Sometimes a star is born in an instant, sometimes they grow into it. Alden Ehrenreich is living both stories at once.
The dark, lupine 27-year-old actor has been turning in well-regarded performances for years, becoming a favorite of the director-auteur. Discovered by Steven Spielberg in a bat mitzvah video Ehrenreich made with a friend when he was 14 (although the director didn't cast him in any of his films), he was plucked out of high school in 2008 to debut in Francis Ford Coppola's 2009 film Tetro. Since then, he has played a churlish son across from Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013) and the hero in the gothic creepfest Beautiful Creatures (2013). His star rose further with a way-out-of-left-field casting as a sangin', lariat-throwin' western star in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, which he lassoed out from under George Clooney and Josh Brolin. But no matter the size or showiness of the part, Ehrenreich always makes a serious impression.
By the beginning of 2016, he was gathering steam as a rising journeyman, a better-looking John Malkovich perhaps. But nothing prepared anyone, least of all the actor himself, to be cast in an as-yet-untitled Star Wars film as the young Han Solo, updating one of the most iconic characters in film history. The casting process was well-publicized and tortuous, the list of contenders leaked early and often. Ehrenreich's name appeared alongside Taron Egerton, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller. He was the darkest horse—consensus something along the lines of "That would be great, but ain't gonna happen"—the indie favorite but in no way favored. But it was announced this past July that he got it.
If there's tremendous pressure to make the world's moviegoers choke on their popcorn, Ehrenreich isn't showing it. In London doing preproduction on the Han Solo Star Wars film, he talked about that process and his most recent films. Cast by Warren Beatty in the filmmaker's Rules Don't Apply, he plays one of Howard Hughes's chauffeurs, who ultimately becomes the reclusive, bat-shit billionaire's closest confidantes/punching bag. He's also starring in the upcoming Iraq War drama based on Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, pointing out that he's living a child's dream—playing a cowboy, a soldier, and Han Solo. Although all that Hollywood might be able to think about in connection with his name right now is Star Wars, the actor has much more on his mind.
ALDEN EHRENREICH: So, if I'm not mistaken, I was in Interview in 2009, and I don't know if you're going to remember this, but ... —
MICHAEL MARTIN: I remember, definitely.
EHRENREICH: You wrote that piece, right?
MARTIN: I did.
EHRENREICH: That was the first thing that was ever written about me. The first interview I ever gave, ever.
MARTIN: We sat in Tompkins Square Park. And you were living in New York at the time, right?
EHRENREICH: Yeah. I was a freshman at NYU.
MARTIN: Well, talk about full circle. Sitting in that park as a freshman at NYU, did you think you'd be where you are today?
EHRENREICH: The honest answer is I don't remember. [laughs] I remember Tetro was a big deal to me at that time. It was going from zero to one: Never having been in a movie, a person who had no relationship to any of that, and that was my first movie.
MARTIN: That was an amazing director to work with right out of the gate. Did you think that, within a decade, you would be working with the Coen brothers, Warren Beatty, and Woody Allen?
EHRENREICH: I don't think I could have imagined that. Well, I actually remember getting asked when we were at the Cannes Film Festival, what I expected to do next. I remember feeling like there was no way I could've imagined that something like Tetro would have happened to me. And it's a little bit about how I felt about Hail, Caesar! and now Star Wars. I could not have predicted those things happening to me. But I'm just happy they come along.
MARTIN: It's got to be a bit surreal. Or, maybe not—maybe you're working so hard that you're feeling every moment.
EHRENREICH: It's a little of both. I think it's still very surreal. When I worked with anybody like Woody Allen or Francis, there's the name, and your understanding of who they are before you meet them, that stays in your head a little bit. Same with the Coen brothers and Warren. And then slowly you get to know each one of them as a person, and that becomes a kind of separate entity, where you just know the human being. Like I've known Francis for so long I think, "Oh, Francis." And then you see his name on something with The Godfather, and you go, "Oh, yeah. He's also that." The person you knew of before you met the actual person.
MARTIN: The persona versus the reality. Woody Allen: What persona did you have in your head and how did that compare to the person you worked with?
EHRENREICH: Woody Allen is kind of the one example I don't have. Because the way he works and the amount of shooting time that I did on that film, I didn't really get to know him, so he kind of stays as "Woody Allen" to me.
