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House of Pain: Alex Wolff on Hereditary

Ari Aster’s masterwork “Hereditary” has become the horror sensation of the summer for a lot of reasons—it’s scary as hell, and even more disturbing and complex in repeat viewings—but emotional honesty is one of its most resonant traits. It tells the unsettling story of a family that is torn apart by the trauma they directly and indirectly inflict on each other, while being manipulated by legitimately insidious forces. At the start, miniaturist-making mother Annie (Toni Collette) has a particularly strained relationship with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), as the father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to keep the peace while his antisocial, very awkward younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is disturbed by something unbeknownst to them. As with Matt Zoller Seitz's four-star review of the film, I won't go into too much more detail. But Aster’s script mixes influences of “Cries and Whispers” with “Rosemary’s Baby” and numerous modern horror films. It's bound to mess you up, in more ways than you might expect. 

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Driven more by character than jump scares, "Hereditary" is built in part on two major performances. Toni Collette is rightly being praised for an Oscar-worthy depiction of a mother on the very fringe of losing her sanity, due to pulverizing loss. But not to be forgotten is Alex Wolff’s performance as Peter, whose narrative shows a young man haunted by grief, becoming progressively terrified of his mother instead of trying to reconnect with her. In numerous passages, Wolff's performance vividly expresses either the stunned silence of trauma, or the desperate, wailing nature we turn to when faced with something horrifying beyond our comprehension. 

RogerEbert.com spoke to Wolff about how acting in "Hereditary" was like an Olympic marathon every day, audiences laughing during the movie, his own upcoming debut as a writer/director and more. 

Before we get deeper into "Hereditary," I want to know: do you like talking a lot about acting, or do you prefer to just let the performance speak for itself? Some actors don’t like talking about it. 

Generally, I don’t like talking about acting like that. It has the impression of explaining magic tricks, even what I don’t think what we’re doing is magic at all. But honestly, I love listening to other people talk about it, and I think that I am super young, so my wisdom comes from a lot of other people, and listening to my favorite actors talk about it. And with this particular movie, you know, there isn’t really any tricks or any questions. It was just an experience where everyone involved bared it all, and gave everything. So generally I don’t like talking about acting, but with this movie, there was so much rawness and I like people to know how much was there in making it good. 

There's also the idea that certain moments are about those unspeakable types of thoughts.  

It’s also kind of irrelevant. The "how you do it" is sort of irrelevant, it’s really about watching it. And if it rings true to you, there’s something special in itself. It’s like the end of “Lost in Translation,” when Bill Murray whispers something in Scarlett Johansson's ear. There’s a whole handful of people who looked that up, to find out what he said. But I would never dare, that would just ruin the whole thing. I love the mystery of it. Mostly when I watch movies, I don’t like to think about how they made it. But it just depends on the mindset when you watch. Sometimes you watch and it’s like, “Wow, that’s so amazing.” Or you can just watch something and be like, "How did that character deal with that?"

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Do you remember what you auditioned with to get this part? 

It was three scenes, and two of them got cut from the movie. It was a three-hour movie, and two of [the scenes] were these big, sort of emotional scenes between me and Gabriel Byrne’s character. In context, when I was watching it I knew a lot was cut out. But when I finished the movie I wasn’t thinking about it because he held on my close-ups for so long in the other scenes, it told the story of the two scenes that he cut out, two big scenes that are like five minutes each. I think anything else would have been overkill. But I think that he wanted to see that I could break down crying. It just so happens by the time we were on set it was like, “I gotta be crying in this scene, I gotta be crying in this scene.” It was nuts. Every day was like an Olympic marathon. 

There’s a boyish element to your character; when he's really terrified, he has this deep, boyish cry. Was there a lot of discussion about that? 

That’s just my cry [laughs]. We had no discussion about that, and he just sort of wanted to see if someone could just break. I’m always very moved by people turning into little kids, watching them. And I think when anyone is super vulnerable, they end up being more infant-like. But for sure I’ve gotten a lot of comments. I’m pretty sure it means that my f**king cry is just whiny and loud. 

It’s a broken wail. It just emphasizes the trauma even more. 

If you like that, there’s a lot more where that came from. You should just come watch “Bambi” with me. 

Had you seen any of Ari’s shorts before? 

Yeah. 

What had you seen, and what struck you before you became part of an Ari Aster movie? 

I love that, “an Ari Aster movie.” 

It’s gonna be a brand. 

Basically, after I read the script and I was obsessed with that and all that, I went and watched “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” And in the beginning I didn’t really know anything about it, so it was just this kind of odd scene between father and son. Like, “Oh, this is kind of odd.” But then slowly but surely, I was like, “Holy SH*T. Holy f**king shit. This guy is twisted. This guy is next-level twisted.” I called him on the phone, laughing. I just found it to be genius, so I already knew I was working with a genius. I was laughing the whole way through. He’s so smart. 

