This Beautiful, Stressful, All-Consuming Thing: Alex Wolff on Castle in the Ground

In a healthier world, Alex Wolff would have received a Golden Thumb last month at the latest edition of Ebertfest. But being as things are, the busy indie darling will have to wait at least another year for such an honor, along with the thrill of presenting an audience in Roger's own Champaign-Urbana the horror of "Hereditary," one of many projects that has made Wolff a rising talent to follow. Ever since that Ari Aster now-classic, Wolff has been seemingly been working non-stop: in the past month, Wolff signed onto M. Night Shyamalan's secretive next project, and was also seen in HBO's hit movie "Bad Education." 

Wolff's latest project is "Castle in the Ground," a drug addiction drama in which he plays a young man and private Orthodox Jew named Henry who gets sucked into the tumultuous world of addicts after befriending his pushy neighbor Ana (Imogen Poots). Henry's initial exposure to opioids occurs while he takes care of his dying mother Rebecca (Neve Campbell), the two sharing many tender scenes that often start with him crushing up pills with a tablespoon, hoping the drug will provide his mother some respite from her pain. Executed with constant unease by writer/director Joey Klein, the film takes a lot out of all of its performers, who give intense, scrappy, wounded performances in return. 

In the spirit of staying sane during quarantine, of trying to connect with good people in our brief interactions before resuming isolation, I had a wide-ranging conversation checking in with Wolff, starting with how he approaches acting like creating playrooms (we had talked before after he made "Hereditary," where I learned he doesn't like getting into the specifics of acting; not many actors do). We also touched on other things: how his mom Polly Draper is his "homie"; bonding with Ingmar Bergman fanatic Nicolas Cage over the raw deal "Burning" got during its respective award season; Wolff's experience of making his soulful, jazz-inflected directorial debut "The Cat and the Moon"; and his future plans for his own Ari Aster-inspired Halloween costume. 

How are you holding up? 

I’m doing OK. It’s a shame man, I was going to get an award from you guys! I’m so excited, but at least we know I’ll get it. 

Let’s jump around a bit—for this project, when did you shoot it in your timeframe? You seem pretty busy, so I wonder how much time you usually have in between. 

It was weird, I did “The Cat and the Moon,” and that feels like a section of my life where it’s like a few months, and I didn’t do anything from “Hereditary” to “The Cat and the Moon” … actually, I did do some small stuff, but I really was like, “I have to f**ing make this movie right now.” And I spent a few months, I passed on a couple things, focused on getting that movie made. It was the best decision of my life.

After that, it just sort of happened. I did “Bad Education” and then “Human Capital” in the same two weeks, or like a week in between. And then right after “Human Capital” I did the new “Jumanji,” and there was barely any time in between, like a month. Which is so different, such a different tone. And then I’m not kidding, there were about two weeks in between doing “Jumanji” and “Castle in the Ground” and I dropped about 30 pounds by the time we were up and filming in Canada. It was this crazy, crazy thing where I had no time, and I had to completely go head-first. Everybody in my life was sort of miserable being around me as that was happening. 

What does it mean to you to go head-first? 

It basically kind of means putting blinders on, and having no … “limits” is a weird word, because I always like to have a certain aim. But I kind of just, I feel like I always have a room in my head that’s like the playroom … maybe this is a weird, kind of psychedelic way of describing it, but in some ways I need a playroom in my head, and when I’m about to do the movie I fill that playroom. My mind gets to wander and I’m not worried about like, what am I going to do today. I daydream. The best thing is when I have a movie coming up, I just put all my daydream energy into that. I let it be free. What music do they listen to? What flows? I let it be like a playroom where you can decorate it, it’s a whole new room and you get to paint it a different color. It’s this kind of beautiful way of thinking about it. 

And I guess head-first is like, making it so that you sort of live in that playroom and force yourself to stay in that room. As much fun as it to think, How am I going to fix the floorboards in here? How am I going to put this window up? I have to do all this legwork, and keeping my brain from going there, in a couple months you can more organically decorate your room. You can more organically dress it the way you want to, and kind of figure out and step back. 

But it sometimes fun when you have a couple weeks and you just jump start into it. You just have to have a green-light energy toward it, and that was “Castle in the Ground” to the extreme: I’m going to have lose a bunch of weight, I’m going to have to learn everything about addicts. It just became my life, and it became this beautiful, super stressful, all-consuming thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever been all-consumed by something. I think it’s the hardest movie I’ve ever done, and I hope people just watch it—even if they don’t enjoy it, I just feel like it deserves to be seen. We really bled on this movie. I really want people to see it, man. I could almost get emotional just talking about it. 

This was a big moment for you and your commitment, and your Olympian endurance as an actor. 

Yes. Dude, that’s so funny you said that, that’s literally what my mom [writer/director Polly Draper] said after she saw it in Toronto. She said, “Yeah, it’s like an endurance test.” That’s sort of what it is, and as a viewer, but it’s worth it in the end. 

I know your mom has directed you before, like in “Stella’s Last Weekend” with your brother Nat Wolff—do you have a pretty influential artistic relationship with your mom? 

