In show business, some child actors don’t make the jump, with the industry stalling their careers by adulthood.
But not Alex Wolff.
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Having enjoyed early success by the time he was 10 with his brother Nat on the 2007-09 Nickelodeon mockumentary series The Naked Brothers Band, which revolved around them and their band and was created by their mom, Thirtysomething actress Polly Draper, Alex since has blossomed into a nuanced actor, sublimely disappearing into gritty parts. Take your pick: There’s Ari Aster’s Hereditary, in which he plays 16-year-old Peter, who, well, has something to do with his sister’s decapitation. At this past TIFF alone, Wolff had three film premieres: The Castle in the Ground, for which he lost 30 pounds to play an orphaned teenager who becomes addicted to opioids; playing a school news editor in the midst of the principal’s corrupt school system crisis in Bad Education (picked up by HBO); and the drug-addicted boy you don’t want your daughter to date in Human Capital, recently picked up by Vertical Entertainment. And we haven’t even gotten to the revamped Jumanji franchise yet, the sequel of which comes out December 13. Oh, and there’s also Pig, the film that Wolff is shooting with Nicolas Cage in Canada about a man whose prized truffle pig is stolen, and he’ll stop at nothing to get him back. Wolff plays the truffle dealer.
Musician, actor and, as of today, Wolff can add filmmaker to his list as his feature directorial The Cat and the Moon opens from FilmRise exclusively in New York and LA. Shot in 19 days, the pic stars Wolff as Nick, a kid who, while his mother is in rehab treatment, is shuffled off to a family friend in Manhattan, a jazz musician and recording engineer (Mike Epps) who looks after the tortured boy’s well-being. Along the way, Nick finds a group of good-guy, partying, dope-smoking souls (Tommy Nelson, Skyler Gisondo) and falls madly in love with the girl in the bunch, Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen), who despite any sincere connection to Nick, is already his best friend Seamus’ (Gisondo) girl. Hearts break. The pic brings to mind Barry Levinson’s Diner, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan with an alternative vibe, and a cup of John Cassavetes mixed in. We talk with Wolff about mounting and rising The Cat and the Moon.
How did your journey with the The Cat and the Moon begin?
I started writing this movie when I was 15, and it was really in lieu of studying for finals in high school. It became something that I just fell in love with, and it started to become this journal that I was going back to, and became a really, really long script. And then for about five, six years, I spent kind of maturing myself and figuring out that there was this kernel of real inspiration in the script, but that there were a few other things I could play with, and change, so, the script definitely had an evolution, big-time.
I was really inspired by Whit Stillman, and early Woody Allen, and Belgian new-wave filmmakers, like the Dardenne brothers, and even Kieslowski, and the type of European filmmakers who are a little more interested in how people’s faces were, or people’s faces are moving, rather than, you know, a car chase or something.
So, you honed the script down over, five years?
Five to six years, because I made it when I was 19, and I may have just turned 20, I think I’d just turned 20, and it was definitely just a period of mining out what the real sparkle of the script was, and getting a lot of help from people like Noah Baumbach, who happened to live where my parents were living; he lived right below, and I just left the script outside his door because I just wanted some, I don’t know, anything — direction.
He really responded to it and walked through the script with me, and went page by page, kind of breaking it down for me, and he was one of the people who encouraged me to direct it, and Peter Berg is one of the people, who really pointed me in the right direction, encouraged me to direct it. Josh Boone really helped me direct it. I feel like I got a lot of really great opinions, and a lot of people who helped me a lot, and Ari Aster, of course.
Your father Michael Wolff is a notable jazz pianist [Editor’s note: also the former band leader on The Arsenio Hall Show]. Jazz is a background character in the film, but tell me about your other personal inspirations.
