Alex Wolff’s Career Proves Why ‘Success’ Is All About the Work

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Photo Source: Matt Doyle

“Do you know what kind of truffle it is? Is it a Périgord?” Alex Wolff asks a waitress. “I know way too much about them.”

The actor, splayed out on a velvet sectional at Cecconi’s in Brooklyn, is currently obsessed with truffles: he’s making a movie about them called “Pig” with Nicolas Cage. So, naturally, he orders a pizza with truffles. “You say truffles and my heart races. It’s like getting a text from a girl you like,” says Wolff.

One could say Wolff, 21, commits to his work like he would a long-term relationship. He began writing his forthcoming project, “The Cat and the Moon,” at 15 and worked on it for many of his teenage years. He not only wrote the screenplay; he’ll direct and play the lead, too. “I started writing it when I had finals coming up in the 9th grade in order to not study for [them],” recalls Wolff. But the project, which he refers to as “his mistress” at the time, became his main focus. The film, out Oct. 25, follows the teenaged Nick (Wolff), who goes to live with a New York jazz musician comrade (Mike Epps) of his late father while his mother is in rehab.

Wolff initially gained recognition on the Nickelodeon series “The Naked Brothers Band” with his brother, Nat Wolff. They would later form the musical duo Nat and Alex Wolff before focusing on film. He went on to take roles in “My Friend Dahmer,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Hereditary,” but “The Cat and the Moon” is a departure from Wolff’s early acting work.

“For my character, I gained almost 30 pounds, got a bunch of tattoos, shaved my head, and pierced my ears. I changed my whole physical appearance,” says Wolff. In between bites of “intense” truffle—and in the middle of a waterfront restaurant—Wolff lifts up his white T-shirt to reveal one of his tattoos dedicated to the film: a cat on a moon.

Over lunch, Wolff spoke to Backstage about the making of “The Cat and the Moon,” how he found his way into the character of Nick, and how being a child actor prepared him for the road ahead.

How long did it take you to write the script for “The Cat and the Moon”?

A long time. This isn’t a story I tell a lot: Finals were coming up, [and I] didn’t want to study. It was almost my mistress. I was writing this script on the side about what was going on at the same time I was being taken around by this hard-partying group of kids. And I was having a crossroads in my life at that moment. I made the characters a little older in the film, but, basically, it’s about this kid who comes to New York to live with this older jazz musician while his mother’s treated in rehab in Detroit, and while he’s there he meets this group of upper-middle-class crazy kids who take him around the city. While he’s making friends and having this first bonding experience with people his own age, he starts to go through a bit of a mental breakdown processing the really grim nature of his dad’s death. Then you find out that the house he’s staying in is actually the house his dad was staying in when [he] died. You watch this mystery unfold. Super character story. I’m hugely inspired by “Taxi Driver,” European cinema, the Dardenne brothers, and Korean movies. I’m very inspired by character studies where you watch things unfold and maybe don’t know what’s going on and watch it happen in front of you without much plot. I’m really proud of it; it took me six years. I started writing it at 15.

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How much of the film is autobiographical?

It’s weird how certain things that are different than you can end up being autobiographical. We all have different parts of ourselves we don’t even realize we have, so sometimes it ends up being even more personal because it’s something that hasn’t been discovered within yourself. My dad is a jazz pianist, so that is automatically autobiographical, and my godfather is a jazz sax player and we have a very interesting relationship. He was one of the music supervisors on the film who made sure Mike Epps, who plays the older jazz musician, looked like he was playing the sax. A lot of it. I had a best friend named Seamus and a girl I was in love with was a girl named Eliza. I used their names. But I think the character I built was based on amalgamation of a lot of people. And I think certain characters written were an amalgamation of me.

How many tattoos did you get for the movie?

I had one, and then for the movie I got three. Obviously, I was getting them for real life because I knew I was going to have them for a while.

For those who don’t know, how did you get your start in the acting world?

