As you probably know by now, I adore Hereditary. I love, love, love, love that movie. I love how fucked up it is, I love writer/director Ari Aster's attention to detail, both visual and character-wise, I love the pacing, tone and acceleration into madness and I love how it has absolutely wrecked both audiences I've seen it with now.
None of that would be possible without a kickass cast and while everybody shines this movie really boils down to Toni Collette and Alex Wolff for me. They get put through hell here and both absolutely shine in their roles.
So you can imagine I was super psyched to get to talk with Alex Wolff about the making of this movie. The dude started off a Nickelodeon kid actor and has graduated to this incredibly complex, unquestionably fucked up role of a lifetime.
I think we did a pretty good job of avoiding spoilers, so you should be free and clear on that front. Wolff was a very fun and funny interview, as you'll see by our very first interaction. He also proved to be a real-deal cinephile and actually knew his shit, which is refreshing when you're talking to someone so young.
Enjoy the chat!
Alex Wolff: Hey, Eric.
Eric Vespe: Hey, man. How're you doing?
Alex Wolff: I'm good, I'm good. I'm in the middle of a junket and I'm looking at some pretty delicious breakfast, but I'm not going to be eating on the phone with you, so I'm just staring at it and it really, really looks good. Just know that's how much I care about you that I'm not just stuffing bacon into my mouth because it looks so good and if I have one bite that'll be it... Okay, I am going to eat it. I'm sorry. I care about you, but it looks too goddamn good.
Eric Vespe: That's okay. I ask some pretty long-winded questions so there's plenty of chewing time to be had.
Alex Wolff: Okay, great!
Eric Vespe: So, your character is put through some crazy stuff in this movie...
Alex Wolff: Yeah, no shit!
Eric Vespe: Everybody goes through hell in this movie, but your character in particular is put through the ringer. I'd like to start by asking how you emotionally prepare for a role like this. I assume it's not as easy as just turning it on in front of the camera and turning it off when they yell cut. There's got to be some ramp up and cool down to go to the places that you go in this movie.
Alex Wolff: Oh yeah. I think it's safe to say that I was deeply, deeply, deeply affected by every single moment that this character goes through. I kind of stayed in that space for the whole movie, so I left the movie with a little PTSD. It was a serious feat and a serious trauma. I feel super lucky that I got to do it, but it was definitely an upsetting thing to go through. Me and the director, Ari, had this sort of pact. We were like “Alright, let's both get into a kamikaze plane and crash into the ground. We'll both jump into the fire together and we'll both get burned and then we'll help lift each other up afterwards.” We had this very close, familial relationship throughout the movie.
Eric Vespe: There's a scene in the movie I want to talk about. I was already onboard with this film, but there's a moment that happens about halfway through the movie where I went from just digging the movie to being fully invested and it's a moment that rests almost solely on a close up on you reacting to something horrific. How much pressure did that put on you? You have to do so much and there's no place for you to hide.
Alex Wolff: Thank you so much, man.
Eric Vespe: I think this moment really sets the movie on track for the craziness that follows and you sell it. Did you know all the time that Ari was going to milk your reaction as much as he did?
Alex Wolff: I knew when I saw the movie. I didn't know. There were a lot of other things we did, but he chose to stay on that shot for so long. I'm glad because I gave it everything I had.
It's one of those things that's hard to talk about. I just want people to see it for themselves. It was really upsetting to shoot. It's funny, we did that angle and I remember crying and sweating and Ari was hugging me. I thought I was done and I went back to the trailer, thinking it was over, and they were like “Actually, we're going to do one more. We're going to do a different shot.” I was like “Jesus Christ” So I had to get back into it. He used that, too. It's all in one close up, but he does use this one shot that's a little further back that is pretty upsetting, too.
I just feel lucky that I have a director who trusted me enough as an actor that he'd hold it on my face. I really think Ari is a genius. He knows what he's doing.
Eric Vespe: I got to talk to him a little bit...
Alex Wolff: He's not a genius at interviews! But he's a genius at directing. (laughs)
Eric Vespe: He said something really interesting about the influences he had for the movie, which were more '50s and '60s melodramas instead of horror. Did he give you any homework when you got the part? Any particular films he wanted you to watch?
Alex Wolff: I'm a pretty big cinephile, so I take pride in the fact that there weren't many movies that he suggested that I hadn't seen, but there were some. I'd never seen In the Bedroom and I'd never seen The Ice Storm. He's also obsessed with Wong Kar-Wai and stuff, but those two movies he told me to watch them.
Actually, no. I'd seen The Ice Storm before. I don't know what I'm talking about, but I watched it two or three times while making the movie and I watched In the Bedroom a few times. I'd just be keeping these movies on repeat. He's seen every single goddamn movie on planet Earth. I consider myself a pretty big cinephile and I've seen so many movies, but man, this motherfucker gave me a run for my money.
Eric Vespe: As a cinephile working with a fellow cinephile I would assume that helps strengthen the trust between you two and would give you some cinematic shorthand.
Alex Wolff: Absolutely. A hundred percent. That was part of our initial connection and knowing we were on the same page with this movie.
Eric Vespe: Did he bring any of that into the direction? Like “This is how this moment should be played, just like this moment in Hitchcock's Psycho.” That kind of thing.
Alex Wolff: I remember one time he compared a moment to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. He would sometimes bring references in, but he really wanted me to craft my own performance and he really wanted to craft his own movie. As much as we were inspired by other movies we never wanted to imitate other movies. We wanted to create our own thing. But it's really Ari, man. Ari's got a specific vision. He's a genius.
Oh, and Chinatown. Chinatown was one we talked about All. The. Time.
Eric Vespe: I like all the films you mentioned. There's such dark tones to The Ice Storm and Chinatown.
Alex Wolff: Yeah, we never really talked about horror movies.
Eric Vespe: Can you talk a little about the script? Was everything on the page? Did you know what you were in for from day one?
Alex Wolff: I thought it was a great script, but I didn't quite know how uniquely it was going to be shot. I read the script a bunch of times. I read it about a year before I went in for it. I read it and I was like “This script is unbelievable.” I was terrified. It left a bad feeling in my stomach. At the end of reading it the first time my mom walked into my bedroom and I screamed out loud. It scared the shit out of me!
I thought it was a unique, interesting script. Then I went in to audition for it and I had to break down and cry and all this stuff and the way he worked with actors... I was like “Okay, this is an amazing script, a delicate, intricate, specific script, with a director who cares about actors and knows how to work with actors.” Then I got on set and was like “Okay, this is a genius script where people talk how people actually talk. I have a director who is making sure the performances are grounded AND this camera shit he's doing is some of the craziest shit I've ever seen.” It felt like a triple punch. He knew exactly what he was doing in every sense of the word.
Eric Vespe: Nice, so there was no first time feature filmmaker fear on your part, then?
Alex Wolff: Well, I had a little bit of fear. This was a pretty big movie, a pretty crazy stunt to pull off for a first time director, so I was testing him and making sure. That scene where I'm under the bleachers is the moment I hold dearest to my heart and I was like “Hey, man. What do I do?” He was like “I think you should just have a panic attack.” That's awesome. It's a good way of saying it. “Just have a panic attack.”
Eric Vespe: Thanks so much for your time. Hopefully you were able to sneak some bites of breakfast while we were talking!
Alex Wolff: Thank you so much, Eric. I'll talk to you soon.
Hereditary opens this Friday. Go see it! Bring an extra set of underwear. You'll need it...