The 26-year-old Los Angeles native Alden Ehrenreich is no newcomer—you’ve seen him in films including Stoker and Blue Jasmine—but it’s his performance in the new Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, that’s being hailed as his breakout moment. The movie follows a 1950s studio head (Josh Brolin) on the day one of his most bankable stars (a pitch-perfect George Clooney) is kidnapped—a crime that turns out to be only one of many on his madcap lot. Ehrenreich stars as Hobie Doyle, an up-and-coming star of musical cowboy flicks who’s earned enough brownie points with the studio brass to get a chance at a serious film, and whose unique set of Spaghetti Western skills make him singularly helpful in retrieving Clooney’s captured leading man.
Here, Ehrenreich tells DuJour how modern-day moviemaking compares to the Golden Age of Hollywood and explains how the role he’s earning raves for almost didn’t happen for him at all.
This is a movie that looks at the supposed golden age of movie studios. It’s a time period that people seem to be really interested in as of late; what do you think fuels that interest?
It’s funny because the movie I did right before this was about 1958 Hollywood. And then I know Lily Collins, who was in that film, is doing another project just like that. There is something I think about being just past past the end of the century. There’s a romantic feeling to [looking back at] that time, certainly. I grew up loving old films—the reason I probably became an actor is because I used to watch so many old movies with my family as a kid—and I was always reading biographies about different people and really loving the iconography of that time. Getting to be a part of that world was just fantastic. I feel like if I wasn’t in this movie, I would be right in line to get see it opening day first showing.
How did you come to play Hobie?
Originally, my agent got the script and was told there wasn’t a part for me. And even when I asked to audition for it, the word was that I really wasn’t right for anything in this movie. But I read the script and I really loved the Hobie part, so I asked if I could come in and audition for it. So, I did. I read for the casting director and she had me come back and read for the Coens. I read for the Coens twice and then they told me there was a day when the casting director’s office said to keep my phone on all day. I just thought that it was really nice that she was going to call me to tell me that I didn’t get the part.
I waited the whole day and I never got a call. Then, the next morning I got a phone call. I picked up the phone and I heard, ‘Hi, this is Ethan Coen. I’m going to get Joel.’ And then, they both got on the phone and they asked, ‘Have you talked to your agent yet.’ I said no. They said, ‘so you don’t know?’ And I asked, ‘know what?’ They said ‘You got the part!’
Was it something you did in that audition that just won them over completely?
I don’t think it was them. I don’t think it ever came from them, that original note. I don’t think they had any idea who I was. I think it was somebody who worked in the casting office who was just envisioning this character in another way.
What did you see in the character that made him feel right?
When you work for the Coens, the great part is the writing. The writing is just so fantastic. They have such a great understanding of all the characters in every story they write and it’s just so thorough. It makes it really easy to act.
How did your experience working for a modern-day studio compare to your character’s experience working for one in the mid-20th century?
The main difference is with the contract system, as far as actors are concerned. You would be tied to a contract at the studio and they kind of owned you. They would put you in whatever films they wanted to put you in. Now, the obvious drawback to that is that you would have to be put in things that you didn’t want to do. You would just have a bunch of different independent, creative layers of artists, but at the same time as an actor you did have a lot more job security when you got a contract. That kind of job security—getting to be working all the time—is really appealing; now when you do a movie and you’re done you’re kind of unemployed.
In Hail, Caesar! you get to ride a horse, use a lasso and do any variety of daring stunts. What was the most exciting?
Honestly, every single day I worked on the movie was a blast. I was almost confused by what a good time I was having, because my experiences on previous films have been so much more tense and so much more dramatic. And on this project, it just felt so laid back and relaxed. It was such a great lesson to see that you can take that approach to things and still come out with a wonderful film.
They would say to me, ‘You can go home now,’ and I would be like, can I not go home now, can I just stay? I would just sit around and watch them direct. Why go home when you can watch two of the best directors of all time?
About that lasso work: Was that something that you had to learn?
I definitely did not come in with those skills in tact! I had a trick roping teacher and a whole group of people helping me out with horse back riding, stunts, lasso work, guitar playing and gun twirling.
That doesn’t sound half bad. You got to walk away from this with all sorts of new skills.
Exactly. It felt a little like being in the film’s time period. You know, you hear stories about actors getting signed to a contract at MGM and they would need tap dancing classes and fencing classes and voice classes. It was a little like that because as soon as I got the role, I had this whole regimen to work on it. It made it so much more fun and more involved.
And hopefully nobody drugged you, the way they used to do to young actors.
I did a movie once, in another country that had different rules, and they had to have a puppy in one scene. They would do a take with the puppy and the director would say we need the puppy a little more hyper, and the puppy trainer would say sure. They would take away the puppy and he would go in another room and you would just hear barking. And the puppy would come back all hopped up. They were Judy Garland-ing the puppy. And then, it was the other way around too. Now, a little calmer and he would go take it away. And he would bark. And then the puppy would sort of limp back in the room. The Coens didn’t do any of that.
Main image by Alison Rosa