Alex Wolff on His Directorial Debut, Childhood Stardom, and Blowing Off Steam
Alex Wolff is mad at me. When we meet at Cafe Cluny on an August afternoon, I tell him I watched Hereditary for the first time the night before — but I made the fatal pre-viewing mistake of asking my boyfriend to walk me through every plot-point. “That’s cheating,” he tells me. “It’s supposed to ruin your life,” he says of a particularly white knuckle-inducing twist early in the film. “People talk about that movie like it's the worst thing that's ever happened to them and I love that.”
Hereditary, in which Wolff plays a possessed teen, is currently the project he’s best known for, but it won’t be for long. The actor has seven films slated for this year and next, including his semi-autobiographical directorial feature debut, The Cat and the Moon. He’s 21 years old.
Though Wolff’s resume could easily belong to someone 10 or 20 years his senior, his energy is unmistakably youthful and eager — a foil to many of his contemporaries who, like him, began their careers as children on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.
“It’s such a cool wardrobe you guys wear here. It feels like I’m in France,” he tells our waitress with zeal before ordering an “amazing cappuccino.” Wolff finds a lot of things “amazing” — as a 21-year-old whose wildest dreams are materializing one after the next arguably should — but it’s hardly a canned response. Wolff’s passion bleeds into conversation, whether the topic is a caffeinated beverage or the film he spent six years perfecting.
The Cat and the Moon, which Wolff also wrote and stars in, follows a teenage boy (Wolff, 30 lbs heavier and a head of curls lighter) who, following his mother’s arrival at a rehab facility, moves to N.Y.C. to live with his late father’s musician friend. But despite the film’s immersion in a high schooler’s world (which Wolff was living in when he began writing the project at 15), he doesn’t call it a coming-of-age movie — he’d rather define it as a “character study.”
A month after our interview, I go to see one of Wolff’s upcoming films, Castle in the Ground. He’s greeting a hoard of fans personally, offering to pose for photos and telling each and every movie-goer how grateful he is that they came to see the film. It feels rare to see such a seemingly sincere show of gratitude in real life — from anyone, no less someone who’s spent the bulk of their adolescence in one of the most volatile industries.
Below, we speak with Wolff about The Cat and the Moon, child stardom, and, you know, Nicolas Cage …
InStyle: What inspired you to make this transition to directing?
Alex Wolff: Well I've been writing since I was a kid. And my mom [Polly Draper] is an amazing actress and an amazing director and writer and I saw that it was a natural transition for her. And I saw that you work with a lot of directors and you maybe see, “Oh, I want to take that. I want to do that." But more than that, it was kind of a therapeutic thing. And also a distraction for studying for finals, because I was in ninth grade and finals were coming up.
Oh my God.
I started writing it when I was 15, and I was finding something to do. I was like, “OK, what's going on right now?” And my dad's a jazz musician and we were living together and it was kind of a fascinating time in my life, to me at least. And I thought the more true to that moment of time that I could get into, the more true the story would come out to be. And then it took about five years to make it legible, to make it like full-on readable.
So a lot of this was autobiographical?
Yeah, some of it was autobiographical. But I found this kind of character that I created really interesting. And he's very different than me. I mean, I gained about 30 pounds for it and I shaved my head and got my ears pierced and got a bunch of tattoos for it, which I found out actually last for your whole life, which no one told me. Tattoos actually are on your body for the rest of your life [laughs].
So you said you started writing this when you were 15. Did any of the directors and writers you worked with help you or mentor you?
Yeah, totally. I mean, it was a six-year evolution to it coming out now. A lot of things changed. It's an unrecognizable script. But yeah, like Peter Berg who executive produced it ... he was really straight with me, having me cut it down. You know because I kind of had this sprawling, epic movie I fell in love with that was like two and a half hours.
Of course, yeah.
You know? And it's still on the longer side but it's much shorter than it was. And I'm proud of it. But yeah, he really helped me. Ari [Aster], that was our director on Hereditary, I called him a lot. And his advice was very funny. It was very much like, “Kid, get ready for hell. It's really hard.” And I liked that a lot.
Well for him, especially — hell ...
I'm like, “Yeah, I don't think it's going to be like that, I'm not literally going to hell.” But then like Marc Meyers, the director of My Friend Dahmer helped me a lot, and Josh Boone who also produced it. But no one really helped me with writing and directing — you do find yourself … you've got to hold the ship.
So as an actor your projects have really run the gamut in tone and genre you know, from Jumanji to Hereditary. Did that breadth of experience help you as a director?
Oh how do you mean? That's a good question.
I mean, in finding your own tone. How did your experience as an actor inform your directing?
