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[This story contains spoilers for Castle in the Ground.]
At 22, Alex Wolff has already had a full 16-year career in Hollywood. From his supernatural horror hit, Hereditary, to his expanding role in the Jumanji franchise, Wolff has even written and directed his own film, The Cat and the Moon. Wolff’s latest role as Henry in Castle in the Ground checks another box that is consistent with most acclaimed actors as his grieving, opioid-addicted character required dramatic weight loss. Since he was already quite lean, losing 30 pounds took its toll on the New York native.
“I only had a couple weeks before I started shooting. I know that [my diet] just didn’t turn out very well, and it turned out to be super unhealthy at the end of it,” Wolff tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I had a lot of problems, but I’ve now found out since then that there’s some totally better, more healthy ways that you can do it. And a can of tuna and an apple is not that.”
At the end of 2019, Wolff wrapped production on Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, and the experience went so well that he’s already collaborating with one of his co-stars on another project. That co-star happens to be one Nicolas Cage.
“I have a movie that I’m going to direct that I wrote and I’m really, really excited about it. And without spoiling too much, Nic is actually producing it with me,” Wolff shares. “I’m going to be starring in it… But yeah, I’d say it’s a character drama with elements of thriller. It’s definitely a psychological drama.”
In a conversation with THR, Wolff discusses Castle in the Ground’s impact on him, his Jumanji future and the text exchange he had with Cage regarding Cage’s new role as Joe Exotic.
You lost 30 pounds for Castle in the Ground. Did you subscribe to Christian Bale’s Machinist diet of one apple and one can of tuna per day?
Oh God. Yeah, I’ve heard of that. I’ve heard of a lot of different diets. I mean, mine was really interesting because I only had a couple weeks before I started shooting. It was like two or two-and-a-half weeks. I know that mine just didn’t turn out very well, and it turned out to be super unhealthy at the end of it. I had a lot of problems, but I’ve now found out since then that there’s some totally better, more healthy ways that you can do it. And a can of tuna and an apple is not that. (Laughs.)
Does a character like Henry ever frighten you to the point of being more cautious in your own life?
Interesting. I think more than anything, it really made me have empathy for people who make bad decisions. More than make me not make bad decisions, it makes me have more empathy for the people who make these kinds of decisions with addiction and everything. I see them more humanly.
As Henry showed, one wrong choice can create a ripple effect that has complete control over you.
Yeah, it just seems like this kind of thing happens so quickly. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing. This can happen so quickly once you start dipping your toe in this pool of these drugs and this kind of lifestyle. You just get completely sucked in, swept up, chewed up and spit out.
When your characters go through a difficult experience and you have to play those feelings and emotions that come with the territory, has that ever prepared you, to some degree, for a similar experience in real life?
I think it’s more the opposite. I mean, there are certain eerie times when life imitates art, but it’s more that my life experience becomes applicable to certain movies and characters. I can do some transference, but I don’t really think that anything that I’ve done in a movie has prepared me for anything in life. What I’ve done in movies has been a collection of my own experience.
I loved the voicemail scene between you and Imogen (Poots). Did you guys rehearse that scene since the timing is so precise and comedic?
I love that scene. We didn’t do much rehearsal in this movie at all. It was pretty guerilla warfare. (Laughs.) We could just go for it. So, we may have run through it a few times, but really, the rehearsal was us just kind of figuring it out as it goes along.
Maybe he had a crush or something, but I think it’s kind of deeper. He needed anything. He needed anything from her — whether it was romantic or to just be around her, I think he just needed somebody in his life to fill the void of his mom. I don’t think it’s as simple and as clean-cut as her replacing his mom, but I think it’s just that he needs something. He needs some family.
[This next question contains spoilers for Castle in the Ground’s ending.]
The movie ends on an ambiguous, full-circle moment, but given the unforgiving and relentless nature of the opioid crisis, I think history repeated itself in Henry’s mom’s bedroom. Was that your interpretation as well?
Well, I almost want to keep the end a secret for people who haven’t seen it. So, I kind of want that to be one of these big surprises. But I think you’re right. I mean, I’m thinking about it, but I think you’re right. He kind of gives into it eventually. I think he protests, but he lets her do it. I think it’s this moment where, yeah, it’s like history repeating itself. It’s like a prophecy or premonition that he’s going to end up doing it. I kind of want people going in, thinking that it’s going to go a different direction or thinking that it’s going to all come up daisies. You think it’s going to go that way, and then, I think it’s important that it’s like “nope.” It should end super hopeless and punishing because that’s how this actually ends. This is how these drugs usually end.
I loved how aggressively blunt Henry could be at times. He was pretty reserved for the most part, but he did not hold back when it came to Ana’s friends. For example, Tom Cullen’s character said to him, “You seem like a good kid,” and Henry responded, “Thanks, I kind of thought you were a piece of shit…”
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think it’s his only way of survival. I think he is shy, and I love that too. That was really a good element in the script, and I think we worked on beefing that up a little bit. He’s like a little boy, and I think little boys are like that sometimes. They put on a front of toughing it out, hence “I kind of thought you were a piece of shit…” But I think it’s also his way of giving and receiving love. I think it’s how he and Ana bond. I think it’s just his way of connecting.
