No Kids Were (Permanently) Hurt While Filming Hereditary

Photo: A24

Hereditary opens in theaters this weekend, and writer-director Ari Aster is being heaped with praise for his debut feature film, which chronicles a particularly horrible period in the life of the Graham family. Toni Collette is at her soul-shattering best as Annie, the matriarch; Gabriel Byrne is the only calming force amid the chaos as her husband Steve. These two screen veterans deliver the kinds of performances you’ve trusted them with for years — but it’s Hereditary’s young stars who will truly stun you. It’s not easy to pull focus from pillars of intensity like Collette and Ann Dowd, but Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are totally captivating as the Graham family children, Peter and Charlie.

Both students from the Professional Children’s School in New York City (Wolff is a graduate, and Shapiro is currently enrolled), the young performers have already been working for years. Wolff is known primarily for his work in TV and music (he co-leads a musical act with his very similar-looking brother, Nat, under the easy to remember name Nat and Alex Wolff), and Shapiro is a Tony-winning actress who originated the role of Matilda on Broadway. But Hereditary is a breakthrough turn for both, with Wolff’s Peter absorbing the cumulative brunt of the film’s abuses and Shapiro giving what will surely be one of the year’s most memorable debuts as the enigmatic Charlie. Following a Vulture Insiders secret screening of the film at this year’s Vulture Festival in New York, Wolff and Shapiro stuck around after to take questions about the story Wolff describes as, “a family drama that just gets really fucked-up.” You’ll find their (semi-spoilery answers) below.

Hereditary really exploded out of Sundance where it premiered. At what point did you guys start to realize other people were as excited to see the movie as you had been to make it?
Milly Shapiro: I think for me it was the moment that I met Ari. It was in my last audition. I was really nervous, and I had read the script a couple of times, because I loved it when I first read it and wanted to figure out who the character was. I read it again because I loved it so much, and when you read it, you needed to finish it, which is something that you don’t see in a lot of scripts.

Alex Wolff: I think, similar to Milly, I read the script and I obviously thought there’s something special, because I was so excited to do it, but I think on set with Ari the first few days I could see that. He came to me after we did the scene in the car, that big thing, and was like, “All right, new rule, no new movies without each other. Let’s do everything together, every single thing,” and I was like, “Okay, that sounds good.” It’s really not like that all the time. I think a lot of times you nod your head after what a director says but you’re still processing, “What did he mean?” But Ari would come up and say exactly the thing that I wanted to hear and he’d have ideas and ask questions.

Had either of you watched Ari’s short films — Munchausen or The Strange Thing About the Johnsons — before you read the script?
AW: I did. Strange Thing About the Johnsons is the craziest shit I’ve ever seen. I watched the short before I read the script, because I remember getting the email and I was like, “Horror movie, A24. A24 is pretty much always perfect, and horror movies can go either way,” so I was trying to see, “Who is this director?” I watched that short and I was like, “Holy shit. I gotta go find out everything about this guy.” So that may have been the moment.

MS: I was excited. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is so disturbing but so good, because it went through a lot of things that you don’t really see ever. And then Munchausen was really good, and when I watched it I just started crying, like uncontrollably sobbing. When I saw that I knew that this person, whoever created this, really understands people in a different way. It was just so amazing and I knew that this film was gonna be incredible.

Milly, there’s so much happening with your character internally. How much of your character was pulled off the pages of the script, and how much is direction during scenes and decisions that you made about who Charlie should be?
MS: Me and Ari kind of discussed who she was, so by the time we had actually started filming, I already had an idea and a basis of what the character would do in certain situations. Who they are, what their emotions would be, and how they would think. He would occasionally give me a few notes during filming, but we had already figured it out beforehand, and it was just an amazing experience. He was very hands-on, and getting to create this kind of role is really amazing, because since it is all internal, you have to have a lot of thought behind everything you do, and she doesn’t really think how a normal person would so it was very interesting to step into.

Conversely, Alex, your part is very externalized, and Peter is really put through hell in this story. Where are you going to reach the darkness for this? Is this Ari coaching you through trauma or do you write a character bible you could refer to in your own head during scenes?
AW: Yeah, Ari liked to abuse me, is the main thing.

Okay, great, whatever works.
AW: I mean, it’s hard to say. It’s really hard to talk about. There’s no real method to that madness. I just knew that doing this would require everything that I had. And I just brought to the surface every single thing inside that maybe you don’t want to, and I just left it there for the whole thing. So I was maybe occasionally miserable to be around, but there’s a quote about acting where, when you sit on a heater your first instinct is to get up, and I kind of had to just sit on the heater. It was almost like I would try and find the things that would hurt me the most emotionally or something, and I would just stay there. I had to trick my brain. Every single thing that your brain does, “Oh, don’t think about that. Oh, protect this because it makes you feel bad,” you almost get into a habit of the reverse, which can’t be healthy.

So you’re in therapy now?
AW: Definitely, definitely. It’s hard to talk about without sounding kind of pretentious, but whatever it is, it was an amazing experience to work with someone like Milly who’s just an open-faced sandwich of emotions. Constantly evoking so much. I just felt really lucky to be with her and Ari, who is a complete genius. So our bond, at the beginning, we decided we were both gonna get into the kamikaze plane and just go to the ground.

How is it when the cameras stop rolling? Can you afford to let yourself relax a bit, or do you have to keep the tension from one scene to the next?
AW: I basically decided for this movie I was going to, from the second I got to Utah, I was going to just be Peter for three months. Then I was gonna stop at the end. That’s not necessarily always the way I’ll work with something, but for this I kinda just had everybody call me Peter, because I was too afraid of losing whatever it is that I worked on.

