Twenty-three-year-old actor Alex Wolff has been in his chosen profession for several years—he first gained popularity in the public eye acting alongside his older brother Nat in the Nickelodeon musical comedy series The Naked Brothers Band, which was created by the boys’ mother, Polly Draper—and his dad Michael Wolff is a producer with whom he’s also worked. So, he’s been around in film and TV, but I don’t remember being aware of Wolff’s talent until I saw him in the intense horror thriller, Hereditary in 2018. Wolff displayed a quiet intensity and simmering depth that belied his young years, making him an actor to watch. This year he co-stars with Nicolas Cage in the strangely compelling drama Pig as an aspiring restaurateur who forms a strange alliance with a truffle-hunter, and the film we’re talking about here, Old.
Old is a supernatural mystery thriller written, directed, and co-produced by M. Night Shyamalan. It’s based on a graphic novel called Sandcastle (by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters). The action takes place on a beautiful but secretly horrifying island that causes a group of tourists to age ten years per hour. It holds them captive through various means, forcing them to confront their mortality in ways they never expected and are scarcely prepared for. Wolff is part of an ensemble cast—including Gael García Bernal, Aaron Pierre, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, and Embeth Davidtz, to name a few—yet, he stands out as one of the more compelling characters due to his innate onscreen magnetism.
We were able to catch up with Wolff to ask him about his experiences working with Shyamalan and what his feelings are about Old’s unique and thought-provoking premise.
Staci Layne Wilson: Were you a fan of Night’s before you started working with him on Old?
Alex Wolff: I worshipped him before we met. I am someone who’s seen every single one of his movies in the theater with all my friends. I really think he is one of the best auteurs that we have. He’s the “nightmare Spielberg” you know? He just makes these intense, thought-provoking, dark movies that are also sort of spellbinding and suspenseful and special.
Staci Layne Wilson: How did you get on Night’s radar?
Alex Wolff: You know, it was just really standard in that I sent in an audition tape into the abyss of what I am sure was a thousand amazing actors. So, I submitted the tape, and I expected not to hear anything. I got a call and was told he wanted to read with me, and even that was a victory. I said, ‘Who cares if I get it or not? I get to have this amazing reading with Mr. M. Night Shyamalan.’ It just couldn’t have been a better experience.
Staci Layne Wilson: Old is kind of like a “nightmare” fantasy island…
Alex Wolff: Yeah, totally.
Staci Layne Wilson: What did you think of this premise when you first heard about it?
Alex Wolff: First of all, I am trying to make a point of telling everyone this is not a horror movie. What they should go in expecting is kind of like what you said, a “nightmare” drama. Old is a philosophical drama that is, more than anything, an allegory for this panic we have about time passing. I feel like as time goes on, we get more and more concerned and more erratic in our ways of trying to stop it from moving. I feel like a lot of the time, people treat it like the enemy, and this movie makes that idea literal in a way that’s so special and so brave. I feel so lucky to be part of a movie that is serving a larger concept than a lot of others I’ve seen, and that’s wild.
Staci Layne Wilson: What’s interesting to me about Night as a filmmaker is that I understand he’s extremely regimented and a real pre-planner, yet he’s also loose on set and allows room to let things happen. What was the experience like as an actor?
Alex Wolff: I think you just really nailed his style. He’s probably the most precise, mapped out [director], and his level of preparation is unmatched. He makes the movie beforehand with his gorgeous storyboards and everything, then he hires people to destroy that movie that he’s created in his mind to make something that’s even more exhilarating and exciting than what he initially had planned. I feel lucky to have been in the presence of someone who’s so well-prepared and is such a cinephile. He makes these movies that are so well-constructed and so gorgeously crafted, but when push comes to shove, he wants something that feels real to you. He wants things to explode with truth. I just felt so lucky to be working with a guy who loves film the way I do and respects spontaneity and creativity on the day [of filming] while also being such an unbelievable preparer. As I said, it’s unmatched.
Staci Layne Wilson: I think his preparation level may be on par with Kubrick, Hitchcock, or Fincher. But those guys are known as not being fun or easy to work with, whereas everyone says Night is very easygoing.
Alex Wolff: Yes.
Staci Layne Wilson: Speaking of Hitchcock, I understand that Night screened Psycho for the cast while you were on location? Old really isn’t anything like Psycho, but… was he trying to convey a similar mood or tone or something by showing you that particular movie?
Alex Wolff: You know, he and I spoke before shooting, and I said Old had echoes of later Bergman in his Persona and Through a Glass Darkly period, and he replied, ‘Wow, that’s totally what I’ve been watching, and Persona is going to be a huge influence on how we shoot it.’ He told me to watch Exterminating Angels, the Buñuel film, and we discussed Kuroneko, and we discussed some great Japanese ghost stories in having those set the tone [for Old]. Also, Altman’s Three Women. So, we discussed many films, and he and I would send movie suggestions back and forth, and everyone he’d send to me, I’d eat it up like a delicious treat. So, screening Psycho just felt like an amazing contextual landmark for us. That was nice—and he screened it on my birthday. It was perfect. So perfect.
Staci Layne Wilson: Although he is a meticulous preparer, there are some things that are out of anyone’s control—such as filming on a tropical island during hurricane season in the middle of a pandemic… any stories about that?
Alex Wolff: We had waves that were washing away the set on a daily basis. It would rain nine times a day. Then it would be so sunny it was blinding. And yet, I have to say, it was the least conflict-ridden set I’ve ever been on and one of the least stressful shoots. That’s because everything was so narrowly focused on the work. It was about the movie and what we were trying to achieve, and there was no personal drama, no bullshit. It was just a special, amazing experience, and that’s all thanks to Night. That’s just the environment he creates.
Staci Layne Wilson: What do you hope audiences will take away with them after watching Old?
Alex Wolff: I want people to experience it individually; that would be my goal. I want people to have discussions afterward, like, ‘Well, I think this movie is really an allegory of what it means to be a married couple,’ or, ‘No, I really think it’s about a kid’s journey into adulthood,’ and then I want a rapper to see it and say, ‘I think it’s about the trials and tribulations of an artist trying to….’ I just think this movie asks a ton of questions, and if it does its job, it applies to a lot of different circumstances.