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Exclusive Interview: Actor Alex Wolff (“HEREDITARY”) on growing “OLD” with M. Night Shyamalan

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Trent, the character played by Alex Wolff in OLD, is a teenager confronting inexplicable phenomena–but he doesn’t start out that way. When his family travels to a tropical resort and takes a day trip to a secluded cove, Trent first walks onto the sand at age 6, and his sister Maddox is 11. After just a short time on the beach, however, Maddox is suddenly 16 and Trent is 15, and the family and a group of others find themselves trapped in an environment where aging is unstoppably accelerated.

Wolff, who broke out as a child actor alongside his brother Nat in Nickelodeon’s series THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND, first came to horror fans’ attention as part of another supernaturally troubled family in Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY. Here, he discusses his new venture into the paranormal, including a subplot (for which we won’t spoil the details) that ventures into especially uneasy territory.

Shyamalan’s movies are always made under a cone of silence, so how much did you know about OLD when you first became involved with it?

I knew from the beginning. Night was very nice and liberal with the script with us. I think he really wanted us to understand the whole shape of the film, so he didn’t keep too much from us.

What were your impressions of the script and the story when you first read it?

I thought it was bonkers! I thought it was bananas. I ordered the graphic novel [SANDCASTLE by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, on which OLD is based] after the audition, so I kind of knew the things that were going to happen, but I felt his script was even wilder and deeper and darker, so I got really excited about it.

When actors are interviewed about filming on a harsh location, they often say, “My next movie is going to be set on a tropical island.” So after making OLD on a beautiful tropical beach, was it as much of a paradise as it looks?

Yeah–it has totally spoiled me for the rest of my career. Nothing will be that angelic, not even close!

Were you as isolated during the shoot as it looks on screen?

We were very isolated. We were all staying in a little resort, and basically we would just stay on the beach all day together.

Did you work with Nolan River, who plays the younger Trent, to get your mannerisms and performances in sync?

I just felt like I was copying Nolan. Nolan is a little genius; he’s incredible. He’s really a future star. And Luca [Faustino Rodriguez, as 11-year-old Trent], who has a brief moment in the film, is great too.

What was the process of getting into Trent’s headspace, as he gets caught up in the this very strange situation?

Well, I say that I’ve always been a 6-year-old, in my brain, and my body just didn’t listen to my mind not developing. My body just kept getting bigger and taller, but my brain has not developed since age 6! So it didn’t take much preparation. I could basically just walk from being a 6-year-old on the streets of New York to a 6-year-old on a beach in the Dominican Republic with Night.

Without giving too much away, the subplot involving Trent and Kara [Eliza Scanlen] gets into some areas that could have been uncomfortable to watch and perform, so how did you and Scanlen and Shyamalan work on that?

That’s really Night just being a structural ninja. He makes it all work thematically, and feel right and fit. In terms of filming it, Eliza and Night are incredible, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all, and I don’t think Eliza and Night did, because we were all like family at that point. There were a lot of precautions taken in a lot of different areas, and [scenes like that] don’t have to be tense and don’t have to be uncomfortable, especially if you’re open and communicating, and it’s handled sensitively and properly.

Was the movie shot in sequence, and if so, did that help in telling this particular story?

No. I mean, Night did his best, but you’ve got to just deal with things and roll with it. That’s what a movie is; you have to soak in the juices of the script beforehand and get privy to your character. I read a bunch about child psychology and philosophy and [Jean] Piaget and Bruno Bettelheim… [His voice cracks] I haven’t had my voice crack since I was 12, so maybe it’s OLD that’s forcing it. I just voice-cracked on Bruno Bettelheim, which felt like a mean trick! But yeah, I read plenty of literature about child psychology, and that unlocked a lot for me, so by the time I got to set, it didn’t matter what place in the script I was; I could fly into wherever my character was at that moment.

Were there any previous films of Shyamalan’s that you especially admired?

I’ve always felt like THE VISIT is an underrated genius classic. It did something that movies haven’t done since the ’70s. I find that with THE VISIT and SIGNS and SPLIT, I feel like I could watch those over and over again. But I really do believe OLD is the best and most personal of his movies.

Jumping back a bit, how was the experience of doing HEREDITARY, and how did it compare to making OLD?

You know, I’m always a little reluctant to lump those two movies together, just because I think HEREDITARY so brilliantly and elegantly jumps into full horror, full speed, in the last 20 minutes, and I feel that OLD is not a horror movie in the slightest. It’s kind of been, not just advertised that way, but I think maybe on the surface there are elements that are somewhat frightening, but it’s more conceptually terrifying, vs. there actually trying to be any heavy scares. That’s not what it’s about. It’s more Hitchcockian, or like KURONEKO or UGETSU or early Bergman, or even later Bergman like PERSONA. It’s more along the lines of that than any horror movie, and it’s important to me to underline what an odd, experimental, avant-garde drama OLD is, more than anything.

Did Shyamalan have complete creative freedom to make such an avant-garde film, as far as you were aware?

There wasn’t complete creative freedom, but it’s pretty exciting, a big studio putting out a weirdo movie like this. I do believe we were kind of like, “Yeah, we’re doing something strange. Let’s hope people go for it.”

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.