Alex Wolff, star of HairBrained, was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with us about the movie. Here’s what he had to say about working with Brendan Fraser, growing out his hair for a year, doing improv, and more!
Tim: I guess let’s start off by how you got attached to HairBrained and what drew you in to it?
Alex: Yeah, the character, Eli Pettifog, was something I had never, ever seen, you know, it was something closer to Edward Scissorhands than anything. It was such a unique, weird, interesting character with such a funny script. I really was just – it was awesome, it was so cool for me to be able to play this character that has so much going on.
Tim: This is a 13- and 14-year-old character who’s experiencing college, and you’re 16 now, is that correct?
Alex: Yes, 16.
Tim: So what was that like, trying to portray somebody who is in college when that’s something you’ve never experienced personally before? Did you do anything in particular to prepare for the role?
Alex: Well, the cool part about is was Eli had never been to college, either. So it wasn’t like I had to know what college was like. I think I experienced college, you know, just through filming the movie, and so did he. That character had never experienced anything like that. He’s kind of pained, and gets really drunk at the beginning of the movie, and he doesn’t understand that shit yet. And I think that’s what’s cool, is him just learning about all this really intense stuff that he didn’t really know. And not to sound too cheesy, but one of the huge themes of the movie that I love so much is it’s a kid who knows absolutely everything but lacks absolutely everything. He knows it all except for the basics of friends and all that stuff.
Tim: Sure. And one of the dynamics that I found really interesting was exactly what you were just talking about as compared to Brendan Fraser’s character who is kind of so clueless about everything, but is this divorcee who sort of knows how the world works. I guess my question is, what was it like bringing that dynamic to the screen between the two characters.
Alex: Well I think, and not to get too big about this, but with movies in general, you read a script and there’s a dynamic written, and you make the movie and the dynamic changes, and I think the cool part about it was, there was a dynamic in the script, but me and Brendan kind of bonded during the movie and kind of created our own. So it became our own personal brand of chemistry between us in the movie. It was kind of making our own bond, and the script was good enough, it put it on the page so well that we didn’t have to do much.
Tim: Maybe that answers my next question, then. It seemed like you were given some amount of room to improvise. There’s the pushing the [library] cart down the hall and it keeps going sideways. How much of that was in the script, and how much of that were you just told to do something funny?
Alex: Well, Billy [Kent, director and co-writer] was into some of the improv. There were things like when the girl is like, “Look at my breasts,” and I’m like, “I’m not gonna look.” And there’s moments like that that are completely improvved, but it really was a lot in the script even when it doesn’t seem like it. A lot of it was just really well written. But I remember we were playing racquetball [for that scene] and I hit Brendan Fraser right in the nuts, an he goes, [high pitched voice] “Good shot!”
Tim: Oh, that wasn’t planned?
Alex: No, no, it was completely improvved. It was hilarious. That racquetball thing was just a small thing that was turned into a big thing. That was the cool part of that movie. Some of the improv turned out to be really amazing.
Tim: Like what other stuff, what stuck out?
Alex: I’m trying to remember the other stuff. But you know what, we should give Adam Wierzbianski, Billy Kent, andSarah Bird a lot of credit because their script, a lot of the funniest lines of the film were written, it was just a few bits of improv on set that were really funny. Brendan was always improvving. I think I was very focused on the character so my improv felt natural. I didn’t do it too much because I didn’t feel I needed to. But some of them were natural because I was just so involved in that character.
Tim: So on top of all that, you’re wearing what I assume to be a giant hairpiece. That wasn’t your actual hair, was it?
Alex: Well, I had to grow out my hair for a whole year, so my hair was already huge. Everyone at my school thought I was a nutcase. I was like, “No, it’s for a movie.” They’re like, “Yeah, sure it is.”
Tim: Oh, so that’s your real hair?
Alex: Well then they put a ton of extensions and made it…
Tim: Just kind of everywhere.
Alex: It was everywhere.
Tim: And another one of those funny pieces that really struck me was was in one of the Mastermind competitions, you’re asked to list every state except for New Jersey.
Alex: Oh my god, what a nightmare! I actually have a story for that if you have time. Basically, they knew that was going to be impossible, so what they did is they wrote them all on cue cards. But I didn’t have my glasses because I didn’t wear glasses in the movie, and I have terrible vision. So I couldn’t see the cue cards and I was squinting. So I said, you know what, I’ve got to just go memorize this. I’ve got to go memorize it because I can’t read it. And they’re like, no, it’ll be so much easier if you just read it. We filmed it once, and I was squinting because I couldn’t see it, so I was like, “Let me just go memorize it.” So I went in a room, and my mom, she’s a great help because she’s an actress and director, and she helped me and I just memorized the whole thing.
Tim: I remember one spot where you have trouble for a second, or at least your character has trouble for a second, remembering, and then goes off on another run of about ten states. Was that something that you were actually having trouble remembering and they just kept it?
Alex: Oh, no, no. I had it memorized, do not take my credit away, I had it perfect.
Tim: Ok, sorry, not to diminish the accomplishment, that’s something else. Was it just in some random order?
Alex: No, it was in the state of the union. Wasn’t it all the states that Bruce Springsteen is not from in the order that the states were accepted into the union?
Tim: Oh, was that what it was? I think I missed that.
Alex: Yeah, so I had to memorize them in a certain order.
Tim: Wow, that’s incredible. And then with all of the Mastermind competitions, there’s some really absurd questions in there. Was it hard not to break as you were filming this?
Alex: Sometimes, yes. Not really during the matches because we practiced them so much because it was really hard to memorize all that stuff. Some of the time when Brendan and I were doing scenes, we’d just start laughing, or me and Julia [Garner] would start laughing, or me and the team and I couldn’t stop laughing, there were things like that. There was one time I got in the car, I think it was the second day of shooting, not a good time to break. It was supposed to just be a shot of both of us in the car, and we close the door and it just goes [whining car noise]. I don’t know what happened to the radio, it just goes [whining car noise]. I was supposed to be deadpan, I just started laughing. The prop person kept trying to fix it, but it just kept going. It was so funny. But I think we kept it together pretty well during the matches.
Tim: So moving beyond HairBrained, what are we looking to next from you? What’s on your radar?
Alex: I have another movie coming out, it’s called A Birder’s Guide to Everything, it’s coming out March 21st. That’s a really cool movie with Ben Kingsley, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Katie Chang, and Michael Chen. I’m really excited about it. It came in 2nd place for the audience award at Tribeca [Film Festival]. And I write and direct and act in a bunch of shorts that are coming up, and hopefully a feature soon.
Tim: Can you tell us anything about your role in A Birder’s Guide to Everything?
Alex: My character is named Timmy Barsky, and he’s kind of the opposite of Eli in a lot of ways. The anger and the sarcasm, except Eli is very internal and always revved up and very still and intense, and this character is very cocky, and out of the box, and a little more like me, I think. A little more of a dick than me, but he’s just kind of a cocky little shit, and making fun of everyone. Kind of the same thing as Eli. I think that’s why I chose these roles, great characters present a certain thing, whether I’m quite and intense and don’t want to be talked to, or I’m the shit, I’m really cool, something like that. But underneath, they’re very vulnerable and very sad, and those are my favorite kind of characters. People put out a certain thing, or you think they’re a certain thing, but underneath there’s a lot going on. That’s always been my favorite kind of acting. I get to play a bunch of different things going on, and I think you like the characters more as the movie goes on.