- Udo Spreitzenbarth
Former tween Nickelodeon star Alex Wolff has shown that you don’t have to pull a Miley Cyrus to get out from under the shadow of childhood fame – you just have to get cast in movies that are dark as hell. From playing the high school buddy of a future serial killer in My Friend Dahmer to his breakout performance in Ari Aster’s wave-making horror opus Hereditary, Wolff has been flexing his acting chops in a myriad of movies, but he jumped behind the camera for his latest project, The Cat and the Moon. Next week, he’ll be on deck at the San Antonio Film Festival for the first U.S. screening of his directorial and screenwriting debut, followed by a Q&A. We caught up with him over the phone to chat about the film and how it’s made an indelible mark on him in more ways than one.
In an interview with Paper, you said that the film was years in the making. What were the roots of this story?
It’s a film about a young man who is pretty isolated in his life, because he has a mother who is a troublemaker. This is before you even enter into the movie, but basically his mother goes into rehab and he is forced to go to New York to live with the only person who has volunteered to take care of him, which is this older jazz musician played by Mike Epps, who was a friend of his father’s from before his father passed away. While he’s there he has to process the very grim and upsetting truth of his dad’s death, and the way he is able to properly process that is through meeting these young kids his age in the school in New York, who take him under their wing and show him a wild side of New York. You watch him process what’s going on with his life and how this young person who’s filled with a lot of rage and all these different things can process something horrible through a loving and giving young community taking him in. That’s my long winded answer, but it’s really a young boy’s journey. It’s hugely inspired by the Dardenne Brothers – The Kid with a Bike was a big, big inspiration for me, watching that film and watching Two Days, One Night, as well as [Martin Scorcese’s] Mean Streets, obviously. And Korean filmmakers – the film Oasis was a big inspiration for me. Peter Berg, who I’ve worked with before, signed on to executive produce it because he really responded to the script and I took his a lot of his technique of letting actors find moments and having that kind of improvisational quality to it as well.
"The Cat and the Moon" is of course the title of a famous William Butler Yeats poem, but it’s also an animated short by Pedro Serrazina, and even a song from the musical version of The Lord of the Rings. Were any of these – maybe not the third one – the source for the title?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t know either of those other things! I’m actually pissed off about it. I’m very mad that there’s other things titled that!
No, it was fully, fully, fully inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem, because that poem to me really illustrates in a vivid and beautifully nuanced way what it is to grow up in the nighttime. Really, it gave me this tasty, colorful imagery that was huge for me. [The movie is] hugely inspired by the color palette of Taxi Driver, and using the red and the greens of New York. Living here my whole life, there’s this color – there’s this kind of juice to the city that I love, and “The Cat and the Moon” is the only poem for me that, through the guise of these metaphors about this cat, I found that is really about is the growing up of a young person, young man or woman. “Minnaloushe creeps through the grass / Alone, important and wise / And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes” – that to me is very indicative of what Nick, my lead character, goes through in this process of falling in love with a new city and a new group of friends and dealing with a lot of resentment toward this man he’s staying with.
You’ve talked about your approach to a script, and how important physicality can be to your sense of a character when you receive something as an actor, from things like altering your hair color to bulking up at the gym for a role. Did that sensibility contribute to your development of characters from the ground up?
As an actor, for Nick I gained like 30lbs of muscle. I’m kind of a thin guy, so who knows if they’ll even notice, but just for myself I gained about 30lbs of muscle and I shaved my head, and I got some more tattoos. I think that yes, it’s hugely helpful in being vivid in your imagination and physicality. I’ve said this before, but I’m very inspired by this Ethan Hawke quote, where he says that all different types of art, if they’re coming from truth, are like different fingers on a fist. They’re all part of the same muscle. And I think if you’re writing and you know what works for actors, you’re writing what works for you, and you’re not trying to write these vague, one-dimensional characters because you’re too afraid of picturing it in your brain – I think it’s important as an actor to know how important it is for physicality to come into it, you know? But at the same time, you want to leave your mind open. I think that it’s very funny, because the Seamus character is inspired by my friend Seamus, and I just wrote “red hair, kind of small and stocky and has this arrogant attitude,” whatever it is that I wrote in there. Skyler Gisondo made it his own, but happened to fit the physical type of him perfectly. Sometimes it’s this kismet thing. Mike Epps had everything I was looking for: his comedic sensibility and his heartfelt soulfulness. I found that those kind of things just magically work themselves out. You can’t totally impose your vision on people, but you also have to give them something to work with, so it’s a balancing act.
