ILLUSTRATION BY BRAD OGBONNA
By age 8, Alex Wolff already had a leading role in a hit television series: Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band, a musical comedy costarring his older brother, Nat, and their father, jazz pianist Michael Wolff, and written, directed, and produced by the boys’ mother, Thirtysomething’s Polly Draper. “It forced me to be really loose and off the cuff,” Wolff, now 20, says of working with his family. “Walking onto a set can be nerve-wracking. I like to think about how, when I was a kid, I didn’t really give a s***.” Since Naked Brothers ended in 2009, Wolff has brought this unselfconscious approach to increasingly prominent projects, playing a series of darker roles: Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2016’s Patriots Day and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s best friend in 2017’s My Friend Dahmer.
Wolff keeps things grim this month playing an unwitting teen at the center of a family curse in the Sundance breakout Hereditary. “I think what makes it so scary is that it’s honest and feels really plausible,” says the self-proclaimed “horror fanatic.” (Rosemary’s Baby is a favorite.) Although the movie’s haunting imagery and heart-pounding suspense has some critics proclaiming it the scariest film since The Exorcist (at press time, it had a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), at its core, Hereditary is a family drama about the consequences of festering grief. Or, as Wolff puts it: “It’s emotional torture.” To play Peter, a teen who makes a tragic mistake that mars his relationship with his parents (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne), Wolff had to layer repressed guilt beneath his character’s apathetic teenage exterior. “It was the most mentally exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “In certain scenes, I would just start crying, and we’d have to try to numb it up.”
Later this year, Wolff reteams with his family in Stella’s Last Weekend, a comedy starring him and his brother and written and directed by Draper. (This time, she’ll also be onscreen as their mom.) “We’re an awful family, but we all work so well together,” Wolff deadpans. He’s also directing and starring in The Cat and the Moon, a film he started writing at 15, inspired by his own experiences, that focuses on a teenager’s friendship with an older jazz musician. “I wanted to make a movie about teenagers in New York the way the Dardenne brothers would make a movie about teenagers,” he says. (No pressure). “When you get to tell your own story the way you want to tell it and have control over it, it’s really addicting.”