Coppola has always been able to spot emerging talent, from his early films to his last studio picture, 1997's The Rainmaker, which marked the first lead role for the then-unknown Matt Damon. Coppola continues that streak with his new film, Tetro, which introduces 18-year-old Alden Ehrenreich to audiences in an astonishing debut. In the film, opening June 12, Ehrenreich plays Bennie, a naive young man who comes to Buenos Aires in search of the brother he hasn't seen in more than 10 years. The brother, a temperamental artist who calls himself Tetro, is portrayed by the notoriously temperamental artist Vincent Gallo. As the two brothers become reacquainted, old family secrets rise to the surface. It's a return to Coppola's independent roots: a small film, shot in black-and-white on a modest budget. It also marks Coppola's first original screenplay since 1974's The Conversation.
Ehrenreich, who began studying acting at age 14 and performed and directed plays at the Crossroads School in Los Angeles, carries a great deal of responsibility as the lead of the film. He delivers a wonderfully touching and completely natural performance—not unusual for a Coppola discovery.
Back Stage: Where did you develop such a keen eye for young talent?
Francis Ford Coppola: I think a bit of it came from the reality of our situation—that we were never able to afford the famous and successful actors of the moment because they were surrounded by managers and agents, and you couldn't get to them. Usually you can either work with down-and-out actors whose careers are in a temporary downturn or find new actors. A lot of the stars that grew out of our films were because nobody had seen them terribly much. Even in this case, if you want some guy to go with you to Argentina for five months, who's going to do it? Either someone totally new and young or an actor who'd been very important but was now less important. Like when Quentin Tarantino rediscovered John Travolta.
Alden Ehrenreich: Or Brando in The Godfather.
Coppola: That's right. Brando couldn't get hired then. So it's really by necessity you have to find young talent and develop a way to identify it early on.
Back Stage: Are there any disadvantages to casting a well-known actor?
Coppola: One of the things about casting the A-list talent is that you don't often to get say whether they're right for the part. Instead you say, "Hey, look who we can get!" And you don't think, "Well, is he really right for the part?" You tend to think, "Never mind, I'll change the part if I get so-and-so because if I get so-and-so, I'll get the financing."
Back Stage: Have you ever regretted a casting decision?
Coppola: In retrospect, I might have cast one person instead of another now that I know more. But you never want to fire an actor; it's like having to amputate all your arms and legs. Sometimes an actor might be a great actor but he's wrong for what you're trying to do, and that happened to me only once. It's not something I would ever want to do again. The decision was made purely on realizing it wasn't the right casting. Fortunately, the guy in question was such a talented person that his career wasn't affected and we were able to be friends.
Back Stage: Alden, I understand your audition for Tetro was a little unusual.
Ehrenreich: At first, I came in and we just had a conversation about different things. Then he gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and had me prepare a monologue from it—it was the one about his brother and the baseball mitt. I went in and performed it and Francis said, "Keep reading." So I just read out loud from the book for a little while. Then he asked me questions, and I didn't know if he was asking me as Holden Caulfield or myself, so I sort of tried to combine my answers. After that, I did a screen test at his vineyard in Napa, then another screen test in Argentina, and then I got the part.
Back Stage: Is there anything you would want an actor to know if they are auditioning for you?
Coppola: Keep in mind that the director is hoping, just as you are, that you are right for the part. Every time an actor comes in, I'm hoping against hope that they're going to be wonderful. And the time they're in there with me, I'm rooting for them. You don't have to be distracted by whether I like you or not: I want you to get the part.
Ehrenreich: Before I met with Francis, I watched a lot of interviews with him so I could get a sense of his demeanor. One of the things that helps before you meet anybody is trying to figure out what their tastes are. You don't want to play to that or tap-dance for them—but just get a sense of who someone is so you can communicate with them better.
Coppola: I also think directors want you to show something personal about yourself that can contribute to the part. So use who you are. You can't know what they're looking for, so just use the most authentic part of you and offer up something that no one else can do, because that's the best shot you've gone.