Did you say that you got tattoos for this role, or were you meaning like makeup?
I did. I got tattoos for the role. I have a Cat and the Moon tattoo that I got on my back for the film, and you can briefly see it but I intentionally don’t do a closeup of it or anything. But yeah, I have a bunch of tattoos on my body for the role. It’s ok because they’re on for the rest of my life. It’s not like it’s a big deal or anything – it’s just my whole life.
If you’re going to do it, you should do it.
Yeah, and that’s my feeling about everything to do with movies. It’s our one thing that we have to do in life, and everything lasts forever, right? Everything on film lasts forever, so you might as well go for it 150%. Also, when you fail it’s not as depressing because you’re like, “well I went for it.” And if it’s really bad, that’s ok because I totally went for it. It happens to be most of the time you really do it, it’s good, and I’m really, really unbelievably proud of this movie especially for that.
It’s better to fail spectacularly than to make something lukewarm.
You spoke to MTV about this project, and you said in that interview that you would call Hereditary’s director Ari Aster – sometimes in a panic – for support and advice while making The Cat and the Moon. Do you think you’ll collaborate with him again in the future?
Oh absolutely – 100%. We’ve almost done it already. Ari and I are attached at the hip, so absolutely.
The Cat and the Moon landed a distribution deal with FilmRise for theatrical release. Do you have any details about when people might get a chance to see it in a wider release?
Well, here’s the thing. The truth about small films is that if you can get it in any theaters, that’s a huge win. There are films that are A24, there are films that are Sony Picture Classics and there are films that are Netflix – huge movies that don’t get theatrical releases at all. So to have my film come out in theaters in L.A. and New York, first and foremost, is huge. But with that said, if it does well – and that’s why it’s really important to me and come to see it at the festival and put it out there on social media, put it out everywhere – is that then if it does well it can go to all these other places, like Boston and Philly. I’ve been talking to some European distributors about putting it out in Italy. I think that this is the kind of film that really is about people talking about it, and saying, “wow, I saw this movie about young people that I felt didn’t portray us as the sick, phone-obsessed assholes.” But also, it’s not some cutesy movie where everybody’s dialogue sounds like it was written by a 50-year-old screenwriter. There’s good places for both those types of films, but this is not it. This is more on the ground level, looking around and writing down what I see. I would love for it to go everywhere it can – a million other theaters!
If someone were on the fence about attending next week’s screening at SAFILM, what would you say to convince them to come?
Get off the fence! Come to the movie! What are they doing on the fence?! Why would they be on the fence? They gotta get off the fence, get over to the movie, that’s what I’ll say, because they will have an experience. It’s a real experiential movie at a time where it feels like youth and adults are very divided, in terms of what’s going on. You think about politically, you think about just in life, it feels like we don’t have that many bridges between adults and youths. This movie I think is a really good bridge between adults and youths in this really in between time, and showing that it’s a very soulful time in people’s lives. When you’re a teenager, you feel things really deeply, and you feel love, and losing your virginity is a big thing, and dealing with adults, and dealing with grief of a lost parent – all these things need to be taken seriously. There are a lot of movies that take adults’ grief seriously, and there’s a lot of movies that deal with youths’ grief, but i feel that this movie takes it seriously in a way maybe I hadn’t seen in the past. That’s what I really tried to do. I think that a lot of people will like it. And it’s very funny!
So it’s not all doom and gloom.
No, no, no – not at all. It’s really kind of fun and nice.
But what it’s really about is, check out all the drama that happens when kids just become friends. It’s not about “oh this person’s my enemy,” instead they’re all friends, and they take this boy in, and then you see that that’s really naughty as well. It’s actually more naughty. It’s like Casablanca. Something that’s so deep about Casablanca is that they form a connection immediately, and that forms the drama. It’s not that they’re enemies at first. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has the same thing, when he makes friends with all those inmates, there’s something so special about that.
I’m very passionate, so i can’t stop talking about this film. It just comes to me – that’s the moral of the story.
Well, with that passion and now that you’ve been behind the lens, so to speak, do you have any things cooking to write or direct? After your standout performance in Hereditary, I think people would love to see if you have any horror or genre-type ideas.
I have a movie that i’m planning on making next year. I have a bunch of movies coming out that I’m in, like the next Jumanji and a lot of movies like that coming out, but I have this other movie that I’m going to direct as well. I’m very, very excited for that. I can’t say that it’s a genre movie, but I will say that it has some disturbing elements to it, and that I am planning to make that in the next coming year, year and a half.
$15, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, 100 Auditorium Circle, (210) 885-5888, safilm.com
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