The Verge: Alden Ehrenreich
Though he's only 19 and just starred in his first movie, Alden Ehrenreich has already received the imprimatur of two cinematic titans: Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. The latter rang Ehrenreich years ago after seeing him perform in a bat mitzvah video, and his guidance led Ehrenreich to pursue acting as a career. Then, after a couple of guest television guest spots and a stint at NYU's theater school, Coppola plucked him out of academia to star opposite Vincent Gallo in his new film, Tetro. We talked to the young actor about his quick rise, his cinematic mentors, and his take on Gallo's notorious sperm salesmanship.
Your character in Tetro really lets critical success go to his head, and I wonder how you yourself are navigating those waters. The Variety review of Tetro was ultra complimentary to you, drawing comparisons to Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson...
Yeah. Well, Variety's review in particular was very flattering and yet uncomfortable, because it separated me from the entity of the film, which they weren't crazy about. It was a weird moment to be thought of as separate from that because careerwise, this is my only work, my only film. But I have a lot of supportive friends that help me keep perspective on things like this, and certainly, Francis has a whole lot of perspective on the press and media and reviews, so it helps to be around him. I'm not getting too carried away with it, because the conversation around talent is a little skewed, I think.
What do you mean?
I think that sometimes it's very generalized. It's tough. The reviewers that are specific about the film are the ones who, I think, really contribute something to the world of journalism and the reception around the film. There are some reviews that are just very general and need to take the film and put it through this prism so that it looks like something that's already recognizable. They need to be able to have all these reference points as though it's something that's already been made instead of an original film. And, you know, Tetro certainly calls upon some big archetypal scenes and historical motifs, but it's more valuable to look at the entity of the film by itself instead of saying, "Oh, well, it's this kind of thing that we can pigeonhole."
Tetro's also about rivalry in the face of artistic success. Do you think that's something you're going to have to deal with when you go back to theater school at NYU, now that you've actually starred in a movie?
I'm not going to theater school anymore, actually. I was doing that my first year, but I didn't tell anybody about the movie for those reasons. I told my friends, but I didn't tell my peers that I was in theater school with because I didn't want that to...You know, if I were to get up and do a scene from a play and I'm horrible in it, then there'd be this added thing, this added layer that I didn't want. It would just be distracting from trying to learn something.
But your friends understood?
I'm lucky to have a lot of friends who are very ambitious. Most of them have not gotten into their respective areas that they're really passionate about at a professional level, but I'm lucky to be surrounded by artistic people. They understand it -- it's not like I'm coming back to the 7-11 where all my friends are waiting in the back of a truck.
Did Coppola know you'd been discovered by Steven Spielberg?
No, not at all! He had no idea.
When did he find out?
Hmmm, I don't remember. I know I told him at some point after I was cast. I think Fred Roos, the producer on the film who I first met with, sort of knew. It certainly wasn't the kind of thing where, like [Spielberg] brought me in and I was there because of that, though.
Let's talk about that. Spielberg found you thanks to your bat mitzvah tape, which has become such a key part of your biography that I'm expecting it to show up on the Tetro DVD.
[laughing] Yeah, yeah! I didn't realize how much that would come up in the press. But that's my story, and it's just so wonderful that it happened. It was the only way, I think, that I would have started at that age. We were referred to DreamWorks and we met with Leslee Feldman, the head of casting there, and the people that we met were so down to earth and so genuine that we felt comfortable as a family starting on that path.
Were you intimidated to go in and audition for Coppola?
The night before I went in, I watched a lot of documentary footage of him so I'd know how his demeanor was. And after I got there, once I met him, he was such a calming, relaxing presence who really made me feel like I was supposed to be there. He's so open to your ideas and so attentive to you, so it wasn't like he was going through the motions of casting.
I'm guessing you wouldn't describe Vincent Gallo as a "calming, relaxing presence."
I think he's more inspiring in certain ways. Just from being around him, he has such a fascinating, unique logic from which he works -- to be around that and be exposed to that, to be able to experiment theoretically with that, was such a wonderful stretch. I got to go beyond myself and play around with his very radical ideas.
In his public life, he likes to cultivate this image of himself as a provocateur, an egotist. Did you find him to be that way when collaborating with him, or is there a different side to him?
He wasn't like that at all, I felt. He would come in every day and be so dedicated to the scene and really invested in the other actors. A lot of his public stuff is a result of his sense of humor, which is an aspect of him that's talked about the least, and yet I think it's sort of the bedrock of his personality and creative work. He's just one of the most hilarious people I've ever met, and so fun to be around. A lot of the things he does are certainly provocative, but at the same time, they come from a comical place. It's very conceptual humor, but it is a sense of humor. Selling his sperm online -- that's a conceptual joke, and I think people are very quick to take that too seriously, or to see his behavior as something that's ludicrous and disregard it. I think it's sort of admirable that he's persisted in his value system, although it's an incredibly strange, unique one. He doesn't waver. He stays with what he's entertained by and finds interesting.
Was it odd for you, as a newcomer, to be there acting for and opposite some very established, iconic figures?
It certainly was a lot less anxiety than one would imagine. Francis isn't somebody who ever makes you have any sort of exchange with his prestige, you know? You never really communicate with that part of him because he doesn't speak with that part of him. So really, I felt calm and had so much trust and faith in him that it would work out and he wouldn't let me fly with any sort of mediocre moment. Also, anything that was sort of difficult, I don't relate to as negative, because it was a positive struggle and was totally translated into the performance. Even the hardest scenes created this energy and friction that lent to the excitement of the scene. There's nothing I look back on as tough, because I had an arena to put all that into.
So you won't be returning to NYU's theater department in the fall, but what's next for you?
Now I'm in a general studies program, taking playwriting and things like that. I wanted to get a breadth of knowledge in other areas and develop other sides of myself rather than just myself as an actor. I want to learn creative and intellectual points of view that I wouldn't naturally be drawn to so I can sort of evolve beyond my personal tastes and expand myself.
How are you going to balance school and work?
I feel like if there's a film that I really like and feel strongly about, then I'll take a semester off from school and come back. You know, I'm open to my college experience being sort of piecemeal. I don't feel very strongly about getting good grades or a diploma, I just feel strongly about getting more knowledge. Whatever I need to do that, I will, and it doesn't need to fit into any paradigm of schooling.
That's sort of the approach James Franco is taking right now, isn't it?
Yeah! He's in grad school doing the same sort of thing, I've heard. He's taking documentary film classes and whatnot, and I think that's very admirable. ♦