Alden Ehrenreich has inhabited the role of Han Solo and, earlier this year, survived an encounter with the “Cocaine Bear.” But now he is venturing into even more uncharted territory, by writing, directing and starring in his very own short film, “Shadow Brother Sunday.”
The short concerns a down-on-his-luck brother (Ehrenreich) who, while attending a family celebration for his younger, successful actor brother (Nick Robinson), contemplates the ultimate betrayal – stealing his brother’s computer to sell to the paparazzi. From this scenario, Ehrenreich builds a rich world of uneasy family dynamics and long-simmering emotions. And it turns out he’s just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.
TheWrap spoke to Ehrenreich on the eve of the short film’s world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York; it’ll play throughout the week and is very much worth checking out. We talked about where the short came from, being mentored by Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty and his upcoming work in Marvel’s “Ironheart” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” where he worked alongside Robert Downey Jr.
Was this something that you had wanted to do for a while?
Yeah. It’s something I’ve wanted to do forever. It’s been something that’s been as much a part of how I wanted to express myself as anything else. With the film, I wrote it a few years ago, and then COVID happened, and then I was acting in some other films, and so we had to wait on it for a while. I was working on a film about brothers for a long time, for a year or so, and then I had this other idea and started hearing this conversation that ended up being the conversation that’s kind of at the center of the film between the two brothers.
I just had that a little bit and then had an experience that I haven’t had ever before where I just knew that the movie was and I was still acting in something. I had a few days until I had a hiatus off that. I was just like, all right, hold on buddy, and spent three days acting in this other piece and then spent another three days getting back to Los Angeles and wrote the whole thing in a few days and then worked on it for a long time, but the overall piece was written then. It was one of those things where you kind of noodle on something else forever and then it all coalesced in a different way. It just felt like these people and the family and the dynamics felt very real and alive, and I was in conversation with it.
You starred in Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply.” What did you take from him, as one of our preeminent actor/filmmakers?
I remember when I did my first movie, which was for Coppola, who executive produced this as well, he had me direct a bunch of Argentine actors as part of my screen test. It was called “Tetro” and was my first movie ever. I was directing a bunch of actors and he wanted to see if I could direct and it was already something I was really passionate about. He was the first director that I got to really spend time with and lit the fuse and set the tone in a lot of ways and a lot of the inspiration for the way we rehearsed the film and our process was really based on that, even though I’d had experiences since then.
I met with Warren for six years and a lot of that was apprenticeship, mainly around doing this kind of thing. I directed another little short film that I never really finished at that time when I was like 23 and he was mentoring me and talking about it. Then that was, I think, the only experience I’ve had acting in a movie with the filmmaker. I was taking notes and doing all the things I’ve always done for every movie I’ve ever done. I have a big notes document about filmmaking and what I’m learning, both things I’d like to do and things I don’t want to do for each one. It’s so great because as an actor, you get to do this. I’ve had this incredible film school and have been so lucky to be able to study under these people.
What was production like? Was it like I imagine other shorts – calling in favors, seeing who isn’t working for a few days?
Totally. From a logistical standpoint it was the dumbest possible thing in the world because it also was a pretty big short film in terms of production. You have to ask that many more favors and do all of this stuff. Nick Robinson was the actor that I wanted for that role from the very beginning. I’m so glad that he ended up doing it. It would’ve been in many ways easier if it was a feature because there’s just more rationale for people to get involved in it. But this was a lot of meeting people and doing lots of stuff. I actually tried to avoid working with friends as much as possible because I wanted a more professional experience.
What help did Francis Ford Coppola offer?
He read the script and was very encouraging of it from the beginning. It was more of an honorific thing. That was incredibly meaningful because not only is he the person that he’s been a mentor of mine a few years ago, I went up to Napa and interviewed him about filmmaking because I’d had this experience. It was my first film where we did a lot of these things and I really, I’ve always wanted to have that experience again because it was so close-knit. It was so, I just thought it was so cool and so great for actors.
I did my own version of this, which is we had four days of rehearsal, which is also a very stupid thing to try to get on a short film but was absolutely essential to me. We spent four days improvising backstory with the family. I wanted the family to feel really believable and alive and rich in detail and that sense of shared history and idiosyncrasy. We would do improvisations about an evening where Dad’s relapsed and fallen off the wagon and Mom knows, but the kids don’t and it’s her birthday. I took this thing from Francis where everybody has a little goal that they have in the scene and you make those goals at cross purposes and then we improvise that for an hour and did a thing.
By the time you show up, you have this shared sense of history. Everything you’ve referenced in the movie is, you’ve lived through in an improvisation in some way. And then you’re also wedded in a certain way as an ensemble so that when the film cameras and the crew arrive, they’re there to film a thing that’s actually happening instead of what usually is the case, which is you are in your trailer and haven’t met anybody and come in front of this firing squad of 30 people have been together for three months and hope you, just on a human level [don’t mess up]. That sense of belonging makes a huge difference and makes play and experimentation a lot more possible because there’s a lot less fear sin the room.
What were your touchstones, filmmaker-wise?
The Jonathan Demme movie that was a big inspiration is “Rachel Getting Married,” which is one of my favorite movies. Also not so much in terms of tone, but in terms of there’s this dynamic with one character who’s out of whack with the other people, and then also that really rich lived in sense of family life that you get in that film, which I just think is incredible. There’s a touch of “Punch-Drunk Love” in certain ways.
There’s a movie called “Krisha” that we talked about. Talked about “Ordinary People” a little bit in terms of the Jacob character and what he was going through. Not as extreme as it is in that film but that was a feeling that I like. Then for me, just the whole ethos of ‘70s film and the characters that you follow and those dynamics and the centrality of the acting and the performances is a big part of it.
What was it like going from a tiny short film to a big Marvel streaming series?
It’s really funny. I gained 20 pounds for this movie and I got the Marvel show while we were shooting it and so I had to lose the 20 pounds in 10 days and fly over and do the Marvel show in two seconds. And it’s really different but I’m so used to the other way. That’s what I’m really familiar with and this is a much more privileged thing that I get to do. As an actor, I’ve been doing it almost a couple of decades and you just have a way that you would like to have things done. Not every time, but if it was yours. And so, this was the opportunity to experiment with all those values I’d had in my head as like, I don’t know if they’re going to work but I got to practice that process in this and the actors and everybody were so down.
You’re also in “Oppenheimer” – what was that experience like?
I did “Oppenheimer” and then this and then Marvel. That was the order, and they were right next to each other. “Oppenheimer” was absolutely incredible. My favorite experiences are when I got to work for master filmmakers and it was definitely that. All my stuff is with Downey and that was tremendous and he was so great to work with. The intimacy of it was amazing and how pared down he keeps things, even though it’s all on this epic scale.
Also, it was really, really f–king inspiring. I think the day after I got home from shooting “Oppenheimer,” we got financing for this, and it was being around that kind of film-centric film vibe. I’d always planned on shooting on film, but this was where I was like, when we’re looking at the budget, I was like, I can’t show up to the “Oppenheimer” premiere if I shot on digital, I would be banned because there’s no one that’s more staunchly about that than him. That was a really good inspirational kick in the pants. We shot on 35mm, which I’m so happy I did because that was really important to me.