People often don’t truly and intimately know even those they consider to be their closest friends until they make an unexpected tragic decision that painfully changes their outlook on life and their relationships. While they should have foreseen the heartbreaking choice the person made, particularly since their actions played a part in their judgment, the distressing result can often times be the only way people can reconnect and improve their bonds. This is certainly the case in the independent drama, ‘About Alex,’ which marks the feature film writing and directorial debuts of filmmaker Jesse Zwick.
‘About Alex’ follows the title character (Jason Ritter), a depressed and emotionally lost 20-something who feels so disconnected from his college friends who no longer have time for him that he attempts suicide. After he realizes that he truly wants to live, and checks into the hospital to save his life and help improve his mindset, his friends decide to take an impromptu trip to his isolated farmhouse in upstate New York to console him. While the group arrives to offer support and discuss the root of Alex’s troubles, the reunion turns into an outlet for the friends to reexamine old wounds and reevaluate their troubled relationships.
Alex’s group of seemingly concerned friends include tax attorney Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), who’s the most supportive on his road to recovery. While she exudes the strongest caretaking nature over the troubled Alex, she’s still contending with her long standing romantic feelings for banker Isaac (Max Minghella). But he surprises Sarah and the rest of the group by bringing his much-younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy) for the weekend. Kate is initially determined to make a good impression on the group, but quickly realizes there are unresolved conflicts and sexual tensions still lingering amongst the friends.
To help deal with her grief, Sarah once again has sex with Josh (Max Greenfield), who she initially connected with in college. But she soon realizes why she never developed feelings for him, as he obnoxiously states what he believes to be the truth, without concerning himself with the consequences.
Meanwhile, Siri (Maggie Grace), who’s facing a pregnancy scare with her college sweetheart Ben (Nate Parker), a writer who first found fame with a story in the New Yorker but is now suffering from writer’s block, is increasingly uncertain about their relationship. She turns to Alex to find solace in her life, particularly after he also stated he also felt insulted by how much Ben had been ignoring him recently.
Ritter, Levy and Grace generously took the time recently to give exclusive interviews for ‘About Alex.’ The actors discussed several key elements that are presented in ‘About Alex,’ including how the rift in close relationships can lead to heartbreak, as well as the struggles friends overcome together can help repair their relationships.
The profound experience the title character went through at the beginning of ‘About Alex,’ in the fact that “he decided to end it all, but it doesn’t happen,” attracted Ritter to the role of Alex. The actor described the filming of the movie’s opening scene, during which Alex attempted suicide, as intense. “I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people in my life, as well as all the people in the world who have either attempted, or succeeded with, suicide. I also couldn’t stop thinking about all the people who love those people,” Ritter emotionally stated.
The actor didn’t want to pretend like he knew what the experience and pain surrounding suicide was like. But he “really tried to get into the mindset of someone who sees the problems in their life as outweighing any potential solutions.”
Ritter added that Zwick was respectful of his acting the day they shot the pivotal suicide scene. The filmmaker allowed the actor to “walk around the house that day. Everyone was really quiet,” Ritter said. “I didn’t sleep the night before, as I wanted there to be a sense of exhaustion, in mind, body and soul,” the actor also explained.
“At that point, Alex feels as though he’s exhausted every other option in his life,” Ritter harrowingly stated. “So he’s calm about the situation, and isn’t weeping hysterically. This is a decision he made in a quiet moment, and he feels it will make the world a better place. That’s not healthy thinking. But I understand to go down that road of feeling like you’re more of a drag on the universe than an asset,” the actor revealed in an emotional moment.
“All his friends then show up, and are curious about what’s been going on through Alex’s head.” The actor welcomed the challenge of his character not revealing too much about his motivations to his friends, which he found intriguing and fascinating. Ritter also revealed that as he was reading Zwick’s screenplay and going through the group scenes, “I was really struck by (Alex’s) silence.”
The actor also mentioned there was a lot about the title character that was revealed in the story that he understood. “When he’s walking around, he feels like a raw nerve…he almost doesn’t have a protective layer, and that was intriguing to me,” Ritter added.
Levy’s interest in Zwick’s script was sparked because the story focused on, and was driven by, the realistic depiction of people’s relationships. “As an actor, you love movies that really have people talking, because you have a lot to explore,” she further explained.
