I always seem to have a great deal of fun interviewing up-and-coming young actors because they always come across as less guarded, less rehearsed, and more free with their words than a person more used to giving interviews would be. In fact, I found out when I sat down with the young stars of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES that they had only begun their press tour (the first for both) for the film the day before in Boston.
Based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (and adapted by director Richard LaGravenese), BEAUTIFUL CREATURES is a Southern Gothic-set young love story set in the world of witches (or "casters," as they like to be alled). As with any brand of humans, there are good and bad, but apparently with these casters, whether you travel the path of dark or light is determined when you turn 16. Lena (New Zealander Alice Englert, daughter of the great filmmaker Jane Campion) is a caster who is just weeks away from this turning point in her life. Around this time, she meets high school classmate, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), and they start to fall in love, a fact that her fellow casters believe will work against her if she wishes to turn to the lighter side of witchery.
Englert is just getting started in features, and you'll see her later this year opposite Elle Fanning in the excellent drama GINGER & ROSA; and her first horror film, IN FEAR, just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Ehrenreich is also something of a newcomer, but he's already worked with some fairly high-profile filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola (TETRO, TWIXT), Chan-wook Park (the soon-to-be-released STOKER), and Woody Allen (the July release BLUE JASMINE). And as we sat down in a room at Chicago Trump Hotel to talk about BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, they seemed most impressed that the city has been the setting of a couple of their favorite recent films. Please enjoy my talk with Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich…
Alden Ehrenreich: So they filmed all of the BATMAN films here?
Capone: They filmed the first two here.
Alden Ehrenreich: Where’s the third one?
Capone: The last one was shot mostly in Pittsburgh.
Alden: Interesting, I always thought it was in New York.
Capone: In fact in THE DARK KNIGHT, the whole final battle with the Joker was filmed in this building when it was being built. Remember, it was a construction site? That’s this building.
Alice Englert: So you can totally say you’re in BATMAN.
Alden: So we could be right where it was?
Capone: One of the things I was going to say about this film is that, because you guys are relatively unknown, you don’t bring any baggage with you. So, you are going to be these characters to everybody now. This movie will be your baggage henceforth.
Capone: I assume you've signed on to do a few more?
Alice: Yep, two.
Capone: Just two more? Though there are four books, right?
Alden: Four books.
Capone: Oh, so you get to renegotiate for the last one, okay.
Capone: Have they given you a sense of whether they think that’s probably going to happen? Or is it more like a wait-and-see thing?
Alden: I think it’s more of a wait and see how the first one does.
Alice: Yeah, wait and see.
Capone: Do you like that you’re coming into this, and people don’t really know you yet and that’s kind of a bonus?
Alden: Absolutely. I mean I think whatever you can do to protect the quality about you that enables people to see you as somebody else is a responsibility if you want to play real characters in movies as opposed to being just a personality. It’s hard. It’s tough, because there are a lot of actors that you can’t watch without thinking of their personal lives or comments they’ve made in the press or whatever it is, and that’s why I have a very strict policy of being very boring outside of anything. [laughs]
Capone: I’ll try not to do anything to compromise that.
Alice: I think that maybe you are, perchance, implying that maybe after this we will have that issue?
Capone: You might. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Alice: No, not all. It’s just a true and interesting fact that it could be like that.
Alden: Yeah, I think from role to role, you tend to believe people, it’s just outside of the roles, you know? When you look at the movies that launch people, like no one looks at Brad Pitt and says “Oh, that guy from THELMA AND LOUISE.”
Capone: For five years though… For a little while, they did.
Alden: Right, so I guess you have to do something different to get that out of people's minds.
Alice: Or like Ryan Gosling, "Young Hercules," shot in New Zealand.
Capone: Yeah, the TV show.
Alice: I’m sorry, I’m proud of that, because I am half New Zealander.
Capone: That’s right.
Alden: What did you say, “I own half of New Zealand?”
Alice: I’m half New Zealander. No, yeah I totally own it.
Capone: And Peter Jackson owns the other half. [Everyone laughs] So, I’ve seen TETRO and I just recently saw GINGER AND ROSA, so I’ve seen you guys in other things. This is one of those moments though where you have to admire what casting directors can actually do sometimes when they're not necessarily trying to find the most famous people to play certain roles.
Alice: Thanks for saying that, actually.
Alden: That’s why I really appreciate this kind of thing in this Alcon [Entertainment] situation, because they're a small company, and they just loaded it up with this amazing supporting cast, so that they could make the movie, because you need whatever the amount of the jar to be full of celebrity in some way, and that’s why we were able to be cast in the movie. I think if it was just a big studio film, I don’t know whether they can take those chances.
