About 20 minutes after transcribing this interview there started circulating a clip of Alden Ehrenreich enthusiastically promoting Oppenheimer with a bon mot anyone should appreciate: “It’s great when you don’t have to fucking lie about this shit.” (Cue hearty chortle.) If we’re right to assume that was recorded when Nolan’s movie shot early last year, then the idea’s perpetually in mind: when we spoke last week he was rather candid about the difficult paths a young, successful actor with good taste will endure.
This, fittingly, while promoting Shadow Brother Sunday, his writing-directing debut currently making the rounds in festival and Academy-adjacent screenings. As a longtime admirer of Ehrenreich’s it was such relief to see his talents reach beyond performance: in only 15 minutes the movie compacts multiple character arcs, performance styles, and formal grace notes while playing as a plainly strong ticking-clock thriller. Although about half our conversation covers a work few have yet seen, a) he expects it’ll be available before long; b) even (or especially) in detailed answers about the what-and-why of its creation is Ehrenreich granting insight into the mind of an actor who’s had one of Hollywood’s stranger, still-promising young careers.
The moment our call began I noticed Ehrenreich was in a cavernous, wood-lined building.
The Film Stage: Where are you coming from?
Alden Ehrenreich: This is a building called the Huron Substation. Kind of my workshop-office and we’re turning it into a theater. It’s in Cypress Park and I am in the process of getting it set up to do plays––stuff like that.
Oh, interesting. I haven’t known you to be so involved with theater.
I’m not! I’ve never done a professional play. I had a theater company when I was in college that then lasted for another five years, and we would get NYU students and students from other schools together and do these Sunday-night workshops where we would teach each other what we were learning in our various theater programs. And then friends of mine, who were playwrights, would watch the workshop and pick six people and write a play for those six people; then we would rent the theater and put up that work.
And that’s really the theater that I’ve done; that was kind of the prototype. But since that I’ve wanted to do something like this––where I could have a space and put up, in this case, plays that have existed in New York or London and either haven’t really been in LA or “had a moment in LA,” so to speak. Also this will be a home for writers and artists to spend time and collaborate outside of the, you know, buildings of the industry.
Are you acting, directing, producing?
The first one, we’re just finalizing the details. But I’m going to act in that one. What I’m going to do is a combination of acting and directing here, or just bringing great people to direct them. And the theater will be called the Huron Station Playhouse. We’ll probably do 3-4 plays a year, and between those a series of writing workshops, acting classes for kids in the community, dinners, movie nights––stuff like that. Because a lot of artists that I know––without going on a long diatribe––it’s very easy to get infected with too much consciousness around what’s gonna get you the next job or what’s gonna get you at the cool-kids table in the high-school cafeteria of Hollywood. In lieu of that, having a place that’s a little more artists-centric––a place they can go to exercise their more experimental or unusual or less-commercial ideas and help support each other, to keep the integrity of their voice intact.
It feels appropriate you’d tell me this at the top of an interview about a film you wrote and directed. Does this theater naturally stem from completing this film? As in: the timing isn’t a coincidence.
No, the timing’s not a coincidence but it comes out of, sort of, a strain in who I am that has been developed in the background of my work as just an actor, that has finally… it’s just finally starting to come to fruition. And that’s for a variety of different reasons, but at its essence I think I’ve had a lot of experiences as an actor that have been really wonderful and this is just the fire has relocated itself––with the exception of being able to act for something I really love and am really excited about. That’s thrilling, but this has always been who I was when I was a teenager, and it’s finally coming home to some of those ambitions after building some stability and some… I felt like I needed to make clear who I was as an actor, primarily throughout my 20s, and in the background I was writing, making little short films I never finished, and now it feels like I get the opportunity to do this.
We had a screening for Academy voters at the theater the other night, and 200 people––they’re kind of hanging off the staircase here. We set up the thing here and three musicians played afterwards. That felt like the first event that had the feeling that I hoped I would be able to create here, and it was so wonderful. Elizabeth Banks came to do the Q&A and we had these great musicians playing. It was the best screening there has been of the movie, and to be in this space and have all these people cued into in that way is one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had.
