Q&A with the Young Stars of ‘Alpha Dog’
Special to Hollywood.com
Justin Timberlake had quite the year in 2006. From bringing ‘Sexy Back’ to starting his own clothing line, the ex-‘N SYNC group member had quite a lot to smile about. Now he adds yet another title to his impressive career: Dramatic Actor. Timberlake rounds out a group of young and talented cast members in the Alpha Dog, a movie that depicts three fateful days when the lives of a group of Southern California teenagers had changed forever. Inspired by true events, the film is based on the real-life story of Jesse James Hollywood, who at the age of 20, became one of the youngest people to ever appear on the FBI’s “”Most Wanted”” list.
Alpha Dog’s powerful ensemble cast includes Timberlake, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin, and Hollywood.com catches up with the film’s young stars to discuss their riveting new film.
Hollywood.Com: Justin, was it a risky career move to portray a morally ‘repulsive’ character for your big-screen debut?
Justin Timberlake:: [Pauses] I don’t think the point was for the characters to be ‘repulsive’. I think the point was just to show the truth of what was happening within the story. We had so much [to accomplish], we had laid so much groundwork, all of us, as actors, there was so much information on the characters and I felt–all of us felt, morally responsible for portraying that. I don’t think it’s stretching a statement at all to say that this is a tough movie to watch. This is as close to what happened as we felt that we could make it. As far as the repulse, you’ll have to talk to the director about that. Because [Nick Cassavetes] definitely wanted to push that. My only stipulation for the movie was that I just wanted to crack a couple of jokes here and there. That was it.
Hollywood.Com: What led you to the film?
Justin Timberlake:: I think for me it was attractive to sort of just be involved with great actors and a great director–and great material.
Hollywood.Com: How do you feel about your movie career versus your music career?
Justin Timberlake:: Well, I guess we’ll just have to see. I haven’t thought that far.
Shawn Hatosy: Wait, you have a music career?
Justin Timberlake:: I know. I’m sort of a struggling musician. I’ll give you my demo.
Hollywood.Com: Can you discuss the differences between producing music and acting in a feature film?
Justin Timberlake:: There are lots of differences. In creating music you are the writer, the director the producer. You create it from scratch. Obviously when playing a role in a film, you take guidance and you put your trust into the director and the writer. I find it even more collaborative especially with a [clear ensemble] project like this. You come into it and you really trust the people you are in front of the camera with, which was very easy. I can’t put into words about how amazing the other four actors are here. I was like a sponge the whole film just watching all of them. Well except for maybe Emile [Laughs]–just kidding. But you sort of feel like you are playing a position on a team. ‘Okay, today we need you to play small forward. We don’t need you to point front guard.’ It is probably the closest analogy–a really crappy analogy–but that’s the closet one I can think of off the top of my head: you play a role, and you’re part of a collaborative movement. And obviously with creating music, you are solely responsible for the ‘creation’ of it. But to wrap your mind around those two things, you definitely approach it differently.
Hollywood.Com: How did you all prepare for your roles?
SH: Nick made us all get together in [doing physical] training, actually. So that was helpful kind of to get to know each other. Because these characters grew up together, they played sports together, they did everything together so the opportunity to work out, and spend like two months prior to shooting, worked.
Justin Timberlake:: It was nothing short of boot camp.
Emile Hirsch: There is one really funny story though, where we had to weight-lift and stuff, and I got it in my mind because I was the youngest one, “”Yeah, I’m going to make a statement through this work out.”” And we were doing these exercises where we had these two-and-a-half-pound weights–but we were doing this thing [makes exercise motions with his hands] like a thousand times–until your arms were dying. And so I showed up and told Frankie, because he was kind of training us , ‘We’re doing this. We’re moving on to five [pounds]!’ And Shawn looks at me, and he’s like, “”Dude, no! No! “” And I’m like “”Yeah.”” And man, I killed myself lifting this five. As soon as I did, Frankie was like, “”You did it. You did it. Everyone’s doing five!”” And so we all had to do five, and it was torture.
Justin Timberlake:: Yeah, you made some enemies that day.
Hollywood.Com: Did you talk to any of your counterparts in real life to prepare for the film? Do you know anybody in your lives who reminded you of these characters?