MARTIN: You're in London right now. What are you over there to do?
EHRENREICH: Prep stuff for Star Wars.
MARTIN: Is that going to be shot entirely over there?
EHRENREICH: I actually don't know. They shoot the Star Wars films in England. But I think they also shoot them in other places. I'm not sure exactly where the locations will be.
MARTIN: What kind of prep have you been doing?
EHRENREICH: Well, I had an audition process that went on for a long time, and I got to spend a lot of time with the guys who are directing the film. Getting to be around them and being around the world a little bit has been the main experience so far. I did my audition on the Millennium Falcon for one of my screen tests, which was pretty cool.
MARTIN: Was that another surreal moment?
EHRENREICH: Yeah, for sure. I think so many of the experiences that I've been lucky to have so far have been exactly that. It's been so surreal that at a certain point you stop expecting them to feel real at all. Going back to Tetro, I remember thinking, "Oh, at some point this will end up feeling second nature," and it never really does. It's always a little fantastical.
MARTIN: Have directors told you what your special quality is, why they cast you?
EHRENREICH: No. I avoid any conversation like that. The more ignorant I am about anything that pertains to that, the better. I just don't think that there's any way that could be helpful to the work that I do. Each film and each character is a completely new set of challenges. It doesn't feel like you can rest on something you may have done well in the past.
MARTIN: How did Rules Don't Apply come about for you? I read that it had an unusually long development period.
EHRENREICH: Basically, around the time I met you, when Tetro came out, I met with Warren Beatty for the first time. I had, like, a four-and-a-half-hour lunch with him, and then over the next five years continued to meet with him and go to his house. I didn't read the script for a couple years. It basically amounted to this kind of apprenticeship with Warren: conversations and learning about his whole background in the film industry and his life. I grew up watching a lot of old movies, so getting to ask about making movies in the '70s and people he was friends with, like Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman and Charlie Chaplin, and hearing a first-person account was pretty incredible.
MARTIN: That first conversation: What did you guys connect on?
EHRENREICH: Elia Kazan—the films he made were such a big deal for me when I was growing up. Warren loves to talk about his experiences with Kazan. His first film being with this very important director, I think we related on that in a big way. And I just was genuinely curious about his experiences in film, and about the people he knew.
MARTIN: What was it like acting with Beatty?
EHRENREICH: I'd never worked with an actor-director before. Warren did a very cool thing, where he directs in character. Let's say he wants you to speak louder in a scene. He won't stop playing the role and say to you as a director, "Will you speak louder on the next take?" He'll say it as Howard Hughes: "I can't totally hear you. Why don't you speak up a little bit?" To kind of keep this rhythm going.
MARTIN: What was the most important thing you learned from him?
EHRENREICH: He's voraciously detail-oriented. He'll sometimes spend hours on a very small detail to make sure he gets it right. After the kind of work that he's made, he certainly doesn't have to be doing that. By anyone's measure, he's proven himself. But he still sets out to make something as great as it possibly can be.
MARTIN: Your character is this fresh-faced guy whose eyes get opened to Hollywood. Were there any elements of the character that you could relate to?
EHRENREICH: Definitely. Even though I grew up in L.A., no one in my family was in the movie industry. I've always felt whatever the opposite of disillusioned is. I guess illusioned with movies and with people in movies and things like that. It's all exciting to me.
MARTIN: Your character's a romantic. There's a quote from you on your IMDb page: "I feel about romance the same way I do about a vocation; it's a calling."
EHRENREICH: Oh, God.
MARTIN: What did you mean by that?
EHRENREICH: I have no idea. [laughs] That sounds so pretentious. I don't remember saying that, and I can't deny it, because maybe I said it, but I have absolutely no idea.
MARTIN: So the Star Wars phenomenon is massive, to say the least. Now you're in no danger of being forgotten. You're always going to have a place in movie history. How do you feel about that?
EHRENREICH: I'm just excited to be a part of the movie. It's always the particulars that are the most exciting. The idea of it is really exciting, but the most fun part is the actual job you get to do: the character that you get to play, the people that you work with, the day-to-day experience. I haven't started this yet, but that's where I feel the most grateful.