The first thing I saw you in was Tetro.
Maybe that’s not the first thing a lot of people see you in.
I would love that to be the case. It’s my first film.
Which is to say I’ve observed your career for almost 15 years, and when I heard you made a short––I’ll be perfectly honest––I had this slight worry. Because I know you’re a good actor, but I don’t know if you’re a good director.
I’d be bummed if you made a short that’s not good. Then I watched it and thought it was, in fact, quite good. You’ve been on this promotional tour, like an Academy event, and actors often say interviews are kind of the final frontier when working on a project––it’s “part of the job” in a strange, secret way. Maybe this is broad question you can answer any number of ways: how have you found the process of discussing something you directed vs. something you only acted in?
That’s a really good question. It is really… it feels like getting to be who you actually are to a much greater extent. Of course, in the auspices of promotional anything it’s performative to some extent. But my experience so far, in talking about my own film: I just don’t have to lie. I don’t have to say I loved worked with somebody that I didn’t; I don’t have to say I thought the script was great without also mentioning I thought it needed a lot of work. For better or for worse, this was the thing I was most excited about making. I wrote it, I directed it, I’m acting in it––so wherever that falls, this is me. It also is an opportunity for me. We have a “house of values” written on the front of the building that I want people to see when they step in. The values are: be present; have fun; treat everyone with respect and kindness; one is believe in art. But the idea there is: it also is an opportunity to argue for a filmmaking ethos or value system that isn’t necessarily what I think everyone should do, but which I wish was a much more available offering.
For instance: storytelling that’s centered around human beings. Storytelling that’s character-driven but keeps an audience that has a short attention span engaged and at the edge of their seats so that character-driven, human-driven storytelling doesn’t get completely crushed by things that are just “more watchable.” And I see that as an impetus on filmmakers interested in that: to make their stories constructed in such a way that it keeps their attention a little more, without needing to revert to a genre or flashy shit. A rehearsal process: on a feature you do two weeks, and here we did four days where we get to live inside of and create an ensemble. By the way: if there’s anyone that’s influence all of this stuff, it’s Coppola. With Tetro we did a month of rehearsals, and he’s really been a mentor to me. So it feels like this pulpit, in a way, where I can not only talk about the film really honestly and say “this is who I actually am,” but it also is an opportunity to advocate for some of these values and ideas.
I watched your Criterion Closet video, and you seemed to talk about certain films (like Destry Rides Again) with an eye for actors, and others (like the Allan King set) as someone who’s actually directed.
A new perspective, now that you’ve stepped behind the camera.
Absolutely. I have more an affinity towards the filmmakers I’ve worked with. Those are the relationships I still have; those are the people I still meet up with for dinner. Those are the people who inspire me the most.
You just alluded to scripts that needed a punch-up. And I know you wrote some version of this in 2019, which of course COVID delayed. I know it can be impossible not to tinker with any document, but having years to wait between when you wrote and shot, how much were you tinkering and how much were instincts trusted?
I think it’s a really fine balance of when to know to leave it alone. I don’t know that balance. I lived through tinkering with it to the very last minute and saw things get better, and it was this great opportunity for me because I’m acting in it; I want to be as prepared as possible. Having that long runway before we were actually able to shoot––which in part was about COVID regulations and unions and what it would cost and the added cost of the compliance officer. It also, for me, is that there’s older people in this film. This movie is very much about––in some way, thematically, if after writing it, looking back––valuing each other and seeing each other during what isn’t a lot of time that we have with each other and not being too caught up in our own shit. The idea of making a movie that has some of that feeling at its heart and having older people on set, that are potentially putting themselves in danger to do it, just was so anathema to me.
Anyway: what I had this opportunity to do was prepare the shit out of it. I had a table read here at the theater space with all these great actors; we recorded the table read. I had done a tour of Pixar a few years back and was so inspired by their process. And I was like, “Why don’t you do that for a live-action film?” They have this batting average because they do a road test for all their movies before they make them and have all that money there. You can’t do all of that, but you can do a lot of it. So we got the recording of that. I drew storyboards––these are online somewhere––of the movie itself. We animated those, very crudely, to the table read, and then I screened that here for my braintrust of friends that I trust to tell me the truth. Everybody watched that version of it. We sat out in the back courtyard and they beat the shit out of me on what they thought could be better. Then we took it and made these changes based on that––actually putting the movie on its feet, so to speak. We did the same thing with the table read.
