The Graham Family, Peter (Alex Wolff) on right

Alex Wolff, star of “Hereditary”

New horror film acclaimed as one of the scariest of its generation

Jun 08, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Hereditary follows the Graham family – mother Annie, her husband, and siblings Peter and Charlie – following the death of Annie’s semi-estranged mother. At first, what follows is only a series of strange but creepy occurrences, but these soon give way to sweeping, dramatic catastrophe. As the family’s psyches begin to crumble, they learn that their deceased grandmother may have been more than just an eccentric old woman, but the matriarch of a horrifying legacy.

Releasing today, Hereditary has been hailed as one of the scariest movies of its generation – our own critic described the film as “a supremely anxiety-inducing experience for viewers, one that starts on what feels like the edge of an abyss and never pulls back.” Loaded with disturbing imagery by debut director Ari Aster, it’s a movie that tends to linger with viewers, haunting them long after they’ve walked out of the theater.

Alex Wolff plays Peter, the eldest child of the Graham family. Although only 20 years old, the young actor has been working in the business since he was seven, first making a name for himself opposite his brother, Nat Wolff, on the musical Nickelodeon series The Naked Brother Band. In recent years, however, he’s had the opportunity to stretch out in more adult fare such as My Friend Dahmer and Patriots Day; last year’s Jumanji added a major blockbuster to his resume. It’s his raw performance in Hereditary, as a shell-shocked teen forced to cope with unthinkable tragedy, which may turn out to be his big breakthrough as an adult performer.

We spoke to Wolff about his experience making the film.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Tell me about your experience first reading this script. How did it make you feel? What excited you most about it?

Alex Wolff: It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. [Laughs] No, it was nuts reading the script. In the beginning I didn’t know much about it – I just knew it was an A24 movie and I rushed to read it. In the beginning I just thought it was a sort of family drama, but as I kept reading it a big thing happened in it and scared the shit out of me. I realized, like, oh my god, this is a twisted and terrifying movie. I didn’t even realize how terrifying it was going to be. I thought it was just going to be a family drama, because it was that well-written – you couldn’t see it was going to be a horror movie. There were no bread crumbs; it just sort of hit you over the head with real-life trauma. I remember my mom walking into the room right as I was at the very end of the script, and me screaming out loud because I was so invested in what was going on that I got scared.

Obviously, then, the script was fantastic. But what excited you most about this character, the prospect of playing him?

Well, I found the way he dealt with his grief was like nothing I’d read on paper or seen in movies – or, at least, I’d seen very rarely. I liked that he didn’t handle things the way a person who’s “right” or doing “the right thing” would do it. I liked that he was just a young human being that handled things the way I think a lot of people would, but are maybe too afraid to say they would. Most people probably believe they would act a certain way, but I found the whole way he processed grief to be viscerally authentic, and that made it much more disturbing.

Give me the skinny on Ari Aster. This is his first feature – we don’t know much about him yet. What kind of director is he?

Ari’s a genius – he’s an absolute genius, and I don’t say that about anybody. I think he’s in a league of his own. I knew it from the very beginning, when we first met and started talking. Every step of the way there was a new reason, for me, why Ari was on a different level from maybe every director I’ve worked with, and maybe every director out there – especially genre directors.

I remember when I read his script, I thought “Who the fuck wrote this?” It was so disturbing. I just couldn’t believe anyone could have such an articulate, concise, just beautifully drawn-out screenplay. And then I met him and thought, oh wow, he’s the director. I thought, oh well, even if he’s a terrible director, the script is flawless. No one could mess this up. And then we get in the room and I find out he’s this emotional, empathetic guy who just worked with me every step of the way. He’s just so sensitive and so smart about acting – I remember thinking, wow, this guy is an actor’s director. He’s going to be focusing on the actors and not be able to think of anything else. And then we get on set, and he’s got this perfect, beautiful script; he’s working with his actors sensitively and talking to them and taking them seriously, all while doing the craziest camera moves that I’ve ever seen. These shots where he’s really swinging for the fences. It was this perfect trifecta of brilliance.

Can you give me an example of one of those instances of him working with you on your performance?

I mean, part of what made him so great is that he’s pretty hands off – he’d let us do how we thought we should do it, and then he’d come up and sort of lean us in different directions. The best thing he did is when he didn’t give comments. He’d say, like, “Great, do it again, louder.” I think that’s what a lot of actors need. “Bigger,” “smaller,” “sadder.” I like those sort of things, those adverbs.

I’ve read that you stayed in character through much of filming. Is that normally how you approach a role, or was it something special you did for this film?

I’m always kind of wary about making myself sound like a pretentious actor, or someone who takes himself too seriously. I think a lot of the times people who stay in character, they like that because it makes them sound more prestigious, or more committed. I think the processes of actors become a little bit of a pissing contest. But, that is something that I have felt, in the past with certain projects, helps me to lead things that have been going on, maybe in my own emotional life, into the story a little easier. It’s a little easier to find those at my fingertips when I do that. It’s just sort of my own preference.

With this movie in particular, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do this and just jump in and out. I basically just decided I wanted to throw myself into the fire, fly the kamikaze jet into the ground, and just toss myself into this world. If I don’t make it out, at least I’ll know I did my very best. I gave it everything I had.

