Alex Wolff delights in terrifying people. The star of Ari Aster’s Sundance sensation, “Hereditary,” is already collecting reactions to the horror breakout, and it’s the shortest ones that stick with him the most. “The best one is, ‘What the hell?,'” he said in an interview. “People come out [of the film] and they just go, ‘Oh my God, wow.’ They’re completely just taken aback by the movie. It’s the ideal situation.”
The film, Aster’s feature debut, premiered in the festival’s Midnight section this past January, where it instantly captivated and terrified its audience. And that terror hasn’t abated in the months leading up to the film’s wide release from indie distributor A24, which brought the film to Sundance and later signed Aster’s next film, reported to be the company’s biggest production yet. “Hereditary” follows a fractured family, including mom Annie (Toni Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and son Peter (Wolff), who are all reeling from the recent death of Annie’s mother. As their grief unspools, so does a twisted, unexpected story that offers up some of the most chilling scenes in recent movie memory.
The 20-year-old Wolff got his start as one-half of the Naked Brothers Band (the other half being his older brother Nat, also an actor), a fictitious pop rock band that anchored a Nickelodeon series of the same name. Wolff was thrilled about the dark possibilities of the world Aster had crafted. “It was billed as “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Ordinary People,'” he said. “And I was like, ‘I am on board.'”
The joining of those two films’ styles is more abrupt than most audiences would expect, and a shocking incident at the end of the first act spins the film off into a terrifying new space. Even Wolff was unnerved by the direction Aster decided to take things.
“I pretty much jumped out of my seat when I was reading that, it just blew my mind,” Wolff said. “It’s hard to even explain because I was reading it as a family drama, thinking, ‘Oh, wow. These deep conversations are very nuanced. These conversations don’t feel like movie conversations, they feel like real-life conversations.’ And then, all of a sudden, Ari hits you with something like that and it just makes you even more disturbed.”
Understandably, Wolff is reticent to get into too many details about said incident, but it’s one that leaves moviegoers talking. “I mean, that was like, holy shit,” he said. “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is twisted, and I knew pretty early on there was an ominous tone to it. But yeah, when that thing happens, it just tears the whole world apart. It just tears up the rulebook. That’s completely different than anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s a jaw-dropping, completely upsetting moment.”
For much of the scene, the camera is only focused on Wolff’s face as he works through a gamut of emotions. In a film crammed with outstanding performances, it still manages to be one of the best, and it’s not one the actor was able to move past easily. “I found it extremely difficult. It always is,” he said of the scene. “I found it to be just one of those things that just lives in you, and lives with you all the time as you’re doing it. I found it to be hard to shake off for weeks after the end of filming. It’s just a really intense, vivid world.”
Wolff credits Aster for creating an environment conducive to such tough work. “He puts you in a circumstance where you don’t have to do that much work feeling like something is happening that’s not, because he builds you your own space where you feel like it is happening,” Wolff said. “He creates a world around you where everything that is happening does feel like it’s happening in reality. That guy is such a genius. Every good thing is because of him, and every bad thing, I’ll take responsibility for.”
While “Hereditary” is Aster’s feature debut, Wolff still boned up on some of his previous work, including his gobsmacking short film “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” It gave him a pretty good idea of what he was getting into. “I was completely disturbed. I mean, that is just next-level disturbing,” Wolff said of watching the short about another fucked-up family. “I was laughing out loud though. That story makes me laugh out loud. I love it.”
Wolff has been working in entertainment industry since he was just nine years old, and while “The Naked Brothers Band” only ran for three seasons, it left a permanent mark on the actor and musician. That’s not going to change.
“I consider leaving entertainment every few days, I think it’s impossible not to,” Wolff said when asked if he ever considered getting out of the business. “It’s just heartbreak after heartbreak. But honestly, leaving entertainment? Never. Never. It’s the only thing I can do. It’s the only thing I wanna do. I never considered leaving it because I have no backup plan, but I do feel frustrated with it on a day-to-day basis.”
Those frustrations seem to be dissipating, however. “I got really lucky in the past few years,” he said. “I’ve gotten to do all the stuff I really wanted to do… Everybody thinks that I’m doing all these really messed up movies, but I like that they’re all different.”
While some of Wolff’s recent choices have been “messed up,” from his turn as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in “Patriots Day” to a standout role in Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer,” there have been some light spots, too. Look no further than his starring role in Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which rebooted the beloved kids movie and made a mint in the process, pulling in nearly a billion dollars and becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of last year.
It was Wolff’s first big studio gig, but he sparked to the material the way he always does when he finds a script he loves, with a “visceral reaction.” “It was different than any other studio script that I ever read,” he said. “I knew it was gonna be really good or really funny, but I just didn’t know that everybody under the sun was gonna really love it.”
Sony has already greenlit a sequel to the film for release next year, and while casting news hasn’t been announced just yet, Wolff is clear: that role belongs to him. “I better be in it!” he said. “I’ll break Jake’s if legs if he doesn’t cast me. If they cast someone else, I’ll just break that person’s legs.”
Not that the actor is waiting around for another opportunity. Next up: his feature directorial debut, a drama entitled “The Cat and the Moon” that he also stars in. Wolff has been working on the film for five years, since he was just 15, and he’s nearly done with the final cut. “It’s taken five years to try and get someone to put faith in a young writer-director-star, it’s a lot to bet on,” he said. “And then, it ended up just working out and I’m just super proud of it.”
Wolff was surprised to find that taking his talents behind the camera was much easier than he expected it to be. For one thing, it was a hell of a lot easier than acting, and he’s been doing that for a decade.
“I found directing to be – I’m gonna get so much flack for saying this – but I found it to be much easier than I thought it would be and I find acting to be much harder than I always think it’s gonna be,” Wolff said. “Every time I go to act in a movie, I always think, ‘Oh, well, I’ve done this before. I know how to do it.’ And I find it to be extremely challenging and extremely emotionally taxing to be that vulnerable in front of everybody.”
The newly minted director loved being in charge of a whole set. It may even be in his blood; after all, it was his mother, Polly Draper, who first created and directed “The Naked Brothers Band.” But Wolff found that the experience only cemented his opinion about just how scary acting can be.
“You have this whole crew asking like, ‘Hey, do you want Burnt Orange or do you want Peach Orange?’,” he said. “Everybody cares and is trying to help your vision come true. And I feel like as an actor, it can be pretty hard trying to create it from the ground up…Look, we have a pretty cushy job to be in the entertainment business at all. But I’d say, as film sets go, I think acting is the hardest job on set.”
Now that he’s got the directing stuff under his skin, what’s next for Wolff the filmmaker? “‘Jumanji 3,'” he said with a laugh. “I’m gonna beat Jake to it.”
“Hereditary” opens on Friday, June 8.