Easily one of my favorite horror movies of 2018, writer/director Ari Aster’s Hereditary is a true genre shocker that left audiences breathless at both the Sundance Film Festival (in case you missed it, read my review here) and during its SXSW debut over this past weekend. A rare mix of heartbreak and pure nerve-shredding terror, Hereditary features Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro as the Graham family who, after the death of their matriarch, come to realize that some family secrets can never stay buried (and if that sounds like a vague description, that’s 100% on purpose—the less you know, the better).
At SXSW, Daily Dead had the chance to speak with Aster and Hereditary’s two younger co-stars, Wolff (who also recently co-starred in both My Friend Dahmer and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Shapiro, to talk about the inspirations behind the film’s story as well as how the actors handled their difficult performances in the film. The trio also chatted about how working on Hereditary became something of a transformative process for them, and much more.
Hereditary arrives in theaters on June 8th, courtesy of A24.
I'm sure you guys are feeling awesome after not only killing it at Sundance, but also here in Austin for SXSW. So, congrats. I had a chance to see it back in Park City, and It was one of my favorite screenings there, because watching grown men freaking out in their seats was a lot of fun for me.
Ari Aster: That's the best [laughs].
Alex Wolff: That's amazing!
So, I'm going to start with you, Ari. How did this story come together in your head, in terms of achieving something that's not only truly scary, but also is an emotional gut punch, too? There are some moments in this film where you just feel it in your core, and it's not always easy to achieve that when you're making a horror film.
Ari Aster: The way that I pitched the film was never as a horror film, although I hope it's a great horror film, and the goal was certainly to make a great horror film. But the way that I would pitch the film before we even set out to make it was that it was a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.
And I think, ultimately, it does adopt something of a nightmare logic, but, for me, it was very important to attend to the family drama first, and to make sure that all of the horror elements were stemming from that, as opposed to the characters serving as devices for the horror.
Yeah, as an audience member, you really invest in these characters, and that's why the things that happen in this film hit you as hard as they do. Considering this was your first feature, you were able to put together this amazing cast, which feels really rare and very special, because sometimes actors may hesitate jumping into material like this with an untested director. But I can definitely see why everyone responded to this script and wanted to be a part of it.
Ari Aster: Yeah, this is my first film. So, as far as getting the adults on board, that was hugely important and so exciting, to get people like Toni and Ann Dowd and Gabriel Byrne. And, on a personal level, it was just very exciting to be working with these actors that I'd been watching since I was a kid, who are incredible and wonderful people, and it's especially meaningful to get actors of that caliber, because it also means you get to make your movie.
We felt secure that we'd be able to find actors to handle those parts, but as far as the kids were concerned, I did not know whether or not we would be able to find a Charlie or a Peter, because he essentially has PTSD, and there's nothing worse than somebody “playing” PTSD. It's something you have to go off the deep end to do, and Alex is somebody who really commits himself, and just throws himself headlong into the part. He's a method actor, and so he essentially was Peter for two months, and that's very exciting for a director, because you just get to talk to the character, which is an easy thing to do, especially when the actor is completely immersed.
And then Milly is just the most disciplined actress you'll ever meet. I remember when she came in to audition. It was just like this giant weight off my shoulders, because we did not know whether we'd be able to find a Charlie, and Milly came into the room, and it was just so clear right away, and when she left the room, she got the part, and I think her performance is absolutely incredible.
Milly, what I loved about Charlie is that it felt almost like she's existing in her own world. There's just something really interesting about your performance and how you portrayed her on the big screen. I was wondering if you could talk about diving into Charlie’s headspace, because she has these little quirks, and there is something very unique about her that I don't feel like we've seen before. It feels like she connects with the world in a very different way than the world expects her to.
Milly Shapiro: Yeah, this character was a lot of fun to do. Charlie was very interesting to get into, because she isn't really a normal person, and the way she thinks and how she reacts to things is very different than how I would react to things. And so it was really interesting for me to figure out exactly who she was, and what her core personality was, and what she really thought about her relationships with her family and with other people, and how she would react to certain things. As an actor, that was a lot of fun to do, to play a character that was so drastically different than myself, because you get to step into that other person's shoes, and I thought that was very interesting.
Now, Alex, since September, I’ve seen you in three fantastic—but very different—movies, and it has been really fun to follow your career as it progresses. I saw My Friend Dahmer at Fantastic Fest, and that movie is phenomenal, and then I saw this film before Jumanji, and really loved what you did with the character of Peter. And then I finally saw Jumanji about a week after Sundance, and it was really funny, because I saw it at the drive-in, and I literally shouted in the car, "Oh my god, it's the kid from Hereditary!" I got really excited [laughs]. So, congratulations on everything, really.
Alex Wolff: I really like that: "the kid from Hereditary."
