This Is Alden Ehrenreich’s Year. We’re Just Living in It.
It’s been five years since Alden Ehrenreich’s last film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, crash-landed in theaters.
The then-twenty-something Angeleno had beat out 3,000 actors — Miles Teller, Taron Egerton, Ansel Elgort, Rami Malek, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson among them — for the role of young Han Solo in the much-hyped origin story, only to have the production marred by infighting among its creative team. As the story goes, the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street), were fired and replaced by Ron Howard; its editor was canned; over a month of reshoots were commissioned, causing Michael K. Williams to drop out; and the film opened to mixed reviews and disappointing box office.
Following the three-year whirlwind that was Solo, Ehrenreich (pronounced air-en-reich) took some time off. But now, the 33-year-old is back with a vengeance, with diverse roles in three buzzy films set for release this year and a Marvel TV series on the horizon.
First up is Cocaine Bear, out Feb. 24. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, and loosely based on the true story of a bear in the ’80s who was found dead in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest after consuming 75 pounds of 95-percent pure cocaine it found in a duffel bag, it’s a deliciously bloody horror-comedy about a coked-up bear who goes on a forest rampage, killing folks left and right. The missing coke belongs to Syd (Ray Liotta, in his final completed film performance), a drug kingpin who sends his grieving son (Ehrenreich) and game henchman (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) out into the woods to retrieve it. He’ll follow that up with roles in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, out this summer; the Sundance smash Fair Play, an erotic thriller that earned raves (and a $20 million Netflix purchase), in the fall; and the Marvel TV series Ironheart toward the end of the year (or early next).
They’re four very different roles for Ehrenreich that showcase his versatility and prove he’s a force to be reckoned with. Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, he’s also planning to open a theater space in Los Angeles sometime later this year (or early next), and directed a 15-minute short film (his first) that will hit the festival circuit soon.
Ehrenreich spoke with Rolling Stone about his massive 2023 and why what happened to his hamsters was even more brutal than Cocaine Bear.
So, how did this happen? Was your agent just like, “Look, I have a script for this movie about a coked-up bear killing people in the woods…”
I mean, it basically was that! It was this crazy premise and that’s the main thing that was exciting about being a part of it — other than working with Elizabeth Banks — which is being a part of something that’s so different, wild, wacky, zany, and weird. To be part of a unique studio movie that just makes you go “What is that?” is a fun experience, because there aren’t that many original films being made on that level these days.
This is, of course, Ray Liotta’s final completed film and you get to play his son. Did he impart any wisdom when it comes to starring in cocaine-fueled movies?
[Laughs] That’s very funny. No, we didn’t talk about that so much, but it was really great. I grew up in the same neighborhood as him and would see him when I was a kid. He was such a great actor and had an enormously powerful quality onscreen — this combination of menace and tenderness, threat and vulnerability. You get to experience firsthand that power. The scenes that we did have together we went off-script, improvised together, and had this very brief experience of a father-son relationship in the film, which was a nice moment to go a little deeper.
Are you an animal person, and do you have any pets?
I love animals. I’ve never really had any pets. I had hamsters growing up; don’t at the moment. [Laughs] I had a tough time with my hamsters. I mean, they were great, but one of them killed its mom, and the other ones would kind of get into the walls and live in the walls for a while. It wasn’t like having a dog.
This sounds like a horror movie.
Oh my god, it gets so much worse. One of them died while it was on the wheel and got its leg stuck in the side of the cage, and it kept running, and eventually its back broke on the hamster wheel. Pretty dark.
Damn. It was like Squid Game in there. Have you ever had a strange encounter with an animal in the wild?
No one’s asked that! I was up at my folk’s house — they have a house near Yosemite — and there was a black bear that was there. This was before I did the movie, and the family was like, “Oh, how cute! It’s adorable!” And some of my family members, including my niece — who’s very young — were even walking toward it. After doing the movie I would jump in a lot quicker. But don’t run! That’s the most important thing. We need to make sure that part of this movie is getting good “how to deal with bears” information out there, and one of the things is: don’t run.
Have you ever had a drug experience that went very south on you?
