There’s nothing manufactured about Peter Graham cowering before his mother (Toni Collette) in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, actor Alex Wolff tells Tim Lammer in a Looper exclusive on Tuesday. The Jumanji star can outrun deadly panthers, hang off the edge of a helicopter, and leap out of a burning airship — admittedly, that was Dwayne Johnson, but it’s still Wolff’s character so it counts — but draws the line at deranged occultists and his onscreen sister’s (Milly Shapiro) decapitated head.
The other half of The Naked Brothers Band, and early Jumanji participant, reportedly suffered extended bouts of psychological distress filming Hereditary, manifesting largely as sleeplessness, anxiety attacks, emotional trauma, and a looming unease. “I’ll tell you that movie did about as much damage to me as a movie can do,” Wolff says. “It really affected me.”
Working in show business is among the most heavily romanticized professions around. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who isn’t prone to the occasional cynical glance, turning up their nose with startling contempt at any working actor bold enough to communicate discomfort. Viewers looking in from without have grown accustomed to belittling entertainers, especially in ones in movies like Jumanji, and expressing disbelief at the slightest complaint, to the point of truculence.
Actors are suddenly divorced from humanity, barred from exercising their right to seek help or speak their mind else be criticized for being a brat. Regrettably, compassion is lost on a lot of viewers, despite the industry’s commitment to upholding its primary function, which is to amuse the masses and provide a convenient escape from life’s challenges. Jumanji actor Alex Wolff is keenly aware of this, but contends some roles aren’t as emotionally disengaging. With Hereditary, the trauma doesn’t end when the director says cut. The scares continue long after shooting is over.
“It’s very hard because as an actor, you really don’t want to sound pretentious or self-serious or like anything is too serious,” Wolff elaborates. “Because we have a cushy job in a lot of ways. But this, emotionally — it was one of those tough ones. It was one of those ones that really did some gymnastics on my emotional well-being.” Alex Wolff’s role in Hereditary is a far cry from his time stepping into Dwayne Johnson’s bulging pecs in Jumanji. He played Toni Collette’s onscreen son Peter, the unlikely survivor of a family drama that involved grisly murders, cultish rituals, and a sinister ancestry.
Those who have seen Ari Aster’s latest work, Midsommar, might recall how unsettling it felt to witness such barbarism, unmitigated and horrifying in its nerve, depicted against a backdrop of otherwise delightful imagery. Aster is a proven maestro in the art of subtle horror (anti-Jumanji in this respect), and Alex Wolff certainly isn’t the first collaborator of his to experience visceral distress.
The cast of Midsommar was reportedly left stunned in their first viewing of the movie. The director of Hereditary is notorious for using realistic prosthetics over CGI, which means actors witness the various horrors they’re crafting long before editing peppers over the details. Here’s an example of the backstage process of developing the bear suit and the cultist with the crushed skull in Midsommar. Careful; these pictures aren’t for the faint of heart.
Actors normally experience some level of psychological unease every time they sink their teeth into a role. This isn’t uncommon; those familiar with the Stanislavski technique, and have practiced it, are aware of the mental and emotional overload that comes with mastering the realm of the subconscious. Method actors tap into the part of their brain that governs unconscious reaction by recalling traumatic memories, and channeling that grief, or in Wolff’s case, terror, into a part. Even the smallest attempt can prove psychologically deleterious. The deeper the rabbit hole goes, and the more complex the role, the more scarring the experience could be and the more difficult it is to ultimately separate yourself from the character you’re playing. Alex Wolff’s time playing The Rock in Jumanji is the equivalent of a leisurely walk in the park; filming Hereditary is more like revisiting childhood specters.
Obviously, the life of a Hollywood celebrity isn’t all glitz and glamor, as onlookers often like to claim. Aside from the obvious emotional turmoil, staying in the public eye robs actors of their right to privacy, and the quality of their problems is casually denigrated by virtue of their choice of profession. The truth is, most working actors don’t even earn that much or particularly enjoy job security; many, even the most recognizable television stars, still go a whole year without a gig, while others are paid meager cash per hour.
Plus, the hours are long and arduous, with prep — including fight choreography (in the case of action films like Jumanji), workouts, memorizing lines, relating with co-stars, and mastering characters — often running at around four months or less. Imagine living with a creative’s wage all the while nursing (and constantly fostering) your demons for thankless audiences to enjoy and pore over. It’s easy to downplay the difficulties when we consider lighthearted comedies like Jumanji, but not every movie role is the equivalent of mindless fun. We genuinely do not appreciate actors enough.
Alex Wolff hasn’t entirely been put off of horror films, however. He’s currently starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old as one of several guests afflicted with accelerated aging. He is also in Pig opposite Nicolas Cage. Pre-production on the Jumanji sequel is currently on hold, according to recent reports.