Trailblazing pro skateboarder Leo Baker is the subject of an inspiring new feature documentary, Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story, premiering on Netflix on Thursday, August 11th. Directed by Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda, the intimate film follows Baker over several years as he’s ultimately forced to chose between competing in the strictly gendered 2020 Olympics or fully embracing his trans nonbinary identity. Continuing to skate, Baker—who appeared in Miley Cyrus’ 2019 music video for Mother’s Day—also has a burgeoning music career of his own, with his etherial and soothing song Hold Me Till We’re Home playing over the end credits of the film. He’ll follow up with an EP later this year. In 2020, Baker co-founded an inclusive brand, Glue Skateboards, which continues to help foster a much-needed space for the queer skating community.
Ahead of the Netflix launch of Stay On Board, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Leo Baker about his experience of making the film, being included in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, the supportive reaction to coming out that he received from Nike, his love for Lady Gaga, and what he continues to get out of skating.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did Stay On Board come about and what made you feel comfortable enough with the filmmakers to share your story with them?
“About six years ago Giovanni Reda, one of the co-directors, had been getting into storytelling about different skateboarders and said he wanted to do a doc about me. We’d crossed paths in New York and and I’d done a music video with him. So I was like, ‘Okay, sure. Let’s do it!’ Eventually I met producer Ember Truesdell and co-director Nicola Marsh and they both seemed like really dope people who were down to tell my story in an earnest way. So I felt comfortable because of the people that were in that first team and we’ve been together pretty much the whole way through.”
“I didn’t totally know what I was getting myself into or how long this process would take, or what would come up. In the beginning it was more of a simple idea: trans nonbinary skateboarder goes to the Olympics. That was the pitch. I hadn’t even really come out yet, but I was using they/them pronouns. Obviously, none of what happens in the doc was planned, but things happened to come to a head during the time that we were filming. It all unfolded naturally and ended up making for a great story about what it’s like to be a trans person.”
The best documentaries often end up starting out as one thing and then unexpectedly develop into something else.
“It’s so special to be able to witness that and capture it on film because it’s just real life happening. There are these twists all the time, stuff that comes up that you’re not expecting, including the pandemic. None of us were planning for that, obviously.”
Some of the footage that you shot during lockdown is really intimate and has a video diary vibe about it.
“My partner at the time, Mel, was down to shoot that stuff. She’s also in documentaries, so it made sense for her to help out to enable us get those really intimate settings. They wanted her to have a camera the whole time and I don’t like doing the selfie record thing, so it made it more natural having somebody that I’m comfortable with doing the filming. There would be times when we’d just be talking about stuff and then realize, ‘Oh, this would probably be good for the documentary’, so we’d decide to pull the camera out and start shooting.”
“We’d had the Handycam since day one of filming, so whether to capture something or not was always in the back of my mind when we were in that process of creating. It’s nice to not have to think about that anymore. Now I can just do something and not be thinking about whether it needs to be filmed for the documentary. I can just be like, I’m going to do this and nobody’s watching, which is amazing!”
After you made the decision not to go to the Olympics and to be public about your identity, you weren’t sure how things were going to pan out. So to see you be included in Tony Hawk’s video game and continue to get commercial endorsements from brands like Nike is really exciting to see play out in the film. How surprising did you find that and what did that support and acceptance mean to you?
“The timing of the Tony Hawk game was so on the cusp of things, because they’d asked me to do it before I came out and then I did my name change while they were still in the process of making it. So I was like, ‘Can you change the name?’ And they were like, ‘Yes, sure, no problem’. Thank God, because could you imagine that not happening or that being the last thing I did before I came out and it being in the world forever?! So it’s nice that I’d just crossed the line and then the game came out. They were down for it. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about coming out or how it might affect the game or anything like that. It was just a case of, I changed my name and now they’re going to use that name in the game. It was pretty simple, but I’m very grateful for the timing because fuck that would have sucked if it had happened before.”
What about Nike’s support?
“I’ve done a few collaborations with Nike, including one with my own skate company Glue, which was right after I came out. I’d had conversations with Nike before, telling them that I’m going to serve our partnership better if I’m doing what I want to do. They were very down for that which was helpful because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and I’m sure they weren’t either, but they were just like, ‘Alright, we’re just going to roll with it and see what possibilities come up’.”
“I’ve been with Nike since 2016, so they’ve been with me through all of this, which is awesome. They’ve been big supporters of me as a person and what I’m up to and that feels really good because I didn’t have that before when I was figuring out I was gay and then becoming more masculine. All these other companies were like, ‘No!’ But it was a very different experience with Nike, thank God.”
We see you on your guitar a few times during the documentary and then your beautiful track Hold Me Till We’re Home plays on the end credits. Was it always the plan to include some of your music in the film?