And after that we had a rough cut of the movie. We did the same thing here: go in the backyard and everyone gives me all their notes. I was able to put together just a level of preparation and detail. I took the time to meet different department heads. Everything gets crazy right before you start, no matter what, because everybody’s schedules are nuts. But it was a huge benefit, I think, to the film.
You give yourself a number of close-ups, and there’s often the risk of an actor-turned-director making a film to service their own ego––lots of close-ups, an Oscar-reel moment, etc. But you give yourself these close-ups where you appear to be in incredible, psychic pain.
Shadow Brother Sunday
How do you determine those exact composition? And do you have to fight against an instinct for self-flattery when the floor is yours?
I think the way around that is to have it be other-directed focus. In other words: paying attention to the character and the piece––what the piece wants and what this story wants. Whether it’s real or not it’s a very useful way for me to work, which is really to treat the piece itself like its own organic entity and be in service of that and, in the same spirit, treat these characters like their own people. That was my experience of writing it: I heard this conversation between these two brothers that felt very real to me, and it was almost like I could have a conversation with these characters and they would tell me what happened. Shifting it into that is really useful. I’ve worked with people who are actors, that I watched a vanity component come in––whether that’s the vanity of looking sexy, the vanity of being great––and in this I think that was a useful thing for me to do.
But I think on some level, also, I really wanted to play a down-and-out character because I’ve been shellacked with make-up and gloss at various points in my career, in a way that always felt not quite… not always, but I’ve tried to make that stuff as natural as possible, but inevitably you just end up in a magazine where they want you to look a certain way. I’ve done more of that than the kind of authenticity that I felt in the cinema of the ‘70s that drew me to a film. So: an opportunity. And that’s fine in a press tour. You know? That’s fine in a magazine shoot. But when it’s in a film and people are really concerned about that it’s really anti-art to me. So I think that was also the interest: was to get to also talk about the fact that I’ve felt––over the years, at various times––like a complete failure. Which is the feeling that the movie is built around.
I like how you structure the movie around a have-and-have-not situation between two siblings, and the one who “has” is an actor on the day of his movie premiere. And I thought it was very funny how this early bit of exposition is him, on TV, giving what seems like a vapid interview where he says the kind of things you talk about: “it was so great working with everybody and I loved the script,” etc. It made me expect a more acidic, acerbic work.
Yeah. Sure, sure, sure.
But I am interested in using that as a platform to… I don’t want to say “vent frustration.”
But it strikes me as a case of writing what you know.
Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. Well, a couple things on that. One is: when I was writing that, the task always is, “I want to write what this is, what it truly is.” So I couldn’t have it be this generic-sounding because it couldn’t possibly be that generic-sounding. And then I looked back at what really gets said and it is exactly that generic-sounding. And it was a dark pleasure to––the very last thing we shot––put Nick Robinson in a director’s chair in front of a backdrop, give him a microphone that has a little corporate-company-that-helped-pay-for-the-movie’s logo on it, film him, and me get to ask him these questions and do it over and over again. It was certainly a kind of… whatever the German word is for that…
Yes! Exactly. It was really fun to do that and he got a kick out of it and was like, “Eugh!” Because it makes you feel that way. And we ended the whole shoot, everybody together, him doing these answers. The footage of that was really remarkable. But I know exactly what you mean about the acidic, I don’t know, Paddy Chayefsky, John O’Hara “look at this Hollywood stuff”––which I really enjoy. Network being the perfect example of that in the journalism world. So it was fun, in a way, to vent about that, but it’s not my sensibility because I really appreciate things that… the movie doesn’t point toward anything in particular, but I just want something to show the human life of that stuff. I don’t respond to things that take on a system and point at it, or even just a character and say “look at this asshole.”
