Kai Hillebrand Interview


Kai. Portrait by Hendrik Herzmann

It’s not unheard of that some skateboarders have dabbled with a little modelling. Dylan Rieder, Ben Nordberg and Lucien Clarke are just a few that come to mind. Also there have been some skaters that are actors: Jason Lee, Steve Berra and Fabian Alomar. But has there ever been a skater that has done both? Has there been a skateboarder/model/actor? With three movies under his belt and moving into his second 3-year modelling contract Kai Hillebrand could be the one. After speaking with Kai, it’s pretty incredible he is where he is today considering how he grew up. As he sat in his Berlin flat I spoke to Kai via FaceTime about his humble beginnings, why he models, getting ripped off for his role in This Ain’t California and more.

Photography by Hendrik Herzmann
Interview by Will Harmon

Kai, where did you grow up?
Kai Hillebrand: I grew up in Ratingen. It’s a close town, like a small town, next to Düsseldorf.

And then how did you get into skateboarding?
I grew up in this neighbourhood, this like ‘social neighbourhood’ kind of style, so everybody was kinda poor. And my friends from downstairs, the Polish guys, they had a skateboard from their father and it was an old Powell Peralta board and they put it out one day and were like ‘lets go to the hill’. So we started bombing hills sitting down on the skateboard and then after awhile Tony Hawk’s (Pro Skater) was coming out and I had a Playstation and I was playing it on there and I wanted to have a skateboard so bad at this time. But my father didn’t have a job and my mum didn’t either so I was not able to get one. So finally I got a discounted skateboard with super shitty grip tape and the colour way of the graphic from the bottom on the top too. The grip was like just rocks glued on the top.

Haha, yeah…
So I had this for a while and then my dad got a new job and then after a while he took my brother and I for Christmas to Titus. So then I got my first proper skateboard and then I kinda went all in from there.

So how old were you then?
That was when I was 13.

Not many skateboarders are like you as you’re into modelling and acting as well. When did those things come into the picture? Was skateboarding first?
I mean skateboarding was first for sure. I kind of developed myself to get into the role of where I am right now, out of skateboarding… ‘Cause I was chilling with all these guys from my hometown and like just doing bullshit, like fighting a lot with people, like with all the Russian guys. I don’t know I had a lot of fights when I was growing up from skateboarding and I also got to know all my friends from nowadays as well. They are like my closest friends who I started skating with and they kind of showed me that there’s a different kind of way of treating human beings. ‘Cause I was literally going up to people and like punching them in the face because they looked at me and I was like: ‘why the fuck are you looking at me?’

Yeah, yeah.
I would just punch them because… Me and my brother were like the only German guys in this kind of neighbourhood.


50-50 grind in Krefeld. Ph. Herzmann

I moved there when I was like four years-old, and I kind of grew up with this attitude. There were fights every day. After every football match we had fucking fights. So some of my skate homies were from better neighbourhoods, and I saw how they were being really relaxed with other people. I saw how it could be to not be the fucking asshole from school. Because they were older, these guys were teaching me how to live my life by not being aggressive and punching everybody. They kind of moved me into this calmer place in my life and then after awhile I started skating for a skate shop. So then I started getting involved in skateboarding more and more and this was kind of the start of it.

I’m sure you were easier to hang out with then. So did these friends introduce you to new things?
Yeah these guys I was hanging out with did different kinds of stuff. For example like me, I was smoking weed from when I was 13. I’d be high all day and was always trying to get some new weed and like stealing stuff in shops and just doing bullshit and then those guys were like: ‘ah we are going to a festival. We’ll go there then we’re gonna do a little trip after’. And then you discover new places and you go see different kinds of people and you go and see how they work together pretty well… And then when I went to this festival I got scouted to be a model. I got hooked up with an agency and I was working with them and they started sending me to Paris and Milan, and to fucking everywhere… The first job was like a Top Man shop campaign in London. I went to London the first time for like three days, I was already 18 at this time, but it was kinda like the start of it. And then I was just like running with it, and I went to castings and I got my first movie…

So it’s all moved pretty fast then. What was your first movie?
It was called Swans. It was like a seedy movie; I don’t even want to talk about it. (Laughs) No, but it was a good start for me because the guy playing my father was this really famous German actor and I had looked up to him for a long time.


Backside 180 in Berlin. Ph. Herzmann

What was his name?
Ralph Herforth.

Ah I haven’t see that film, but I have seen This Ain’t California.
Yeah that was my second movie. Martin Persiel, the director, got me on that.

Do you know if a lot of people have seen it? Do you think it made you a bit more famous or no?
I think it just surprised my friends. In the beginning it was kind of a secret that we were acting in the movie, because they (the filmmakers) went to the Biennale, the film festival where everything is original from ‘back in the day’.

Yeah, yeah that was weird.
So that was kind of how they won the documentary award thing…

Yeah and what did you…
So they didn’t even write me down as an actor for the movie; I wasn’t even named in the movie. Like I was named in the end of the movie but like further, further down in the movie… It’s like people who worked on the movie and then it was kinda hidden. I wasn’t named as an actor.

Yeah and what do you think about that? Do you think that was kind of cheeky for the director to do that?
Obviously they were coming from a commercial TV, movie kind of situation… So they wanted to make it more blown up, even at the point when it was coming out that there were like actors in the movie, the controversy was like really good publicity for the movie as well. I didn’t even get paid well. And people thought I got paid good money for it, but I got fucking 1600 Euros for the movie. (Laughs)


Frontside boardslide pop-out in Berlin. Ph. Herzmann

Wow that’s not that much yeah…
So it was like a hype project for me… Well not like a hype, but like from my heart. I like skateboarding and I like the director, and I was really into the movie and I looked at the screenplay and I was like ‘fuck I really want to do this; I just don’t give a fuck. I’m just going to do it even for 1600 Euros…’ Like why not?’

