: I'm just homesick in general. I haven't seen my family in months. I guess I just miss walking my dog. 

On trying to skate during a pandemic

Rachelle: I went skating the other day, solo skating, because we needed to film something for a press thing. At first I was like, "Dang, how am I going to do this?" Because there's no parking lots even open. But it was good. It's really hard to skate though, to be honest.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.