Alex Wolff can be seen in theaters now as Spencer in Jumanji: The Next Level, but the son of actress Polly Draper has a lot more going on equally worth talking about. He recently wrote and directed his debut film, The Cat and the Moon, an unflinchingly honest portrayal of rowdy teenagers with Wolff himself playing a troubled youth who moves to New York City to live with his father’s best friend following his mother’s admittance into rehab and the death of his musician father. It’s an emotional watch that cements him as a filmmaker on the rise. Naturally, I also had to ask him about his work in Hereditary when we sat down to talk about his recent work.
Hey, it’s nice to meet you. I’m a big fan. You’re doing good some great stuff lately, like The Cat and the Moon and Jumanji.
Thank you, awesome!
So first we’re going to talk about The Cat and the Moon. If I had to pinpoint why this movie resonates emotionally, it comes down to the authentic portrayal of teenagers you have here. And I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into this movie, but that helped win me over quickly. So can you talk about how you got that tone right as a writer and how the script changed over time? I know you started writing it when you were 15.
The characters all stayed really similar to who they were, and the characters never really changed with the exception of maybe my lead character who shifted a little bit as time went on. I felt like I really honored the initial characters and was very open to the actors bringing their own chutzpah/juice into the mix because I just feel like whatever’s going on in the moment on set is more important than whatever I had planned out in my brain. If something is feeling fresh and immediate, and something works in the moment, then we just got to follow that.
I’m wondering if it was always going to be you in that leading role, and can you elaborate on the semi-autobiographical nature of the movie?
I was always going to play the lead role. I wrote it for myself. I wrote at a time when I wasn’t working and I was in between a boy and the early stages of being a teenager. It’s hard to pinpoint where you fit in in terms of movies and what age to play and what movies you can play. Not that many people are making movies about seventh graders and it’s a very odd age. So yeah, I started writing this and thinking what is the semi-autobiographical nature of it.
Listen, I was never planning on directing. I was always planning on writing and starring but really some really great directors read the script and kind of pushed me to direct it myself. It was never really my plan. But you know, people like Peter Berg, Noah Baumbach, and some really great director friends of mine kind of said “Hey listen, you know, who knows if you’re going to have a good time directing or if it’s even the right thing for you in life, but with this movie it feels like you’d be doing yourself a disservice to just hire somebody on to try and interpret this emotional manuscript. You know, this kind of personal, almost journal entry. I think it’s really important that you make it yourself and fail on your own terms”. So I said, all right, that’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to just see it like that. I’ll fail on my own terms. I’ll do it. I’ll honor what the DNA of the script is and follow that. When I was directing, I was never thinking about how should I direct the scene. I was always thinking about, what are the colors of the script? What honors the emotional nuance of the script. What most absolutely captures the vibrancy of the characters rather than trying to figure out exactly what you wrote before. I think it’s a nice way to look at it actually,
It is. Also, you were talking about influences and that got me wondering how or if Ari Aster helped at all because you’re playing a teenager in Hereditary and in his movies all the characters feel real even though they’re in crazy horror.
Well, Ari Aster helped me a lot in terms of just seeing that you can be really unapologetic in your direction and your passion. He made the movie that he wanted to make without anybody being able to deter him or trying to take that and make it more of a horror movie. I also love that he gives his actors a lot of freedom. Of course, he was super, super inspirational. He was someone who also opened me up as an actor. He really let me go there emotionally and really open up, and that’s definitely maybe the first time anyone had ever really given me permission to just explode like that. And so I think that was really inspiring for me. Ari Aster is amazing, but I’d say he didn’t have that much of a hand in this. I had been working on it for five or six years and I think I had other people who were more on the ground floor in terms of being my cheerleader. But with him, I think he really did encourage me so much as an actor that I think it gave me confidence for the rest of my life that I wouldn’t have had without him.
Can you elaborate on why you chose Mike Epps to play the role of Cal? He’s a comedic presence that doesn’t really get the credit he deserves a dramatic actor too, similar to Marlon Wayans.
Well, it’s funny because Mike Epps is someone who is so famous and such a big comedy icon, but I hadn’t really seen much of his comedic work. I saw him in Bessie, about Bessie Smith, and I thought he was just spellbinding and amazing. Then I saw him in Sparkle where he played this pimp and I just thought he was so soulful and I saw something in his eyes that was so fragile and funny. Also, he really listens as an actor. He’s so open to me and he listens better than a lot of people I’ve seen. So I just kind of fell in love with him as a dramatic actor from those two movies.