How about for you, Milly?
MS: I used the Stella Adler method, where you create all the aspects of the character so that you can step into it. So, while I was on set I was Milly, and then when they said action I would turn into Charlie. I would be watching anime in my trailer, they would come and get me, and then I’d be Charlie. It was a really fun experience, because I love all things creepy and horror, and I’d always wanted to see the behind the scenes of it. It was a really great experience to be able to see that.

I was wondering how much of the in-world mythology were you guys expected to be aware of.
AW: Like with Paimon? I know a ton. I watched all these documentaries and stuff, and that was what I was doing in my trailer. Anime sounds a lot more fun. I’m gonna do that next time.

I watched all these documentaries about all the satanic rituals. Ari was pretty open to whatever. He’s really brilliant. Technically, it’s a masterpiece. The way the camera moves and everything, I just felt like I was working with a genius. When I was watching him do all these things, I just thought, It’s amazing, because at the same time he was so flexible with actors, and so open to whatever we brought. I think he was just molding around us. Did you feel that?

MS: Yeah, Ari was great. He had a very good way of getting the best performance out of the actor and he wasn’t pressuring them to change how their acting style was. He just knew how to work with everyone, so they got such amazing and great performances in the film that it really transforms it into something entirely different and new.

Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro. Photo: Mettie Ostrowski

And were you physically uncomfortable a lot of the time? Each of you goes through some terrible things in this movie.
MS: I just remember it was really hot, and I always wore winter clothes as Charlie, and the one scene where I was in the bedroom with Toni it was the middle of June. It was very hot, and I was wearing this — I don’t know how to describe it. It looked like a sheep, basically. I was wearing winter pants and a winter shirt underneath that, under the covers, and it was just so hot, because they couldn’t have air on or you would hear it. I was just kinda dying.

AW: Yeah, that’s a fair thing to say. I was pretty physically uncomfortable. Pretty uncomfortable in every way.

Okay, so then I have to ask about the scene where you ram your head into the desk, which is also one of the best parts of the trailer. Was that you?
AW: Yeah, that was me. I said to him, “Ari, look, if you need to do a real desk, I’ll do it,” and he was like, “I really appreciate that, man.” So we had one that was made out of a sort of soft mat, but under it was hard so it hurt really bad. I remember they brought it in, and I was like, “Shit. This was a bad idea. I wish we’d got a foam one or something that wasn’t that thick.” There was a hardness under it so I was just slamming my face against that thing. But, you know, you’ve gotta do it. You offered to really be decapitated, right?

MS: Yeah, I did.

AW: That’s Stella Adler, right?

MS: “It’ll be the most realistic. I want you to take it.”

That would’ve been a debut Oscar right there.
MS: I don’t think anyone’s ever gone this far to get an Oscar.

Near-decapitation aside, this seems like it was a pretty great first screen experience, Milly.
MS: It was. All these actors were so amazing, and seeing them work on set was so incredible and I was kinda fangirling very hard, but I hid it very well. It was really cool. It was so amazing to see actors work up close, because you’re in a scene with them and it’s like they completely block out everything from their normal lives and they just are the character then. It makes it so much easier to act, and it’s just so different than anything I have ever really experienced before.

Was the physical exertion almost a kind of relief compared to the purely emotional heavy lifting you were doing in a lot of other scenes?
AW: Not a relief, but it’s also not worse than the other stuff. After I was like, “Ugh, I gotta just go and take a shower with Windex in it. I gotta just go wash myself off.” That was nuts. I remember just kind of getting myself in a trance and then flying back like that. I had fake blood all over my face and all that stuff. And whatever happened, I had to do that and then do a few more takes. Then there was an off-camera shot from behind, where I was screaming with all the kids in the shot, and then after there’s actually this great video on my phone of me limping to my trailer. My ankle is absolutely swollen up. I have an ice-pack tied to it, and there was blood gushing down my knee. I sliced open my knee, and then my arm, I literally could not move my arm. We had to do another scene later that day, but I literally couldn’t move my arm. It felt like I broke my elbow or something. I didn’t even realize until after the scene was over, and I was like, “I am a cripple. I can’t walk.”

So the desk was pretty serious. Did you also throw yourself out of the false window there?
AW: No. I didn’t do that. I wish I did. That was the only thing they actually didn’t let me legally do. I fought very hard to do that. I really wanted to. I stayed till like one or two in the morning to convince them to let me, and no.

There are many scenes that look obviously harrowing in this movie, but were there any that were deceptively complex or challenging?
MS: For me the hardest was the pigeon head, because I am an animal lover. I love literally every animal. It was taxidermy and the taxidermy was really cool, but just having to cut the head off kind of freaked me out. But everyone was really nice, and they made sure that I felt okay doing it, so it was fine. While I was doing it I was kind of on edge, but I got over it very quickly. It is an amazing shot.

How about you, Alex?
AW: It was the most amazing experience and so gratifying. It almost felt like an acting class in that you basically got to go in and just play around and really explode. I felt like everyone in this movie got a chance to explode in a way because the circumstances are so dire that you get permission to do that. But I really do feel like it would be lying to say that it was easy in any moment. It really wasn’t. I don’t think it was easy for Ari. I don’t think it was easy for Toni. I think it was the most difficult thing I had done, and I was doing an interview with Toni and she’s had this long career and she said this was the most challenging thing. That makes me feel good, because this is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.

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No Kids Were (Permanently) Hurt While Filming Hereditary