British actor Olly Alexander probably had a start other would-be actors dream of. A friend hooked him up with people who had connections and off he was to auditions, landing himself a part in a television show one summer in between terms at school. Then, he met none other than writer-director Gaspar Noé (“Irreversible”) who offered him a part in “Enter the Void.” The temptation was too great, so college be damned and Alexander was off to Tokyo with Noé despite pressure to stay on. The experience changed his life.
Alexander later got a taste of a Hollywood after bagging the role of Prince August in “Gulliver’s Travels” and he currently made his first trip to the SXSW Film Festival with writer/director Alison Bagnall’s “The Dish & the Spoon,” in which he stars opposite Greta Gerwig as a wandering soul in a Delaware beach town who meets up with a woman (played by Gerwig) who is reeling from the breakdown of her marriage.
With a combined vulnerability and determination that permeates his role in “Dish,” Alexander shared his thoughts on the role, instant stardom, leaving school and going for it…
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How did you go from getting into acting and right on to a set with Gaspar Noé?
Yeah, I was just very lucky that someone I knew [also] knew someone else in the industry and they introduced me to an agent. And then she just really liked me and took me on. Then my first day of auditions, I had three [of them] and I got a job in this TV show, which I did for the summer…
And then I met Gaspar Noé [who was preparing for] “Enter the Void” and he wanted me for the film. People were saying to me, “No, you have to stay here and finish your studies.” And Gaspar said, “No, you should come make a movie in Tokyo.” So I thought, “Screw you, college, I’m gonna go to Tokyo.”
Was that the right decision, how was that experience?
Insane. I think my life would have been completely different if I hadn’t gone. I was seventeen. I was still living at home, I had never left home. It was the longest I’d ever been away, and it was the first movie I’d done. I didn’t know anything – I didn’t know what movies were like or what you did on set. I’ll probably never do a movie like it again. It had no rules. I had a great time, but I found it really hard as well. But looking back it was the most formative experience.
He really liked to push his actors. He would do 30 or 40 takes for every scene. He was like a child almost. He really liked playing and shocking people and I think that comes through in his films. We’d do the first five or ten takes and he wouldn’t tell me anything. I’d say, “Gaspar, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you help me out?” And he’d tell me little bits. Then we’d get to like take 35 and I’d be almost hysterical, I’d be so annoyed with myself and like in despair. And then he’d say, “That was it, that was the take.” So he was like the puppetmaster. Yeah, he was crazy.
You’re still in the early stages of your career, yet your credits already include quite a range of work…
I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t really done anything but then I have conversations like these and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I have done all of those things.” But yeah, like with “Gulliver’s Travels,” I filmed for three months everyday of my job and then in the movie, I’m like totally not in it. I’m in like one or two scenes. So it’s crazy.
I think it’s better to have worked more. Some of my friends do maybe one job or a TV job and then they become like a massive movie star in their next job and I think that’s really hard to handle and dangerous because: A) you can’t work on your craft, you can’t develop as an actor and B) you have no way of coping with the amount of tension. I wouldn’t want to have a career path like that. I’ve been really happy doing smaller movies and just getting to know people and getting to know myself and what works and what doesn’t work.
In a recent interview with the director of your current film, Alison [Bagnall], she noted that you and Greta were improvising something that was totally separate from “The Dish & the Spoon,” but that project didn’t work out, yet it lead to this film…
I met her in New York and Greta was there for this other project. We both read the script and Alison said. “Do you just want to improvise around a scene?” So we just sat outside the Maritime Hotel and did a little improv scene and I think it really struck Alison. It really struck me too. It was so thrilling to work with an actor like Greta, who’s almost confrontational in that she comes back at you. It really sparked something.
What appealed to you about your character in “Dish?”
He’s so like me in a way. He’s just like a fantasy character of mine that I’ve always wanted to play. Let’s take different parts of me and exaggerate it. He has a complete abandonment and social unawareness and this magical quality, which Alison was really keen on putting to the forefront. That’s so fun to play, that sort of character that is a bit mad and is reacting. It was just a joy to be able to play something like that.
It really was the two of you carrying the film, there are very few other cast members. How did you feel about going into that situation?
I felt terrified. When you have a small part, you can really focus your energy into one or two scenes but when you have to do a whole movie, you have to relax and trust that the director and the script works and you’re the vehicle for the movie. In a way, you almost have to relax more than you would normally…I just wanted it to be good.