After a breakout year in 2018, actor/writer/director Alex Wolff looks to finish 2019 on a wave of momentum and stellar reviews; while poised to make 2020 even more spectacular. While collecting innumerous accolades and an impressive box office haul for his starring role in Ari Aster’s Hereditary opposite Toni ‘was-robbed-of-an-Oscar-and-we’re-still-not-over-it‘ Collette, Wolff simultaneously watched the receipts roll in for his the end-of-year smash hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (he will also return for the sequel Jumanji: The Next Level this December). Our new “Crown Prince” of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, the veteran actor trekked to Toronto with not one or two but three Fresh features, including the HBO pickup Bad Education starring Hugh Jackman.
Just days away from his 22nd birthday (yes, you read that correctly — twenty-two — and no, we can’t wrap our heads around it either), Wolff will soon hit theaters both in front of and behind the camera for his feature debut, The Cat and the Moon. In the film, we follow Nick (Wolff), a teen who explores the streets and dark jazz rooms of New York City with a friend of his late father after his mother unexpectedly abandons him to enter rehab. We recently caught up with Wolff to chat about his Five Favorite Films (a series he’s a surprising expert about), give him a few recommendations, and find out if acting or directing was his first love.
What don’t I love about Taxi Driver? Taxi Driver is my favorite performance, and it’s my favorite score — Bernard Hermann, man. I was talking to someone today about why it’s the greatest film of all time. It turns this kind of sadistic ticking time bomb of a man who’s falling apart at the seams into this dreamy, seductive, gorgeous portrait of a vulnerable person. It turns all this sadism and all that deep hatred for the world into this empathetic, Holden Caulfield-type, just deeply pained truth. Not even to mention how it ties into today’s isolation. It’s a movie made in the ’70s that’s more relevant now than ever. It’s needed to show how this sort of isolation, this sort of alienation, can lead to rage and vengeance, but can also be used for good. It’s this crazy luck of the draw — Travis Bickle could have gone in either direction. He could have become this horrible man who murders a bunch of innocent people, but then he latches onto the idea that he has to murder all the bad people. I find that to be such a beautiful concept. Not to mention that it’s shot with these gorgeous reds and greens that are so lush. To watch, it’s like chewing a chocolate bar. It just melts in your mouth, that film. It’s everything I love about movies. It’s the smoothest, most velvet, but also the roughest and the deepest pit of despair you could go into. It’s everything. It’s everything in one film.
Are you excited for The Irishman?
So excited. So excited! Little worried about the special effects, though. Actually very worried about the special effects, but excited.
I recently saw it. They’re pretty amazing; I’m not going to lie.
Al Pacino is a god in all actorly things. Pesci is just as good. I was like, “And the Oscar goes to…” It was so good. So good.
That’s amazing. I’m jealous. I can’t wait.
What’s to say about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that someone else hasn’t already said? It’s perfect. Milos Forman, wow. It’s the most soulful, most heartfelt movie ever made. It’s hilarious. The most dynamic performances — Jack Nicholson’s just robust persistent optimism in that movie is so infectious. His complete lack of sympathy or empathy for anyone who wants to reject life. That character is something so unique. I don’t know if it’s ever existed in the way that it did in that. Not to mention the whole ensemble of Danny DeVito, Brad [Dourif], everyone in that movie is incredible. I find that it’s got such a sense of humor and such a light touch, but it’s also got such a deep, patient eye. I love it. I absolutely love it. I saw it in theaters the other day and just sobbed. I saw it with my dad, and we were both weeping. It’s such a nice uniting film between many generations. It’s got a universal, timeless quality.
In terms of directing, what he does in that movie is kind of impossible. He has no real scope. He’s in that asylum, and yet it’s this delicious, not bleak movie to watch. All the greens and whites, everything is so pretty. Just the cigarette smoke, and the way he navigates the camera around that area and all the color palette and his choice of shot, it’s really a feat. Only once you’ve made a movie do you see how much you rely on your surroundings and your environment and how I was spoiled because I was shooting in New York on these rooftops. It’s not even fair. I’ve got all these buildings and these lights and these streets and the homeless people and all this crazy, vivid environment. To shoot a movie in one location essentially and make it that lush and interesting; to be fascinating the entire way through without it feeling like a play on wheels. I can’t understand it. I’ve seen it a billion times, and I can’t understand it. Like how is that possible?
