Noah Baumbach urged Hereditary star Alex Wolff to the director's chair
Alex Wolff prefers not having to race around the globe — first to the Toronto International Film Festival to promote his indie film Castle in the Ground, then back to his home state of New York to promote his directorial debut The Cat and the Moon, and then to Portland, where he goes into production on his next film project. But if he has to juggle multiple projects and responsibilities, he’d prefer having all his luggage.
“The airport lost both my bags of luggage, so I literally have one pair of clothes I’m gonna be wearing for a little while,” the 21-year-old tells EW over the phone in September, just before jetting off again for film rehearsals. “I was supposed to be here [in Portland] two days ago,” he adds, “but there were all these issues with the flight and it was just a total total sh–storm.”
Still, he’s getting used to it all — the jet setting, not the lost luggage. With Hereditary, Wolff, who starred opposite Toni Collette in the horror hit of 2018, experienced a level of visibility he hadn’t received since his days in The Naked Brothers Band, which co-starred Wolff’s brother Nat and featured his mom, Polly Draper, as his director. Admittedly, the Nickelodeon audience isn’t the same thing as the horror crowd.
“Shia LaBeouf came up to me and was so nice about it,” Wolff says of the response to Hereditary. “Captain America, Chis Evans, came up to me. It’s a crazy thing that that movie really moved people the way it did.” Now, the New York native is starring in movies with Hugh Jackman (Bad Education) and Nicolas Cage (Pig), and following his mom’s example by directing his first movie.
Wolff likes to think FilmRise stepped up as a distributor for The Cat and the Moon based on the film’s quality, but he agrees the buzz from Hereditary probably contributed to the “perfect storm” that led him to the director’s seat. Here, he talks more with EW about his journey to becoming a filmmaker, the script edits he received from his NYC neighbor Noah Baumbach, the “cultural explosion” of Hereditary, and that new Cage movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re about to film something else, you were promoting a different movie at Toronto, so does it feel weird at all to now be reflecting on The Cat and the Moon? You shot that a while ago at this point, right?
ALEX WOLFF: Yeah, I shot it about maybe a year and a half ago, I’m realizing. Maybe a little less. It feels like this dream. I can’t believe it’s a tangible thing that happened because it still feels like, “When are we going to make The Cat and the Moon?” ‘Cause I had that for so long, to have it be this tangible thing with a poster, it’s really strange. You know how dreams are weird and elusive and odd? That’s how it feels. It feels like this dream that I had is now in front of me and happening. It’s really odd.
I just saw the film was picked up for distribution [in mid-September]. Is that a weight off your shoulders at this point?
Definitely. It’s exciting. People are actually going to see it. I think that’s a hard point. When you finish the movie, you’ve put all this work into it, and you’re like, “Okay, now what do we do?” People have spent money on this and this whole time it’s almost like you’re waiting. “It’s gonna be good, I promise!” Just promising people. And then it’s finished and you have to be like, “Well, I can’t really do anything else. This is the movie. So, let’s just hope people like it.” FilmRise stepping up is the coolest thing in the world.
What was that experience like for you, dealing with the business side?
I definitely think a lot of people have a nightmare time, so I feel like it would disingenuous to be like, “I suffered through this thing to get it bought,” and all these things. FilmRise did step up really early, but what i learned is that there’s a lot of other movies out there and you’re not the center of the universe. When you’re making a movie, you feel like the center of the universe. You have all these maybe grandiose ideas of what your movie is going to be, but at the same time there’s two voices going on at two ends of the spectrum. When you’re making a movie, there’s one voice that’s like, “This is everything, this is the most important piece of art in the world,” and that’s what gets you up in the morning. But then what makes it hard to go to sleep that night is, “Nobody is gonna see this movie, nobody is gonna like this movie, none of this is gonna work.” They’re both going at the same time, and then ends up being something in the middle, which is really exciting and in an odd way really disappointing. The fact that my movie is going to be coming out in theaters, it boggles my mind when you think about it. People are going to be sitting in the theater, watching this thing that was a dream in my head. People will have their own interpretation and all that. At the same time, your dream thing can never live up to it. What I learned is it’s really lucky if you can get to the middle.
