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An Interview with Alden Ehrenreich, Star of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro”

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Imagine a man who combines the best traits of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Matt Damon, but would rather be thought of as someone entirely different: himself. Would you have him father your children now or later? Alden Ehrenreich is this man. Alongside Vincent Gallo, Ehrenreich stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, Tetro, which opens in theaters Friday.

Besides the obvious directorial draw — it is Coppola’s first original screenplay in 30 years — Ehrenreich’s spectacular portrayal of the optimistically angsty Bennie revitalizes the traditional coming-of-age story and provides enough reason alone to see the film. Ehrenreich sat down with Flavorpill to chat about his role, the idea of storytelling, and the frustrating rhetoric known only as, “Hollywood Hybridism.”

Flavorpill: So the legend is that Steven Spielberg discovered you after seeing a “spirited and comedic” performance at a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. What were you doing that caught his attention?

Alden Ehrenreich: A couple of friends and I would always make silly videos during the weekends. In the one we made for our friend’s Bar Mitzvah, my character has a crush on [the friend]. I break into her house; I try on her clothes; I ask her out. She breaks up with me, and then I go and eat dirt and scream. She screened it on a little TV playing on loop, and Steven Spielberg was there. He saw it and was interested in me, so he called, and Dreamworks called my mom. I had a meeting there and they set me up with an agent; that was the only reason I started acting professionally at that age.

FP: It’s funny how eating dirt led to that.

AE: Ha. Some people are like, “Oh! You made a short film that he found interesting.” It’s really not like that — it’s really just a ridiculous jokey thing, which is nice, because we were just doing it for fun.

FP: Would you recommend that all aspiring actors put a loop of themselves at a huge social event?

AE: I don’t think so, the circumstances were just chance, but I do think that making short films is really valuable. Editing a movie is one of the greatest lessons of film acting — learning the nuances of gesture and how they play on the screen gives insight into how to act in a scene on a very technical level. You can do the most beautiful, poetic, emotional performance, but if you’re not aware of [how to use] the camera, then a lot of it could just not read. That sounds sort of pragmatic and harsh, but you’ve got to get it in the room in a certain way.

FP: Would you say that part of your acting talent comes from making these short films?

AE: A lot of it came from watching films; I love films so much, and have since I was very little. That was my real foundation in acting. Thinking about it in a scholarly way or in a very conscious way came very later. It’s not very exciting, but I still learn the most outside of acting, like watching a performance that I love and thinking about what I love about it.

I’ve been making short films since I was thirteen and if you want to be a film actor, editing is one of those technical understandings that is just so helpful and so rewarding. It’s a shame, because most acting studios, especially at the college level, are really rooted in theatre acting, and that’s wonderful, but it’s not synonymous. A lot of people think of acting as, “Oh well, you act in theatre and then someone films it, and that’s film acting.” But no, it’s its own discipline.

FP: I read that Francis had you recite a monologue from The Catcher in the Rye. How would you say Holden Caulfield compares to Bennie?

AE: The reason he had me read The Catcher in the Rye is because there’s an adolescent mood, a young male energy to it. The real dividing line between the two characters is that Holden is very cynical and negative, while Bennie is more idealistic and romantic. The hostile energy of male youth manifests in Bennie in a more active way. It’s not in his disposition or the way he experiences the world, as is the case with Holden, it’s in his actions

FP: In describing Bennie’s optimism and his romanticized vision of the world, would you say you’re like this too?

AE: Definitely, the point of intersection for me is that I’ve grown up living very imaginatively. My mother always cultivated my imagination from the time I was very little. The notion of being involved with story telling, which I think we all are, puts things in a very narrative context. A friend told me this one definition of insanity: That it is the loss of a personal narrative. That’s a very interesting notion, because the way we identify ourselves communally is through stories. It enables us to tell an important part of so many cultures, of all cultures I think. To contribute to that heritage of story telling is such a valuable a rich experience for me.

FP: That’s a really interesting idea, especially in regards to Tetro, who is someone who rejects his personal narrative and goes a little crazy because of that.

AE: Yeah, I think it starts with that. Tetro is an interesting case because he aligns himself with a victimized story as a brooding, troubled person. That’s his way of escaping the reality of certain issues. There’s definitely a story of yourself that you don’t want to tell. There are lullabies that you shouldn’t sing to yourself before you go to bed, that are unhealthy. Tetro’s story is definitely one of them. It’s important to find a personal narrative that’s empowering, as opposed to one that justifies your own passivity or inadequacy.

FP: How would you describe the effect of the bright light on you and Tetro?

AE: When you look at light, it’s very enigmatic — light is this benchmark of human civilization and yet it’s hard to comprehend what exactly is creating the brightness when you look at it. While light demystifies, or illuminates everything around it, the light itself is very mysterious. That is, in some way, Tetro – he’s an anomaly to himself, yet he is constantly revealing things in other people as well as the world round him, but in a sort of destructive way. And then there’s the illuminating power of my character, who is still figuring out himself and yet revealing so much in others.

FP: It’s interesting how Bennie inherits this reaction to the light from Tetro.

AE: I think it’s the notion of looking at the light and not what it illuminates. It’s definitely something that is passed on throughout the story.

FP: In Variety’s film review, you are compared you to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Matt Damon. . . Do you think these descriptions, in your humble opinion, are accurate? Are there other actors you’d rather be compared to?

AE: I would say I’ve got a physical similarity, though I look like a lot of people. There aren’t any actors that I can say I would I want to be like, but the comparisons are extremely flattering, especially Jack Nicholson, who is one of my favorite actors of all time. However, I think that there’s so much “Hollywood hybridism.” If you go in with a script, you have to say, “This movie is like Terminator meets this movie meets this movie.” You have to compare it to something that has already made money, that has already been validated, and I don’t think that that’s the healthiest attitude in creative art forms. That talk inevitably becomes very generalized and edges out anything that could be a new voice or color. My generation is so referential, and I think that this constant comparative rhetoric really inhibits our generation from finding its own iconography. What I’m interested in, creatively, is something that doesn’t yet exist.

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  1. [...] The film is softened throughout with blinding images of shimmering white light.  An innocent moth at the beginning of the film is drawn to Tetro’s light, as is Bennie. He is drawn to something that is exposes sheer, raw pain, but he clings to it, in an attempt to find his freedom.  Light can expose the darkness that haunts the brothers but, like fire,  can be overly powerful.  As Alden said in a recent interview, “While light demystifies, or illuminates everything around it, the light itself is very myster… [...]

  2. [...] The film is softened throughout with blinding images of shimmering white light. An innocent moth at the beginning of the film is drawn to Tetro’s light, as is Bennie. He is drawn to something that is exposes sheer, raw pain, but he clings to it, in an attempt to find his freedom. Light can expose the darkness that haunts the brothers but, like fire, can be overly powerful. As Alden said in a recent interview, “While light demystifies, or illuminates everything around it, the light itself is very myster… [...]

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