This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Thanks to a little ol’ horror flick called Hereditary, Alex Wolff is suffering from PTSD—at least I think he is. For one, he reveals over a phone call that he’s actually forgotten a shoot or two (memory loss). Second, he admits that he’s had some pretty screwed up flashbacks over his involvement. And three, the guy says it outright.
“It’s hard to describe eloquently—it’s just a feeling,” he says. “I don’t think you can go through something like this and not have some sort of PTSD afterward.”
Now DSM-V diagnostic criteria aside, shooting or watching horror films shouldn’t be able to do this to folks. At most, you’ll get the prickly feeling that hits your spine. You’ll maybe remember that wimpy yelp you released after that jump-scare. But for emotions to ruminate far and away after a viewing? That’s a different category of terror—one that hits home in that raw, not so filmic way.
While it’s been receiving The Exorcist–level scary buzz, you wouldn’t get that from a synopsis of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The film comes off as this story about a small dysfunctional family with an obvious problem with communication. A death occurs, some weird shit happens, and audiences are taken on a weird and upsetting ride. Roles steeped in grief begin to feel incredibly lived-in after a while, so much so that it can begin to feel like too damn much.
I’ve seen it myself, and, yes, the fact that I left dumbfounded and disturbed adds weight to the Exorcist-ey comparison above. In truth, I've always viewed the up and comer Alex Wolff as this boy band-ish like character prior to this—having starred in The Naked Brothers Band on Nickelodeon with his older brother Nat, only to transition to more film-based stints like Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, and Patriots Day among several other indies. Hereditary stands out as a sort of experience that will open eyes to the masochist-like willingness of Alex to place himself in some pretty dark places in the name of a career.
Still, I had to speak with the man to figure out why the hell he would do it.
VICE: I think the question everyone asks, and I’ll ask you, of course, is what do you think makes Hereditary so disturbing? It’s a difficult enough of a film to describe.
Alex Wolff: It would seem obvious, but not in the realm of horror. I think a lot of times in the genre, the character development gets short stripped and everyone focuses on the scares, the blood, and all the more obvious jump-scare stuff. Instead, a film like this takes its time in developing the people, and more works as a family drama above just a horror movie. If you took all the horror elements from it, it would still be this moving tribute to familia conflicts along with all the things that go on beneath the surface with guilt, resentment, and all that stuff it just happens to hyperbolize. Their curse, and the feelings a family will feel when things fall apart as life disintegrates is a reality that’s horrifying in a way that seeps into people’s bone’s way more than a dude with a mask running around killing people.
I also got to say, as amazing as Toni Collette was as a mother in her grief, you also sold it, going from a typical teen to a frightened little boy. What did you see in Peter that felt interesting enough to take on?
Yeah man, that’s a great way of describing it. He’s just a difficult kid who transitions into a scared little boy. That’s exactly what the main interest of it came from. I mean, I feel like most teenagers in horror, and in just about everything else are depicted as handling grief in sort of the image of God rather than just handling it as a human being would. Everyone expects a teenager, when something horrible happens, to try to be like, oh my God, call this person or call 911, and whatever. What really happens is that as a teen, it becomes too much to handle when tragedy strikes. Young people, especially males, internalize what’s going on by keeping in their stomachs without allowing it to come to the surface. The ballsiness and trust that Ari Aster had in the audience to keep things raw and authentic like that, maybe at the risk of feeling a lack of empathy for my character, but just honoring the truth in Peter’s suppression, I just thought was so cool and ballsy. I had never seen that kind of reaction before except in ordinary, everyday people.
And there’s this darkness that I got to imagine you’d have to tap into as an actor. This is a very different darkness from a typical horror role, a very human darkness. Like certain conversations that take place between you and your mother in the film. What did you draw from?
I definitely think that I’m just in the moment in those scenarios. I spent a lot of time and physical preparation to keep myself in a pretty raw and volatile state while I was in the middle of filming. So when I was at that infamous dinner scene, exchanging words with Toni Collette, I was prepared and already there, just going off of everybody’s performance in moments like that. It just kind of felt like a natural thing that was always there.