MARTIN: You mentioned auditioning on the Millennium Falcon. What was the audition process like? Was it grueling?
EHRENREICH: Not really. It was pretty fun, because I enjoyed the material a lot. Last year I read for the directors, then came to England and did a test on the Falcon, then came back and did a couple more screen tests in Los Angeles.
MARTIN: There was a ton of speculation about the finalists. It was like a sweepstakes.
EHRENREICH: [laughs] Uh huh.
MARTIN: Did you think you had a shot?
EHRENREICH: You don't know. Whenever you hear somebody else is auditioning for something, you sort of assume they're going to get it. You should try to just ignore it. I don't find it very helpful to know who else is going up for stuff, generally.
MARTIN: You've got all these other people's styles in your head.
EHRENREICH: Exactly! And I've had a couple opportunities where I've been on the other side of the audition process as a director [Ehrenreich recently shot a short film and is currently at work editing it], so it's really reassuring to me that it's just about who is right for that role and less about if you ace the audition. It's just about getting to know people, not about who's a better actor a lot of the time. It's about who fits that particular suit, you know?
MARTIN: Speaking of keeping someone else's style in or out of your head, has Harrison Ford communicated with you at all?
EHRENREICH: No, I haven't met him.
MARTIN: What do you want to bring to the character? It's so iconic.
EHRENREICH: I don't really have a good answer to that quite yet. It's still kinda early for me.
MARTIN: Were you a fan of the films?
EHRENREICH: Definitely. I remember pretending to be the characters in the movies when I was a little kid. The last three movies I've done, I played a cowboy, then I played a soldier, and now I play Han Solo. So the little kid in me is having a real joyride.
MARTIN: You're living every kid's dream. You also auditioned for another huge part: Spider-Man. Your life could have taken a different turn in an equally major direction. How disappointed were you that that didn't come through?
EHRENREICH: I've had that experience many, many, times—when you don't get roles. I'd developed a good muscle for shaking it off. I buy myself a present whenever I don't get a role that I really wanted. You get bummed out, and then you go, "Oh! Now I get to go buy a present for myself." That kind of helps.
MARTIN: Yeah, retail therapy works.
EHRENREICH: I guess so, yeah. It's usually a book.
MARTIN: That's a lot more legitimate than the retail therapy I do.
EHRENREICH: That's exactly why I said that. I'm trying to make myself sound better. [laughs]
MARTIN: So you've been asked a zillion times about being discovered by Steven Spielberg. I think that may be my fault.
EHRENREICH: That might be. I think you're the first person to report that.
MARTIN: I'll try to ask something a little different. Do you think about what you would have done if that didn't happen? Would you have taken another path to where you are today or done something completely different?
EHRENREICH: I feel like I would have ultimately ended up pursuing acting. It probably would have been much more difficult and taken a lot longer for me to get into it professionally. When I was 14 years old, I was by no means trying to work professionally at all. I'm kind of grateful that I didn't have any real success until I was older and basically out of high school. I think that was a real confidence boost for me, having it all start that way, in that very privileged position of having him vouch for me. But I auditioned for four or five years and didn't get anything after that. I got turned down for a million jobs until I got my first movie with Francis. I think that having had [Spielberg's] confidence in me probably made me a little more immune to feeling as bad about myself in the face of rejection. I also was just so young—I was unaware enough to not take it too seriously.
MARTIN: That's a good quality to try to preserve into adulthood.
EHRENREICH: Yeah. That's something that Francis would always say. I remember when I was doing Tetro, he said, "Stay innocent. I'm 69 years old, and I'm still innocent."
MARTIN: Have you been able to do that?
EHRENREICH: I think in certain ways, and in certain ways not. I try to. I really feel lucky that I still feel excited about the actual work that I get to do. I just happen to love it, and I could easily see, for somebody else, that not being the case.
MARTIN: What exactly was it like being directed by Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine?