You work quite often with your own family members in a professional capacity, and so I make the assumption that you all get along very well. The family portrayed in this movie, however, don’t necessarily have the healthiest relationships – at least, not after events that occur. How do you begin to immerse yourself in a family like the Grahams, when they’re so far removed from what you grew up with?

Well, the thing about the Graham family is – whether or not they care to admit it – I think all people have some family dynamics that are a little bit like that. Yeah, my family gets along really well, but we’re not perfect – no family is perfect. I found it to be pretty easy to connect the dots, at least in the frustrations you can have, and things like that. I think the reason that so many people make movies about families is because family is the most rich, sometimes painful relationship you can have. More than a girlfriend, more than anything, I think family is the one that gets you in the stomach. And so, I don’t think it’s hard for anyone to become emotional, or to draw on stuff from their own family. 

What did you find to be the toughest aspect of this role? The hardest element to connect with?

I found the entire process to be extremely difficult, to be totally honest. I found it difficult from day one to the very end. I’m not really sure what’s most difficult – everything was difficult in its own way. There’s a big plot surprise that happens, and I’d say dealing with that was probably most difficult. But I found the whole thing to be exciting, exhilarating, and fantastic. One of the best experiences of my life. I got a chance to really go wild and be free as an actor, but I also found it to be extremely difficult.

I know the tone while making a movie is often so different than what we see on screen – there are bright lights on you, so many people around, stops and starts. But I’m wondering, were there any moments on-set that felt as spooky or as creepy just as “off” as what we see in the movie?

I have this superstition about saying – I’ll call it “the M word” or “the Scottish play,” the one by Shakespeare. It can seem so lame not to say it, but when I was doing a play I said it on stage and the director was like, “You can’t say that!” I thought, “Oh, no way. That’s an old wives’ tale.” She was like, “No, go into the bathroom, spin around, spit in the sink three times, and say this passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I was like, ugh, but I did it, not really believing in it. She said you have to believe in it, and I was like, “Okay, okay.” But then I went on stage that night and the fan quits, the lights flicker in the middle, and I forget an entire monologue – all of these lines I’d never forgetting. I was a fucking disaster. I thought, wow, it’s true! It was a scary thing. I was never going to say it again. Even the couch flipped over, all of these crazy things happened – and in this show, nothing had gone wrong yet. It was a disaster.

And then on set, Ari said it. I said, “Oh, no, no! You can’t say that!” And he was like, it’s no big deal. But then I go to grab a glass, and it shatters in my hand. It just shatters into pieces, all over the table, in my hand. We were all just sitting there and Ari’s like, “Okay, what’s the Midsummer Night’s Dream passage? I’ll say it! I’ll say it! I’ll fix things!” So, that was terrifying. But, we were all also just spooked out by the movie.

The movie is something special – it stuck with me and creeped me out long after I left the screening room. Clearly it was special for you, too, as you made it. Can you describe your experience to me when you finally watched it?

I thought it was amazing. I think it can be hard to watch a movie when you’re so closely associated with the experience of making it. To you, it’s so much about that experience, and what you went through, that sometimes you only see the things you did or things you could have done. But I think this is a great movie. I think Ari did a great job.

I’m always amazed when I talk to an actor who was in a really scary horror movie, only to learn they’re personally not horror fans at all. Do you consider yourself one?

I’m a huge horror fan. I love every horror movie. I love them a lot, but I never thought I’d be in one. I always loved watching them from a sort of outside perspective, but I never saw their value – except in a few separate cases, with directors like Ti West or Eli Roth, and some European movies – there are great horror movies with great performances. But then, speaking of A24, because they did The Witch, I knew this would be more than jump scares. This would be about haunting scares.

According to IMDB, you’re in post-production on your directorial feature debut. The IMDB page is ominously vague. What can you tell me about it, and that experience?

Ominously vague? Wow, I like that. [Laughs] It was a great experience. It was so beautiful and fun. I worked for five years on the script and getting it going, and by the time we got rolling I was so ready to play that character. I gained, like, 20 pounds for it. Really buffed up, and shaved my head. It was a really awesome time.

Now that I know you’re a horror fan, could you ever see yourself one day making a horror film?

Ari makes me excited about that possibility. I will probably never make a horror movie, but I’d love to make a movie that’s as disturbing as Hereditary. Cat and the Moon is not. Cat and the Moon is very dark in its own way, but I’d love to make a movie where people walk out of the theater and think, “Jesus Christ, what did you just put me through?” The way people do with Hereditary. That’s such an awesome feeling.

You’re also a musician, of course, and make music with your brother. Can you share some of the music you’ve personally been jamming to lately?

Oh, this is awesome. I’ve been listening to the Tame Impala record Currents a lot, it’s just great. This album Mind Out Wandering by Astronauts, etc. – it’s also great. I’ve been going back to classics and revisiting all of the Beatles’ albums. But what I’ve really been cranking lately, going back to Cat and the Moon and even before is D.A.M.N. by Kendrick Lamar. I’ve been listening to Post Malone, Migos. I’m a hardcore rap guy, but I’ve been listening to all of the fun rap right now. I also love Frank Ocean’s album, Blonde. It may be one of the best albums ever made.

(a24films.com/films/hereditary)



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