Alden Ehrenreich often plays characters who don’t fit the molds that other characters try to jam them in. In Solo: A Star Wars Story, he stars as the younger version of the Star Wars universe antihero made famous by Harrison Ford: Han Solo, a brilliant and cunning non-conformist better suited to take on near-suicide missions with his Wookiee best friend than rising through the ranks of the Imperial Army. In Joel and Ethan Coens’ send-up of old Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, he’s a singing cowboy forced into the role of a comedic leading man.
And he seems to have done it again for Brave New World, the flashy adaptation of author Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic for new streaming service Peacock. Set primarily in a prosperous region dubbed “New London,” this is a futuristic world where everyone is happy and living their best lives — that is, everyone who has been genetically ordained to be at the top of the new world order’s caste system (the so-called “Alphas” and “Betas” of the society), has no interest in privacy, and is enjoying both a daily allotment of mind-numbing drugs and intercourse with new and familiar faces without any interest in monogamy.
Making up the lowest class in New London are human worker bees known as “Epsilons,” who are genetically designed to be obedient, inferior peons with the sole purpose of cleaning up all of this excess.
John identifies with their plight and stirs trouble with his radical thinking. He comes from a caste below the Epsilons of the city’s enlightened civilization: outcasts known as “Savages” who occupy the remnants of the land, which has the appearance of the seedier side of rural America. Their dusty outback doubles as a theme park where they put on skits for visiting New Londoners who want to gawk at the absurdity of concepts like wedding ceremonies, pregnancy, and Black Friday sales.
Ehrenreich’s John is a loner working behind the scenes on props and cleaning up the carnage after the theatrics. He lives with his depressed and neglectful mom (Demi Moore) and sees his life going nowhere. Through various circumstances gone awry, he ends up in the new world, where these humans with no boundaries nickname him “John the Savage.” They gawk and point at his most mundane activities as though he’s a celebrity — or, at the very least, someone who is the subject of a viral internet video.
“It’s a dystopia that’s dressed up as a utopia and feels a lot more relevant to the world that I’ve experienced; when there’s not an overt, necessarily, way that we’re being dominated by and controlled in these ways that are apparent to us,” Ehrenreich told Rotten Tomatoes via Zoom about what drew him to the role.
That blissful ignorance is what sets his show apart from other dystopian TV dramas like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The CW’s The 100, he said. Brave New World is more about the subtle ways we let a Big Brother–like figure – cyber or human – into our lives, like the way that almost nobody actually reads the small-type Terms and Conditions before clicking “yes” to download an app or visit a website.
The story is also not a direct translation of Huxley’s 1932 novel. While this may dismay some AP English literature teachers, Ehrenreich is here for it.
“I’ve been a part of a few things now that are adapted from books and other source material, and I think the most important thing is to find a way to express the central essence of the thing,” he said. “A lot of times, just strictly, they’re different mediums. So just being overly faithful to it ends up being a pretty boring movie or series, because you can get across a feeling or an idea in a book in a way you can’t in a film necessarily.
“I think the best way to serve the original source material is to change it to make it vivid and alive for the medium it’s now it,” he said.
Working with the actor bring the material to life are costars Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) as grasping Alpha counselor Bernard Marx, Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) as disillusioned Beta Lenina Crowne, Joseph Morgan as Epsilon CJack60, Kylie Bunbury (When They See Us) as Beta party girl Frannie, and Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) as Alpha master of ceremonies Wilhelmina “Helm” Watson.
The show also is one of several bullet points on Ehrenreich’s resume that highlight parts where he plays people who have fraught relationships with parents or authoritarian figures. See also: the movie Blue Jasmine or Matt Wolf’s documentary based on the Jon Savage (coincidentally) book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture.
Ehrenreich laughed when asked if this was intentional on his part and said he never thought about it much. But he also said it was almost inevitable because “if you’re playing a really deeply written and full character who’s under 35, their psychology, their worldview is very influenced” by parental figures and “it’s maybe more present in the story.”
Brave New World marks another major science fiction project for Ehrenreich. Does he have a particular passion for that genre?
“Not in and of itself,” he said. “I love the universe of Star Wars; I think that world is this incredible, mythological-rooted and incredibly imaginative world that George Lucas created,” he said, adding that Brave New World is very different.
“This is sci-fi being used to hold a mirror up to our world,” he explained. “This is not about an escape into another world. This is about exaggerating undercurrents of the world we live in so that we can see them and experience them more vividly.”