Capone: Alice, I had read in other interviews that Richard actually pursued you for this. Did he ever say what it was he saw you in?
Alice: Yeah, he saw me in an audition where I’d improvised.
Alden: Really? I didn't know that.
Capone: For this movie?
Alice: No, actually for a Kevin Macdonald film [probably HOW I LIVE NOW], which I didn’t get. [Laughs] For a little while, there was a back and forth and I improvised, and Kevin had really liked this improvised thing I had done where I gave a speech about an anorexic girl with passing an apple between my hands the whole time, then just putting it down at the end and not eating it. Yeah he told me that that is what he saw.
Alden: Imagine if you hadn’t auditioned for that.
Alice: Yeah, so he saw that and he really liked it, so when I got the brief for the film I was like, “I don’t know. This sounds like something that’s been done.” I said, “No.” He was like, “Whoa, how exciting.” Then he started coming back, and I was like “Really? I’m not going to get it anyways.” I had already been through a whole studio process of maybe being cast as something, so I knew how often it doesn’t happen, and I just wasn’t that interested. Then he came again and kept emailing. I was like “These people are mad, so maybe they are my kind of people." So I read the script and I loved it and I was like, “Damn, now I want it. Damn.” Then I did one audition and said, “I’m not going to get it. I’m not going to get it” for about three days, and then I found out I got it.
Capone: Alden, I know that you were not the first person chosen for this part, because I remember about a year ago reading the articles about who was cast before you. But you had very little time to prepare once they called you in. Had you auditioned for this part originally?
Alden: No. I similarly had passed on it--not passed on the part, but passed on coming in for it, having not read the script and thinking the same things that Alice thought. So we got a call that it was a last-minute thing and they needed to cast a part in a movie. We didn’t know what movie it was, so I had a meeting with the casting director and in that meeting….
Alice: Didn’t they like lure you into the house, and Richard was there?
Alden: No, I was meeting with the casting director and I was like “Whose office is this?” She was like, “Oh, I was just using somebody else’s office,” and then Erwin Stoff, who is the producer, came in and said, “Oh, you’re here. It’s nice to meet you” as if he didn’t know, and it just so I could meet them, but we didn’t know what movie it was. So I went home and was like, “So what was that for?” and my manager said “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.” I said, “Didn’t we already pass on that,” and they said, “Just read it.” I read it and within three pages of reading it, I knew I wanted to do it. Then I went in and met Richard and auditioned for him, and then a week later at eight in the morning, I got the call that I got the part. At four in the afternoon I was on a plane to New Orleans, and a week later we started shooting.
Capone: So at what point did you realize that you were stepping in for somebody else who was no longer part of the project?
Alden: I think right when I got the first call for the meeting, yeah.
Capone: So you both read this script, what do you remember responding to about your respective characters and thinking, “Yeah, I can do something with that. I can build on that.”
Alice: Actually my first response to reading the character was, “They're not going to want me to do it the way I want to do it,” which was that I wanted to play her… I didn’t want to do lots of sarcasm. I wanted to almost play it opposite. I just did not want to do the angsty thing, because I think when you’re playing a young person angst happens anyway, especially when you're a young person, like I am. I’ve still got angst in my boots and everything.
Alden: That's going to be the title of the article: “I’ve got Angst in my boots.”
Alice: So it was like I had all of these actually quite angsty ideas about how I was going to play her and how I didn’t want to play her like they were going to want her to be played. Then when I did the audition, I did it my way sort of going against the tide, and Richard was like, “I love that.”
Alden: That’s really a great story about Richard, because what’s special to me about what he did with the movie is he allowed things to go as left of center as possible and allowed a certain idiosyncrasy to be in the characters and the performances, and chose takes of performances that were the weirdest of the takes and left those in the movie, which to me is what defines it and makes it not generic and makes it a unique story about real people, that it has this squiggliness. It has this quirkiness to it. So that’s what I’m so grateful for to him. When I finally saw a cut of the film when I was doing ADR and I went, “Oh my god, you left in the take where I messed up my line,” as opposed to keeping it within some sort of narrow margin of romantic somberness or something like that.
Capone: One of the things I’ve always love about him, just as a writer, is he has a really great ear for dialog that isn’t about pushing the plot forward. There are a few scenes tucked away in this movie that are just you guys talking about nothing, and I love those. Those are my favorite scenes. You could strip away all of the supernatural stuff and still have a strong young-love relationship story.