My experience as an actor taught me everything about being a director probably. And the Sidney Lumet book Making Movies that everybody's read. But I think that really for this type of movie my only job as a director was to secure my actors in what they were doing and let them make full, bold decisions and feel really safe in doing that. It had to feel like we were living there and then it didn't even matter what we really did as long as we were living in that space.
We had to build up these relationships and we all called each other by the character names for a couple months before, and me, Skyler who played Seamus, and Tommy [who played Russell], the three of us all stayed in the same house while we were filming so that also helped ... So it kind of felt like we were living in the world of the movie. It's like this really cool thing where I feel like I can go in this super wide shot and everything I'm catching is in the same universe, you know?
Interesting. So the coming-of-age genre is obviously pretty well-tread territory. What is it about your project that you think sets it apart?
Well I don't really think it's a coming of age movie.
Yeah. I mean to me.
How would you describe it?
Like a character study, I think. I literally haven't seen a movie about high school where there hasn't been a prom scene, where there hasn't been a scene where one of the kids almost dies, where there hasn't been a scene where one of them is pregnant ... I mean, there's just this stock footage of teen things that I think we're all a little fatigued by in the coming-of-age things.
In the coming-of-age version of this movie my character is a dorky kid with glasses who's coming in from "new town." In the first scene he's embarrassed, he doesn't want to say his name [in class]. He goes to the bathroom and the kids come in and they push him down and say, “You're not supposed to be the new kid. What are you doing here, loser?” And they walk out and then this kid's just crying and [saying], “I can't fit in.” And then at the end, at the prom, he gets to dance with the girl who's got the purple hair ... it's just like, we've seen it.
I found that in high school, people really wanted to connect and that's actually where the trouble came in. There were a lot of complications from being friends. It's actually, to me, more fascinating.
I think that every genre is well-tread at this point, there have been so many movies made. Like, the horror genre is the most well-tread, especially a family horror where something terrible happens. But Ari had a whole new kind of perspective on it, and I don't know if there's been a movie that's as patient and as neutral on the point of view of these kind of kids. It's really trying not to judge them and it's trying to give you a portrait of what they are and not be like, “Drugs and alcohol!” or trying to be cool or anything. To me it's kind of an empathetic, patient movie about these kids.
That's a really interesting perspective. So you've obviously worked with your brother, Nat Wolff, a lot and your mom, Polly Draper, recently. Are there any challenges that come with working with family?
None. I'm just kidding. No, I find that I get along best with my family when I'm working with them. When I work with Nat we're the closest we ever are and same with my mom.
Are you like off-set and still talking about all of the creative decisions?
Yeah. I mean Nat and I spend so much energy talking about movies it's disgusting.
What is your process like getting out of character? You've talked about all the work that you put into this last character in putting on weight and getting tattoos, but what about the process of leaving? Like I imagine with something that's as intense as Hereditary or Castle in the Ground, it's not easy to leave.
Cat was hard to leave because I loved being that person and I loved being with those people and I loved making the movie. And so my come-down from that was the joy of it, and being really bereaved for the loss of that process and so I stayed in bed for like a week. That movie Phantom Thread, when he's in the bed? That kind of reminded me of how I was after.
But Castle in the Ground and Hereditary I think if anything I wanted so badly to leave. I was like ready for it to be over and I didn't want to do it anymore, and I found it lingering within me and I don't know if [those characters] ever fully died. I think they don't ever fully die, you’ve just kind of got to find a way to deal with what's happened.
So judging by the amount of projects that you have coming out, you're working a lot, like pretty much non-stop?
It's been a lot.
How do you blow off steam between projects?
You know, I've been reading a ton. Reading is huge for me, and newly kind of because I came off of Castle, which to me marked the end of one era of traumatic body transformations because I got so skinny for that movie. And then coming back from it was just such a pain in the ass, like trying to eat again. And so I just got obsessed with reading and it's become like my new favorite thing.
What are you reading right now?
Right now I'm reading a book [for research] because I'm doing this movie with Nicolas Cage called Pig, and he's my favorite actor. And I've never been more excited in my life. [The book] is called The Truffle Underground and it's like a tale of mystery and ... it's amazing. I had started reading the Da Vinci Code but [Pig] came along so I was like, “OK, I’ve got to read this book about truffles.”
That’s so exciting.
I'm so excited. [Cage] is literally the greatest actor that's ever existed in my opinion.
So many child stars haven't really been able to make that transition into more serious projects. How did you sort of facilitate that?
I think there have been a lot of amazing child stars that have come through. I hate to make it seem like I'm like, "I'm one of a kind." Like [Leonardo] DiCaprio's like a child star.
But I've actually thought about this, and I think the reason that some of the kids don't succeed maybe is because they weren't really investing in what their truth was when they were on Nickelodeon shows, or they've lost interest in it or whatever.
