Alex Wolff, the self-described “scrappy New York actor” who made a searing impression in 2018’s “Hereditary” and now stars in “Pig” opposite Nicolas Cage and in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old,” thinks everybody needs a little more self-loathing in their lives.
“My face is not symmetrical. Why would I love myself if my face is unsymmetrical? The only people who truly love themselves have symmetrical faces. I’ve got this mole,” he said on Zoom, pointing to the brown spot just above his lip that’s become his insignia. “It’s just not symmetrical. That’s fine. I’m totally fine. And if my hair was just a little easier to tame, if my personality was a little better, maybe I could have some self-love, but self-love is overrated.” He’s speaking from a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, where it’s “kind of intense, a little jarring,” and far from his NYC home.
The 23-year-old actor has an unconventional, rakish look, with wild spools of hair around his head and a grin that tips toward a knowing sneer. His tortured characters are often in a perpetual state of dewiness — a word the actor hates. (“I hope you write in the article that he says it in a joking voice.”) It’s as if his characters’ trauma literally seeps from their pores. As Peter in “Hereditary,” his pot-smoking high schooler is, at one point, doused in kerosene during a waking nightmare that surfaces a terrifying memory of PTSD. In the time-warping thriller “Old,” Wolff plays a kid, all sweat and sea-salted hair, who undergoes a psyche-and-soul-shattering transformation as his family (Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, and Thomasin McKenzie) starts mysteriously aging while on an island vacation.
It’s that off-kilter aura that his collaborators want to bottle, whether first-time feature directors Ari Aster (“Hereditary”) or Michael Sarnoski (“Pig”), or a studio veteran like Shyamalan. Wolff sees his modus operandi on different terms. “I am like the poster child for working for roles,” he said, “auditioning a million times, never expecting things to come my way.”
Wolff said he felt like he “forced my way into” “Old” before the movie shot on a Dominican Republic beach in a bubble last fall during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
“I sent him a crazy tape, trying to do these crazy scenes shouting into a cliff and yet I was just in my parents’ tiny workout room,” he said. “Then, Night surprised the hell out of me and really liked it, and asked me to come back and read with him, and that was it. Two days later he gave me the part. It taught me a great lesson of, sometimes when you’re jumping through a million hoops for a first-time director, it’s more a sign of their insecurity.”
Adapted from the French graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters,” “Old” is vested in secrecy. (The film’s trailer seems spoiler-ific, but really only pulls from the movie’s first 40 minutes.) The movie’s final act spins off in a brain-melting new direction from the already-trippy source material. During a Tribeca Film Festival Q&A last month, Shyamalan told Wolff that he was still tinkering with the movie’s last moments.
“Some people think they want [to know] the end of something, but it’s like licking your lips,” he said. “It rots later. It’s bad for your lips. Maybe in the moment it feels good, but that’s not what the whole fucking point is. The point is to go in and experience the movie. If it were up to me, there’d be no trailer, no description, no anything. I would want, in my magical world, everybody to just go to the theater because they hear there’s a crazy experience and just take it in.”
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Wolff is also not too keen on elaborating on the physical and emotional prep work that went into his performance. He thinks he overshared on this circa “Hereditary,” where he drank gulps of balsamic vinegar before scenes to affect just the right sour, horrified tone as a demon installs itself in his flesh.
“Almost to the disservice of the performance and the movie, the press really angled on the preparation because people hadn’t seen a movie where people were this raw, in at least years, I think,” he said. “They would dig things out of me talking about the process. In some ways I regret it, because it can come across as self-important, or indulgent.”
For “Old,” he said stripping down to the id of the character was more psychological, “looking at videos of myself as a child, and also tapping back into some of the trauma maybe I’d buried or hadn’t uncovered.” (He comes from a family of artists including jazz pianist Michael Wolff, screen multihyphenate Polly Draper, and actor-brother Nat Wolff.) For good measure, he read up on the works of European psychologists and child development pioneers Jean Piaget and Bruno Bettelheim.
“My job was to be very open, optimistic, and free like a kid, swimming in the ocean, being in every type of way uncynical and remarkably fragile and open, and that can be taxing,” he said. “The toughest people are the most vulnerable people. You have to be in order to be consistently vulnerable in life, which is constantly designed to make you protect your shit all the time. I got to be completely exposed and almost literally, physically naked the whole time, and basically in a little skimpy little bathing suit. It felt very cathartic to just be raw and open and make it.”
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Old” requires Wolff to be shirtless and in too-small swim trunks, but a far greater challenge was his own directing debut, “The Cat and the Moon,” which played a handful of film festivals in summer 2019 before opening in select theaters that fall. A coming-of-age drama about a teen adrift in New York City and influenced by his favorite 1970s movies, Wolff remembers his independent filmmaking venture as a grueling slog.
“It took five years. I was fucking burned out by the end, because I wrote it when I was 15,” he said. “I was so precocious. ‘I’m gonna make movies!’ I ended up making it by the age of 19 or 20, but with just scrapping pieces together. That movie was made for $1 million flat, but it was just piling money together and trying to use my own money and just do it. It was a bloodbath.”
That said, it hasn’t stopped Wolff from doing it again: He’s currently prepping another movie to direct in 2022. Divulging no details, he promises it stars “a really great actress who everybody is in love with right now.”
Compared to hustling for auditions and first-time directing, landing the role of a smarmy truffle dealer in “Pig” was a “magical gift from the heavens.” Starring opposite the “startlingly kind” Nicolas Cage (“there’s a Mount Rushmore of actors, and Nic has certainly carved out a big place on that mountain”) sweetened the deal.
Wolff met Cage at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, two weeks before “Pig” started shooting. He compared it to encountering a Beatle. “I was really going through a tough time right before we made this movie,” he said. “He, I think, was too, and we had a similar moment where we needed each other.”
In “Pig” Wolff plays Amir, a rich, Ferrari-driving city kid; Cage is off-the-grid woodsman Rob. They’re are on a similar path of needing each other, with a toughening friendship that Wolff compares to those in “Rain Man,” “Butch Cassidy,” and “Midnight Cowboy.” As much as he emphasizes self-loathing as an instrument to great art and a coping mechanism for life, Wolff comes across as having nothing but gratitude for the experience. Moviemaking hasn’t corrupted this guy just yet.
“I just felt like the luckiest guy on the planet to have done this movie,” he said. “If I never do anything else for the rest of my life, if I have bad luck for the next 15 years, that’s okay because I ended up in this movie without having to do too much to work for it. That is beyond lucky, and kind of unfair, and once-in-a-lifetime.”
“Pig” is now in theaters from Neon. “Old” opens from Universal Pictures on Friday, July 23.