Alice: That is one thing that I do think is really important, and we actually talked about this and how if you just took everything out, there would still be a love story, so that it can work on that level, work on this fantasy level, and not make a film that was done for the spectacle of the special effects.
Capone: It’s amazing how many people don’t get that. In order for us to care about these people, they have to talk a little bit; they have to be people.
Alden: It’s like the Quentin Tarantino thing. It’s like in PULP FICTION, them talking about the cheeseburger and that’s the greatest way to get to know those characters. I think Richard comes from theater, and his heart is as much in theater as it is in film, and that’s such a theatrical thing, like “Of course they are going to talk about these ideas for so long,” or have conversations that aren’t necessarily plot driven.
Alice: I think a lot of the sets ended up being very theatrical or had the sense of being a stage, which was great for actors like Viola [Davis] and Jeremy [Irons], and I think he just used that and abused the fact that he has these great theater actors. What I love that you say, I’m going to feed you in here, is that little thing about musicals…
Alden: Go for it. I want to see how you’re going to handle it.
Alice: Jeez…alright you say it. [laughs]
Alden: Gene Kelly said, and you’re the first person I’ve actually quoted Gene Kelly directly to, I think, because I’m not positive if it’s a quote by him, but there’s a n adage that “You sing in a musical because speaking isn’t enough, and you dance because singing isn’t enough.” To me, what’s special about the film is that the magic comes from the emotions of the characters. It’s all rooted in character, and that’s what she was prompting me to say.
Alice: Yeah. I like that.
Capone: You mentioned these stage actors [Emma Thompson is also in the film], they also happen to be Academy Award-winning actors. But I will say, my favorite of the supporting cast was Margo Martindale. She's the best.
Alden: Me too. She is amazing. Oh my god, she from take to take was just so funny. That’s what’s special, because in a movie you see the take they chose, but you don’t see how they get to that. You don’t see the take before it or after it, and seeing her and what she did is amazing, and I got to ask her… Ned Beatty is like my favorite actor, and she did CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with him, so she told me all of these stories about him, and it was amazing.
Capone: I heard that IN FEAR played really well at Sundance. Were you there for that?
Alice: Yeah, I was. I got to be there for four days. It was fantastic, and I don’t look anything up online, because I’m just terrified of seeing, “She doesn’t have green eyes like Lena” So yeah, anyways there’s always going to be stuff about this movie like anything else and I got there and my director is saying, “Hey, people really like it.” I was like “What? Great!” I got less [money] on that than it cost to fly me to Sundance, and it makes my little heart go “Yes!” when something that you did in the cold and the mud in Cornwall for five weeks of night shoots with two jeeps gets some love.
Capone: I’ve seen three minutes of it, and it scared the crap out of me. Real quick, you’re in Woody Allen’s next movie. What was that like for someone who is just starting out in acting?
Alden: It was incredible.
Capone: Can you say anything about who you play or who you share scenes with?
Alden: Cate Blanchett. I’m in some scenes with Cate Blanchett, which was incredible. And Alec Baldwin. I’m in more scenes with Cate. She's incredible. And he gave me more direction than I thought he would, because the whole thing is he doesn’t give direction, but I got some things.
Alice: What did he say?
Alden: You know, like “Do this a little faster.”
Alice: [laughs] That’s my favorite direction, “Do it faster.” It is.
Alden: It’s the best direction, yeah. I remember listening to an interview with him from the '70s where he was just talking about how people have a quality about them that’s just funny or not; it’s not about the jokes, it’s just “you’re funny.” He’s like that and it’s just so obvious. You meet him and you just want to laugh. And it’s like working with Groucho Marx; you just can’t believe this is a real human being, because you’ve seen him in so many films, and then he comes and he’s like “Hi.” And you’re like, “Yeah right, you’re pretending to be Woody Allen right now.” Then I’m just really excited to see my name in the [opening credits] font with the jazz score; it’s film history, you know?
Capone: Of course. Is it a comedy or a drama? Or could it be either, depending on how it’s put together?
Alden: My scenes were dramatic, but I have a feeling it’s both, because there’s like Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay in it, so I think it’s one of those like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, where it kind of toggles both.
Capone I wish I could ask you about STOKER, but I’m not seeing it until tomorrow.
Alden: Oh? Okay, I haven’t seen it yet, so you’ll see it before I have.
Capone: I hear it played great at Sundance as well. Congratulations on that. It was great to meet you.