I haven’t really done drugs at all, to be honest. I’ve tried pot and had some not-great experiences with that, some good experiences. Growing up in LA, I think it’s good that [weed’s] legal because we can get a sense of what’s in it, but it’s definitely something that I think should be dealt with lightly — especially in young people. I watched it have a big effect on people I grew up with.
Do you see this as a possible franchise — the Cocaine Bear Cinematic Universe — with you and O’Shea Jackson Jr. returning for more?
Let’s see! You never know. But it’s certainly on the table and a possibility, because I think when a movie’s built with this kind of zaniness, fun and imagination, it’s easy to picture where else this one will go.
I read that you’re named after Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Field of Dreams. Was he a family friend or something?
No, he wasn’t a family friend. My mom was pregnant, and they were in the movie theater and saw his name on the screen, so I wasn’t named after him so much as they got the name from there. It was really fun to be able to say that to Ray [Liotta], who got a kick out of that story. When I was 24, I was working for Warren Beatty [on Rules Don’t Apply] and we had dinner with Phil Alden Robinson, and he got a huge kick out of that too.
Do you like the movie Field of Dreams?
I really like it. It’s sweet and moving. I find it touching. It’s also — and this is a weird comparison — it’s also a weird confluence of genres, different from the way Cocaine Bear is. It’s sort of a fantasy movie but also a sentimental movie as well. I’ve always had fun with my name. I’ve always felt like that’s what I was. Ehrenreich is… people kind of clam up and get very nervous when they have to say it. When they see it written it looks very intimidating and daunting.
Because it has the word “reich” in it?
[Laughs] No, not quite that! People say it differently. A woman on the plane was saying Er-gen-rich or something.
Most people are aware that Steven Spielberg discovered you in a bat mitzvah video, but I was watching an old interview with Spielberg where he was talking up your comedy chops. He said he thought he’d found “the next funny comedian” but then you went “rogue [into] drama.” Do you feel like you’ve been leaning into that side more with roles in Hail, Caesar! and Cocaine Bear?
In a way. But the video that he saw me in is the craziest, silliest, most absurd thing that you can imagine. My favorite actors that I grew up really loving always had a dynamism between things that were dramatic and comedic. My favorite movies are for the most part films of the ’70s, and even the ones we think of as being really dark — Taxi Driver, French Connection, the Cassavetes films, whatever — have elements of comedy to them, and actors like Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Ned Beatty and Dustin Hoffman had this ability to be both at the same time, which is more reflective of what life is like most of the time. That’s always been the mixture that I’ve been drawn to.
You beat out 3,000 actors for Han Solo in Solo — most of young Hollywood, pretty much — and I’ve always wanted to see the Phil Lord and Chris Miller version of that film, the one you originally signed on for. What was that version like?
I’ll never really know because I never saw those cuts or anything. And ultimately, that whole experience was this huge high-seas adventure — including all that stuff — that everything afterward feels kind of breezy. It’s like riding a large wave and then riding a small one after. Working with them again on Cocaine Bear was special for me. We shot my first scene in the film at the bar and then I walked outside and they were there, and I didn’t know they would be there. To be on a set with them again was really meaningful because I love them. They’re brilliant creative minds.
The Solo press tour even took you to Ellen’s couch. I rewatched your interview on Ellen that you did with Donald Glover and you look so uncomfortable.
[Laughs] That’s funny. I was playing with the [Lando Calrissian] toy. I always rip up napkins and scratch up my fingers and stuff, so I think it reads that way, but I had a totally fine time on that. I just was enjoying… playing with the toy.
There’s this moment during the interview where she springs a photo of you and a friend hanging out and splashes it on the big screen and your face goes white, and you seemed to just hate it.
[Laughs] That’s very, very funny. I don’t know how wrong you are about that moment!
Your and Donald Glover’s characters had fun chemistry in Solo — this homoerotic chemistry that nodded back to some of the ‘80s and ‘90s films I grew up with.
We had such a great thing from the beginning, and there’s a whole other movie to be made out of that footage. We had certain friends in common, he came out of UCB originally, and it was perfect because we’re the same height and these funny, competitive foils with each other. I just loved doing bits and improvising with him in some of those scenes. One of our bits was how hard it is to improvise within the Star Wars universe because you can’t reference anything! You have to reference a bleep-blorp or something and can’t reference any TV shows. The people that I got to work with on that, across both administrations, were incredible. There was Emilia [Clarke], and then the first season of [Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s] Fleabag had come out but the second hadn’t, and Atlanta was cresting as we were going into production, so it was a very creatively strong group of people.
