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[This story contains a spoiler for Hereditary]
There’s a moment in Hereditary that star Alex Wolff keeps getting asked about.
It’s a simple shot of his character Peter’s face as he sits in a car, knowing that when he turns around, his life will be forever changed. It’s the kind of tension writer-director Ari Aster masterfully crafts in his directorial debut, the tale of a family dealing with loss and the burden of legacy. The film has been earning critical acclaim and will undoubtedly wind up as one of the most-talked-about horror releases of the year.
Wolff says his director didn’t say much to him about it on the day they filmed the scene.
“It is a weird, blotchy blackout thing,” he says of his memory of shooting that part of the movie. “Ari was so amazing, and he just put the camera on me and he didn’t say much.”
Wolff said that he and Aster spoke of the scene a day earlier to reassure each other it would all work out.
“We were both the same amount of anxious, but we both trusted each other,” Wolff says. “He’d say, ‘You’re going to kill it. You’re going to do great.’ And I was like, ‘You’re going to kill it. You’re going to do great. Trust me.'”
Wolff is coming off a year that’s seen the biggest hit of his career, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($960 million worldwide), in which he plays a teen that gets sucked into a video game and inhabits a muscular avatar played by Dwayne Johnson. He also shot his directorial debut, The Cat and the Moon, and inhabited dark worlds in films like My Friend Dahmer and Hereditary, which saw him spend months in Utah, much of it alone.
“He’s pretty method,” says Aster. “He’s somebody who really threw himself headlong into the part and completely disappeared into it. He was essentially Peter for two months.”
Before filming, Aster had Wolff spend days in public chaperoning his onscreen sister, Milly Shapiro (Charlie), around Utah. Aster would instruct Wolff to take Shapiro to a restaurant — and since he didn’t know the city, he’d inevitably get the pair lost, adding to the frustration that Peter was already feeling as an older brother forced to have his kid sister tag along.
“She wouldn’t say a word, because she’s in character. ‘OK, Charlie, come on.’ I’d drag her around,” says Wolff. “All of a sudden, you form this thing. There’s a way I grab her hand, there’s a way that I talk to her. And already in my stomach, I have these resentments: ‘She made this difficult. She embarrassed me in front of this waitress, she did this.’ All that stuff is great.”
Wolff already had a relationship with his onscreen father, Gabriel Byrne, who played his father years earlier in HBO’s In Treatment. He had less time to prepare with his onscreen mother, Toni Collette, who is earning praise for her performance as Annie; that distance actually worked in the film’s favor, as mother and son have a strained and complicated relationship in the film.
Hereditary is meticulously constructed, and its original cut was three hours long and included 30 scenes that didn’t make the final film. All of this was shot during a compressed indie production schedule that required Wolff to shoot intense scenes on the same day he might film something more playful.
“I remember that scene where I hit my head on my desk and all that stuff, it’s like a guttural thing,” he recalls. “I was gushing blood down my leg.… Then they are like, ‘Now you are going to do this light flirting scene.’ “
During his two months in Utah, he mostly kept to himself, living out of a hotel, but he did opt to get a tattoo to commemorate his time there.
“I met some cool tattoo artists. But other than that, I barely met anyone,” he says. “If I ordered room service and the person would come up, I would have like a 20-minute conversation with them, because I hadn’t talked to anyone for like two days.”
Because he shot Hereditary before directing his movie, The Cat and the Moon, he often called Aster for advice on directing. He found that at least for him, directing came easier than acting (he does both in the film, about a teen that goes to New York to live with a jazz musician friend of his late father).
“I am sure a movie like Hereditary is impossible to direct. But doing it, I felt, ‘Directing isn’t that hard. Acting is really hard,'” he says. “In one sense [with acting], you have this easy, cushy life. But on the other hand, it’s so hard to be that vulnerable in front of a crew.”
Of a possible return to Jumanji in the already announced sequel, Wolff says there has been nothing official, but he hopes to be back.
“Who’s in the movie without us?” he asks jokingly, referring to his fellow young stars who played the kids sucked into a video game. “Who is there? The Rock? Jack Black? Who cares.”
Hereditary is in theaters now.
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