I started in The Naked Brothers Band when I was 6. I did “The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie.” We joked that it was a more expensive home movie. It was me, my brother, my mom behind the camera, and a lot of our friends. The great part about being introduced to film that way is when it’s your family—the kiss of death is phoniness, and you can all read it in each other, especially when you’re related. In all of my projects now, I’m actually trying to chase what I had as a kid. Puberty is the death of vulnerability. You build up all the walls and try to reject those more embarrassing sides of yourself. When you were a kid, you weren’t as aware—at least, I wasn’t aware. Obviously, now I know how to react, but there’s a lot of erasing that has to be done in your adult life to get rid of those brutal years from 11 to 16 when you’re really in a no man’s land. Especially when you’re really famous as a kid, nobody wants anything to do with you—or, at least, that was my experience. From the ages of 12–15 and 16–17, movies all stopped. During that time, there’s a lot of ego and acne.

In terms of acting, what’s your training been like? Do you have an acting coach?

Maybe my biggest education, which is a little bit of a cop-out, me saying this, but [it’s] being obsessive about movies. I watch movies obsessively. So, that’s a huge education for me. I watch everything. I’m huge into Korean and Chinese movies. I love Wong Kar-wai, Lee Chang-dong. I get a lot of stuff from that. I’ve also grown up [in a home] where my mother’s an amazing actress and my brother’s an amazing actor. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of colorful people. I’ve gotten to learn a lot on the job, for sure. Maybe the two biggest learning experiences for me were doing my first play here in New York, which was called “All the Fine Boys,” and then directing this film. I also just did another play, “Long Lost,” which was way bigger. Each experience is a new education.

At this point, do you have a preference for film or stage acting?

No, because you can have nights onstage where you want to die. Really, you want to die. You’re in the middle of the show and you’ll be like, “If somebody killed me right now, it’d be better than somebody not laughing. Come on, you came to the theater—wake up!” Then you’ll have nights where you get offstage and you’re like, one, “I’m the greatest actor who has ever been born,” two, “This is the greatest play that’s ever been born,” three, “I’m in the prime of my life. This is better than everything. This is better than heroin.” You can have those two opposite experiences. For movies, I do feel like you can swing on either end of the pendulum, but it’s not as extreme at either end. Theater, for me, I either have the worst show ever or the greatest show ever.

How did you find your way into the character of Nick for “The Cat and the Moon”?

The tattoos and the weight gain helped a lot. Shaving my head helped a lot. A lot of movies about young people—this isn’t criticism, necessarily—they’re either fast-talking and all of them are really clever, or they’re awful and doing awful things and it’s kind of cynical. And I thought it would be interesting if I didn’t have a point of view on the kids. Obviously, they’re saying the n-word and doing these horrible things and they get their punishment for it, but I find that you can make your own judgments about them if you want—if you can, experience these people. A lot of the lead characters in movies are these dorky little boys like, “God, I wish I could get a date to the prom,” or it’s the id who’s the psychopath or the jock. There are all these archetypes.

How did you differentiate your characters from these archetypes?

I think in another version of the story, the two friends, Seamus and Russell, would come into the bathroom and be like, “Hey, loser, you’re new in town,” and push [Nick] in the bathroom and walk out. I thought it would be more interesting if they were like, “Hey, what’s up man, come to this party.” Then all the complications arise from that and the conflict comes from them being friends. My way into the character was thinking about someone who could really hold his own in situations and seems nice and cool on the surface but is also a big, burning ball of rage and has found a way to get by, like screaming on the roof and punching the cab. It’s not fake, it’s thinly veiled vulnerability and pain.

How did you manage directing, starring, writing, and editing the film?

I feel like directing is super hard and acting is super hard. Writing is a separate animal, but directing and acting happen on set. I’m done writing well before we start shooting. Directing gets a little too much credit for how hard it is, and acting doesn’t get enough credit for how hard it is. I think directors would roll their eyes and be like, “This arrogant kid thinks he knows,” but I’ve done both now. On a general survival point, acting is kind of impossible. It’s insane that it ever works. Directors have a crew to help them, and actors are lone wolves and it becomes very scary.

Things are getting busy for you with the “Jumanji” sequel coming down the pipeline. What can you tell me about your role in it?

I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you that Danny DeVito is the coolest guy in the world and we got super close. Danny Glover and I got super close. Love that guy. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life doing this next one. I had fun on the first one; I had way more fun on the second. What I can say is that [my character] is not the Spencer you know from the first one. The problem with sequels is that a lot of them are a cash grab and they weirdly freeze in time where they were in the first one. Instead, Jake [Kasdan, the director] went, “Where would this kid really be if he aged a couple of years?” This kid who was really manic, had all this OCD and anxiety. Where would he go when he went to college and had a girlfriend and went through the game? What I will say is that the new one is closer to “The Graduate” than “Weird Science.” I think it’s way deeper, and it meant a ton to me. It’s a really interesting take on a sequel.