I read in an interview about the effect Hereditary had on you after filming. Elaborate on that because I think it speaks to the kind of film Hereditary is more than anything.
Yeah man. It stuck with me while we were filming, and it stuck with me well after. When I started talking about it, all these flashes with all this disturbing shit I went through sort of came back in a flood. It kept me up at night to where I got into a habit of emotional masochism to the point of just trying to take in every negative feeling I could draw from. I forced it upon myself rather than the opposite of what you’d usually do in life, which is sit on the heater until it starts to burn and you jump up immediately. I had to do the exact opposite of that and absorb the pain and let it burn. It’s a reverse emotional thing. It’s hard to describe eloquently, it’s just a feeling. I don’t think you can go through something like this and not have some sort of PTSD afterward.
You say all that, so I got to wonder if it’s hard to go back and watch Hereditary.
Yeah, I mean it’s weird. I watched it the first time and I was like, holy shit, I don’t remember shooting that scene. [laughs] I’m not even kidding, I was like, what the fuck is going on? I don’t even remember that 100%, it’s strange how that could all work.
I want to talk about that classroom scene, one of the more shocking moments from the trailer. Tell me about how you managed to mentally do that, from being frozen, slamming your head on a table, and showcasing that absolute terror.
Oh man. I mean I remember telling Ari when we were talking about it to give me a real desk. I told him: "I want to do a real desk man," and he was like, “I appreciate the commitment, but I’m pretty sure legally, I’m going to get sued if I do that.” [laughs]. So we went with a foam desk. I got comfortable with the idea of slamming my face on a foam desk. So I show up the next day, and sure, there’s a foam top, but with a very, very hard bottom. So yeah, it hurt a lot. Jamming your face into something that’s slightly hard, but it's still a pretty unique experience [laughs].
There’s this line in the film Ordinary People where this character is asking what it feels like. Being depressed and having this overwhelming sadness, and this other character is saying that it’s like this black hole. You start getting sucked into it and you eventually become the black hole. I always thought that this was an interesting viewpoint, so I’ve always tried to incorporate that thought of becoming the black hole. You become all that stuff, so I wasn’t truly afraid to do that action because I felt all that emotion at that moment. I was there, I was in control of all that darkness in a strange way.
This film obviously had some traumatic moments for you. Why take on some of these darker roles personally, from Peter to the Boston Marathon Bomber in Patriot’s Day ?
I sort of hate myself, so that’s probably it. I just want to punish myself and give myself the hardest time possible. But seriously though, I think they make for really good and delicious roles. This was taxing in a completely different way compared to my character on Patriot’s Day by the way. That film in a lot of ways involved this kid who was so cocky and insecure. He was just a scared little boy but still had this whole bravado of being this badass. There are certain moments when you believed and felt that. The unique experience of Hereditary was that I was very, very isolated in a way that I had never really experienced. I just felt like I was literally in the wilderness, literally. I was in the middle of Park City, Utah, so it’s like me and a hotel clerk that was like that one dude from The Shining. Just this terrifying experience.
Well, it’s over now, and you’re now a part of this new wave of prestige horror from Get Out to The Witch. How does that feel?
It so exciting, man. I was talking about this to somebody about how different genres evolve when things are really hot. In the early 2000s, Judd Apatow was putting out all these comedies, and the genre was having a serious moment with these critically acclaimed, fantastic, and unbelievable comedies. Right now, rap within the realm of music is having a similar prestige moment in the mainstream eye with the likes of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. and Kanye's new album. A similar thing is happening with horror, an elevated horror moment. I'm so glad that I’m in a horror film in this time when it’s hot and people are bending the expectations of a genre that used to be known as a dirty word.
In the spirit of Hereditary, do you have a favorite horror film that you’d want to share?
Rosemary's Baby, without question. I'm a horror obsessive. I've seen every horror movie under the sun, but Rosemary's Baby is absolute perfection. The beginning and the end of that movie is just perfect, hilarious, dark, and it has a lot of the same sensibility as Hereditary. It's just perfect.
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