“Towards the end of the process, Nicola came up with the idea to do that and so I suggested Hold Me Till We’re Home. I wrote the song with franco (Phillip Nathan Lotz) three or four years ago and I thought it was really fitting. You can stream it on Spotify right now. I’ve got more music on the way, which is exciting. In the fall, my EP is coming out that I’ve been working on for the last couple years. I’ve been playing music for a long time and I plan to pursue it. Whether it’s more of a personal thing, where I’ll record stuff and put it out myself, or if other opportunities in the industry come along I’m open to that too. Because of the history of music in my family it’s always been on my radar, but I have to skate right now while my body is still able to do it. Then I can transition into other art forms later down the line when I’m not as athletically adept!”
I love the Lady Gaga singalong moment in the car that we see in the film, it’s an emotional scene.
“I love Gaga so much.”
So that was a track that you were genuinely listening to on the car stereo at that time?
“Yeah, it was, and I remember when Nic was filming it she was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get this scene in the doc because of that song’, but I was like, ‘I love this song!’ So luckily it all worked out, thank God and we got Gaga in there.”
How has Glue been going and has it already surpassed your expectations of what you hoped you could achieve with it?
“Yeah, totally. We got such a warm welcome when we launched the brand. People have been really psyched about it and said that it’s filling a void in the skate industry that has been there for a while. Although there are other skate companies that are queer owned and run too. It’s cool to see more than one version of being successful as a trans person. Yes, we’re making space for trans people, but that’s not the most interesting thing about us, it just happens to be one part of who we are. We’re also skaters, artists, and creative people and we want to make space for that as a whole, without being like, we’re a queer skate company.”
“There’s a lot of work that needs to get done and that’s pretty constant, which is awesome. I love running the company and I love my business partner, Stephen Ostrowski. They’re very creatively driven and have an extreme work ethic. They also have a very strong vision. Working with them is awesome because we’re both like, this is our baby and we love it. We’re both all in. That’s been a nice evolution, because I’ve done a lot of stuff by myself, so it’s great to be working together with somebody with equal commitment to the project. That’s really what I value most about Glue, my relationship with Stephen, the stuff that we create, and seeing how it’s affecting skating and the community for people that don’t have access to that sort of thing in other places.”
How does life in New York compare with LA?
“My experience of living in LA was isolating, but then I think that’s everybody’s experience in LA because you’re in a car sitting in traffic so much of the time. When I’m here in New York, everybody’s on the ground. Not only with skating, but with any creative process I’m involved in, I’m really informed by what’s going on in my environment. In New York, if there’s one day when there’s perfect weather I’m going to go skate and I’m looking forward to it all week because it’s been raining. The weather and changing seasons make for an energetic shift where you’re like, I’m really going to put myself into this right now because this is a really good time to do that. Whereas in LA, things were a little more bleak. It’s like, well, it’s sunny again, so I guess I could go out and skate for a little bit or play guitar in my room. In New York it feels like there’s so much more life here for a creative person. I met Stephen and a lot of other people that I’m close in New York.”
What do you continue to get out of skating after all these years?
“It’s been a such a long journey. When I was really young, it felt like I was in my head problem-solving when I was skating, I got into a flow state. Then during the early years of my success when things started to happen, my ‘why’ changed a little in nuanced ways. I was like, oh, if I do this, then I get that and those are what my dreams are. Now that I’m where I want to be, I’m discovering another version of, ‘why am I doing this?’ And it’s really gone back to that childhood thing. I like to go skate mostly by myself and get in my body and be centered. I’m not very social when it comes to skating, or anything else. I like to be in my process of doing my craft. It feels really good to continue to make progress on something that I love. I enjoy filming clips too. It’s a battle sometimes, but putting video clips together is a bit like a musician writing a series of songs until they have an album.”
“Skating is a spiritual thing at this point because now I’m only doing this for me. Skating gives me different ways to relate to myself and to see my growth. It goes really deep. I’ve developed patience and mindfulness in a way that I hadn’t before and that helps me relate to skating in a way that’s more peaceful. But there are moments of anger that I think a lot of people experience when they’re skating and something’s not working and you’re losing it. I really enjoy the process of figuring shit out, whether that be with music or skating or even building something in my house, and just being present with that. I still get so much out of skating and I think I will for a long time, until I can’t do it anymore, or maybe I’ll figure out a way to do it that’s less painful!”
One last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“That’s a tough one. The first thing that comes to mind is when I was 17 I became a huge fan of Tegan and Sara. It was The Con, If It Was You, and So Jealous on repeat for five years. Sometimes I’ll still go back to them, I love those albums. There are lots of people too. Recently I became friends with Emma Portner, who is an incredible choreographer, dancer, actor, and happens to also be a musician. The way that they relate to their art is very similar to the way that I relate to skating, so that’s been super impactful. We had a pretty groundbreaking conversation about our lives and our visions for our creativity.”
By James Kleinmann
Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story launches globally on Netflix on Thursday, August 11th.