Considering this variety of projects you’ve taken on as of late, what is it that you look for when you're looking at characters like Peter [in Hereditary] or Derf [in My Friend Dahmer], and what is it that appeals to you from an acting perspective?
Alex Wolff: Well, thank you for seeing all those movies. I really like "the kid from Hereditary," though. That's how proud I am of this movie, and Ari. If I'm "the kid from Hereditary" for the rest of my life, I'll be satisfied. I just look for stuff that seems true to me, and what I'm interested in now. When I was young, I was on a TV show [The Naked Brothers Band] with my brother about when we were in a band, and that was super true to me then, and now, doing darker, more challenging roles is what I'm interested in. One day, I may go through a phase where I just want to do comedy, or maybe I'll want to be an action star for a little while, or something like that would be really cool.
But my favorite movies are movies from the '70s, like Midnight Cowboy and Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and to me, Hereditary seemed like it fit in with those movies, and it was just horrifying. It seemed like it took the things that I love about movies and really fleshed-out characters. So, I just think I knew from reading the script.
It was like Jumanji in some ways. It's hard to explain, but you can sort of tell a little bit when things are fake, and someone's trying to be a certain way, and when I read Ari's script, I just knew it was raw and affecting. As far as Dahmer and Jumanji are concerned, with both of them, they felt super raw and affecting, but in their own ways. I also thought Jumanji was completely not trying to be anything except what it was, and I found it to be hilarious. So, yeah, I'll basically do anything to make money for food. I'll be a clown on the street, or prostitution even. Whatever you want me to do, I'll do it [laughs]. In all seriousness, I’ve been very lucky.
Peter has an incredible arc in this movie, and I'm not going to go too specific into how things pan out in this film, because I don't want to ruin anything for anybody, but there's a lot that comes with this character. There's a lot of burdens he carries with him, both emotionally and physically. There are some really intense scenes between you and Toni, too. Can you talk about preparing yourself for those moments? Because if those moments don't feel truthful, they wouldn't have worked, and they really do.
Alex Wolff: Well, thank you. That was my favorite element of the movie, too, when I saw it: that relationship between our characters. I feel very much like it was mostly because of Toni and Ari, though, and I felt like I was playing with the big leagues a little bit in this film. I had to really immerse myself in what was going on, and I knew with this movie that I couldn't, for one second, fake it. I had to really throw myself in the deep end, but it's really just a testament to feeling like you trust the director the way I trusted Ari. I just trusted him so much, so I thought I could go to some pretty raw, dark places. But as far as the dynamic between me and Toni, it's just because she's fantastic and it was on the page. It was a script designed so that the actors couldn't fail, really.
So, that was part of it. I was in a very, really rough, dark place during that movie, and I was drinking vinegar every day and doing a lot of other weird stuff, too. Really, the credit should go to Ari, Milly, Toni, and Gabriel.
I'm a big believer that, whenever you do something creative, not only do you put a piece of yourself into that project, but you also take a piece of it with you when you come out of it. I'm curious for all of you, looking at what you've been able to do with Hereditary, and seeing the responses now you've been in two major festivals where people have really responded to it, what would you say is the thing that you were able to put into this film, and ultimately take away from it through this entire process?
Milly Shapiro: Well, I put a lot of energy into this film. It was definitely the hardest role I've ever done, and I was really excited that so many people liked it. I was honestly a little bit worried, just because it's such a dark film, and you never know, when you go that dark, how people are going to react to it. But I'm really happy that all these people are reacting in such a positive way for such a dark thing, and that so many people like it, even though they're scared out of their wits! It's really cool.
Alex Wolff: Yeah, Milly said it really well, but I guess with every role, you sort of work something out with yourself. Particularly, with this movie, I got to work out a lot of stuff, and it was like going to therapy in many ways. Obviously, I got to really explore the worst part of myself, and I think it's really healthy to do that, I think it's good. Afterwards, I actually felt a lot of relief, and I felt better, which probably sounds crazy, because you wouldn't expect that. But I felt relieved and I think all of us felt that way. I felt like when we made this movie we left a lot of it on the court, which is probably such a lame way of saying it, but I think we really all did.
Ari Aster: It's funny, because I did get to exorcise a lot of toxic feelings in making this film. You get so lost in the making of any film, and executing all these things, where it becomes a lot of technical challenges, so at least for me, as a director, you forget that you're exorcising something. But then you end up watching the film, and you feel detached from it in a way, because you made it, and everything on that screen is a decision that you've made. But being able to watch it with an audience, and see it affect them, and see them walk away with those feelings? There's something heartening about that, and then you also feel that there's this strange feeling of communion, too. At the same time, it feels like you've taken all this ugly shit and dropped it onto other people out of nowhere [laughs]. That's probably a very abortive, meandering way of equating something that I've felt over the last couple months.
Missed out on our previous SXSW 2018 coverage? Check here to catch up on all of our interviews and reviews from Austin!