Meet Alex Russell. Well, actually there’s a chance you have already met this young actor as he does have a pair of shorts and features on his resume, but his upcoming release, Chronicle, is most certainly of a higher power.
The film begins from Andrew’s (Dane DeHaan) perspective, as he recently decides it’s time to pick up a camera and document his daily life. Russell comes in as Matt, Andrew’s cousin and the guy responsible for keeping Andrew from completely falling off the social ladder. Matt’s not a big fan of Andrew’s new hobby, but the camera comes in handy when Andrew, Matt and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) stumble upon a mysterious hole in the woods during a party and even more so when their little adventure leaves them with incredible superpowers.
Who doesn’t dream of acquiring superpowers? Well, seeing as that’s impossible, the next best thing is to get to play a superhero on the big screen. Sure, the stunts and movie magic were a blast for Russell, but while chatting Chronicle with him, he seems to have appreciated working with such talented and passionate filmmakers more than anything. Check out everything Russell had to say about landing his role, working with director Josh Trank and more in the interview below and be sure to catch Chronicle in theaters this weekend.
Can you tell me a little about your background? IMDb tells me you’ve got a couple of shorts and features under your belt.
Alex Russell: Yeah, that’s basically it. [Laughs] I grew up in a small town called Rockhampton, which is only about 60,000 people or maybe 80,000 people, and I was doing community theater and stuff and it was my first year out of school, I just did more of that and I worked at my local hospital and I didn’t really get a real crack into my career. And then, in my second year out of school, I went to a drama school called NIDA in Sydney and I went there for three years and they like to talk about that they educated Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson and Judy Davis and those kind of guys. So I finished there and ever since then I’ve just been chipping away, kind of working sporadically, but feeling very privileged with the projects that I did actually get to be involved in and then Chronicle’s come along and, yeah, it’s kind of the biggest surprise that I’ve gotten to come into. It’s kind of the biggest journey I’ve undertaken so far.
So you went in to audition for this?
Oh yeah. I auditioned many many many long hours, [laughs] but nothing I’d take back. I am more than thrilled to have been able to be part of that experience. Whilst it was a very long process, it was incredible. I’m working with Josh Trank, the director, in the room and Dane DeHaan had already been cast as Andrew; everyone was just collaborating and having such great artistic input and it was such a great hub of artistic activity and excitement in the room and Dane was acting. He was so giving and so generous in the room. He already had the job and then for me to be doing my audition, he was acting as though he was on set doing the shoot. He was so generous. I was really set up to succeed and I thought to myself, if I don’t get this job, I’m happy just to have gone through this process and worked with these artist and then I got the job, and that’s even better. But it was great fun. But it was very long, probably almost 10 hours of auditioning.
But you got the job! So how’d you celebrate?
I celebrated like a madman for about a week, [laughs] because I still had a couple weeks before I was due in Cape Town, so I celebrated like a madman for about five days with my best friends and just had a great time. And then I went back to Sydney for a couple days and saw my best friends and family there and had an amazing time and then went off and shot the film. To have received that phone call, it was just the most incredible thing. I had been doing pilot season and I’d test for probably six or seven pilots and I just got really close each time and didn’t get any of them, and then this came at the end of that. I found out, Josh Trank left me a voicemail because he couldn’t get in touch with me, and the voicemail it said, ‘Alex, congratulations sir,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I hit the roof.
Did you have that moment where you’re all happy, but then you think, ‘Oh man, how am I going to pull this off?’
Oh, absolutely. I was very stiff and worried about it and overthinking it, all that kind of crazy actor stuff that actors do, and I was doing that for maybe the first week of the shoot and then I really relaxed into it after that. But Josh was great as a director. He’s great anyway because he’s got an amazing vision and he knows how to execute this idea that’s been with him for so long and is so clear in his mind how to get that across to everyone else. Also, working with actors, it can be a delicate thing and with me, because I want so badly to deliver and to feel like I’m meeting the requirements of the role and to be doing justice to the story and wanting to do everything for everyone else, I can get a little down on myself. I can get in my own head a bit and Josh was great at shaking me out of that and pointing me in the right direction again. That kind of story is very naturalistic dialogue, it’s found footage, it needs to be really free, you know? And if you’re not free and loose and feeling confident, then you can’t do that. And so Josh would get me out of my head, make me feel confident. He came to me and said a few times through the shoot, ‘I won’t let you fall,’ and he looked me dead in the eye and just said that and it just kind of instills confidence.
You say you need to be free for a found footage film, but at the same time I imagine blocking here can wind up being a bit restricting. How’d you work that part in?