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That short does have a smartness, and a cruelty to it. A bit like "Hereditary." Was there ever that air on set where it was like, this is so ridiculous, and shattering, but it’s also kind of funny? 

Not on set. I mean, people in theaters laugh really hard and I love that. Whenever I get a big laugh in this movie, I’m like that is the f**king bee’s knees. That is the light that shines on your face in the briefcase. That is next-level exciting. Because that is not at all … all the other stuff, I know people are going to be scared. And that people are going to be upset. But if we score some laughs, I think it only adds to how deep it is. The greatest thing is that I’ve been hearing from my friends who go to see that people go [tongue clucking sound]. People will just freak out in the theater. I like it as an almost interactive movie experience. 

Are you saying that the moments are supposed to be a relief? Or it's good that people are trying to find an excuse to laugh? 

I love that it’s people trying to find an excuse—if you’re doing a scary movie and it’s doing its job, people will laugh, especially teenagers. I mean that lines get big laughs, like in the scene where I’m like, “You were pulling on my head!” and Toni’s like, “Oh, honey. I would never do that to you!” That gets a huge laugh, uproarious laughter. It’s fun to hit those certain spots, because you get those huge laughs of this kind of irony in the story, I love that. I mean, hopefully no one is laughing during my panic attack scene, or during any of the f**king sh*t in the beginning. 

Exactly. 

You know that Ari has a sense of humor about what’s going on, and I think that’s an added level. The same way that a movie like “Manchester by the Sea” makes me laugh out loud a lot. 

As someone that was in this movie and you were deeply in it, was it hard to shake off towards the end of production? 

Yeah, I think that when anybody goes this deep into this world, if you have to do these things, I think it doesn’t really matter whether you stay in character, or whether you don’t. I think it’s hard to convince your body, oh, it’s just acting. You can tell yourself that a million times. But I think that it’s gonna stick in your system, whether you like it or not. Or at least for me, I find it nearly impossible to shake anything. 

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I’ve seen “Hereditary” now three times, and it’s only become more disturbing to me. 

Oh, holy sh*t. 

Does you being in it make it hard for you to detach when you're actually watching it? 

Yeah, for me it definitely is. Because the first time I watched it, I was just thinking about how my nose looked and my hair looked, and you’re just kind of looking at the bare minimum stuff, like how kid-like it is when you cry. But then the second time you’re like, “Holy sh*t, this is pretty terrifying.” I only saw it twice, and that will only be the amount of times I see it for sure. But I found it the second time to be much more enjoyable. 

Is it hard to do a jump scare? Like when you're suddenly being chased, as in the third act movie. Or do you just do your part, and let Aster handle it? 

Sometimes it’s hard to be like, “Turn around really slowly.” Like, why? But honestly, Ari made it so great and I’m just someone who is demanding as f**k, so I’m like, “Hey, can you just slam something really loud?” He had these two things, these two wood blocks. And we figured out this system before we started, and he’d slam them together and it would automatically do something that would scare the shit out of me. But I think when you’re in that place, it didn’t even come close to looking at a burned-up corpse, or acting through what I’ve done to my sister in the car, having a panic attack in the bleachers. That stuff is much more grating than just reacting to something. But yeah, part of it is about making it real, which is why I need sounds, and loud things. 

What can you tell me about your debut as a writer/director, “The Cat and the Moon”? How’s it coming along? 

It’s doing great, I’m almost finished editing it. I’m on picture edit and will probably get to sound editing and color correction soon. I’ve been working on it for five years, probably almost five-and-a-half. I started writing it when I was 15, and it took me five years to make it readable. 

Basically it’s about this high school kid whose mom checks into a rehab facility in Detroit, so he has to stay in New York with the only person who is willing to take care of him for about a month, who is this older jazz musician, played by Mike Epps. It’s a really amazing, kind of dramatic turn. I saw him in this movie “Sparkle” and in “Bessie” about Bessie Smith, and I was like, “This dude is an unbelievable, serious actor.” Even in “The Hangover,” there’s something different that he’s doing than everyone else. So he’s just unbelievable in the movie. Basically, I go stay with him and while I’m there, I meet this group of teenagers, kids who take me under their wing and show me around New York, and take me around the city. And while I’m there, it’s this journey of watching this young guy process this disturbing, unclear nature of the way his dad died, because he actually died while staying with the jazz musician. So it’s really just an examination of this character, in this world, for the period of time while his mom is in rehab. 

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Was there any influence from Ari on the project? 

Totally, yeah. I would call him all of the time and ask him questions. We have a totally different style. But I would say the biggest influence for me was Peter Berg. I shot it in a totally different way, trying to be like a French New Wave … like a Dardennes brothers-type film. Things happening in one shot. But that style ... working with actors, being really immediate and adrenaline-based. That kind of stuff I stole from Peter. But then I stole almost everything else from Ari. 

Hope to see it next year, or really soon. Maybe Sundance! 

Sundance, baby!  

Click here to read Matt Zoller Seitz's four-star review of "Hereditary." 

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