When Solo underperformed was that a moment where you were worried about your career and what would be next for you?
No, I mean the opportunity was what it was and created this platform for the rest of my career. I took some time off after just because I’d been away for three years basically doing the movie. There’s this thing I read that came from an actor a long time ago that went, “The most important movie is always the next one.” I’ve been a part of things that are much less high-profile than that where I had huge expectations, and part of sustaining a life in this business is finding ways to navigate the relationship between the result and the work itself. The work itself is the thing, and when the thing comes out, no matter how well it does or how badly it does, it’s kind of a separate category. It wouldn’t be interesting if it was all just roses. Before that film, I’d already started trying to find ways to let go of what other people think about you. I see every movie I do alone in a theater first, and I stamp to myself what I think of that movie and have that be what I think of that movie — no matter what happens afterward.
A film like Beautiful Creatures appears to have undergone a cultural reassessment. It’s ten years later and people talk about that as something that was treated unfairly when it came out.
That’s interesting. I feel somewhat aware of that from people I’ve met over the years who are fans and really into it, and at the end of the day, people loving it and getting something from it is great and anything else, who cares? But Beautiful Creatures was another one where there were big expectations and then it didn’t do as well as they thought it would as far as box office. So, I’ve had different versions of that experience.
Well you’re in Oppenheimer, which is almost guaranteed to do well.
I’ve learned that nothing is guaranteed to do anything! You get a phone call on a Thursday and get a very different phone call on a Friday. You never fuckin’ know. You really never know.
What was it like to work with Christopher Nolan on Oppenheimer, and what can you tell me about it?
I can’t say a ton, but for me personally, the ones that mean the most to me — and I’ve had a ridiculous amount of experiences like this and feel so insanely lucky — are where I get to work with a great filmmaker and someone whose work I’ve really admired. It’s more about what it feels like on a day-to-day level because when you’re acting in something that’s being made by someone that everyone feels honored to be a part of, the quality of attention on the day that you’re shooting is completely different. You’re working with people who are inspired every morning, bringing their A-game and this level of focus where the playing of the game really gets good. The set that he ran was so pared-down — intentionally so — and he directed not only every single piece of the movie but the entire environment of the movie, down to which microphone cables he wanted to use to how the trailers were orchestrated. He was so on it. I wrote and directed a 15-minute film right after that and being around him gave me a ton of confidence to do that. It’s going to be playing at film festivals soon.
I was very impressed by your performance in Fair Play at Sundance — I think it’s your most layered turn yet. What attracted you to this complex examination of fragile masculinity?
My first film I did for Francis Ford Coppola, Tetro, was a very personal movie and it set the stage for me when it comes to being a part of personal films. That film [Fair Play] was really personal to Chloe Domont, the filmmaker, and I felt that from the moment we talked. To an extent, you’re aware of the themes and check in on the viewpoint of the film and then put that aside and forget that. You can’t really play a theme, and playing a character is like being tasked with a person’s life, and you have to treat that carefully. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are older and more experienced than I am, so it was fun to work with someone who felt like a peer — someone younger who’s just beginning that journey. She’s so talented, and the irresistible size of that part! We also both went to NYU and have somewhat similar backgrounds, so I understood the idiom of that movie and the kind of people she was talking about.
You also have Marvel’s Ironheart coming up. This is about ten years after you tested for Spider-Man, so what does it feel like to enter the superhero fold and what can you tell me about the series?
Wow, you’re right. Well, it’s so different than it was then because I’d never had any big-budget commercial experiences when I tested for Spider-Man. I can’t say a lot, but I really like the character I have to play and it’s this fascinating world within the MCU that centers this Black girl’s experience living in Chicago who’s dealing with a lot of trauma and psychological difficulty. They write her as a very complex person, and her journey and the Ironheart journey is very compelling. The showrunner, Chinaka Hodge, brought a lot of personal stuff into it. This was one of my first experiences being the slightly more experienced person among the cast, so it was fun to go into that commercial sandbox and do that.