“I was interested in playing Kate because she’s the outsider in this group of friends, which is almost like family,” Levy also revealed about the characters’ dynamic. “She’s very nervous to meet her boyfriend’s friends, and she really wants their approval and for them to like her,” the actress explained of her character’s feelings and motivations.
But Levy reveled in the fact that by the end of the film, Kate realized that she may have been the only person in the group who actually has her priorities straight. “Not that she thinks she’s above them, but she has a new perspective by the end of the movie,” the actress disclosed.
Levy also revealed that after Kate spent the weekend with Isaac and his friends, she isn’t sure where the couple will end up. “After flying home, it may take a couple days, weeks or even a month, but she’ll be like, ‘what the f*ck just happened?’ I’d like to think Isaac tells Kate about his weird moment with Sarah, and he realizes, ‘man, I should take this girl a little more seriously,'” the actress divulged about where she hopes the evolution between the couple will lead.
While the actress also hopes that Isaac will realize that he’s with this great person, Levy also wishes he’ll want to pay more attention to Kate. “I don’t think she needs to say it, and I think that’s how he feels after this weekend,” the actress added. “Or maybe Kate will find another great man. But next time, she’ll think, ‘I’m not going to worry if people are going to like me or not. I’m just going to be myself and happy to meet my boyfriend’s friends.”
Grace said she was drawn to play the role of Siri because “It was nice to play an introvert for a change. I also liked the nuance in the relationship with Ben.” The actress was also interested in working with Parker, as she feels he did excellent work in several of his previous films that she had seen him in.
Describing their working relationship as great, Grace added that she and Parker met with each other, even before they signed onto the film, “just to see who the other half of this couple was.” She thought that meeting was necessary, since Siri and Ben’s relationship was so important in the story. “I think we work in a very similar way. We laid a lot of ground work on what happened between these two people before the script began. So it was nice to feel like someone had my back in that way,” the actress added.
The actors also expressed their admiration for the new filmmaker. Ritter has previously worked with Zwick when he wrote a couple episodes of the comedic drama series the actor starred had a recurring role on, NBC’s ‘Parenthood.’ “Those episodes were some of my favorites, so I knew he was a talented writer. When I read this script, I was really excited and blown away by it,” Ritter said.
While Ritter added that you never know what’s going to happen when it comes to how a person delves into directing, but he said Zwick was “really amazing, calm and retained his poise when things would get a little hairy.” The actor also appreciated that the helmer was so “patient and thoughtful. All of his notes would really ignite your imagination.”
One of the director’s main qualities Ritter emphasized and appreciated was that “He also respected all of the actors, which was really nice. You would think it’s a no-brainer that everyone respects each other, but it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes they have an idea in their head, and they don’t want to move forward until you do what they imagined,” the actor explained. But Zwick allowed the actors time to develop their ideas about a scene if they needed it. Ritter added that he felt the filmmaker was “a real pleasure to work with, and I think he’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what movies he makes next.”
Levy described the experience of working with Zwick as lovely, as he was “really thoughtful and sensitive. He paid close attention to everyone individually. He also gave notes that were so helpful,” she said. The actress also expressed happiness that the helmer knew the characters well, and added “I think he’s got the right instincts. I appreciated all the work and thought he put into everyone’s performance.”
“I was struck by (Zwick’s) incredible way of relating to actors and his ideas for the film.” Grace said. She embraced the fact that he was prepared for each day of shooting on the set, and never saw the traits that can typically plague a first-time writer-director.
Zwick “was confident and easy to communicate with” on the set,” Grace added. “Working with him was surprisingly great. Sometimes writer-directors see things in such a particular way, as it’s their baby.” But she appreciated that the filmmaker had trust in the actors to bring their notes to the table. So working with the helmer “was a good dynamic. He’s definitely wiser than his years.”
Grace added that Zwick wasn’t so particular with keeping every exact word he wrote in the script in every scene. “Sometimes we would let us change things here and there, and people would suggest things and put in their own interpretations,” the actress added. “The only real improv was the occasional punch line here and there, and we would try different things to see what worked.”
The humor her co-stars brought to the set was something Grace appreciated. “There were some really funny people, like Aubrey Plaza, Max Greenfield and Jason Ritter, who were just great,” the actress said earnestly.