Justin Timberlake:: Well, I don’t know that I know anyone growing up who’s specifically like this. But I think you know as an actor it’s your job to find ‘the relative’ to play a character. I think you can latch on to some things that might have happened to you as a kid. I think all of us can–kids are cruel. I know I speak for myself. And Nick and I, we traveled to upstate Cali to go to prison to visit the guy that my character was based on. Literally, when we signed up for the project, we got a stack of files. Literally, like, a novel of files of all the police reports and newspaper reports about what had happened. I know that Nick was able to really get a lot of information. And we all really just trusted him with that; we just signed up to portray the truth of what happened.
Anton Yelchin: I don’t think it’s that difficult to find similar characters because it’s a relative apathy, in general, that just pervades society. These guys–they just took it to a different level, you know? With carelessness, or whatever it was. They’re just apathetic. You find that everywhere. It seems shocking when you watch it like, how did this happen? But it’s not really when you think about it. It’s not hard to find people not caring. It happens all over the world.
EH: I never met Jesse James Hollywood. He was sort of on-the-run at that time. But his dad was on set almost everyday. And he told a lot interesting stories, and he definitely wanted to get across that he loves his son, and he’s like, ‘My kid is a good,’ and it’s complicated talking to a father about his son like that. Because you don’t want to say, ‘Oh my god, get away from me, you monster!’ You have to be understanding and reasonable, and kind of deal with it.
AY: Well you know that obviously I didn’t meet him [Laughs]. But the weird thing is that when you watch the film, kind of like Justin said, the terrible feeling you get at the end of the film is because you liked the characters for the first-half of it. When I watched the film I thought these are cool guys and I wouldn’t mind spending time with them. And the more you like them, the more you either feel guilty or uncomfortable with yourself for liking them. It’s normal. You just sort of spent an hour liking them, and then you spend the next 45 minutes being shown what you had affection for. And it’s terrible. When I saw it I didn’t really know what to do with myself. And I knew everything. Like you want to like these people, but there’s just no way that you can. It’s almost like a paradox.
Hollywood.Com: One of the brilliant parts of the movie is when director Nick Cassavetes decides to label all of the witnesses and suspects in the story.
Justin Timberlake:: You know interestingly enough when we screened the film at Sundance–and I think when you see it without an audience, you don’t see things like this coming–literally when the witness credit would kind of come up, people would giggle. I think that you watch it as those kids, as those characters watched it happened. That’s what I think is sort of special about the film. No one saw that [crime] happening, and I think that is sort of the point.
Hollywood.Com: Did you meet any of the witnesses of the crime?
AY: There was actually a guy at Sundance who was friends with all these guys.
Justin Timberlake:: I found, just [filming] around Los Angeles and outside of it, people would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing that movie on the Jesse James and Nick Markowitz thing right?’ And they would always label it like that, and I would say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And they would say, ‘Yeah, I knew that guy, I knew Jesse James Hollywood.’ It was like everybody knew somebody who knew him. It actually helped when we were making the film to hear those kinds of things because you realize how young people spread [things] and converse with each other–and you can tell that, of the people that came up to you, half of them knew nothing about it. All they knew was that he was kidnapped and murdered. But they would always be like, ‘Yeah, I knew him.’ And I found it interesting that through his infamy, he became this weird sort of tall tale to these young people who are in some weird way wanting to be involved with it.
Hollywood.Com: Were you able to talk to your character’s parents in real life?
AY: No, I didn’t have that opportunity. But probably one of the most depressing things I’ve seen was this website that they created, dedicated to their kid. They wrote letters about him. And I looked through that and it was another one of those things I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The only person I really felt clear about was the kid himself–because I don’t really know how much you can blame the family. How much you can feel bad for them? You read these letters that the mother wrote to her son and how she misses him and she’s lost him and she sees him everyday. And he’s this angel. And it’s just heartbreaking. But at the same time she drove him away just as much as she loved him. And it’s really hard to handle. It’s one of those things that you want to point fingers at everybody but you can’t’ All you can do is hope that you’re not going to be as selfish.
Hollywood.Com: Have you considered that in making this film, you are somehow commenting on violence in the rap subculture?
Justin Timberlake:: Yeah, I find that any conversation I have with anyone after they’ve seen this film is sort of like this group therapy discussion. And rightfully so. I think it’s all in there. Yes, we are entertainers but this is’what I like about the film, that it doesn’t treat you like a dumb ass, so to speak. It lets you feel what really happened. I find that 100 percent of the people that I know, like friends I’ve brought to screenings, they have to speak about the film–they have to talk it through.
