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Alex Wolff is having one of the best weeks of his career as his two new films, Old and Pig, are the talk of the industry. In Old, M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest high-concept thriller, Wolff plays Trent, the 6-year-old son of Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), who rapidly ages up to 15 years old during the family’s time on a mysterious private beach. To play a 15-year-old who still thinks he’s 6 years old, Wolff relied on Shyamalan to steer him in the right direction, emotionally.
“Night really kept such beautiful track of it. He had such precision in terms of what age he wanted you to be and where he wanted you to be at that age,” Wolff tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So you couldn’t start thinking about it intellectually. Night would just guide you where you needed to be emotionally, and then it would happen naturally. That’s what’s so special about him. He’s completely hands on. He creates storyboards, and he wants you to match them. But at the same time, emotionally, he’s very open to letting things slither and letting them find their own way.”
Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, which co-stars Nicolas Cage, debuted in theaters last week, and has been met with rapturous reviews from critics and audiences alike. Wolff’s character, Amir, does business with Cage’s reclusive truffle forager, Rob, and the two go on a journey to find Rob’s missing truffle hog. The Neon-distributed indie not only gave Wolff his first direct offer as an actor, but he also gained a close friend in Cage, someone he’s admired for as long as he can remember.
“He’s been my North Star as an actor. I would always find a new performance of his to base each one of my performances on and kind of try and emulate him,” says Wolff.
In a recent conversation with THR, Wolff also discusses how Cage differs from his public persona, as well as the radio silence on the Jumanji front.
Between Pig and Old, you’ve given me two incredible gifts in the span of seven days, and best of all, they both have three-letter titles, which makes my job so much easier.
(Laughs.) They’re very concise. They get to the point. You could fit both of them twice in a headline: Old, Old, Pig, Pig.
As soon as I finished Pig for the first time, I immediately rewatched it. I was that enamored with it. So did you and Nic have to read together during casting?
No, man. Pig was one of those wild things. Usually, I have to bang down the door to get any job, ever. I’ve got to convince them I’m not terrible and that I can work on camera, even with this face. (Laughs.) This one was just a magical random thing. My whole life, I’ve worshipped Nic in a way that felt borderline obsessive. He’s been my North Star as an actor. I would always find a new performance of his to base each one of my performances on and kind of try and emulate him. And the magical thing is that the director [Michael Sarnoski] happened to enjoy some of my work, so he just offered this to me. It was one of these crazy random things that I’m sure I’ll never get again, and it did not go unnoticed. I didn’t take it for granted. It is very random and does not happen very much. So I am beyond lucky in that if I fail for the next 10 years and I can’t do anything that’s good, I at least have this magical, incredible movie.
It’s been well-documented that you and Nic are friends now, but prior to meeting him, I get the impression that you viewed him as this mythical figure like so many others do. So what ultimately surprised you about him? How did he defy your expectations?
That’s a good question. In some ways, that mythical image that people have of him serves him. He can be a fragile, vulnerable, easy-going, sweet guy in private, and then in the media and in public, they can create whatever myth they want of him. So it can be helpful because he can detach from it personally, as they don’t really see him for who he really is. But in some ways, I feel it’s a huge disadvantage because it can take away from the fact that he is a sensitive, open, warm and brilliant artist. So I think it’s important to remember that he’s an artist and an actor first, and an icon second, which is how I’ve always felt about him. So I guess it surprised me how kind, gentle and loving he is. That was all just very shocking to me.
Did you guys come up with a backstory for how Amir first linked up with Rob?
Privately, we both had our individual theories. We would go out for sushi a lot and discuss how they formed this friendship. But part of making a movie like this — and part of the joy of it — is showing up and letting the magic about how we met, as Nic and Alex, shine through these angles. Amir is an angle of myself. He is a reflection of a certain side of myself that I’m maybe embarrassed by. And I think Rob is a reflection of Nic that is definitely not at the forefront of his personality. So I think we were both getting to simultaneously exorcise our individual demons, while bringing our friendship to the surface as these characters. That can be such a one-in-a-million thing.
There’s an amazing scene where Rob tears into a chef for trying to be someone that he’s not. Thus, do you consider the classical music-related tapes to be Amir’s version of that since he’s trying to have refined taste like his father, played by Adam Arkin?