I did a film club over the pandemic and we would talk about the look-at-this-asshole factor. Any time any character’s dealt with that––or, for that matter, any type of person in any system who’s acting like this way––it’s just so two-dimensional and sucks the life out of it. And if you really hate that, it’s much more useful to understand what’s happening inside the people who are a part of that. You know? Matt Gaetz makes me sick. But if I’m just going to paint the cartoon of him with his dumb hair and his dumb look, that’s not going to help me understand why a human being like that ends up that way. And so, in the same sense, it’s just trying to have what feels, sometimes, like a slightly old-fashioned sense of, I don’t know, goodwill towards the human beings involved in these things. That’s always, like, what I respond to. It’s not for everybody, but…
Alden Ehrenreich on the set of Shadow Brother Sunday
Well, sure. The movie has a nice misdirection, dramatically: it kind of stacks the deck against the actor brother for how down-and-out your character is, which is of course how you get to the ending’s reversal. I was lulled into thinking that exact dynamic would be the crux.
For me, the big part of that is casting Nick Robinson. There are actors who I’d spoke with that felt… he was always my first choice because he carries with him a vulnerability that you feel really, really quickly. I wanted you to feel really quickly that this guy’s having a hard time in some way, and we don’t know exactly why, but we can tell that he’s not just Mr. Slick. So getting him to play the role, to me, was a big part of that because I want you to sense something going on. And it’s hard to do with a short amount of dialogue and not just “play that.” Nick has that and he’s smart and he is good-natured and has a sweet heart. That was part of the goal of creating that balance. And some people watching go “fuck this guy” about my character. It’s not a big Rorschach test movie, but there’s a little bit of that sometimes.
Do you know the release plans for this film?
Not yet. You can’t really do a public release until you’re through the festival circuit, so we’re doing festival circuit and the awards campaign––kids-table version of that, essentially––but I want to release this as a film. I think of it as a film; I’ve always thought of it as a film. I think about the music industry: singles would get out with the same pomp and circumstance as an album. I really like the idea of having actual press and a billboard with the art I did for the poster, and releasing this, probably, on a streaming platform. If it’s not there then just on a website of its own, but really saying “this is a movie.”
You mention Coppola being a guiding influence, and he has this executive producer credit. What notes or ideas is he presenting that we can see in the final cut?
To be honest, it was much more like: he got the script, read the script, said, “I’m happy to come on in this way” and then watched a cut of it. Watched it and liked it. But he wasn’t very involved in that way; it was more of an honorific. But in the scheme of things, the rehearsal process came out of my time with him, and then I went––five years ago I flew up to Napa to interview him about filmmaking. I was like, “I’m ten years post-Tetro. I had these experiences that were so formative. But now I’ve done all these movies, I’ve just done Star Wars, and I don’t really know what the actual philosophy was behind what we were doing. I just know what we were doing. I was the monkey, but I don’t know what the scientists were hoping to get, exactly.” I mean, I got some sense.
So I went and sat down with him and recorded this, which is maybe my favorite object I own: sitting and my girlfriend at the time was playing piano, and I’m just in his house––where I first went for my first film and stayed with him at 17 to do my screen test––asking him about: why the rehearsal process like this; why this; how do you assemble a crew; how do you work with people. And he has a great book called Live Cinema and Its Techniques, which is about this idea of live cinema, and there’s a section on the rehearsal process. A lot of things in there actually aren’t relevant to live cinema, but his description of the rehearsal process in there is actually really close to this. And then I got a chance to just thank him because he sort of put the star in the sky at that age for me, that has been such an enduring light that it has helped me keep in mind what I really am turned-on by and care about in the midst of what is, inevitably––in the best of circumstances, which I arguably have had––a pretty spotty thing to navigate when it comes to only working on things you’re passionate about. So it was really nice.