Henry’s girlfriend, Rachel (Star Slade), had her own life while he was taking care of his mother. She was also going off to school soon. Was Henry’s decision to break up with her partially inspired by the fact that she didn’t need him as much as his mother or Ana did?
That’s interesting. That’s a really good question, but I didn’t see it that way. Maybe to a certain degree, but I would say that instead of her being more independent, I think it was about the fact that she was almost too good for him at a time when he couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle any kind of positive thing in his life. He wanted to be miserable. He wanted to follow the danger and follow his id, not what was healthy for him.
You started acting at six years old. Once you became old enough to make your own choices, did you ever sit down and assess whether you wanted to keep acting or not? Obviously, you made the right call, but sometimes, we hold on to things just because they’re all we’ve ever known.
I think about quitting acting every single day. I have a very love-hate relationship with it. The second I start a movie or when I’m not good in a scene, I’m like, “Fuck, I don’t want to do this anymore. This is hard.” You have to, in equal measure, be completely in love with it and need to do it. It feels like a need. It feels super deep and heartfelt.
Given the sad state of the world, have you done a screen test or chemistry read with another actor yet via Zoom?
Yeah, I’ve done a bunch of monologues and stuff with people, which has been really fun. I’ve been writing monologues and sending them to my friends, and I think that’s been really good. I’ve done some play readings on Zoom, but it’s not the same. It’s not great, but it’s okay. It’s better than nothing. The lag time is better than I actually expected, but it’s just still not perfect. It just isn’t.
You were an uncredited partygoer in Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, and you just had a supporting role in his latest film, Bad Education, which is excellent. Clearly, Cory felt guilty over the size of your Thoroughbreds part, right?
(Laughs.) He better have! He better feel guilty. No, I was shooting Patriots Day like an hour away from where they were shooting Thoroughbreds, and I knew the producer. So, I came just to hang out, and they just threw me in there, which was fun. But yeah, he’d better feel guilty for not giving me a bigger part. (Laughs.)
In Bad Education, I was quite fond of your outburst after Geraldine Viswanathan’s character pressures your character to publish her exposé, but he’s torn because of his recommendation letter from Hugh Jackman’s character.
That was kind of a fun day because Cory doesn’t usually have people improvising, but I kind of just went for it.
Oh my God, yeah. That better happen. That would be so amazing. I want that. Yeah, I think it would be full circle. To come back to the real world.
I think you just came up with the title.
Jumanji: Full Circle? Yeah, it better be that. Jumanji: Full Circle, I like that. The idea of all the kids, The Rock, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and everybody else in the real world makes me so unbelievably excited.
Recently, your name was on a very exciting list of actors in connection with a new movie from one of my favorite filmmakers, M. Night Shyamalan. Can you say anything about this?
(Wolff imitates static noise.) We’re going through a tunnel actually. Sorry, I’m going through a tunnel right now. There’s a tunnel in my house. Can you hear that? (Laughs.)
You’ve heard this quite a bit, but Hereditary’s car accident scene is one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen. Oftentimes, when the cast and crew know they have to shoot something dark like that, they find ways to keep the set as light as possible. Was that the case that day?
No, actually. That was not the case. For me, sometimes if they’re trying to make it too light, it’s kind of distracting. So, I sometimes have to just stay in the zone. I kind of just was wearing my headphones and trying to stay in the spirit of it. I think it’s sometimes too hard to completely jump in and out.
Did that scene mess with your head for a little while after shooting it? No pun intended.
(Laughs.) I think it did mess with my head in the moment. I think the whole movie was kind of difficult. It kind of stuck with me. I think that scene in particular definitely stuck with me at least for a few days. But I think that movie was like a constant attention-taker. I think it haunted me for a while.
This is a shameless question, but have you texted your friend Nic Cage about his brand-new role as Joe Exotic [of Tiger King fame]?
Of course, I have. Of course, I have. I said, “Are you playing Joe Exotic?” and he texted me back (Wolff imitates Cage.) “You bet your ass I am.”
It’s perfect casting.
When I first saw it, I said the only person who could possibly play him in a fictional world is Nic. I just feel like that guy is so larger than life, and anybody else would not be able to go there. Nic is the only person who can go there, I think.
Are you itching to direct again?
Yeah, man. I have a movie that I’m going to direct that I wrote and I’m really, really excited about it. And without spoiling too much, Nic is actually producing it with me. Yeah, I’m really excited about it.
Can you reveal the genre yet?
I would say it’s a character drama, and I’m going to be starring in it. I’m really excited about it. But yeah, I’d say it’s a character drama with elements of thriller. It’s definitely a psychological drama.
Castle in the Ground is now available on Digital HD and VOD.