Yeah, we discussed that. We did think about that. I think everything is either a reflection of his father or a response to his father’s neglect. So everything is reflecting what his father did and didn’t do. But there’s also a lot of difference between Amir and [his father] Darius, as he doesn’t imitate him in every way. Instead, he’s kind of reactive. He dresses flashy and drives a flashy car. So in some ways, he’s the opposite of his mysterious, ominous father. But the hilarious part about the classical music is that he’s not even listening to classical music. He’s just listening to a tape that talks about classical music. I think it is a way for him to feel grounded or connected to his father, or connected to some sense of safety. I got really hooked on learning about Beethoven. It’s interesting. You’re the first person I’ve told this to, but I really based a lot of Amir on young Beethoven. I read this book about him, and he was sort of irritable. He thumbed his nose at everybody who gave him any type of appreciation, but I think he also desperately wanted to fit in. I think he worshipped Mozart, and it’s documented that he interacted with him and really wanted to impress him. So they had an interesting encounter. But I always considered Amir to be similar. He thumbs his nose at the world because he so desperately wants to be accepted.
Tell me about the shooting of the big dinner scene.
[Arkin] is a professional, so the first take was something really special. I found this to be the case for the whole movie, but when it’s going really well, you don’t think about, “Oh, this angle and that angle,” as much. It’s more like you’re going through a moment. Maybe you’re a little more focused on your close-up or a little more heightened on the other person’s close-up. And maybe there are some small adjustments, but generally, if it’s going well, I think you have to just roll with what’s going on and flow with it.
So last time we spoke, you had just been cast in Old, and when I asked about it, you pretended like you were going through a tunnel.
So now that you can talk about it, let’s start at the very beginning of the process.
I’m so sorry. I’m going through another tunnel right now. (Laughs.) So Old was one of those things where I sent out a self-tape into the abyss. There’s a big vacuum abyss of self-tapes, and when you send them, you don’t know if they go to anybody. You have no idea what happens. So sending self-tapes couldn’t feel like a more hopeless, less inspiring thing to do. But I sent it off, and I really didn’t think anything of it. And then randomly, I just heard, “Hey, Night really likes you in this. Would you like to read with him?” And I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Of course I would.” Even if I didn’t get it, the idea of just talking to Night and reading with him was insane. So I felt that we had a really powerful read together, and I was proud.
Did you read with Eliza Scanlen and Thomasin McKenzie?
Again, I was really lucky. I was one of the first people on the movie. I think Thomasin and I were first, and we got cast off our tapes.
So please attempt to describe how strange it feels when other actors are cast to resemble you.
I felt like, “Oh, these are just me.” It was almost like, “Yeah, these are young me.” It was trippy, but the castings were so good that it almost felt like a time machine. It felt like I was hanging out with my younger selves or something. It’s weird. So I never had that moment where it freaked me out. It was more like, “Yeah, this is perfect.” So I was just excited. I feel like so many people get it wrong, but damn, they killed it in this.
It’s going to be interesting to compare everyone years from now.
It’s going to be freaky.
Was there a moment early on in production where you recognized why Night has the reputation of being one of our boldest filmmakers?
I felt like it was when I read the script. You think, “Oh, this guy is the most bold, creative, exhilarating guy since [Akira] Kurosawa. He just doesn’t give a shit. He swings for the fences.” So I think his movies are always a brilliant, fascinating experience, and I think Old is one of his more incredible, original journeys.
By the time Night arrives on set, he knows every frame of his movies. Since you probably were aware of that, did you feel even more pressure to deliver than you normally would?
Yes and no. For the most part, I felt more at home and comfortable. There’s a reason why he is one of the best directors in the world, and there’s a reason why he gets the best performances out of everybody. He makes you feel like you’re in a safe space to emote and go deep.
How was shooting in the Dominican Republic? You were quite removed from the more common shooting locations such as Atlanta, Albuquerque and New Orleans.
Well, it’s funny. I think that a lot of people would prefer to hear that it was miserable just to make it a little less glamorous. But filming with Night on the beach was just goddamn amazing. From the first day, it was like, “Oh my God, this is our job?” So it was a gorgeous, beautiful shoot.
Did you stay at the hotel in the film?
