Tell someone you skate and they’ll probably bring up the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, name-dropping niche tricks and skaters from what was arguably the most iconic video game of the early-2000s. They might also bring up some of the songs that are etched into the brains of anyone who played the game—songs like Rage Against The Machine’s “Guerrilla Radio,” the Dead Kennedys’ “Police Truck” and Goldfinger’s “Superman.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the videogame fundamentally changed skate culture; propelling it into the mainstream in a way that skate videos never achieved.
This is the subject of Pretending I’m a Superman, a new documentary by Ludvig Gur about the rise of the game and the effect it had on those who were featured in it. One of those skaters was Rodney Mullen, a freestyler from Gainesville, Florida, who’s often referred to as the godfather of street skateboarding. He literally invented the flat ground ollie, the kickflip, the heel flip, the 360 flip and a bunch of other tricks that are fundamental to how skateboarding looks today. A pro since 1980, Rodney has founded and run multiple skate companies, filmed a handful of classic video parts and even done a Ted Talk with 3.8 million views. Still, after all these years, his involvement in those video games is what he’s best known for.
Rodney Mullen was to celebrate his 54th birthday three days after our interview. When we spoke over a fuzzy, delayed international phone line, he was at home in California. True to form, he was softly-spoken, humble and yet intensely passionate. He was bashful when he talked about his long and fruitful career as a professional skateboarder, and told me about the times he was “pretty much sucking” and apologising for his “belaboured story”. Obviously he didn’t need to apologise.
VICE: Hey Rodney, let’s start with your first appearance on the game, which I think was actually the sequel, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. It came out in 2000 and you were in your mid-30s. What did your career look like at that time?
Rodney Mullen: Honestly, I was off the shelf. I went through a period where they had literally retired my [pro model] board, so I was just tinkering around, street skating a little bit—my own version of it—and then gradually getting a little bit of steam. And then the other team I was part of, Plan B, broke apart. I had just started a company with my friend Daewon Song. I was advancing still as a new street skater but very frankly, I was coming from way behind.
And then I remember I went on tour in Chicago. I remember skating on this contraption and I was still warming up. I barely put my foot off my board, not even going that fast, and my ankle broke. Like, broke. I’m laying on the ground and it didn’t even really hurt but I felt it break. People are asking for autographs and I’m like, “Dude, I just broke my ankle, give me some space.”
I flew home and I’m thinking, “Should I quit skating? Is that a sign that I’m getting there in terms of age?” So I called up Tony because I didn’t really have anyone as a peer to talk to on that level. It had been a long time. Anyway, he walks into the restaurant like a star and people are looking at him. We ate together and he goes, “Rod, don’t even think about it. And by the way, do you want to be in my game?” I remember thinking that everything was over for me. And then he asked me to do that and I had no idea the significance of it, I was just stoked that he was bringing me in like that.
That’s amazing. How long had you known Tony at that point?
Since I was 14, and Tony’s about a year younger than I am. We were part of the Bones Brigade, which was kind of a cool team to be on back then. The first time I met Tony, I had heard about him a lot because he also got put on the team when he was a little kid. He was so scrawny. There was a big contest in Florida at Kona Skatepark. All the big pros came. So everyone showed up and I still remember seeing Tony for the first time and I remember connecting with him. Of all the people on the Bones Brigade at that time, I would go and stay at Tony’s house. We developed a friendship.
Tell me about how your career changed after you were in the game?
I think it took about a year for the game to come out. As a street skater, I was still pretty much sucking. I remember going on tour the first time and I went to the East Coast with the Enjoi dudes. And I remember how people responded. There were so many people around me to get autographs that they had to put me on top of a van and I remember the van rocking. I remember sitting up there, just laughing, just tripping out. I was looking out at skaters who I thought were so much better than I was – I knew they were better than I was. But that was how it went down, that was the initiation. As the years unfolded, that game dwarfed any video part that I’ve ever done, in terms of getting it out to the world.
I think the thing that really changed most was that people have our language, how we name our tricks. And so people, out of nowhere, would start speaking our language. That to me was probably the weirdest thing, the coolest thing.
There’s a part in the documentary where you talk about how you were in the ghetto and these guys tried to rob you but then they recognised you from the game. Can you tell that story?
[Laughs] Yeah, that was one of those table schools out near Carson. Compton is out there but it’s not straight up Compton, it’s just outside. So I’m out there skating the picnic table and then these dudes come up and they’re huge. I remember the one dude just walked up and lay right on the table and I’m like, “Great.” Then the other dude walked up and they just looked so hard, like straight outta jail. There’s nothing you can do, you’re at their mercy and so you’re nervous. I said something and the guy’s whole body language changed. He turned from this menacing guy to like a kid, the way he moved, because ultimately, they’re still like 19 or 20 [laughs]. Then he turned and was like, “You’re that guy! I play you!” And then he started to rattle off the trick names. I went from seriously being afraid and within 30 seconds he’s talking about dark slides and casper slides. I just remember thinking, “Thank god for this video game.”
I read that you were actually the most popular character in the game? More people played with you than any other character. Is that true? Has Tony told you that?
Oh I feel too rude to ever ask if that’s a thing. Thank you for saying that. I think I’ve heard murmurs of that but no one’s ever said it as straight up as you have. I look at myself like, yeah, I can skate; yeah, it’s everything I wanted to be. I don’t want to dismiss that, trust me, I put my heart into it. The flipside is, come on: Tony Hawk, Jamie Thomas—all of them blow me away. Even Tony, I’m still kinda nervous around him, even though I’ve known him since I was 14, because I respect him so much.
Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story came out August 18 and is now available to rent or buy on iTunes
Interview by Nat Kassel