It was only after I started speaking with him that I realized this guy is a huge comedian, even though I really mostly just seen him as a dramatic actor. So it’s kind of kismet. That’s what’s great about doing a lot of different kinds of work. People can see you a certain way, just because of what they’ve seen of your work, so they can kind of say, “oh no, he does mostly comedies or he does mostly dramas” so a director might say “let’s put him in a comedy”. I see him as this certain thing. So you kind of project your own vision, I saw him as a super open, super fragile dramatic actor and I was right. To me, he’s kind of a genius.
There’s a violent fistfight at a party and I think if you handle that scene wrong, it would make Nick less likable, but that doesn’t happen. So, can you talk about making sure how you got that scene right? From there it goes into a quiet and romantic scene with Eliza, and it just works perfectly.
Well, I guess I had to toss out any anxiety about is this person likable or not. I had to really commit to the idea that he was a person and that if we understood him and we felt for him, he would be likable just innately. So it was really important that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone because initially, I was kind of nervous about having a moment where I smash a bottle and I almost kill somebody. But I had to push myself there. I had to go there because, in movies about young people, the lead character is too impish and too perfect and too likable. I really wanted to see how far I could go with someone being violent and at times, maybe hard to root for because he’s got such a bad rage problem. I trusted the audience. I trusted that the audience would stay supporting him or at least stay empathizing with him through it.
You did accomplish that. Moving on to Jumanji: The Next Level, which actor would you most want to switch bodies with?
Well, I am so lucky that I got to do this one with Danny DeVito where he’s my grandfather because he’s one of my favorite actors in the world. He became a really close friend of mine. So to ask them to do anything more feels kind of selfish because I feel like the luckiest man in the world that I got to do this. With that said, my idea was that I want, somehow, the avatars and the kids to interact, and just to see where that goes. That would be my goal.
I’m trying to think of someone really fun that I could turn into or someone that could turn into me. Who would be just amazing? Someone with a crazy accent or something. Got it! Christopher Plummer! That’s going to be mine. It’s Christopher Plummer and I switched bodies. That would be so good.
That would be interesting. So obviously your character is mostly part of the prologue here. What would you say is most important to making an impression and getting audiences invested before things are turned over to the Jumanji characters?
That’s a good question. Did you see it?
Yes, I saw it last night.
There’s also all that stuff in the epilogue. That was something I had to depend on also. It’s hard. It’s a really good question because what I was actually thinking last night is that you just can’t think about it. I think one of the things that I and director Jake Kasdan had to push myself to do was let my character evolve from the last movie, and not try and do what a lot of sequels do where it’s like “here’s a cartoon cardboard cutout of the first movie” and trying to think, well, what did I do that worked in the first movie. Instead, he said, “no, where’s your character now?” He’s aged a little bit. And then he was saying “trust me, don’t try and be funny”. I think he was really pushing me to honor a quiet sadness and I think he’d seen me do some heavy movies in the past since I’d done Jumanji and got excited. He wanted to see how vulnerable and fragile Spencer gets but with some hilarious stuff with Danny DeVito, and then the inhaler and all the normal Spencer stuff. I feel super lucky to be in it.
That’s good. I enjoy that. I have one question about Hereditary. So can you talk about that disturbing death scene? What you do with that scene and aftermath is phenomenal. You carry that shellshock with you for the rest of the movie. And I’m convinced that you just never slept at all filming it because you do the sleep deprivation look so well.
Wow. Thank you. Yeah, I probably didn’t sleep the whole movie. I don’t really remember my sleep schedule, but I’m sure it was shit. And when I see the movie and I look in my eyes, I’m like, yeah, I probably didn’t sleep very much. At the same time, there was a lot of excitement on that set. It was a lot of exciting stuff to be able to do something that emotionally feels like something that you get to do once in a lifetime. Getting to go to those extremes and really open me up like that was heavy and it was difficult, but at the same time, it was inspiring all the time.
Can you tell us about any upcoming directing or acting projects that you have coming up?
Yeah, I did this film I’m really excited about called Pig. I’m starring alongside Nicolas Cage and I’ve probably never had more fun doing something in my whole life. We’re on a hunt to find this pig who finds truffles and it’s about our dynamic, and I love how the movie unfolds. I’m so excited about that. I also have this movie Castle in the Ground, which is coming out about the opioid epidemic, that was at Toronto this year. That’s a really intense one. I lost a bunch of weight for it. I did this film, Human Capital that’s coming out in a couple of months. It was also at Toronto with Liev Schreiber and Marissa Tomei. And then I’m in this great movie, Bad Education with Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Ray Romano. That’s a really, really fun, dark, twisted, weird movie that everyone should see. I have some stuff I’m going to direct, but I will talk about that publicly when it’s all sorted out. I’m also doing this movie with Ellen Burstyn and Alec Baldwin, which I’m really excited about. It’s her directorial debut and we’re going to start that in a few months. I’m really excited about it. So, it’s been a busy time, but sometimes you gotta stop and I don’t know, eat a sandwich.
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