Some would say I have an unhealthily close relationship with my mom [laughs]. I am so close to my mom, she’s like my best friend. It’s intimidating to people, because we talk like multiple times a day, I have her name tattooed on my back. Creatively, I do work with her on stuff sometimes, and run stuff by her, but even more personally I feel that she’s the person I call when I’m emotionally struggling or even talking about things theoretically and hypothetically. Oh, I’m struggling for a few minutes, or I’m struggling on this scene. My mom is the first person who can kind of maybe talk me out of it. A lot of it is just dismissing my neuroses, and saying, “No, you always do this, just shut up and go to work and do it.” 

That’s pretty unorthodox in the history of child-parent star relationships. 

Definitely [laughs]. I mean, she’s my homie. 

I wanted to briefly talk “Cat and the Moon,” actually, because it’s stuck with me months after seeing it. I was walking around a grocery store yesterday doing my frantic rounds, and I was calming myself by humming the main melody you wrote, over and over. 

No way! 

It was very soothing to me. 

Thank you, man. That’s like the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten. 

And the scene where you and Mike Epps are performing the melody and bringing it to life is just … 

[Hums the melody] 

Do you remember the process of writing that piece of music? 

Honestly, I remember that it was at a time when the movie wasn’t getting made at all, and it just came to me at my ex-ex-girlfriend’s house, and she had an old, out-of-tune piano. I recorded a demo of me playing it, and the demo ended up in the movie. And it’s that last scene where I’m riding on the train. And I remember she contacted me after seeing—and we’re still friends—and she’s like, “Hey, I’m not going to get any credit for you recording in my house?” So I’m giving it to her now. 

"The Cat and the Moon"

Are you working on any directorial projects now? 

Yeah, I wrote another movie that Nic Cage is going to produce with me, something I’m really excited about. I’m really pumped. It’s an exciting one that I want to keep the details as much under wraps as possible, because I want it to get made and kind of surprise people before they make their own assumptions about it, because it’s a bit of a touchy subject matter. I think the movie is pretty universal and soulful and empathetic, but the subject matter is going to make people either initially angry or initially really interested. If there’s any theme of my movies—I’m not too established, but there’s a little bit of a theme of going places where people are scared, or it’s too much. It’s kind of where I live. 

Was that collaboration from working with him on the upcoming “Pig”? 

Yeah, we just bonded over our taste in movies. The first thing was, we bonded over Bergman, we’re both Ingmar Bergman fanatics. I’m trying to see who has seen more Bergman … we were very competitive. We were never competitive about acting, never competitive about anything, we were just best friends, but we were slightly competitive about who has seen more movies, because we’re both film buffs. I’d tell him to see a movie he hadn’t seen, and he’d get excited. Or he told me about that horror movie “Kuroneko,” or we both watched “Ugetsu” around the same time, just psyched on it. 

Basically, we were talking about this movie “Burning,” by Lee Chang-dong. I told him “watch it,” and he went home and watched it that night when we were doing “Pig.” He came back the next day, and he could not stop talking about it. He was obsessed with it. And I told him I wrote a script that had certain elements tonally that are similar, and he read it and he was really moved by it, and he said, “Let me be a producer on it. Let me be involved somehow.” You don’t say “no” to Nic Cage. 

What other movies were you bonding over? 

So many. We would argue over movies that we disagreed on, that we didn’t like. And then we’d bond over not liking movies that are very popular, and we’d have a f**king good time railing on movies that we hated that people loved. We went to go see “Parasite” together, in the theater. He got a private theater, and he and I went in Portland with the director, Michael Sarnoski. That was a really fun experience. 

Did Nic Cage like it? 

He did! I think we were both … yeah. We both liked it. We felt like we’re defensive over “Burning,” because it didn’t get the love that it deserved. And it was another Korean movie that came out and didn’t get the hype that it deserves, and “Parasite” got so much and we really liked it. But I think “Burning” deserves more, and I think deserves to be in that Best Picture conversation. And I know they’re not related, but they came out in that same year and a half, and they’re both kind of mysteries and they’re both kind of scary … I felt taken with both of them, but mostly “Burning.” I want “Burning” to get more attention. 

You’re definitely not alone in that. 

Really? Yeah. Ari Aster was with me on that.

Speaking of that guy—months after you and I talked about “Hereditary,” I needed a Halloween costume. So I actually dressed up as you from the final shots of Aster's movie. 

No you didn’t! For Halloween? Dude. That is so awesome. I actually saw someone with that costume on Halloween, and I clicked at them. And they did not take kindly to that. They saw me, and I just thought it would be so funny if I did that. They ran away. It was so funny. 

You’re in a bonafide horror cult hit now. Do you see images of yourself out there? 

Yeah, it’s interesting. Sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it’s a little scary. Someone had this big tattoo of me on their leg. It’s one thing if you got me in a movie where I’m not Paimon, but it’s a little interesting when you see that they have the Devil on their leg. But one woman told me, that it helped her with her mom who got diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it helped her get past it. And I thought that was kind of moving. 

Is that the project people talk to you about most when you’re approached randomly on the streets? 

Far and away the most. I mean, some drunk guy in an elevator, he was laughing with his girlfriend and I was standing there. He was smiling and he just started [makes clicking sounds] and I laughed. It’s just part of the thing. 

You know that Florence [Pugh] dressed up as Dani (from Aster’s second film, “Midsommar”) for Halloween, which is hilarious. I think we’re gonna do this year, we were thinking if we’re not in quarantine … we’ve gotten super close and we’re thinking we’re going to be each other. She was going to be Peter, and I was going to be Dani. I’m going to be the Mayqueen. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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