Effortlessly drawing viewers into the dark world of addiction, while also making them care about the self-destructive main characters, can often be a humbling challenge for filmmakers. That’s certainly the case for actor Alex Wolff’s new drama, ‘Castle in the Ground,’ for which the cast and crew built a compelling intimacy that’s set against the backdrop of the modern opioid crisis in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
The powerful grief film was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker, Joey Klein, who easily connected with his cast, as he’s also an actor himself. The feature opens today On Demand, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures, after it premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
‘Castle in the Ground’ follows 19-year-old Henry Fine (Wolff) as he decides to defer starting college until his ailing single mother, Rebecca (Neve Campbell), has overcome her life-threatening cancer, despite her objections. While the teen acts as his mother’s caregiver, she initially hides the fact that she has relapsed from him. Henry doesn’t take the news that his mother’s chances of recovery have diminished well, which makes him decide to end his relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel (Star Slade), as she prepares to leave for college.
To deal with his pain, Henry complies with Rebecca’s instance that she combine her medications to help ease her pain, despite her pharmacist’s warning not to take them together. The fatal result of the combination makes the teen blame himself for her death, which leads him to pursue Ana (Imogen Poots), his neighbor across the hall from him in his apartment building. After officially meeting at the pharmacy, they begin to spend time together, and she reveals to him that she’s staying in a relative’s apartment while she’s in a recovery program for opioid addiction.
However, after struggling to refill her methadone prescription, Ana turns to her dealer, Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist), to take the edge off. After Henry witnesses a masked intruder who steals Polo Boy’s supply of Oxy. Henry becomes even more enthralled in Ana’s life when she descents back into the world of illegal drugs, partially due to her friends Jimmy (Tom Cullen) and Stevie’s (Kiowa Gordon) involvement in the pill theft. Along with Henry’s growing reliance on the remainder of his mother’s prescriptions to deal with the pain of her death, he and Ana become increasingly dependent on each other in their respective fights for survival.
Wolff generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Castle in the Ground’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the performer discussed how he felt Klein had a specific vision that set the drama apart from other movies about young adults who are grappling with drug addiction. The actor also discussed how the filmmaker encouraged the cast to infuse their roles with their own ideas during production, to help build their characters’ arcs throughout the story.
The conversation with Wolff began with the performer revealing what drew him to play the character of Henry in ‘Castle in the Ground.’ “I was sent the script when I was making ‘Jumanji(: The Next Level).’ I was using a certain set of muscles doing this funny movie with Danny DeVito, and improvising and having big, hearty laughs,” Wolff shared.
“I then read the script (for ‘Castle in the Ground’), and it disturbed and moved me in equal measure,” the actor admitted. “So I thought a lot about how this type of movie would even be made. I knew the director, Joey, would need a really specific, serious vision, in order to set this movie apart from other films about addiction, and young people spiraling out of control. So I fell in love with Joey’s vision and the whole story.”
Wolff then delved into what kind of preparation and research he did before production began on the drama, in order to better understand Henry’s motivations and emotions. “I lost a lot of weight. I also watched a lot of documentaries about people who are dealing with this type of addiction. Even after just a few days, they start to become emaciated and withdrawn in the eyes; they usually have a sunken in look in their eyes,” he revealed.
“The documentaries show that these opioid addicts are usually young, so I wanted to achieve that look. I had to get to that point as quickly as I could, because I only had a few weeks to prepare,” the performer added. He then professed that “I became addicted to the process of changing myself, almost to the point of unhealthiness; at certain points, it was unhealthy to be doing what I was doing. But I think that really helped me stay ferocious, and also have a lot of energy, while at the same time being worn out and exhausted. That’s a very specific thing that can only work for Henry.”
With Klein writing and directing the movie, Wolff cherished his working relationship with the filmmaker, and explained what their collaboration process was like as they developed the actor’s character of Henry. “Joey’s just the best, and we became really close. I think it was a learning relationship for both of us. He needed a lot of trust from me, and I needed a lot of trust from him, in order to make this film work,” the performer confessed.
“That just changed the way I look at making movies. This one was almost like a page out of his journal. So I had to trust him, and the more I had faith in what he was doing, the more I could have faith in what I was doing,” Wolff added.
The actor then shared that Klein encouraged his cast to bring their own ideas into building their characters. “In my opinion, this movie was the most changed one, from script to final product, that I’ve ever done. We really worked out a lot of stuff throughout filming. I think it was a great script, but it became a different movie as we were making it, and for the better,” he shared. “I felt that Joey was making these really deep, smart and sometimes sacrificial decisions, and that takes a really valiant director.”
With ‘Castle in the Ground’ co-starring a diverse cast that includes Poots and Campbell, Wolff enjoyed the process of working with them. “Imogen and Neve are geniuses, and so is Tom Cullen. I felt like I was surrounded by this amazing company. I had most of my scenes with Neve and Imogen, and they both stepped up to the plate,” he explained.
With the drama being set and filmed in Sudbury, the performer also appreciated the process of shooting on location. “The locations seriously affected the entire shoot. It was really freezing up there in Sudbury, but it was the kind of cold that’s different up in Canada. But it was also sunny, so I felt that combination created a perfect allegory for the movie, as there were a lot of sunny moments in the story,” he shared. “We were laughing and having a lot of fun, even when the characters are really high…which was really deep.”
As Henry befriends Ana, he becomes engulfed in a world of addiction and violence, as the opioid epidemic takes hold of their small town. Wolff then delved into what the process of creating the physicality for his character was like as the duo fights the drug cartel to protect themselves.
“I think what Henry was experiencing was similar to what I was going through from sleep deprivation and the malnutrition that came from barely eating. I was chain smoking throughout the shoot, and trying to do everything I could to feel the mania,” the actor admitted. “There’s a theme in the movie where I’m discovering where two things are happening at the same time. I was working to give myself a lot of energy, but I was also exhausted. There are a lot of moments in the film where things are sweet and tender, but are also so ugly and dark.”
With ‘Castle in the Ground’ now being available On Demand, Wolff reflected on his time promoting the drama at TIFF last summer. “Toronto is my favorite festival that I’ve ever been to, by far. I enjoyed Toronto so much, and had three movies playing at the festival, so I felt like I was really being welcomed into that world. It’s one of those things that I look back on, and don’t know if I’ll ever an experience that exhilarating, exciting and fun again; it was incredible,” he admitted.