Yeah I see.
But then I signed the worst contract, because like if the movie was going to play pretty well in the theatres… In the end I didn’t sign the right contract to get good money, like buy outs for the next year so I didn’t get anything (else)… Just 1600.

Did you not have an agent? Or someone? Or was it just a modelling company agent that didn’t really do anything?
Yeah I had like a model agent, but I did this job, like by myself. So I managed myself as a kid – as a stupid kid.

You know better now at least.
Yeah I know better now for sure. In the end I’m like pissed off a little bit, but on the other hand I’m pretty fine with it, ‘cause I watched the movie the first time in the theatre, and I was literally crying in the end.

Yeah it’s put together well. OK so you’ve got quite a lot of things going on. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of modelling work and you’re waiting for a visa now to go back to New York. I know that modelling is very demanding and so is skateboarding so how do you… Well, what route do you want to go down?
I mean, in the end there’s a good way to do both because you have castings and then you can go skate. That’s what I do always when I’m in New York. It’s kind of awkward if you see the guys in New York and they see you and then one day you’re in a kind of ‘skatey’ outfit and the next day you’re a bit more dressy because you have to go to a Ralph Lauren casting so it’s kind of like… In the beginning I had problems with it because I worried that people were going to hate on me because they didn’t even know me but in the end everything went pretty well.


Boardslide in Berlin. Ph. Henrik Biemer

Do you mean the modelling people or the skaters in NYC?
The skaters.

Really the skater guys? You were worried about them?
Yeah, yeah, but in the end, I saw Quim Cardona on a shoot.

And he was just like: ‘dude, do whatever you need man. Everyone needs cash. That’s what I’m going to do here, production for the set.’

Ah OK, yeah set design. So you just approached him and you say ‘oh hi, I skate’?
I saw him, then I saw his hat, he had this little Rastafarian hat, and I was like ‘damn I know him’ and there was this other guy, like a tattooed guy from New York, he was on the set too and was helping him out, he’s was a skater as well, and I asked him: ‘dude, like I know this guy but I don’t know where from, blah blah, blah…’ So that guy told me ‘it’s Quim Cardona’ and I was just like ‘damn son!’

That’s sick.
And then I just went straight up to him and was like: ‘you’re a fucking legend. It’s an honour for me to work next to you and if you need any help let me know’. And he was just like: ‘do your thing and get that money, and do your skating’ and like… Anyway you need to have money to go skating. That’s also kind of the situation.

So who are your sponsors now? Do any of them pay you money?
I skate for adidas and I get money for adidas, like a little money, every month. Also I get a little travel budget.

And who were you getting boards from?
Um right now I’m getting my boards from Quasi.


Pupecki grind in Paris. Ph. Herzmann

Oh cool.
I got my boards from Beast Distribution for like half a year and recently the Quasi guys wanted to have an update from me every three months or something like what I’m doing and blah blah blah… So they lurked out on my Instagram in the beginning and were like ‘ah maybe he doesn’t shoot that much’ but then in the end it’s like whatever… It’s just my job and I signed a fucking contract to push my Instagram so I have to do this as well…

Ah yes your Instagram! That was another question I had because if you look at your Instagram it’s like a load of modelling shots and it’s really cool black and white stuff…
(Kai laughs) I have a secret Instagram nobody knows!

Ah OK, ha! Well the one I saw was ‘the banana cake’ one (@kaiobananacake), and I wondered, like if some people might look at it and say ‘aw yeah he’s not really for us, he’s kinda cool’. A couple of people when I said I was going to interview you, I won’t say their names, but they were like ‘ah we met him, we thought he was going to be this kind of cool guy, kind of a dick you know, but we met him and he’s like the nicest guy ever’.
So this means like… It’s a good way for me I guess?

It’s a good way definitely. It’s just that the way your Instagram is could be construed differently from maybe how you really are… You know?
I mean, fucking that’s social media. In this fucking… I’m getting paid if I post something.

Oh, OK.
Sometimes. And I’m moving into this, not fashion blogging thing, but if there’s an option and I signed a contract with a freelance girl who I know, who is like my booker and she’s really into the social media thing. So she’s pushing me in my social media and she’s getting me jobs right now. For example, next week on Monday and Tuesday I’m going to post pictures in fucking colour because they give me money for it.

Yeah yeah. But is it always pictures of you always yeah?
Yeah that’s the worst thing (laughs)

Ha! More selfies.
I hate this, haha.

But when you post skate stuff it’s just you, and that’s just like your normal Instagram? You’ll just do that ‘cause you like it right?


Bump to bump kickflip in Berlin. Ph. Herzmann

There’s not much of it though, haha.
You mean not much skateboarding? Yeah I mean, anyways I’m not that much into like pushing myself that much into this direction. It’s not that I want to be like the ‘Instagram skater’ and getting like a million followers because of my skateboarding… Can I say that? Maybe I don’t know. Maybe I got the Instagram followers because of skateboarding but then in the end most people they unfollow me because the next day I’m going to post a picture of myself…

Yeah, but maybe they don’t understand that you’re getting paid for that?
Yeah and I don’t care. Like I don’t care about those guys if they feel like ‘oh I don’t like this guy and I don’t like him being a model’ or something and ‘I don’t like how he looks, and he looks like kind of a nause-up guy.’ I mean, in the end fuck… I just think everybody should build their own reality in their reality and not on fucking Instagram.

Yeah, I know what you mean.
If they’re hanging out on Instagram every fucking day then that’s their own mistake you know?!