While the actors mainly stuck with saying the words Zwick had written, there were some times when they would “finish all the written dialogue in a scene, and Jesse wouldn’t say cut. So we would just riff on things for a little while,” Ritter said. While some of the actor’s improvised lines are in the final cut of the drama, “everything is pretty much as written. The script is really strong and beautiful, so none of us really wanted to mess with it.”
The cast also discussed aspects of their characters’ backstories and histories together before they began filming, and infused some of their ideas into the movie. “As long as we could justify elements of the characters’ pasts together, Jesse would allow us to come up with some of the more specific details about the characters and their different relationships,” Ritter explained.
“You can see my (character’s) relationship with Siri is much different than my relationship with Sarah. It’s not like we’re all just friends; Sarah also has a different relationship with Josh than she does with Isaac.” If the characters’ relationships “weren’t explicitly written down, we were allowed to make it our own,” Ritter added.
Ritter also revealed that one of the easiest and funniest part of preparing for his role of Alex was “getting to know everybody who was working (on the set). I also liked becoming friends with them, especially Nate, Aubrey, Max and Maggie, and Jane, too. But it was less important that we be close, because our characters didn’t have a history together, and they were just meeting each other over the weekend,” he explained about bonding with his co-stars. The actor added that the cast began to love each other while they were spending time together. “We did really end up caring a lot about each other,” Ritter said.
The also mentioned that he was able to feel Alex’s disconnect from his friends when the camera wasn’t rolling. During the first couple weeks on the set in Windham in Upstate New York, many of his co-stars would “go down into the city on the weekends. But I would just stay up there in Windham and feel the void and their absence.”
While Ritter noted that he’s not a total method actor, “there are times where I try to internally recreate similar things to what the character is going through.” That way he was able to have fun with the rest of the cast throughout the week they were shooting, and then look forward to seeing them again when they were away from the set. “They would be off having fun, and I would (be on the set) alone. There wasn’t a lot of cell service where I was, so one of the main things I did was embrace the isolation of being up there,” he emphasized about his approach to making Alex be emotionally separated from his friends.
Also pointing out there wasn’t much to do in the town of Windham when his co-stars would go back after spending time in New York City, “the actors would often hang out with each other,” Ritter said. “When we were all there, we would go see movies and karaoke bars. So there was a lot of bonding, which was great.”
While the cast would have fun when they were spending their free time together, “it also felt like it was homework. The movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe we all loved and spent time with each other,” Ritter explained as he further discussed the cast’s bonding time together. “For me, it’s impossible to create a history with someone you just met. If I don’t know anything about their sense of humor or what makes them upset, it’s really hard for me to pretend we’re best friends,” the actor also noted about the importance of getting to know his co-stars. “If we hang out, I can take even one night’s worth of stories and try to stretch that out. As weird as it was to be isolated by myself in the woods, once everyone was there, it was fantastic.”
Grace also pointed out that shooting ‘About Alex’ independently on location in an isolated house in upstate New York lent an authenticity to the characters’ at times strained, but still close, relationships. “We all shared this farmhouse, and we didn’t have cell service or trailers or dressing rooms, so we weren’t separated in any way,” she explained. “Luckily Jesse curated a group of people who were all very easy-going, kind and funny. We had a great time.” Levy echoed her co-star’s sentiment, saying “Being in this one location of the grassland definitely lent to us bonding.”
Levy added her and her co-stars had some rehearsal time together, and further bonded when they moved into the same compound on a ski mountain. “I actually lived in the same cabin as Aubrey. We had dinners and talked a lot about the script. We also talked about the characters’ histories and relationships that weren’t written,” she also explained.
But Levy also noted that everyone was happy and excited to be on the set, their natural bond also came from spending time together when they weren’t filming. Her and her co-stars would often do activities together, including dancing and swimming together in the lakes of the surrounding areas.
But when the cast was shooting, they would spend very long hours on set. Zwick would film the seven actors with one camera, in which “you can get up to take 100 of the same scene,” Grace said with a laugh. That process allowed her and her co-stars to get to know each other well, which helped infuse a sense of believability, community and ease between the characters.