What he described in terms of the rehearsal process is really about human beings becoming comfortable with each other and becoming an ensemble before you make a movie and before the sort of firing squad of the crew is there. Which is not how it works. Most of the time the crew’s there and they know each other and they’ve been prepping, and the actors show up one-by-one and are trying to be well-liked but having to do their job right away while they’re still adjusting to, sort of, the inevitable human experience of meeting another group and wanting to belong and fit in and all this shit. The rehearsal process is like: you build this family and they come to build what you’ve made, and you feel accepted and feel safe. It’s a kind of energetic foundation underneath what you’re doing that allows for something to feel alive, and a lot of the time it gets dropped off because you can’t put that on a spreadsheet.
Inasmuch as you want to keep a Tetro-like environment or experience, it must be hard when you’re being offered five projects, you have to choose one, and even the very best isn’t in the spirit you’re describing. I imagine upholding that is tough.
Yeah. Well, the truth is: to love a way of working that much and to… again, it’s not the right way of working for everybody. The Coen brothers movie I did was maybe my other favorite experience I’ve had and it was completely different. But the Tetro mode––that rehearsal process, the improvisation, stuff like that––is the way of working I love the most, and it’s one of the reasons that making my own films became more and more urgent. Because if I still want to love this, I have to be doing that as well. And as soon as I did it––and I was really on track to do it as soon as I’d had the piece written––I actually felt much more flexible about going and acting in things that weren’t that. Because I knew that I was going to be able to do that, and if I can do that once every couple of years, it’s very interesting to go act in something that’s completely different, and it doesn’t feel like the only arena. It just opened it up.
And, you know, I had experiences… I still can’t talk about this movie, but I did a movie last year and we shot in Serbia and I was working with a peer, so we were able to do some of these improvisations. She was open to that. So you get it sometimes. But that’s… it is hard. It’s also hard, the lure and temptation of… the position of insecurity that an actor in any position, people way more famous and iconic than me, who I’ve gotten the chance to be around––the position they get put in, over time at every strata as an actor, is one of incredible insecurity. And it’s not just that actors are insecure; it’s that their actual lives are hoping to get hired in this incredibly inconsistent, erratic way beholden to the whims of this really inhumane beast. It shouldn’t be a different way. That is how it has to be, probably. But it’s not tenable for me to just do that and not be able to… if it were 1974, in my head, the sensibility and directors of that era, the movies, whatever––who fucking knows? I’m sure everybody then was feeling the same way. But so that’s why getting to make these little rafts where I can do what I want satisfies that in a completely different way.
Have you seen any of Megalopolis?
No. I was a part of a workshop that he did on it. So I got to read it, which was really thrilling. I can just say it’s a very fascinating, really exciting story that has incredibly lofty ideals––both in what it’s about and what he wants to do with it.
Also, I rewatched… actually, sorry if I keep asking questions about Tetro. I feel like nobody does.
I just love it.
Anyway: do you stay in touch with Vincent Gallo?
I haven’t. I haven’t. I wish I did. I haven’t seen him in… it might be over 10 years now. But I would like to. Because the dual experience of working with him and Francis at the time… I was a huge Buffalo ’66 fan when I was 16, 17 years old. I had seen him at the Chateau Marmont once and tried to angle myself in a way to get his attention because I just knew he was such an interesting filmmaker; I really fucking wish he would make films. Two really fascinating minds to be around, and two people who could not be more about art, really, in their own very, very, very different ways. Now, maybe on some level everybody is interested in the article that gets written about them––Deadline and all this shit––but they are really, adamantly intending to… they really care about what they care about and they’re not playing the popularity game.
They’re much more, both of them, resolute in that than a lot of people, and I think the times have changed; I think there is more corporate involvement in a lot of stratas of the system, and there’s a wonderful film movement of independent filmmakers now who feel really independent. That’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life, is the A24 stable of auteur filmmakers who have cultural market share that people actually know about and aren’t just toiling in obscurities. It’s thrilling. But no: I haven’t seen Vincent in a long time.
Maybe you can pressure him into releasing Promises Written In Water.
I know. He had filmed it right before we made Tetro. I’ve always wanted to see it.
You’re on a short list of people who might sway him to show it.
Maybe. His whole attitude is, “Fuck all these people. I don’t ever want them to see my movie. They’re all a bunch of creeps.” It’s very funny when he does his whole thing. But he does deprive everyone––intentionally––of what could be really interesting art.