In Hereditary, the outstanding new horror movie from writer/director Ari Aster (making his feature debut), rising star Alex Wolff plays Peter Graham, the teenage son of artist Annie (Toni Collette) and psychotherapist Steve (Gabriel Byrne). The family — which also includes Peter’s younger, emotionally challenged sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) — seems on the surface to live a peaceful, more or less idyllic life. But a series of tragic and inexplicable events reveals cracks in the family’s façade and points toward a sinister, unseen force that is manipulating the Grahams from afar.
At the age of just 20, the New York-born Wolff has been building a body of credits that includes the HBO series In Treatment (with Byrne), movies like The Sitter and Patriots Day, and last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which went on to make nearly one billion dollars at the box office.
It is his performance in Hereditary however — as an aimless teenage boy trapped in a whirlwind of grief, trauma and supernatural terror — that may the most raw, powerful work of Wolff’s still-young career to date.
Den of Geek spoke with Wolff recently in Los Angeles about Hereditary, his first reaction to the script, his favorite horror movies, plus working with Aster and his screen family. Also part of the discussion: Jumanji (he doesn’t know anything about the sequel yet, except that it’s happening and he’d better be in it), plus becoming a director himself on the upcoming The Cat and the Moon.
Den of Geek: This is one tough, horrifying movie. What kind of visceral response did you get when you first read the script?
Alex Wolff: That’s a great way of saying it, you get a visceral response. I felt it in my gut, and felt sick to my stomach. My mother walked in at the end when I was reading in my room and I screamed out loud. I was at the end of the script, and nothing is as intense as watching it, but reading it was pretty fucking intense, about as upsetting as a script can be.
Are you a horror fan?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen every single horror movie under the sun. I’m a huge horror fan, but I really hesitate to even call this a horror movie, cause I really feel like it’s a family drama that goes to hell. It curdles into horror, and I love horror movies, but I feel like this is sort of a different genre that’s maybe not been tackled.
What are some of your favorite horror movies?
Rosemary’s Baby is probably my favorite. I love this European movie called Goodnight Mommy. I’m really obsessed with that one. It came out in the past few years. I think recently there’s been some really good ones. I love the original Halloween, I love Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I love The Babadook. There’s this director named Ti West, who I think is one of the best horror directors ever. He directed this movie The House of the Devil which I love, and another one called The Sacrament.
How was working with Ari? I wouldn’t know from watching this that it’s his first feature film.
Oh no, no way. From the first audition I came in, this guy knew what he was doing. I mean he knew how to work with actors, he knew how to talk to actors, he knew how to move the camera. I mean, this guy’s a veteran film maker who just has never made a feature. Before this he made a bunch of shorts that are already pretty beautiful to watch, intimate, personal films that scare the shit out of you, and ruin you. He just knows what he’s doing, man. He said to me after the big car scene, “New rule, no movies without Alex Wolff.” And I loved that, and I felt the same way about him.
What spoke to you about this story, this character and this family?
I felt like it was the most nuanced portrait of a teenager and his processing of grief and his fight or flight instincts that I’ve ever seen. I feel that a lot of times movies, horror or not, they make people in the image of God or somebody. They make them in the image of what we should do and what we could do. People in real life sometimes try and imitate that, but the truth is what a teenager in that situation does is exactly what Ari wrote.
How was working with Toni, Gabriel and Milly?
I think Toni was amazing. I worked with Gabriel seven years ago on the show In Treatment. He played my dad, so this is the second time he played my dad and there was an immediate connection, I felt so comfortable to be able to set myself free, and be raw, and be as open, and inside out as I was because it was him. And also because he’d said things to me when I was 12 that had changed my life. He was such a mentor to me, and so important.
He swears that he didn’t say this, but when I was 12 years old, he came into my trailer, and he said, “Hey, you’re going to be a movie star.” And I was like “Oh my God.” Then I brought it up to him on this movie. He was like, “I didn’t say that. Maybe I said you’re going to be very talented, but I didn’t say that.” And I was like, “Motherfucker.” I have literally used that as my motivation for years or whatever (laughs). He’s been so encouraging, he’s been so nice and so fun, and yeah, I love that guy so much.
And then Milly, crazily enough I went to school with her. She goes to the same school as I did. We were just a few grades apart. So I’ve known her for a long time, and we just automatically had a brother/sister dynamic, and got really close.
I read that you stayed in character all the time?
Yeah, more or less.
Is that something you tend to do? Or is it something you just did on this film?
I mean, it’s something I do depending on the project. It’s hard to talk about your process without sounding super pretentious and super full of yourself, and self-indulgent. But I just knew for this movie, and for each time I do that, it’s just because I don’t trust that I am going to be able to jump in and out. It’s going be a little hard for me. I was scared of not being able to get back to that place.
I honestly think everybody, whether or not they call it that, stayed in character and stayed in that world. I just maybe took it to the extreme, and just didn’t really acknowledge that it was a movie.
Any particular sequences that were the most physically or emotionally challenging?
I think that the entire thing was physically and emotionally challenging. I really feel like the entire way through, every day was a new challenge. I mean, the panic attack scene on the bleachers was tough, the scene in the car was tough. It’s almost like every day I had a new thing I’ve never done before.
You’re a director yourself now.
Yeah, The Cat and the Moon. I directed and starred, and wrote it, and we’re putting the final edits together.
Is directing something you’ve wanted to pursue for a while?
Yeah, I’ve directed a bunch of shorts and stuff, and written a bunch of scripts, and wrote my school play. So I’ve been kind of doing it my whole life, it’s just this is the one that I’ve been working on for five years. I’ve been working on developing it, and I started writing it when I was 15, and finally made it when I was 20. I’m really proud of it. It was the most rewarding, fun experience ever.
I think that being an actor is really, really hard, and being a director has its own challenges. But you have a whole crew boosting you up and I think that was cool to learn. There’s no reason to ever lose your temper, or to be a pain in the ass. You have so many people working so hard to make the thing that’s in your brain come true.
Were you surprised by how well Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did?
I was so surprised. I mean, I loved the script though. I thought that it was going to be like a cult movie for some reason. I thought it was going to be like the first Jumanji. I did think people were going to love it. The script is so funny. I just didn’t know it was going to make a billion dollars. I mean, who can know that?
Hereditary is out in theaters this Friday (June 8).