Alden Ehrenreich on Bad Southern Accents, Good Rope Tricks, and the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hail, Caesar!’
In Hail, Caesar!, the new comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, Alden Ehrenreich accomplishes a seemingly impossible task: He steals a movie from a cast that includes Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and two Tilda Swintons. (She plays twins.) Amidst that incredible array of talent, it’s Ehrenreich who emerges as the film’s breakout star, and shares (with Fiennes) its funniest scene, in which a Hollywood director (Fiennes) desperately tries to coax a believable Mid-Atlantic accent out of Ehrenreich’s dopey cowboy, Hobie Doyle. This extended riff, which was already heavily featured in the Hail, Caesar! trailer, is an instant classic from the Coen brothers, and will almost certainly go down in history as one of the best scenes of their entire career.
At just 26 years old, Ehrenreich’s already worked with a list of great directors that would make any actor jealous. Along with the Coens, he’s also worked for Woody Allen (in 2013’s Blue Jasmine), Park Chan-wook (on Stoker), and Frances Ford Coppola — twice (starring Coppola’s 2009 Tetro was Ehrenreich’s big break; the two partnered again a few years later on Twixt). Ehrenreich’s had a few other starring roles, but his work in Hail, Caesar! as the sweetly simple Hobie is his finest performance yet. ScreenCrush spoke with Ehrenrech on the phone from Los Angeles about his preparations for Hobie’s cowboy rope tricks (and his hilariously thick country bumpkin accent), his favorite Coen brothers movie, and how he feels about hearing “Would that it were so simple?” quoted back to him every day for the rest of his life.
What’s harder: Lasso tricks or the Southern accent?
The thing with the Southern accent is the Coens really wrote that into the lines. They put a lot of the pronunciations and the rhythms in there. And I’d actually done [a Southern accent] before. So I’d say the trick roping.
How much preparation went into the trick roping?
We had a guy whose dad and him used to do a routine together. His name’s Cliff McLaughlin, and his dad is a really famous trick roping guy, and they have a place. So I would just drive up to their place and hang out at the house. It was great.
I’m curious what kind of research you did for this character. Did you find — or the Coens give you — any specific models for Hobie?
Certainly Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey and all those kinds of singing cowboys, which is a somewhat forgotten genre, but was really huge at that time.
Have you ever met any Hobie-esque figures in your own travels in Hollywood?
It’s a testament to the Coens — there would be certain turns of phrase in the writing, and then I’d be working with the wranglers for the horse stuff, and these guys would say something and it would be a phrase that the Coens had written into the script. It was really authentic in that way. I discovered that while we were shooting; it was actually pretty eerie to hear.
They’ve made Westerns before [like True Grit (2010)]. I wonder if they’d picked up the lingo hanging around those guys.
Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking.
So you have to be careful when you’re around the Coens, because they’re always listening and you could become fodder for a future script.
[laughs] Right, yeah, totally.
What do you perceive as the biggest differences of the Hollywood of the Hail, Caesar! era and the Hollywood of today?
The actors of that time, they had a certain kind of stability as far as work. The studio would put them in films on a regular basis, and you were under contract. There was job security in a way that doesn’t really exist anymore. Now at the same time, you would have to do a bunch of movies that were really low level and that you probably wouldn’t like doing. So those are the pros and cons that were clearest to me while we were working; how much people would really have a home at a studio, and then that studio would shepherd their career. Today you’re going to a different world to a different world to a different world in every job you do.
Is that contract player system appealing to you as an actor? Do you think you would be successful in that era?
I think it would be frustrating having to do things you wouldn’t want to do, having to make movies you didn’t like. Although that sometimes turned out well; I heard a story about how Clark Gable really didn’t want to do It Happened One Night, and then was sort of forced into it as a way of punishing him. And it became one of the biggest films of his career. But yeah, [on the one hand] it is appealing because you’d get to work on a more regular basis, and try different things. [On the other hand] it would be pretty frustrating to suddenly be thrown into a musical, and you didn’t know how to sing, which would happen to people!
Or you get put in a movie where you can’t do the accent.
You really see the limitations of it all in this movie.
Are you a big Coen brothers fan?
What’s the most underrated Coen brothers movie?
[pause] My favorite one ... it’s hard to pick a favorite. But the one I really love a lot is A Serious Man. I just love, love A Serious Man.
There’s an interesting parallel between that and Hail, Caesar! in the religious components of both movies. You have a lot of characters searching for God and wrestling with their personal beliefs and how those beliefs are reflected in the world around them.
The Coens seem to be working through some existential angst lately in their work. Is that something they talked to you about at all as you’re preparing for the movie?
No, they don’t go into that kind of thing. The conversations are really just about the scenes. That kind of stuff they’ve always famously played it close to the vest. But I think that’s what’s really special about their body of work. They’ve been able to get these super-challenging themes and questions into their movies, because the movies are also so entertaining.
They smuggle that interesting stuff in between the jokes.
Right and so there’s movies that are super popular, and that everyone can enjoy, and then on a second viewing or with further consideration you start to see these things in the films that are working on a deeper level.
So what sort of directions do the Coens give you then?
It’s really simple and straightforward directions. They really understand all the characters they write, that’s why it’s such a pleasure to work for them. So when they give you a direction, you can feel that their understanding of your part is so thorough.
Are you prepared for people to say “Would that it were so simple” to you for the rest of your life?
[laughs] You’re the first person to ask me that! It’s already happened a little bit. Yeah, I think so. I think I’m prepared.
It’s a pretty good cross to bear, because it’s an amazing scene. What did it look like in the script? Is it word-for-word what we see onscreen? Or was there improvisation involved?
It wasn’t word-for-word, because there was a little bit of playing around. I’d say like 90 percent of it was in the writing. It’s such a joy when you get writing that great, and it’s such a pleasure to act it. It was also my audition scene for the movie.
So when you read it, do you know right away that it’s going to be a classic scene?
I mean, my experience of reading it was just laughing so hard. I have a friend of mine who was reading it with me, and we were just cracking up because it’s so funny. It’s so funny on the page, it makes your job really easy.
What did you think when you saw that trailer for the movie, where that scene is like the entire thing?
Yeah that was pretty crazy. That was a really surreal moment for sure. I was just glad they liked it and that it came out well, because when you have piece of writing like that, you just want to live up to how good it is on the page.
Hail, Caesar! opens in theaters on Friday.