There was in a period of time where I’d just started really feeling like I could travel around New York by myself. There was this kind there of exhilaration and this desire to make trouble, and I was kind of taken under the wing of some of these friends at my high school, in a time where I think I really needed them, and that was in an in-between period of having been a famous kid and not really getting much work as a 14, 15-year-old, and kind of trying to figure myself out. I felt very saved by this group of kids who maybe had a penchant for trouble, but at the same time, I was able to process my own emotions that I was going through at the time through this kind of fun, this friendship.
And I always found it to be a little telegraphed and bullshit, these movies about young people where they’ll just throw a tragedy in there, or something. Some kid dies by a bus, or, you know, stuff like that which feels kind of manipulative, or whatever, but I feel like some of the most dangerous, life-changing times have been from everything’s really fun to uh-oh, wait, is this crossing a line here, or whatever? And I just wanted to toy that line of; I thought of it like a group of little kids running on these cliffs, and then almost falling off, and then changing direction, and running and having fun again, and then almost falling off another cliff, and playing around with that idea.
And that’s when I noticed these kind of European filmmakers who were more focused on, and a lot of Japanese and Korean filmmakers did the same thing, like, Oasis by Lee Chang-dong was a huge inspiration, and Ugetsu, and these really great Asian films; they all kind of did this thing where I wasn’t watching a million plot elements happening to these thinly-drawn characters. Instead, I was watching these really juicy characters who sometimes just smoke a cigarette, and it was riveting.
How long did it take to mount? Was it pretty easy to get the financing?
No. It was impossible, impossible. I mean, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done times a billion, how f*cking hard it was to get the movie made. It cost nothing, but at the same time, to raise nothing is hard. To raise anything is really hard. It is so hard. It’s a lot of cold-calling.
So, you literally cold-called?
Yeah, I went to a billion meetings, and humiliated myself, and begged and pleaded, and explained and cried, and you know, and went through the whole gamut. It’s a tragedy. Trying to raise money for a movie is a tragedy.
And FilmRise finding it?
I screened it for a bunch of people, not really expecting anything. I got dressed in a really nice suit. I came and I introduced the film, and I kind of got a little verklempt at the screening, and I said, ‘This is something I wrote in order to not study for my finals, and it became the love of my life, and I really hope that you guys are affected by it’ and they really were, and everybody who saw it just really seemed to be into it. It’s just FilmRise was the first one to go, like, ‘Hey, we’ll put this out in theaters, and we will fully get behind you on it, and you don’t have to change a thing.’ I mean, that never happens.
The poem by W.B. Yeats and the title in relation to your character Nick’s life…
I was just saying to somebody that Paul Thomas Anderson, when he made Magnolia, that title just stuck in his mind in a deep way, a profound way, and out came this story, and the same with There Will Be Blood. That title just kind of came, and seemed to stick, and on some level, I feel it’s about that but the visual of it just sort of seeped into my skin, and just kind of burrowed its way into my bones, and I felt that there was no way around it.
But at the same time, that poem, it’s sort of confusing, because if you read it, it’s really about a boy in a city, a boy or a girl in a city during nighttime, kind of looking up at this bright, shining thing, and it really reminded me of; it seemed to just really resonate with this story of a boy in nighttime with these sort of gorgeous, misty images, these visuals. And so, I just felt that the poem’s really about growing up and about friendship, and about how complicated it is, with “Minnalousche creeps through the grass alone, important and wise, and lifts to the changing moon his changing eyes.” I just think that nothing sums up Nick’s journey more than that, and then on top of that, in the jazz world, you know, I’d grown up with my dad always saying, ‘That guy’s a cool cat…all the cats are here’ and that seemed to be just kind of another kismet thing, so it just all seemed to fit in this gorgeous way.
Your cast came across like you’ve been friends forever. Was that the case?
Skyler Gisondo actually just auditioned. He just sent in a really amazing audition, and it was a life-saving thing where I’d seen, like, 200 tapes. That character was really, really specific, and in some ways, I felt like, it wasn’t, easy. He sent this tape in, and it was like a gift from God. It was exactly what I was picturing in my head, with his own total sense of humor and his own style and swagger.