Those performances. Timothy Hutton’s performance in that is probably the most directly inspiring to me, and that’s a young guy at the top of his game, emotionally raw, and brings everything that a young actor could want in a performance. I feel that that film is the most heart-wrenching and true portrait of a family maybe I’ve ever seen. To describe it well would reveal too much. That’s what’s brilliant about it. Everyone should watch it and watch Mary Tyler Moore with Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe that movie. It seems like such a simple concept, and yet Robert Redford kills it.
The scene that always gets me, hits me so hard, is a small scene that not many people would say they love. Most say the big breakdown scene with Judd Hirsh. For me, it’s the scene where Timothy Hutton has been going to Judd Hirsch for a little bit, and he’s opening up. It’s such a journey of what it means to be vulnerable and the importance of vulnerability in your own family, especially after trauma. My character in The Cat and the Moon is very much inspired by Timothy Hutton’s character in Ordinary People. His journey of being so closed off and edgy to cracking open into this well of unmined emotion. Particularly the scene where he and Donald Sutherland, who’s amazing as well, are decorating the tree — ugh, the Christmas tree. It’s such a sweet scene. Mary Tyler Moore comes home, and she’s got this cold, dark look on her face. I’ll never get over her facial expressions in that movie. What she’s thinking versus what she’s putting on the surface is the most genius magic trick. It’s the most exhilarating thing ever. That movie is the best.
Two Days One Night, it’s perfectly directed. The way the Dardenne brothers frame her, making her kids’ bed before she goes and tries to overdose in the bathroom — it stays in that one shot. It’s this wide shot, handheld, which nobody does like the Dardenne brothers. I’ve tried to chase it; there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like watching a scene unfold and becoming something you did not expect in the beginning of the shot. It’s like one shot can tell an entire three-course meal. Also, that movie is one of the few movies that made me uncontrollably sob at the end, because of her power, the sweetness of it. I can’t believe the sweetness; it made me so raw and vulnerable. It’s not just that it’s tragic. It’s such a small story, but I connect with it. I connect with needing people and needing for them to hear from you. I feel like getting heard at the end of the movie, or not getting heard, depending on how you look at it, is so unbelievably moving. Marion Cotillard is the god of our generation. Not a goddess, she’s god!
Al Pacino’s performance is connected to something deep in my psyche; he feels like a wild animal trapped in a place and running around manically. I love the mania of Al Pacino’s performance. I feel a connection to that hyper energy and burning ball of rage. It’s so great how he turns the whole movie. He becomes the hero that you wouldn’t expect, and everybody is cheering for him. I love that. I think in my film it does kind of the same thing. He doesn’t seem like your hero, but he becomes that. Not to mention the fact that this movie, it keeps the kinetic thriller energy, but at the same time, there are there these scenes that you can’t believe they’re still going on, these hilarious seemingly improvised bursts of energy. Between Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet and John Cazale, it’s unforgettable and beyond inspiring, to say the least. You’re rooting for both of them even though you don’t want to be. It’s perfect. You fall in love with them, and they fall in love with each other. It’s genius — perfection. I know that’s five but can I have an honorable mention?
This picking five is stressing you out, huh? You’ve read every entry in the series, and know more than anyone else I’ve interviewed, so I will give you an honorable mention. Just don’t tell anyone one.
Okay, Great! All the President’s Men is my honorable mention. The performances are the biggest inspiration in terms of pure realism. It feels like I’m watching a documentary between Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. That movie, more than any movie in the world, feels like I’m watching a real thing unfold. So bravely un-cinematic, and let me say in the most complimentary of ways, those shots are simple but very nuanced and controlled. The performances are totally free and loose, but you never feel a moment of “drama.” It’s what I look to before I do a movie. Almost always before I act in a movie or before directing a movie, I watch the performances because they feel like reality. That it’s next-level s–t.
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: You were recently a part of two huge films in the pop-culture consciousness, but they’re completely different: Jumanji and Hereditary. What was that like?