Ben Foster: It’s a violent culture and this is not a film about how rap is making white kids pull triggers. It’s a vacuum of culture. It’s prioritizing things that don’t actually have value. The idea of fast cars, and a fast lifestyle and @#%$ is not solely rap. It’s a hollowness of the culture. We’ve always had violence in our society and this is nothing new. I don’t think it’s getting worse because we have it, it’s because we don’t have the moral guidelines to guide us along, to process these images and bases of entertainment. I just wanted to say, it’s not an attack about rap.
Justin Timberlake:: I think it’s a short change on the film to say that rap music created this. That’s not what happened.
BF: We’ve always had violent films. Be it lions attacking gladiators. We’ve always had a form of violent entertainment. People are drawn to that. There is just a vacuum right now. I mean teens know this film. This isn’t like an education. We, young people, know this lifestyle. It’s not an exaggeration. This is what it is, and I think that’s what drew all of us into participating, because the script is so authentic.
Hollywood.Com: Authentic because it’s grounded in reality?
BF: Nick did such an authentic job of documenting and interviewing, and spending time with kids in these sequences. When you watch it, it feels legit. I was shocked. I grew up in Southern California–I know these guys. And the fact that [the situation] escalated was a lack of guidance. And it’s not movies, and it’s not video games–and it’s certainly not hip-hop.
Hollywood.Com: Obviously this is an emotionally charged film. Can you talk about what was most emotionally challenging for you?
AY: [Smiling] The pool scene was quite challenging for me. For me personally, I did a lot of preparation for it.
Justin Timberlake:: The pool scene was challenging for all of us to watch because we weren’t in it. That was just not fair.
SH: [Pauses] It was crazy driving Anton’s character up the hill up to the final scene and actually doing it–walking him up the hill. It’s one thing to do it as an actor, but it’s a whole other thing to realize that it [the murder] happened. I remember going through it and thinking, ‘Gosh, this really happened?! People walking by them could have stopped it.’
BF: It took a long time to cool down after this project. Probably [the scene with Sharon Stone]. When she is really missing her boy, and she doesn’t know how to deal with that and starts hitting Jake. The hits are real, and that’s a lot of pain to absorb. And I got a fantastic bloody nose from it! [Laughs] So that was the most physically challenging.
Justin Timberlake:: For me personally the hilltop scene wasn’t the most challenging, because I could relate it’it’s like when so many times you might’ve been intoxicated, and something happens and all of a sudden you are not in control of the situation. The most difficult scene for me, though, was the scene with Shawn and I, when we were sitting at the hotel sort of on the steps and he’s talking me through why all of this sh*t happened [and why we must murder Anton’s character]–and for my character to accept that; that was the toughest scene for me to wrap my mind around. I think that for me to get through that scene, I just had to accept that his decision was based, solely, on fear. When you are afraid of the moment, either you don’t take control of the situation, like you don’t do the right thing or you let the wrong thing happen–and by doing that, you don’t do the right thing. So, that was probably the toughest scene for me to wrap my mind around.
Hollywood.Com: What’s the message you hope moviegoers come away with after seeing the movie?
SH: I think the theme that we are [messaging] though is that there were a lot of parents who were witnesses to it, and could have done something; so it’s good for young people to see and it’s also good for parents to see it. Because these kids were misguided in every sense. Even the love that Jack Hollywood had for his son was misguided.
EH: I think it’s a good cautionary tale in a sense because you got this kind of party lifestyle world and you get that like this is “oh so crazy”, and that there is a certain glorification of that. But, the glorification is just a red herring. It’s just part of the sell. That’s the hook that gets you. Then it kind of hits you over the head with reality. And that’s what a lot of this stuff is. A lot of the violence in the media, a lot of the music we listen to today. there’s the whole myth and when the myth is confronted with the actual reality of acting anything like it out in real life, it kind of shatters the myth. And that’s what Alpha Dog does, so I think it’s even more important for young people to see this, because as much as every kid may love rap or really violent music or violent video games, it’s good for them to get a healthy dose of reality so that they don’t think that it [the tale] is going to end, riding off into the sunset on a horse, with no cops around. It’s good to see consequences.