What’s your advice for other actors who want to follow in your footsteps?

Just focus on doing good work. Almost everyone I talk to who is a young actor is like, “How do I get an agent? How do I get famous?” Just try and be good. Success is just a byproduct of really, really hard work. I feel like the best performance is when somebody has lost something—like, you see someone lose something on camera. It’s hard to explain what I mean. When you see someone lose something on camera, it wasn’t something made for the camera—it’s something that came out of you. And you can focus on that and get to a place of truth. My advice would be to stop reading reviews of movies, stop caring about the perception of movies, and pick your favorite movies. Work your ass off. Get in an acting class. Make a short film. Make a bad one. Make 10 bad ones. I’ve made so many bad ones. But “The Cat and the Moon,” I think, is really good. I feel I could do better. If I could make “The Cat and the Moon” now, I’d choose 8 million [different] things. That’s why you want to act again, to erase the last movie.

Is there a piece of advice a seasoned actor has given to you that’s stuck with you?

It’s really funny, a lot of advice has been the same. Something along the lines, from Gabriel Byrne and Danny DeVito and Chris Cooper, [they’ve] all said this similar thing: “When I was young, I wanted to do so much, and I wish I’d just trusted my talent to do nothing and just exist on camera.”

You’re a film buff; what performance should every actor see and why?

“Taxi Driver,” Robert De Niro. Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” “All the President’s Men.” Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night.” “Ordinary People,” Timothy Hutton. Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Christian Bale in “American Psycho.” “Oasis” by Lee Chang-dong. “Almost Famous.” Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” “Annie Hall”—I know you’re not supposed to talk about it, but it’s a great movie. “You Can Count on Me” with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney. Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Robert De Niro in “The Godfather Part II.” Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona” and “Adaptation.” I think everyone should see “Superbad”—Michael Cera and Jonah Hill; those are two of the greatest performances of all time, I don’t even have to explain why. If you see those movies, you see why.

What was your big break?

I don’t know if I’ve had it yet. There were a lot of little breaks for me. Victory and success is only what you make it. I did a really big movie that, the whole time, it felt very small and vacant. Then, when I did my first play, it felt like I was the big star of the world. The truth was only 200 people were coming to the play and a couple of million people have seen this movie from years and years ago. So, I think success is what you make it. Honestly, if you make a small movie no one sees and no one likes it but you, you can sleep a little better.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever did to get a role?

Anything. I feel like the crazier things I’ve done are when I didn’t get the role. I went up for a movie, I won’t say which, where I had my friend punch me in the face repeatedly so I could get a black eye. I told them I was in a fight club. You can ask my brother. Getting punched in the face for an audition is pretty nuts. I did not get it. I didn’t even get a callback. I think they were freaked out. If I could say anything about my career in its entirety, it’s that I got punched in the face for an audition and maybe they didn’t like it, but at least I went for it.

What’s your worst audition horror story?

Not that. Sometimes, as an actor, you’ll go through droughts for months and then they’ll be like, you have two [auditions] tomorrow. There was a TV show where I didn’t know the lines at all. They stopped me and were like, “You don’t know these at all.” I was like, “No, I don’t know.” I was so nervous. I was 12, and I could hear them saying bad things about me as I left. That show did not get picked up, so maybe they should have been nicer to me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I feel like I’m in a therapy session. It’s hard not to have it become saccharine. Maybe I’d give him answers to tests. I’d hand him tests. Do better in school or something. Maybe I’d tell my younger self to not try and erase the qualities that made me such an outcast when I was a kid and made me so hyperactive—that energy is a really good thing. It’s not easy to preserve. All those things that I really didn’t like, as trite as it sounds, did end up benefiting me. Even when I was suffering at times when I was young, that suffering has informed more of my understanding of people. People would say, “You’re going to be so successful because of your mole” and all those things, but I think what really helped me was the anger in me, [it] put a lot of fire in me. Good fire. I’d probably tell him the mole is going to grow, but it will fit your face better because your face will also grow. And your hair will get a little less curly and it will fit your head better. And pink is not a girly color, you can wear pink if you want.

Inspired? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

Photographed by Matt Doyle in NYC on Aug. 13.