But like, Naked Brothers Band was a show that was, to me, the most important, and the most exciting thing when I was a kid. It wasn't as if I was like, 'Oh, I'm doing this for now, but I'm going to get the cooler projects ... ' I still love that show and I still find that show to be really innovative and different and cool. I grew up with Stand By Me, The Goonies, I grew up with Spinal Tap. Those are my favorite things, and Naked Brothers Band was to me an encapsulation of all those things. And when we went to the Kids’ Choice Awards … I still haven't had a buzz like that when we first went.
Like, I'm chasing that feeling, almost like a drug, of when I first went to the Kids’ Choice Awards. There are videos of it, and we are starry-eyed. So it really hasn't felt like a transition — the only transition is I'm doing things that align with my taste now. I think if you honor your taste as things go along, people come aboard.
So, you have all these creative outlets. You're a musician, you act, you write, direct, are there any other creative avenues that you're looking to go down next?
I want to be an acrobat … Well, I want to get better at all that I'm doing. Like way better. I feel like I'm scratching the surface of what I'm capable of doing right now.
So now that The Cat and the Moon is wrapped, are there any other writing and/or directing projects you have your sights on?
Yeah I have another ... I wrote another script, so I'm going to be probably making that next summer.
Paul Thomas Anderson said something [and] I was like, "That's literally exactly what I was thinking." He's like, "You get this little window after you make a movie where you have this creative buzz going and follow that as far as you can until you collapse." Because that's what happened — I wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote this like 190-page first draft of this next script and then I basically fell asleep for a month.
And then I've spent these past months getting ready to act in these other movies and then in between cutting and cutting and cutting it into the real script.
Well that's amazing. Congratulations on that. So what are you most excited for next?
I'm just really most excited for Cat to come out. Like I can't believe it. Sometimes it's just crazy to think about. A lot of directors have this thing where they're like, “Oh, I wanted this release, or this release ... ” And I'm like I cannot believe that my film that I was writing alone in my room and I was just begging people to read [is coming out] ... It was so disheartening at certain points when I was just like, “Please read it? Even if you hate it just read it?”
Which celebrity have you been the most starstruck to meet?
Joaquin Phoenix and Christian Bale. I started crying when I met [Bale] which was really embarrassing. We were at [an awards show] and my clip had just come up and he was like, “Yeah, that clip's cool mate.” I was like, “Hey man, I'm sorry I feel like I'm about to cry. I've seen every single one of your movies.” And he's like, “Oh mate, don't cry. Nice to meet you.” Then I was like, “Yeah, sorry man, really ...” and I do a thing where I'm like trying to be casual which then makes your tears come up … I’m an emotional guy.
What is the craziest thing you've ever read about yourself?
That I'm a former child star [laughs].
What was your last binge watch?
Ooh, Euphoria. So amazing. [Hunter Schafer] is like the greatest actress I’ve seen in years. Spellbinding. I'm going to write her a part, I have to. She's amazing. And I want to catch her now before she is the biggest star in Hollywood, which is going to happen.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
I have like 18 sweatshirts from Disneyland I bought and I like rotating one after another. Literally those are my favorites, they're so comfy and I just love them. Oh, I also have a sweater with a stripper on the left of it. It's crazy and I didn't know it was a stripper for about two years and then someone said, “Is that a pole?”
Wait, how did you not know?
It was like a weird little shape. I'm like, "It's just really cool," and then someone was like, “Oh, there's a stripper, that's a pole.” And I went, “Oh my God,” which just added to it. I hope that doesn't sound sleazy in writing. Like, “I got a stripper on my shirt.” No, I didn't know it was a stripper. I support strippers that's a great ... it's a job.
How would you describe your personal style?
What are you listening to right now?
The Bon Iver album i,i. It’s amazing. I'm a pretty huge hip hop guy. So I'm listening ScHoolboy Q’s latest album, listening a lot to A$AP Ferg, I just always am.
What is your perfect date?
It's the end of the world, an asteroid is coming to hit the world. Me and my girlfriend are waiting for the meteor to hit, A Tribe Called Quest is doing a free show, after that Paul McCartney is following and we're at that concert. The meteor has a couple hours to hit, I get to hang with Paul McCartney, I tell him how much he means to me and that he's amazing, and then he's like really nice because we're the last people to exist on earth and then the meteor just misses us. And so that's the perfect date.
I like the stakes of that.
I like high stakes.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Taxi Driver, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and that's really hard the third one, a tie between Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne brothers, Ordinary People, and Dog Day Afternoon.
I'll allow the tie. What do you wish more people knew about you?
That I got a 97 in Chemistry.
The Cat and the Moon opens in select theaters Oct. 25.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs by Colette Aboussouan. Grooming by Melissa DeZarate. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.