It’s a funny thing; people see it and go, ‘It looks natural,’ and like there’s just someone holding the video camera in there, but every single shot there was the DOP and there was the camera operator behind the camera and three people holding the cord and maneuvering that around and carrying all the camera gear and the lighting department. Everything that’s there in a traditional filming sense was there for our film, but then you also have to have, if I’m being filmed, Dane DeHaan is behind the camera for eye line, taking to me, and basically hugging the camera operator and moving as one. And then you have to make the whole scene have a real fluidity, but you’re still having to hit marks and hit beats and you’re still having to work with wire work and special effects and everything that could potentially make a performance stilted so I think it’s a tribute to the actors in the film and to the director and everybody to have made it look that naturalistic when there are so many elements that need to come together that could potentially hinder that naturalism.
How’d you adapt to all the wirework and CGI? Do you have a good imagination for those moments?
The wirework stuff, basically we had to do a lot of training for that. They gave us a personal trainer and it was all about strengthening our core, getting really strong at the core, and then when we got up there, we realized what they meant. You’re up there for a long time, you’re in a harness, there’s two pivot points that are the points where you’re being held from with the wires, and you need to be moving around in all different directions and it’s difficult, and you need to make it look like it’s easy and that you’re just floating there rather than that you’re having to use your muscles to strike certain positions. So that was very tiring, but also very exhilarating. It was amazing being on location and doing it. So many of the things weren’t green screen. Many of them were downtown cape Town, eight, ten stories up in the air. That was a wild ride. And then as far as the rest of the special effects are concerned, there was a great attitude and motto, I guess, amongst all the key creators that we were gonna make this film as practical as possible with the effects and avoid CG as much as we could. Often if there was something moving they would trying and have something actually hanging from some kind of special effects rig to give us something to work with. As an actor, that’s a dream come true. Practical first and then CG later if the practical effect doesn’t work or CG to improve on the practical effect, I just think it’s so great they went that way rather than just getting all CG.
I heard that might have gone a bit too far. Michael told me he hit you with a baseball!
He did! And, look, to be really honest, it’s not an actual baseball, when they hit me in the face, but it’s still a ball. It still has some solidarity and density and weight to it. The thing is, that set up, that whole gag, the idea from the beginning was, we’re gonna do a shot where you get hit in the face and we’re gonna use this practical ball and hopefully we’ll get enough shots where Michael can actually hit you in the face and then all the other shots after that where the ball is maneuvered around in unexpected trajectories with telekinesis, that was all mimes. So we would go, Alex will mime throw on this count and then MBJ will snap his head back on this count. You know, like when the balls are changing paths midair? All that stuff, there was no ball. But with the first shot, Michael throwing it and it just hitting me in the face, that was like, let’s see how it goes practically and then we might have to put CG in later. They never had to do any CG. Michael B. Jordan has the best aim I have ever seen! He hit me in the face every single take. We did that take like 16 times, he hit me in the face every single time, [laughs] and I think once when we weren’t even shooting.
A lot of the powers look like a blast on screen, but in real life, what was the most fun to shoot?
The most fun thing I got to do was the wirework. To be so high, to be hanging from these wires and to be looking up – it was incredible; I’m thinking about it now and it’s surreal. I wish I could be doing it right now. I hope I get to do it again in my career. It is like the most incredible view. You look down, there is nothing below you. There is nothing you see you’re standing on. It’s just like if you drop, there is no question, you’re dead. And you look up, there are these wires that seem incredibly thin, [laughs] and they’re attached to a crane that’s moving you around on certain flight paths according to a computer program that begins with a press of the button from the person operating that machinery. It was just all that trust and everything else and just as soon as you embraced it and just let go of the fear, it was just absolutely exhilarating. I wish I could be doing it right now.
You’ll have to go skydiving or bungee jumping next.
I think I need something to be able to up the ante after that experience, you know? [Laughs]
Speaking of upping the ante, we see our fair share of found footage films and superhero movies. Were you guys considering that while you were shooting and how you’d make something different?
We all knew that it was a unique take on both genres and that it was a combination of both genres and that it was very special and that it was unlike anything we had ever read. Obviously until you see it, you don’t know. Now that we’ve seen it, we’re very proud to have been a part of it because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. But from the script, from the very beginning it was all very clear that it was a found footage film about these guys that get superpowers and we were like, ‘How come no one has ever thought of this before?’ Like, ‘Thank gosh Josh was sitting on his couch one day and that it came to him because this is amazing,’ as we’re shooting it. We knew that it was special. You never know how it’s gonna come together. You don’t know how it’s gonna edit, you don’t know what it’s gonna look like afterwards, but we knew that the idea was unique and genius and so we were all just stoked to have gotten to have been a part of it.
I think you should be, and I also think with this coming out, doors are certainly going to open for you. So, what’s on your plate now? Anything coming up?
I hope so. [Laughs] Look, I have nothing locked in at the moment. I have a couple projects on the – I don’t really wanna say them because then if they don’t come to fruition, I’ll feel like an idiot. [Laughs] but I am an actor, I love working, I hope that more doors, as you say, hopefully they will open and I’m interested in seeing how the year’s gonna pan out. I just want to keep focused and I’m just ready to work hard this year. I’ll say that much!