Alden Ehrenreich, the 19-year-old star of Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, Teatro, a family drama set in Argentina, is getting raves — and earning comparisons to a young Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s also an NYU freshman — and such a New York newbie that when we asked him to meet us at a restaurant on West Broadway, he called us from a storefront many blocks away. “Are you sure this is the right address? Oh, there’s two Broadways?” Vulture spoke with Ehrenreich about working with Coppola, his run-in with Spielberg, and why he moved to New York.
So, you’re from L.A.
Born and raised. I grew up around the business, but not in it. My mom is an interior designer and my stepdad is an orthodontist. I had an uncle who was an actor on Days of Our Lives, but that was it.
When did you start acting?
When I was 4, I pretended to be Sebastian, the crab in The Little Mermaid. You play Leonardo DiCaprio and do what little kids do, and then you go to karate, and then you play baseball. Slowly I stopped doing karate, and I stopped doing baseball. I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver. And I started going to this school called Crossroads, which specifically had a really great theater program, just kind of a good energy about it. My mom wouldn’t let me do professional child acting, wouldn’t ever.
The myth of the 17-year-old former–child-actor drug addict. And she wanted me to have a normal childhood. Then I made a short film with a friend of mine when I was 14 that played at a friend of ours’ bat mitzvah. In it, I ran around as a skinny little punk, trying on girls’ clothes and eating dirt. My mom was like, “I really don’t know if you want to present yourself that way. It’s not the best portrait, and there are a lot of people who will be watching this.” To be honest, you go to a bat mitzvah in Los Angeles and you can count on at least a few industry people to be there. But it wasn’t like we thought of that. Well, Steven Spielberg was there. I got a call afterwards from these girls from school who told me that he had really liked the movie. Pretty soon, the DreamWorks people had gotten me an agent, and by now I’ve gone on hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of auditions.
You haven’t worked much, though.
I’ve done one episode of CSI, and one episode of Supernatural, and the movie. That’s it. I auditioned for four years, though. In the beginning I was really picky: I’ve always thought of it like: I am not supporting a family yet and I’m living at home. There wasn’t a reason to work if it wasn’t something that I would be proud of. And most scripts that you read about young people have just this totally disconnected vernacular: “Hey, bro, let’s hit the beach …” So ridiculous. My generation’s humor isn’t just like, “Hey, fatso.”
What was the Coppola audition like?
It was the craziest. He first had me read from Catcher in the Rye, the part where Holden is talking about his brother Allie, who died, and about how he was such a great kid and wrote poems on his baseball mitt. Then he started asking me questions, sort of filming me on this little camera. That was just the beginning of a six-month process. I went to Napa, to his vineyard. We got to go out and shoot a scene in Diane Lane’s car from The Outsiders, and it was so cool! Then I went to Argentina for another audition.
This is a major debut role.
Maybe it’s crazy, but I always dreamed of something like this. I remember looking at all my acting heroes — and these people started with amazing films, like Montgomery Clift in Red River and James Dean was in East of Eden, and Marlon Brando was in The Men. I had this idea that I didn’t want to trickle up. So this is a total dream come true. It’s totally mind-boggling.
Coppola has said the film is very personal.
I go to find my brother in Argentina, and it’s kind of about our relationship as seen through the history of our family. It’s the story of issues repeated from generation to generation and how they play out between us.
Did you pester him with questions?
Every day! That was like one of the greatest parts. I’d just be like, “So, Gregory Peck … Go!” I got to, basically, ask him the Godfather questions and everything. But he wouldn’t engage with people’s bullshit sort of reputations. There was none of that.
Why’d you come to NYU?
I was going to go to USC, but then I was just talking to Francis and different people and they were all just, “Go to New York.”