Did you find that after Hereditary came out, it was easier to brand yourself to distributors? Was it easier to get this movie into theaters?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I try not to think of things like that. Nothing changed about me in terms of my integrity as an actor and as a filmmaker. After Hereditary, obviously, I think more people know who I am and that movie was a cultural explosion. But, yeah, it probably did help. I like to think that the movie on its own was what enticed FilmRise to make that leap, but it’s probably both. I think things work in a perfect storm. Hereditary coming out probably let people know who I was, but then [Deepwater Horizon director] Peter Berg executive produced Cat and the Moon because we did Patriots Day together. So, I feel like there’s a lot of different connections and decisions you make on the road of this field. You make a lot of friends and you meet a lot of people who form faith in you. But that’s the coolest thing in the world. Shia LaBeouf came up to me [after Hereditary] and was so nice about it. Captain America, Chis Evans, came up to me. It’s a crazy thing that that movie really moved people the way it did.
How did you gain the confidence to not only writer and direct this movie but also star in it?
Delusion. I had to have full delusion that I could do it. That’s honestly the answer. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. I wrote [the script] and maybe I was gonna act in it, and a lot of people were telling me I should direct it. Peter Berg was one of the people who was pretty insistent that I make it myself ‘cause it’s so personal. [Marriage Story director] Noah Baumbach, who lived in my building — randomly, my parents, me, and my brother lived just right above Noah Baumbach [in New York City] — and I left him the script by his door one night and wrote him a little note. He emailed me and said, “I really like your script. Do you want to come down a chat?” He talked me through it, page by page. It was an early draft, too. It had some problems and he really helped me out and he was also insistent that I make it myself. He said it reminded him of when he wrote The Squid and the Whale and that was very cool to hear.
When did you actually sit down to write this script?
I started writing it when I was 15 in order to avoid studying for finals. That’s the total truth. It was right when finals were coming up and I needed a distraction. It was my mistress, writing it, and I was writing just what was going on in my life at the time and what was going on in some of my friends’ lives and this story of music and jazz and these relationships in New York. It all flooded in. I took five or six years to really make it readable, and I just stood by the story and tried to capture it like a lightning bug.
When you think back to that first draft, what would you say are the biggest differences to what it is now?
Oh my god. I don’t even know. I wouldn’t dare read that first draft. I’d probably get so depressed if I read it. I mean, the odd thing is that the format of it, the scene order, is pretty exactly the same. My first draft was obviously super long. It was probably 130-something [pages], but in terms of the characters, things are pretty much the same, but a lot of different relationships are developed and things are much more defined and specific. Certain names had to be changed for not-getting-sued purposes. I did pick up an old draft and I threw it down like it was The Exorcist or something. It was terrifying, reading that.
What I really appreciated about this film, other than its poignancy, were the details about living in New York. Cabs will usually rip you off, there’s a 70/30 chance of getting into bars if you’re underage. How easy was it to find homes for those details in the context of your story?
I think that those moments were the story when I was writing it. That was all that mattered and the story developed as the script was going along, but those moments were the impetus for the movie. I really appreciate that. It’s so funny because I was just writing what was going on at the time. Especially in high school, it’s like I’m writing what it would be like on a Friday. As I got older and the story lived with me for a while, I realized, as I’ve traveled the world, it’s not the same thing in Canada as it is in New York or the same thing as it is in Portland. I feel very lucky that’s on film. They are there forever to be these little New York-isms that just came naturally as I was writing it, but luckily I think a lot of people are foreign to that world, so it doesn’t feel like another Friday night. They’re interested. Those were more important to the story for a long time and then the story found itself.
Having previously directed some shorts, what were the biggest lessons you brought from those to The Cat and the Moon?
I don’t know if I learned any lessons. I mean, I feel like when I made those shorts, some of them are really bad — some of them are so bad, it’s insane — but then some of them are pretty good. I guess I learned how to be an actor while working with actors. Obviously, I learned about camera movement and how to make things on a low budget and make them not look like garbage — use the city to your advantage, use natural lighting — and really focusing on the relationships you have with people. But, geez, I wish I learned more lessons because I feel like I learned everything on The Cat and the Moon.
You were recently cast opposite Nicolas Cage in the movie Pig, which feels like more new territory for you as an actor. What was most appealing about signing on for a film like that? What are you excited to do?
Nic is one of the most talented, brave, generous, influential, and inspired actors that’s ever been a part of any kind of cinema of any language or style. When someone’s work means more to your life than words can explain, it’s impossible to encapsulate what it means all in one answer [or] sentence. All I can say is that every day I leap out of bed and race to set to not only be graced with the sensitive, acrobatic talents of the Nicolas Cage as an actor, but also to be entertained and intellectually and spiritually nourished by my hilarious, deeply empathetic, close friend, Nic. In one sentence: It’s a f–ing joy working with him.
The Cat and the Moon opens in select New York and Los Angeles theaters on Friday.