Alex Wolff on Humanizing Monster Characters, Returning to Real World Living After Jobs and More
Alex Wolff is an actor, musician, and composer who originally got his start along side his brother, Nat Wolff back in 2005 on the mockumentary style film, (which then turned TV series) The Naked Brothers Band. While both Wolff brothers have been hard at work since then, Alex has four films lined up to be released later this year as well as in 2018. Among them is the much anticipated Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as well as Crash & Burn, Dude, and Stella's Last Weekend.
We got the chance to sit down with the star of My Friend Dahmer (out now) to talk about the films and characters he has been working on, his music, creatively inclined family, and most importantly, how he unwinds after a long day of shooting.
It seems you grew up in a creative family. What was that environment like? Do you attribute your upbringing to your success as an actor?
I think that any success I've had as an actor or musician is because I've grown up in a family where we were encouraged to express ourselves artistically since we were born, essentially. My parents set up a really nice cushion for my brothers and my life with the philosophy that anything is bearable or possible with art. If we're sad or elated or mad or feeling any strong emotion we've always been encouraged to write music or to write stories or figure out some creative outlet to express these feelings.
I think that's made our art more important than video games or TV or anything like that. We grew up excited about music and acting. It makes it easier to achieve "success" for me because success for my family has never been measured in money or fame, but always passion and honesty. My dad's a jazz pianist and my mom's an actress and director so if we measured our success by popularity or money I think we'd all go insane. So the way I'll not feel "successful" is if I do a bad job, not if something is not popular. And most people are not raised with that mentality. So I feel super lucky.
With that said, if my brother and I don't have nine hit movies in a row we're not allowed to come home for Thanksgiving. [laughs]
You have four movies slated for release this year, and you continue to play music with your brother. Is your life hectic? Was it challenging to switch between such different characters so quickly? How do you find the time to pursue music and acting?
I'd say my life is pretty hectic, but I like it that way. I go crazy if I have nothing to do so I'm constantly making sure I'm stimulated creatively so I don't have an anxiety attack from boredom. But doing so many movies in a row last year definitely had a pretty substantial effect on my psyche. Going from role to role is sort of like jumping from a full relationship to another full relationship quickly; you go through all the stages of them in a month or two.
By the end you're pretty burnt out. But the roles were so exceptional and exciting that it was impossible not to want to completely throw yourself into each one. I actually found coming out of the roles and going back to real life much harder than moving from one to another.
When you jump from one to another, like jumping to another relationship shortly after another serious one, the new relationship is so exciting it keeps you from thinking about the old one. Until you're finished with everything, with nothing else in your future, lying in your bed after like six months away from home and your hair's been three different colors in half a year and you don't have anything to do the next day and you just reminisce about these crazy experiences you just had and think. [It's like,] "Holy fuck, did that all really happen?"
How would you compare the experience of performing on stage as a musician to performing on set as an actor? Are there any similarities between the two modes?
There are definitely similarities between the two modes but I'd say there's much more of a similarity to doing a play and a concert than there is acting on a set. Acting on a set is tricky because there isn't much gratification most of the time. You sort of go out on a limb and sometimes the director will love it and sometimes he or she will hate it, but either way it's not like you get big applause or people screaming for you when you do a good take.
In a concert, they scream for you. Literally scream. It's hard not to feel amazing when that happens. When you're doing a play, they don't scream like that when you do a good job but there's collective laughter or collective crying, which can be very immediately validating. Movie sets don't have that immediate validation most of the time. But the amazing perk of doing a movie versus theater or a concert is the privacy, and the lack of pressure to do everything perfect the first time around.
Obviously, if you're on your tenth take or so you sometimes start to think, "Maybe I'm just a terrible actor?", but for the most part you can feel your way into it and fix things and tweak things and have a little more control molding your performance. When you're doing a show, even though you get more validation and encouragement and it's 100% more immediately stimulating. If you mess up there's no going back. It's just going forward and making it work. There's pros and cons to both.
But I'd say there's few things that are as fun and beautiful as doing a concert with Nat. It's something that's truly special.
After you finish a difficult role, is it ever a challenge to shake it off?
Yeah, it always is. If it was the most fun experience in the world and you loved being that character, you hate being home and going back to being you, with people who weren't there with you and don't understand all the things you were able to do and the fun you had and the friends you made and the inspired work you did together.
If it's a miserable experience and you hated being a character and it's emotionally taxing, you're exhausted coming home and don't feel back to normal for a little while. You sleep a shit ton or not at all. Shaking off the role or the experience of the movie is harder than anything else in my opinion.
Is there an actor that you most admire?
Any actor who's ever done animated movies. That shit is hard. It sounds like I'm joking but I'm not at all. You might think it's easy but I promise you it is not. If you're in a Pixar movie you're probably my biggest inspiration.
Do you have a favorite memory from the My Friend Dahmer shoot? A most difficult moment?
One of my favorite memories of any shoot is when we shot a scene where my two best friends in the movie. Tommy Nelson and Harry Holzer are getting high with me in Tommy's character's basement, and convincing me that they both slept with my mom.
We were smoking this fake weed that was this herbal stuff but we were positive it was getting us really high. I remember not being able to open my eyes because I was laughing so hard. And then Ross, who plays Dahmer, has to, at the end of the scene, bring the mood down and say he doesn't have a best friend. And I remember feeling genuinely disturbed and annoyed by Ross saying that. I felt the full range of my character's emotions in just a few hours and thought, "Wow this is something special."
This is your second film, by my count, focusing on infamous true stories. It seems you’re interested in complicating our narratives of “monsters.” Is that true? Why is it important that we understand these people in greater depth?
It is definitely true. Some of my favorite performances have been complicated characters who are easy to write off like De Niro in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. I'mnot comparing the quality of anything I've done to those masterful works but these brilliant performances make you inexplicably feel deeply for these people, and not necessarily sympathize with them but definitely have empathy for them. And that is the most tricky job as an actor and the most interesting, in my opinion.
How do you like to wind down after a long day of shooting?
Family Guy and some really good food.
What’s your idea of a perfect day off?
Family Guy and some really good food. And maybe some orange juice.
What does acting, at its best, do?
For me acting at its best makes me feel less lonely. When I watch a performance beautifully depicting flawed people like Timothy Hutton's in Ordinary People or Jack Nicholson's in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous, it makes me feel like I'm not the only one who's abnormal and these guys are my friends. I want to go call them up after I'm finished watching the movie and tell them what's going on with me. If you can create a performance where the audience feels like you're communicating directly with them, and they feel less alone watching it, what in the world is more special than that?
Does it help having your brother pursuing a similar creative path?
I think it really helps. I feel like a lot of the time Nat goes down the roller coaster first to tell me at the bottom it's safe. I feel constantly reassured by my brother and though we have completely different processes and completely different experiences, he usually helps me understand my own process and own feelings better. He's the shit. And he's so fucking hot, damn.
Photographer: Bil Brown
Stylist: Elijah Vielma
Groomer: Brandie Hopstein
Stylist Assistant: Mario Moreta
Producer: Taylor Vranish