Alex Wolff: That’s a really cool question. There were a couple of other films that I was part of that came out at that time, so I saw it more as a clump of films that I was really proud of. I did House of Tomorrow, then My Friend Dahmer then Jumanji, then Hereditary, and then I started developing my film The Cat and the Moon. Yeah, Hereditary was this crazy overnight thing. I remember prepping to shoot my film, seeing all these articles popping up on people’s phones. Everyone was like, “Hey, your movie is killing at Sundance.” I was like, “Oh, cool.” I don’t think much of it. I’ve been part of enough things that people say are going to hit and then don’t, so who knows what’s going to happen? That one was just crazy, though, because it came out of nowhere, and it just seemed to hit me in the face. Jumanji, it was like a “Phew!” because they put a lot into it, a lot of money, and a lot of people were part of it. I had such a great time doing it, but that was a huge relief; it was well-received. My Friend Dahmer also did way better than people thought. Hereditary was such a challenging and exciting experience. I was so proud of what we did. That’s a long-winded way of say I still haven’t really processed it. It’s kind of crazy. I know that now I can’t walk down the street without people looking at me and knowing my face. I’m like, okay…. okay.
Which one do people on the street mention most?
Easy. Hereditary, and they make the clicking sound. [Laughs] And a lot of people say they hate me and that I traumatized them for life, but I just take that as I’m doing a good job.
The Cat and the Moon is your first feature as director. Was this the goal from the beginning?
Acting was always number one. It’s still number one. It’s the love of my life. It’s the thing that I do. It’s my job and the thing I’m the most obsessed with. I believe that writing, directing, and acting are all part of the same sphere of creativity. They’re all achieving the same thing for me, just in different ways. Writing and directing is this cool way of expressing it. I find that they’re unfortunately separated somehow when people talk about them. We’re all trying to make a great movie. That’s what I love. I love good movies, and I love the artistry around all of it. Writing, directing, and acting, to me, are part of the same world. It’s like you’ve got the tricep and the bicep and the elbow, and it’s all making your arm.
Was there anything that you saw from working with Ari Aster, Cory Finley, or some other director that made you say, “Okay, I want to apply that my directing?”
Yeah. Peter Berg, who’s an executive producer on The Cat and The Moon. Peter Berg and Ari [Aster] and Corey Finley, whom I’ve worked with twice, and all these other amazing directors that I’ve gotten to work with, were fully responsible for easing my nerves. They talked me through what it’s going to be like and what to prepare for. What I learned from them was to have full confidence in what I was trying to make. Ari, Peter, and Cory are all bold filmmakers in their own right and specific filmmakers. They make films that are personal to them. I knew I would hate myself forever if I tried to put in complex steady cam shots, because that’s not what this movie called for. Maybe I’ll do that in the future, but I knew this movie was fully in the heart of the Dardenne brothers. A patient character study that needed the camera to be still and patient to feel like this beautiful eye was watching what was going on. They told me to have full conviction in what it was, what I was doing, and try not to create something that was bulls–t.
As a working actor, was casting the film easier or more difficult, and is your brother in any way mad that you didn’t cast him?
My brother has got enough going on; he was so busy. He helped me produce it, but yeah, he’s really mad. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding. He is in it, though. You’ll not notice but it’s his voice in the background of a scene. I won’t tell anybody which. We recorded on an iPhone, and we ended up using it because it was so funny. I’m screaming at him on the street.
And the casting?
It was easier than I thought it would be. It was really easy to audition because I was so excited that people were reading my dialogue. I loved seeing them improvise, and that was part of what made me cast them. I cast people who could improvise great stuff. Getting kids or teenagers who can do that is kind of few and far between. For this film, there’s a lot of different types of things that demand personal magic and demand a certain type of spontaneity that can make this type of film work, that if it doesn’t have it, the film falls flat. Most of the people didn’t audition. I knew Tommy Nelson, who plays Russell. He was in the film called My Friend Dahmer with me. Stefania Owen, I’d done Come through the Rye with, and she was amazing. Actually, no, Julian did an audition. I made my friend audition. I’m a terrible person. But it was because I hadn’t seen him in that type of part. Mike Epps, I just offered it to him because I saw him in these two amazing movies. I saw him in this film Bessie and in Sparkle. I thought he was amazing in both of them. I didn’t even remember that I’d seen him in The Hangover — lots of New York actors. There’s a bunch of amazing actors in New York, and everybody brings something really interesting to the table. It was hard choosing honestly.
You said giving a log-line is a bit stressful, so how about you give us the three films you’d recommend to watch before or have same the vibe of your film?
You love those honorable mentions
Yeah, well I love these movies; it’s so hard to choose.
The Cat and the Moon is in theaters October 25th.