It doesn’t take long for Alden Ehrenreich to acknowledge the Millennium Falcon in the room. The actor spent much of 2019 working on an expensive TV adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with the Welsh countryside doubling for the desolate, dystopian wastelands of the future. Other than Demi Moore, who plays his mother, Ehrenreich was the only American on set. “It was useful though,” he explains over the phone from his home in LA. “I’m playing an outsider, and I felt like an outsider. Although I was used to that by then, I had…” He pauses, hesitates a little. “I did a job for about a year and a half in the UK right before...”
That job was Solo: A Star Wars Story, the ill-fated Han Solo origin tale, which was predominantly shot in London and looked set to propel him into Hollywood’s big league, but didn’t. Essentially playing a young Harrison Ford, Ehrenreich had the unenviable task of quasi-imitating one of the most famous performances in film history, as well as anchoring a Star Wars spin-off at a time when franchise fatigue was beginning to set in. The film had a difficult production. Its original directors departed midway through filming, there were reports (denied by all parties) that an acting coach was recruited to fine-tune Ehrenreich’s performance on set, and the film underperformed at the box office. Then Ehrenreich disappeared. Two years later, Solo seems to be something the actor only wants to vaguely gesture to, and certainly not reference by name.
He’s surprisingly upbeat, though. Ehrenreich, who is 30, can be very funny, as proven when he stole the show in the Coen Brothers’ 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar! as a frightfully vacant young movie star unable to utter the line: “Would that it were so simple.” He has a brooding, squinty darkness to him, too. He’s a cigarette-drag-behind-the-bike-sheds of a movie star, best when playing haunted young men or abject monsters – Cate Blanchett’s neglected son in Blue Jasmine or the high-school boy whose good looks concealed his sadism and cruelty in Stoker.
Ehrenreich’s character in Brave New World, a new adaptation of Huxley’s seminal sci-fi chiller, exists on the more heroic end of the spectrum. He is John, a resident of The Savage Lands, a hellish, rusty underside to the serene utopia of New London. The latter is a world of rigid social order and instant happy pills, where monogamy is banned and violence is unheard of. An unexpected turn of events leads John to take up residence in New London, where he at first indulges in its pleasures, then kick-starts a revolution.
The show is certainly attention-grabbing. Characters partake in endless, elaborately choreographed orgies that look like Caligula by way of a Zumba class; they are dressed in condom-coloured ensembles straight out of a Yeezy fashion show; and the rich tour poverty-stricken neighbourhoods that have been transformed into literal amusement parks. Often, Brave New World takes the uglier urges of humanity and nudges them into the obscene and terrifying.
“Huxley really knew how to talk about our instincts, and where they might lead us,” Ehrenreich explains. “The show is set in a world without discomfort, but it leaves you with this question of, ‘Do we want what we think we want?’ After a certain point, is there too much of a good thing? Does it then become a kind of deadening thing?”
Ehrenreich is still pondering it all. He also admits that the themes of the show have become more “acute” in the wake of the coronavirus, the death of George Floyd and the ever-worsening political climate. With that in mind, though, it’s hard not to watch the show in 2020 and wonder, in a very guilty sense, if there’s something almost desirable about taking a pill and becoming numb to the world.
“I think one of the tasks for all of us right now is to sit with the discomfort,” Ehrenreich counters. “We’re experiencing all of these paradigm shifts and these conventions breaking down. But instead of running to an easier sense of certainty somewhere else, or escaping entirely, we really need to stay and live inside of it. The best thing I can do in this moment is continue to take it all in and stay in that uncomfortable space.”
He notes that he is aware of his privilege and good fortune, which makes sense considering his very Hollywood backstory. The son of an LA-based interior designer and an accountant, Ehrenreich was discovered at a classmate’s bar mitzvah, where a comedy skit he made with friends caught the eye of one of the party’s guests: Steven Spielberg. The filmmaker connected him with an agent and Ehrenreich would then act intermittently through high school. His film work has been charmed, too. Francis Ford Coppola cast him in what would become his feature debut, 2009’s Tetro, and he would find a mentor in Warren Beatty, who directed him in the fizzy 2016 romcom Rules Don’t Apply. The fact that Ehrenreich’s strongest industry allies are very old men isn’t lost on him.
“I grew up feeling much more of a creative belonging with films of the Seventies,” he explains. “My family always watched old movies, and I was always much more in awe of those filmmakers – like Warren, or Coppola, Scorsese, John Cassavetes. So when I got to meet some of them, I just felt like they were my people, even though by the point I started working they were all in their early seventies or late sixties. I’ve always felt a kinship to things a little wilder and more unconventional.”
Ehrenreich has seemed a bit out of a time as a result. He’s made few films set in the present day, instead at ease in the far-flung future or, in two of his movies, Fifties Hollywood. It’s a quality reflected in his personal life, too. He’s not on social media, barely uses the internet, and doesn’t own a smartphone. Considering how oddly controversial so much of his filmography is, it might have been a blessing. There’s been the noise surrounding Solo, of course, but also the lawsuits that engulfed Rules Don’t Apply (investors claimed its terrible box office takings were the fault of the studio poorly promoting it), and literally everything that’s occurred with Woody Allen since Blue Jasmine.
“I’m certainly aware of it all, but I think I’m less aware of it than I would be if I were actively engaging with the internet,” Ehrenreich says of that noise. “I’m also more broadly wary and sceptical of ingesting a view of the world, whether it’s about a film I did or about just the world in general, through the way the internet functions. We’re constantly absorbing this information that’s really designed to keep us paying attention all the time. So they have to reframe all their narratives to make them as flashy as possible, and you end up feeling like that’s what the world is – it’s always the most dramatic take on everything that happened.”
Which brings us to The Film That Shall Not Be Named. There’s been a tension in the air about it during his Brave New World press tour, or at least a noticeable nonchalance whenever he’s been asked for his thoughts on Baby Yoda. Is the noisiest of all of Ehrenreich’s past work a taboo subject?
“Oh no!” Ehrenreich laughs. “Not at all! I mean, this is part of the drill. I know. I get it. I’m assuming you’re talking about...” He trails off, still hesitating to actually say its title. “Well, you know... you go.”
Solo. Where does he stand on it now? “It’s not a huge part of my life anymore,” he admits. “But my sense is that there was a really clear disconnect between the way it was really received and then the stories that came out about it. That we had a troubled production or whatever. And it’s not really a story that the movie did totally fine. It didn’t make a billion dollars but it did fine and people liked it – but that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is: ‘This is the biggest movie of all time and it was absolutely a disaster’.
“I knew, no matter what happened, that I was putting myself in a situation where people would be saying things about me. But honestly, that whole experience felt like this huge, high-seas adventure.”
He’s suddenly struggling to hold back giggles.
“Even the low points, like the whole drama of it. It’s so not consequential ultimately, and I always kind of dreamed of that. Like even the fact that we’re talking about this is exactly the kind of life I wanted when I was a kid, you know? To be an actor and be in movies and living the ups and downs. It’s not interesting if there aren’t those lows.”
He thinks back to Beatty, who will forever be remembered as a legend and not for the box office disasters he’s weathered. “When somebody’s at the end of their career, all people talk about are the successes, and not all the ones that flop,” Ehrenreich says. “I’ve certainly felt in over my head before, and overwhelmed in many different junctures but... I remember Dustin Hoffman saying in some interview that ‘it all felt like failure at the time’. And it’s true. But you use it, and you deepen, and you get better.”
Brave New World begins 2 October on Sky One