While the isolated nature in which ‘About Alex’ was shot helped bring the actors closer together while they were filming, the drama also powerfully explores the way social media has affected people’s relationships and ability to connect with each other when they’re apart. “Technology can have a positive impact on our lives, but it’s still really new. We still haven’t learned how to really integrate with it,” Grace said.
The actors all agreed that the effect social media has on people’s relationships can spark a long and detailed debate, particularly in how everyone now relates to each other. “We’re all still evolutionarily wired to still need face time and intimacy, and we still need to be touched,” Grace relayed as she further explained her thoughts on how technology is shaping people’s interactions.
“I think a lot of people feel the way Alex does in the film, in that a lot of friendships have become superficial. People feel as though they’re still in touch, but are only in contact on social media,” Grace also mentioned. She thinks people can eventually feel as though they’re isolated through this continuous contact, but social media doesn’t allow them to be vulnerable.
Alex’s attempted suicide is in part driven by his growing sense of detachment from the people who have cared for him for the past 10 years since they started college. But with his feelings of despair, the friends have finally found a valid and serious reason to reignite their relationships.
“I think they’re struggling on how to catch up to where he’s at,” Grace explained of the group’s reunion and determination to help Alex. “But there’s so much that has been left unsaid for so long, it’s hard at times to reconnect.” While Kate is meeting Alex for the first time during the group’s stay at his house, her experience as a worker at a San Francisco suicide helpline aided her in understanding his motives and actions.
Also agreeing with Grace’s sentiment that social media can increase a person’s feelings of isolation, which is what the title character began contending with prior to the events in the film, Levy said she has complex feelings about technology. She explained that she has mixed ideas about whether it’s good or bad.
“People who use (technology) as their main source of communication can be a little shallow in their relationships. You’re not tending to your relationships in the way that you should if you’re only texting with your friends, or only looking at their Facebook pages to get updates on their lives,” Levy said. The actress does value using email to stay in touch, as she views it as the technological equivalent of sending a letter.
Ritter also agreed that one of the things that drew him to Zwick’s script was the exploration of how social media affects friendships. “It’s something I think a lot about. I am certainly a participant in social media, and certainly enjoy it,” he explained about his own use of such websites as Facebook and Twitter.
But the actor’s always approached social media “with protective wear on. There’s a false of intimacy, as you can think you’re closer to someone than you are, because you have an online relationship.” He added that he thinks social networking is great for people who are already friends, and have moved away from each other, or don’t have as much time to spend together.
“Even though it is a great way to keep in touch, it doesn’t take the place of a phone call or an in-person meet-up. That’s where the danger is-people start to substitute their relationships for social media,” Ritter cautioned. “The only way Facebook and Twitter and these sites work is as a supplement to the main friendship. Social media can’t be all that relationships are.”
But the actors had a fun and exciting experience together when they reunited in April for the world premiere of ‘About Alex’ at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The group had fun in part because of the warm and welcoming reception they received from audiences who attended the drama’s screenings.
“It was great to shoot the film in New York and have it premiere there,” Grace said of her experience of attending the festival. “It was great to have a lot of the people who worked on the film participate in the premiere. I was really thrilled to have the movie premiere at Tribeca,” she added.
Ritter added that the audiences who attended ‘About Alex’s screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival “really seemed to enjoy (the movie). It was really great to see their reactions.” The screenings held meaning for the actor, as he saw the movie for the first time at the festival.
“It was really nice to hear the audience laughing so much throughout (the film),” Ritter added. “Jesse made sure he put it in the script that while the suicide attempt attempt is the center of the story, it’s not a somber, dark tale all the way through. If he did, no one would make it through the entire film. So there was a lot of humor in it.” The actor also noted it was great to see how well the movie played with audiences, and they found moments where they thought, “that’s worth a chuckle!” He added that loves New York, and liked the fact the movie was shot in the state. “So Tribeca felt like a perfect festival to debut at.”
With the great bonding and involvement the cast had together while filming ‘About Alex,’ Levy said she’s interested in working with the rest of the cast and Zwick again. “While I’m not the biggest fan of sequels, there are some classic movies where you just can’t wait to see the characters again,” the actress explained.
Grace said she has “a hunch I’ll be working with some of these people again. I definitely appreciated this experience, and I developed some creative relationships I’m sure will continue,” she added about the people she worked with, who she called special.
Written by: Karen Benardello