Yes. At the very end, I did. But we stayed at another place for when we were shooting on the beach. We all stayed in this one resort, and it was so amazing.
Since you shot long hours on the beach, did they keep you guys hydrated and protected from the sun?
(Laughs.) During one of the pregnancy takes, I just passed out in the middle of it. But for the most part, we had the ocean. So we could just go swim in the ocean, which was pretty cushy.
One year passes every 30 minutes, so did hair/makeup try to depict Trent’s aging as closely as they could?
In some ways, yes, but it had more to do with acting and emotionally keeping track of where you are. Night really kept such beautiful track of it. He had such precision in terms of what age he wanted you to be and where he wanted you to be at that age. So you couldn’t start thinking about it intellectually. You didn’t have to say, “I’m this age and …” Night would just guide you where you needed to be emotionally, and then it would happen naturally. That’s what’s so special about him. He’s completely hands on. He wants you to do exactly what he wants, including his blocking and his very specific marks. He creates storyboards, and he wants you to match them. But at the same time, emotionally, he’s very open to letting things slither and letting them find their own way.
Your character, Trent, begins the movie at 6 years old, and then he quickly makes his way to 15, which is when you come in. Even though Trent still thought he was 6, you didn’t necessarily play him as a 6-year-old, right?
Well, that series of circumstances, which we won’t go into, ages him very quickly and very intensely. So, emotionally, he is developing, but he only has the experience of a 6-year-old. So you see that his intellectual wingspan is very limited, but his emotional wingspan gets wider and wider and deeper and deeper. So it’s an interesting dynamic as you watch a young person start to develop all of these angst feelings and go through puberty even though he really only has the intellectual grasp of a child.
Can we talk about the cave scene?
(Laughs.) No, no, no! I will not talk about that scene. I just can’t. I want it to be all spontaneous. I want it to be all secretive. I really do. I just think you have a better experience that way.
I respect that.
I still don’t even talk about the twist in Hereditary. I still don’t even talk about that. (Laughs.) I think movies are meant to be seen how the director wanted you to see them, and I think Night really wants everybody to just see it blind — without having any information.
When you’re on set, do people still pepper you with Hereditary questions?
Not every set. It happens in every interview, for sure, and pretty much every day on the street. On set, it happens pretty early on. Maybe they’ll bring it up in the beginning, which always makes my day and makes me really happy. But I take my work pretty seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, but I take the work seriously. Usually, I try to embody whatever the spirit is of the movie that I’m doing. But once you’re on another set and you’re up super late together doing a whole other movie, whatever movies you’ve done before fade away.
Night really likes rehearsal. Do you enjoy it as well? Most actors seem to either love or hate it.
That’s a good question. Yeah, I like it a lot. I learned to really fall in love with it doing theater. I wasn’t always that way, but I really fell in love with it when I was doing theater.
Can we say some nice things about Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Trent’s sister Maddox? You’re both part of an impressive class of younger actors.
(Laughs.) I think she’s in a whole other class than I am. She is one of the most terrific, explosive and ethereal actors that we have. I think she’s on par with Tilda Swinton, and I think that’s where her career is headed. She’s going to be this incredibly and beautifully odd, vulnerable and open person, and I just can’t wait to see her career develop. She’s incredible.
In our last conversation, you coined the title of the next Jumanji movie as Jumanji: Full Circle, which is still the perfect title for where things left off in The Next Level.
I literally think that should be the title. I’m not kidding. I’ve thought about it since then.
Since Karen Gillan recently told me that she hasn’t heard anything yet, I’m going to wager that you haven’t either?
(Sighs.) No, I wish I had, but no. But if I had, it should be called Jumanji: Full Circle, goddamnit. (Laughs.)
We have to wrap, but is there anything else you want to tease or plug?
Well, I always want people to see my first film that I directed, The Cat and the Moon. I’m going to direct another movie in the spring of 2022, so I’m really excited about that. In the meantime, I’m going to be acting in two movies. One starts in about two months, and the other one starts about two months after that. So it’s going to be a super busy year, but I really enjoyed certain months of solitude in the pandemic. I didn’t enjoy most of it, but it was nice having some solitude. So I hope some more of that is in the cards.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Old and Pig are now available in theaters.
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