EHRENREICH: Well, somebody comes to your house. You know they're coming, so it's not a surprise. And they give you an envelope that has your scenes in it. And they sit in the car outside for a half an hour while you read your scenes, then they ring your doorbell and you give your scenes back. Then you shoot the movie a few weeks later or something. The next time you see your scenes is the night before you start shooting. I never read the script, so I didn't really know what it was about. I remember calling and asking, because I had a few lines that were like, "How could the character have done this?" and I hadn't read the part of the script that said what she did, so they put me on the phone with Woody... Allen. I don't know if I could really say "Woody." [Martin laughs] But I talked to him for half an hour or something. It was pretty incredible. He really went into lots of detail about the story and what actually happened. Just talking to him is very surreal. His persona in the films are so iconic; it's like on par with Groucho Marx or something like that. So just getting to talk to that person in real life was pretty wild. The movie shot very quick. I met Cate Blanchett in the car on the way to set, and we did that last scene, and she was just so phenomenal. I had basically met her that day. Because the way he shoots, everybody just shows up and does their thing, and he moves us very quickly. He does very few takes, and he doesn't give a whole ton of directions, although he does give direction. One of the big takeaways from that experience was just what a thrill it was to act with somebody like Cate Blanchett operating on that caliber. Because what she was doing was very powerful. Then I had one of these Woody Allen scenes where there are six people standing around, and I had one line. My two larger scenes had gone fine, and then on that day I screwed up that line over and over and over again. And every time I screwed it up, they can't use the whole thing because they're only using the one shot. That was my last day. [laughs]
MARTIN: Hail, Caesar! was a lot of fun to watch. Was it as fun to shoot?
EHRENREICH: That's like one of the best times I've ever had. The land takes on the condition of its king, you know. When you work for the Coens, they are so fun and so organized. They treat everyone with such respect. And the character I got to play was so fun.
MARTIN: Any cinephile has to, if they fantasize about working with directors, imagine working with the Coen brothers, because it seems they just love movies so much.
EHRENREICH: Absolutely. Their way of working is always kept pretty mysterious. I was so curious to see how they make these movies. It was just such a joy—they seem to have so much fun making their movies.
MARTIN: What was it like acting with Clooney and Brolin and Scarlett Johansson?
EHRENREICH: That was cool, because they've all worked with the Coens. They were much more at ease with them at the outset, and they were all kind of familiar with the shorthand that the Coens had. They hire the same people over and over again, so there's a shorthand between all of the people they're working with. And it feels like you're being invited into a kind of community. I met Scarlett briefly, but Josh and George, in particular, were so welcoming and so inclusive and really brought me into the fold from the beginning. They were just very considerate of me, and it meant a lot.
MARTIN: Beautiful Creatures was another film packed with heavy hitters, like Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Margo Martindale, and Viola Davis. What was your acting takeaway from that?
EHRENREICH: Basically, it was the first lead that I had since Tetro, and it was a lesson in seeing what it's like to film a movie that's of a much bigger scale. It was a good initiation.
MARTIN: Tell me about The Yellow Birds.
EHRENREICH: It's based on a novel written by Kevin Powers, who is an Iraq War vet. I play a soldier who promises my friend's mother I'm going to keep him alive. But when we go overseas to Iraq, he gets killed. It's about what happened to him, my reckoning and dealing with that as I return home from the war.
MARTIN: Was that an intense experience?
EHRENREICH: It definitely was. I had the opportunity to learn more about what life is like for a soldier.
MARTIN: What are your ultimate ambitions in the business? You talked about directing.
EHRENREICH: Acting-wise, I've had all these experiences. Yet when I look at certain people whose careers I admire, they've gotten to play so many different characters. So it's just that—getting to have more of these singular little adventures where you get to be a part of a completely different world. But even a kid, directing was something that I did. I made short films in school. I feel like I've been in the best film school in the world, having gotten to work with all these people. Warren was very adamant and very encouraging of me to direct. It's definitely something that I'd like to pursue more in the future. The biggest challenge to being an actor is when you're not working, just being unemployed, the downtime and not having anything to do.
MARTIN: Assuming you have downtime in the next decade or so.
EHRENREICH: [laughs] Right, yeah.
MARTIN: Well, it's been a real pleasure to be able to check in with you again.
EHRENREICH: Thank you so much. So we'll talk when I'm how old? In another eight years, I guess. [laughs]
MARTIN: 2024. Got it. Meet you here.
MICHAEL MARTIN IS A NEW YORK-BASED WRITER AND THE FORMER EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF TIME OUT NORTH AMERICA.