Mike Epps — I’d only known really his serious things, and I saw this movie called Sparkle, where he played a pimp, and he was amazing in that. And so, it was really interesting to then see how many people were freaking out that he was doing a serious role, but to me, I was like, yeah, but he’s done serious stuff before.
Stefania LaVie Owen I did another movie with her years ago, and she’s been one of my closest friends, and it just was, like, common sense. She’s, like, one of the best actors of our generation, in my opinion. She’s got this beautiful, bleeding heart, yet kind of this enigmatic, secret vulnerability that’s so captivating, and she’s so funny, and such a great improviser.
Was Stefania’s character Eliza based on a real girlfriend?
I plead the Fifth. I plead the Fifth. I plead the Fifth, I do not answer that question. I plead the Fifth.
Your mom was so pivotal in the launch of The Naked Brothers Band on Nickelodeon. What are some of the takeaways you’ve taken from her in directing your actors for Cat and the Moon?
One thing that my mom has told me since I was young and a lot of people would maybe disagree with this, but acting is both impossible and simple at the same time. She makes her actors her king and never imposes herself as a director, never has.
I’ve seen that her philosophy is that you need to follow the wave of your actors and you need to not try to overly impose your vision on the actors. When you do that, I think that you get some interpretation in the actor’s performance of what they think you want rather than a creation from the actor.
I learned that from my mom and at the same time, while she does precious things, she’s also not precious about it. I think sometimes when directors get too hung up on these long backstories and coming up to the actors and whispering in their ear, it wastes time, and it gets in their head whereas if you just say ‘Okay, go do this, go do that.’ I think for me, as an actor, working with directors like Peter Berg and even Ari Aster, the simpler direction, the more kinetic direction. I think they can help get more guttural responses from your actors. I think actors are intuitive instinctively and to trust your intuition and to follow it is the only imperative thing to making a good movie, in my opinion. I’m sure a lot of directors would hate me for saying that and it’s probably based on an actor’s perspective, but I really am proud of the performances in The Cat and the Moon and I think everybody in it is proud of their performances and I think this is a career-best for everybody in the movie. I think that’s how Sidney Lumet, how Brian De Palma and Ingmar Bergman approached movies: I think it’s a lot of trust in the performances and letting the performances speak to you and let the film speak to you; don’t speak to the film.
You had three movies make their world premieres at TIFF: Castle in the Ground, Bad Education and Human Capital. Was there a connection for you that runs through all three? One deals with the opioid crisis, the other a big education scandal, and the third a smart commentary about the upper and middle classes.
They felt searingly honest, relentlessly uncynical and relentlessly brave. I felt even more brave than uncynical because I think Castle in the Ground has some cynicism in a great way. It has more kind of a realism to it, but I guess I feel that I just strongly connected with these people that are all struggling in some sort of way. Bad Education is great because it sets apart the series of more dark, punishing films I’ve been a part of in the past couple years. The film is really funny and satirical, but at the same time, it’s got a real poignant truth to it. There’s no clean-cut person in all three of these movies. There’s no hero. They’re all sort of a series of anti-heroes.
I’m really excited about Castle in the Ground, it’s a real character study. I go to the darkest place that someone can go to and yet with a dreamy, delicious sensibility the way Joey Klein shot it, made it seem like you were almost entranced. It’s a hypnotic movie. I dropped almost 30 pounds for this opioid drama in two weeks.
My character in Bad Education is based a little bit on the film’s writer Mike Makowsky, but I don’t think it’s an actual person. There’s no character named Nick who was the head of the school newspaper, which ended up being very important in that film.
Ian (in Human Capital) is the last person you’d want your daughter to start dating. A lot of him is kind and gentle, but more than any other character, I think he is squeezing all of his emotions. It’s not until something awful happens and he’s exploding. He’s got a bit of an antagonistic streak in him, yet he’s very gentle, very innocent and very fragile and I think that’s often how it is with the people who are crusty and rough around the edges, and are blocked; the ones who have the deepest well of vulnerable.