Alden Ehrenreich is only 26. But in a short career, he has worked with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Park Chan-Wook, Warren Beatty – and now the Coen brothers. In 1950s-set screwball comedy Hail, Caesar!, he plays hapless singing cowboy Hobie Doyle, a role already being whispered of as a star-maker. We talked to him about the Coens’ unique working practices, his future dreams, and learning to lasso spaghetti...
What is a Coen Brothers audition process like? Talk us through how you got the role.
Alden Ehrenreich: Well, originally I was told there was no role for me in the film. I went in to audition for the casting director, with a feeling of “Well, I’m not right for this, why not just go in?” I’d loved the writing [of the Coen brothers] so much, so I almost used it as an opportunity to act Coen Brothers material in a room with just one person.
So, I went in and the casting director liked me for the part, and she had me come in and read to the Coens. I read for them, and they had me come back and read for them again. After a while, I was pretty convinced that I had botched it. Then one morning I get a call: “Hi, this is Ethan Coen, we’re gonna put on Joel.” Joel came on and said, “Have you talked to your agent?” I said, “Err, no.” And he said, “you don’t know?” And I said, “know what?” And he said “you got the part!”
Are they hard to read in an audition? I imagine they’re pretty stoic either way.
Alden Ehrenreich: Yeah, that’s how they are just in general. You just don’t know. But they laughed a lot, when I read for them. I just remember feeling really good about that – not even as far as getting the role, just happy that they’d written it and I was doing it in a way that they liked, because I’m such fans of them.
So how did you prepare for this role? Did you watch any of those old-school Western B movies in preparation?
Alden Ehrenreich: Yeah, all of it. The really cool thing was it was almost like getting an old Hollywood studio contract. I actually live a block away from this old lot where we shot the film – it used to be Goldwyn Studios and United Artists before that. I would go in every day and do trick rope things in the morning, and then go home and work on the gun twirling, and then drive an hour away and do horseback riding a few days a week. It became this regiment, the same way that old Hollywood actors under contract would go into the studio and do fencing or tap dancing, or whatever. That was really fun. It was this really involved process.
How did you learn to lasso spaghetti? Is there a specialist guy in Hollywood for that?
Alden Ehrenreich: [laughs] There’s not, and that’s why that was the most difficult of all the scenes – because you just don’t know how! There’s no way to figure it out. With everything else there is an expert we could ask. Ultimately they brought in the choreographer of the tap-dancing sequence and the swimming sequence, along with my trick roping teacher, and we all really tried to figure out the physics of how this would really work, and how the spaghetti would really fall, what it would be like if you twirled it... It’s just a great testament to them as filmmakers that no matter how zany something is, they want to make sure there’s logic in the sequence and that it’s real. I think that kind of applies to every component in their films.
How long was the training overall for these tricks and skills?
Alden Ehrenreich: Probably about two or three months. It was a full time job. I enjoyed it so much. Waking up and horseback riding in the mountains – it was beautiful.
The “would that it were” scene is already notorious. What is it like to essentially play a bad actor? Do you have to unlearn what you’ve learnt in drama school?
Alden Ehrenreich: I think you always feel like you’re about a hair’s breadth away from being a bad actor anyway... It’s not too hard to let the rope go slack, so to speak. The main thing for me in that scene was Ralph [Fiennes]. He is so excellent in that scene. He is such a classically trained actor, he’s done so much theatre, and has such command as an actor that watching him tackle that kind of material was just amazing to behold.
We only shot that scene for about a day. It was a real thrill. At the end, I remember they needed to get a super-wide shot of the film being shot. They moved the whole Hail, Caesar! crew way back to the corner of the soundstage, and then it was just the Merrily We Dance fake 1950s film crew [Merrily We Dance is one of the films-within-the-film], the 1950s film extras, and me. And it suddenly felt like we were just making that movie. It was very surreal. It was especially weird because the Hail, Caesar! clapperboard would come in, Joel would say “action”, then the fake Merrily We Dance clapperboard would come in, Ralph would say action. On multiple occasions, I went on the wrong “action”...
It might be an unfair comparison to make, but do you see any parallels between the Coens and Laurence Larentz?
Alden Ehrenreich: What’s funny about them is that I think they’re kind of perfectionists in their preparation – at least, that’s the impression I get, I’m not there. When you’re actually shooting, they give an amazing amount of latitude and freedom and everybody feels free to do their own work. They entrust the people they work with.
We get the impression that the Coens don’t have room for socialising. Did you get a chance to hang out with them away from the set?
Alden Ehrenreich: A little bit. They move so fast. I worked for Woody Allen once, and compared to Woody Allen, they’re very sociable! Josh Brolin always talks about how awkward they are, but he’s also very good friends with them. They’re real mensches – very warm, very friendly.
There’s an amazing story Josh Brolin told us about going to dinner with Ethan, and he kept looking down under the table...
Alden Ehrenreich: ...and he’s just reading a book! [laughs] That’s so funny. I love that story. You definitely get a sense that they’re in communication with a higher planer. It’s their world and we just live in it.
You’re only 26 and you’ve already got a fair few directors ticked off your bucket list: the Coens, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty. Where the hell do you go next?
Alden Ehrenreich: That’s a very good question. I’ve definitely been spoilt. Every movie I’ve done, it’s always the same criteria: finding a great story, and finding a great part to play. There’s a lot of directors I’d still love to work with – one of them is Spielberg, because he kind of started my career, and I’ve not worked with him yet. I remember getting asked a similar question after [Francis Ford Coppola’s] Tetro, and at the time, I would never have been able to imagine a film like Hail, Caesar!. It’s always really out of leftfield, and it’s always a surprise when you see something that gives you that inner ‘yes!’.
Hail, Caesar! is in cinemas from Friday 5 March.