Back Stage: How do you put actors—especially new ones—at ease on a set?
Coppola: I always ask for three weeks of rehearsal—usually, I get two weeks because scheduling is hard to pull off—and I do a very interesting rehearsal. We don't just sit around and try to block the scenes. I don't read the script out loud more than twice. You don't want to use up all the freshness of the lines. I do lots of other techniques related to theater games and improvisations and other situations designed to help the characters come alive and also have everyone feel really comfortable working with me, because it's a quick jump from the mood of the rehearsal to the shooting, since we tend to have small crews, and I try to keep the actors' experience as similar as what it was in rehearsal. I don't have trailers for the actors; they stay with me right in the center of stuff—
Back Stage: Why are there no trailers?
Coppola: It's something I want, and if I don't have one, why should they have one?
Back Stage: Where do you retreat to when needed?
Coppola: I don't; I stay with the actors and kid around with them and tell stories and hang out. That way, there's none of this, "Knock knock knock, come out!" and then sometimes they don't want to come out. This way, there's nowhere to not come out of.
Ehrenreich: Which is great, because then you don't get all fancy with your own ideas that you come up with by yourself and bring them to set. You don't get too caught up inside yourself.
Back Stage: I recall from watching a making-of special on the set of The Rainmaker that you also take time while on set to improvise.
Coppola: Absolutely. That's another bugaboo—that on the set you're working and if the photographer and the gaffer decide the sunlight's getting in through the venetian blind and ruining it, they'll stop for 45 minutes to fix it. But if you say, "Okay, we're going to do some improvs and fool around with the actors," people say, "What? Who are these indulgent actors?" I try to teach the crew that the actors are why we're there. Yes, the photography is super important, but nothing's more important than the actors.
Back Stage: Alden, you said you studied movies to learn more about acting. Were any of those films Francis'?
Ehrenreich: Francis was sort of the first director I was very conscious of when I started studying films and how they were made and what I liked. When I was 12, I saw The Godfather, and then I read The Godfather—
Coppola: You read it? What did you think of all the risqué sections?
Ehrenreich: Page 16 is Sonny schtupping the girl. In middle school you'd sit around and read that passage. But early on, Francis was telling the types of stories I was really drawn to, especially as a young guy, because there were so many exciting strong male figures in his films. There's a decency to the guys, no matter how rough they are. There's always some component, even Luca Brasi is sort of endearing, the way he stumbles over his lines—
Coppola: That was an accident. You know how that happened? That guy [Lenny Montana] was a wrestler, not an actor, so he wasn't really able to get through the lines. So when we did the scene where he's trying to thank Don Corleone for inviting him to his daughter's wedding, he couldn't get through the lines; he kept flubbing it. There was no way to get him through it. So what I did was I got the idea to have a scene before that where he's practicing what he's going to say. So when he goes in and totally blows it, you realize how nerve-racking it is. The truth is, in real life, he was just totally blowing it.
Ehrenreich: That's the perfect example of the way Francis creates the energy of a film, by picking up on the dynamism of a set and what's going on—
Coppola: Or not going on.
Ehrenreich: —and what the energy is in the whole environment, that becomes the film. So there isn't some big change when he says, "Action" you just stay in the same rhythms. That's what the improv really helped with. At the end of the rehearsal period, we had a masquerade party where you came as your character in what your character would wear as a costume. Everyone was given a slip of paper with some things they had to accomplish with other characters. There were drinks and food, and everyone stayed in character and entered fully into this world.
Coppola: They were actually living as these characters. Whenever they're in rehearsal, you never say, "My character would do this." You are the character the moment you walk in.
Ehrenreich: We were just living it. And there were fights and things that happened that Francis was open enough to take those things that happened and make them sort of the third act of the film. It really changed a lot of the story, and a lot of things came from different moments. There was a discussion between me and Vincent that really informed the story. We were all informed enough about our characters that we'd developed an instinct about it, and it moved in the most organic way. It was wonderful.