Alex Wolff on the Depth of ‘Old’ and How Filming ‘Pig’ Was His Greatest Experience
Alex Wolff likes to consider the bigger picture. When he signed on for “Old,” the new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, Wolff wasn’t merely attracted to the idea of being in a potential box office hit. He was drawn in by the screenplay’s grand ideas about time, regret and mortality. The thriller is both a return to form for Shyamalan and the latest in Wolff’s eclectic repertoire. “Old” finds Wolff working next to an ensemble that includes Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee and Ken Leung, among others, as vacationers trapped in a beach where time begins to accelerate. With no way of getting out, they begin to grapple with the children growing older and the cycles of life playing out by sunset. Wolff plays Bernal and Krieps’s young son, who begins the day as an 11-year-old, and is soon growing through puberty and maturity all at once.
“Old” may be a paranoid thriller in the tradition of “The Twilight Zone,” but Wolff has starred in films both big and small united in the common theme of rich ideas. Previously he acted in arthouse fare like “Thoroughbreds,” a vicious takedown of bored privileged teens and Peter Berg’s high-octane “Patriots Day,” where he played one of the Boston Marathon bombers. In the horror genre Wolff is best known for his memorably unnerving role in Ari Aster’s nightmarish “Hereditary,” as the member of a family tormented by dark forces invading their house. This year he’s again demonstrating his versatility by releasing “Old” at the same time that he stars alongside Nicolas Cage in “Pig,” an atmospheric tale about a former chef searching for his kidnapped truffle pig. It is another unique and original work. Wolff talked to Entertainment Voice about the making of “Old” and the experience of working alongside the infamously colorful Cage for “Pig.”
“Old” features you in a very unique role in that you have to almost play a dual character. You have the physique of an adult, but consciously you’re supposed to be 11. How did you prepare to take this on?
Yeah, it’s definitely a kind of dual personality. But it was exhilarating to do. Night tapped me on the back and said, “Hey kid, go wild. You’re a kid in this, just go for it. Don’t put up any walls and if you do put up any walls I’ll tell you you’re low energy and that you’re doing it wrong.” It was about expressing your innermost id. That felt kind of revolutionary in my career.
The cast members you interact with the most onscreen, Thomasin McKenzie and Eliza Scanlen, who play your sister and another child trapped in the beach also take on the same challenge. What was the dynamic like during the shooting process?
It was great because even though our characters were childlike, it was not a childlike environment. I admit though, I could be very childlike (laughs).
And yet you’re all asked to evoke all of these moods and changes within a confined space. The movie rarely leaves the beach. In what ways did the setting impact the performances?
That’s all Night. I feel like you’d have to ask him that because he is a master. That’s an overused word sometimes, but he’s like one of those painters who make those tiny little works with such precision. That’s Night, but it also veers away from anything too esoteric or narrow. It’s as if with one brush he’s painting the finer details but with the other he’s working on this giant canvas. He does this miraculous job of hitting on these themes that might only be found in some Swedish film in the late ‘50s. At the same time he’s making it wildly entertaining and grandiose, while juggling lofty themes. And he does it all within this confined space, which is something only directors like Ingmar Bergman or Luis Bunuel have been able to do.
You’re right. It does have this Bergmanesque touch to its themes and in the meticulous way Shyamalan composes the shots.
Exactly. It’s like a “Bergman blockbuster.”
“Cries and Whispers” but on the beach.
Yeah! I actually made Night watch Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly” and some of the shots are influenced by “Persona,” and tonally I agree, it then curls into something like “Cries and Whispers.”
In the storytelling as well there are these deeper themes that go beyond thriller plots. It’s also about the passage of time and our internal struggles.
Yes, each of our characters are representations of maybe one person’s angst. We’re all allegorical and yet fully fleshed, real human beings. But Night also nails that feeling of extreme romance in youth, which was also something Bergman was good at. It’s like this passionate, fatalist mentality of realizing there’s not much time left because you’re suddenly aware you’re rapidly aging.
Gael García Bernal plays your father and he’s another one of those artists who has bridged artistry and entertainment well over the years. How was it working with him on “Old”?
I feel like I learned a ton from him. I had a lot of laughs with him on set. Gael led the charge for a lot of us in the performance. I found that everyone within that unit brought their A-game. Gael knows how to leave the ego out the door. I was almost a side little firecracker next to him and the rest of the cast. I was really supporting them in a way.
How did working on “Old” make you think about growing older and time passing on?
Well, time is right there chasing us, isn’t it? It’s like “Hey! Here I come” and you’re thinking, “Oh no! Wrinkles!” But the irony is that the whole movie is about not thinking about the future or the past. It’s about being in the present. My process in preparing was to be overly obsessed to the point of narcissism with how I was as a kid. I found my old childhood clothes and videos and tried to nail down what made me tick. It also made me confront a lot of painful shit. Yet I also had to grow up and embrace parts of myself I had probably been embarrassed by growing up. Who you are as a kid is in some ways the rawest amalgamation of personality traits that you have. We in our twenties or thirties are almost fractured versions of who we were as kids. Honestly, I never think about the future, ever. It might sound phony but it’s true. I’m just like, fuck it.
You’ve also worked before with some directors who in a sense are following in Shyamalan’s footsteps by combining high entertainment with real artistry…
Peter Berg is one of those. He and Shyamalan are similar in that way. With “Patriots Day” I think Peter succeeded in making a big movie that was also artful. He’s known for these big, loud movies but there was real depth there too.
There’s also Ari Aster, who you worked with on “Hereditary,” which has grown in stature since it premiered in 2018.
“Hereditary” really was a total family drama that then curls into a horror movie. It begins as this very precise drama about a family and then just becomes an unabashed horror movie. It really just goes into it. I think at the beginning when it was coming out we were shy about calling it a “horror movie” because back then it was almost a dirty word. Now, years later, there’ve been so many movies following in its vein and getting lots of respect. But back then it was nerve-wracking to call it that. But “Hereditary” really is a horror movie, whereas “Old” is more of a fever dream fairy tale.
Along with “Old” you’re also appearing with Nicolas Cage in “Pig.” That’s also a movie that defies a lot of the usual trends right now at the box office. Share about working with Cage?
That was probably the single greatest experience of my whole life. He is everything you want him to be. He is all the mythos about him, all of it is true, and yet with that he is one of the deepest, most sensitive, kind artists that I’ve ever met. There’s no heavy-handedness or pretentiousness. The guy has taught me more about being an artist than anyone I’ve ever worked with. That’s not to put anyone else down but Nic took me under his wing in a way that was unwavering and unheard of. He never wants to show you that he’s “the boss.” Older actors sometimes feel the need to prove dominance. Instead he took me under his wing as if I were an equal, which I’m certainly not! He’s been my favorite actor since I was a kid, no joke. So it was a dream come true.
And finally, what are you most excited about that’s coming up after “Old” and “Pig”?
Well there’s my first movie that I’ve written, directed and acted in, “The Cat and the Moon,” which is out. It should be available nearly everywhere. I’d love for people to go check it out. I caught the directing bug and I’m hoping to direct something new soon and have it out by 2022.
“Old” releases July 23 in theaters nationwide.