Interview: ‘Chronicle’ Star Alex Russell on Flying, Found Footage, ‘Almost Kings’
CHICAGO – Australian actor Alex Russell has a penchant for exploring the darker sides of the teenage psyche. He made his film debut as a loathsome bully in Ben C. Lucas’ “Wasted on the Young,” before landing a lead role in Josh Trank’s surprise hit, “Chronicle,” about three teens who suddenly acquire superpowers and are excited by the dangerous magnitude of their mysterious abilities.
The dynamic between high school buddies Matt (Russell), Andrew (Dane DeHaan) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) feels wholly authentic, and Trank finds ingenious ways of fusing in-camera effects with the naturalistic visual style inherent in the found footage genre. Chicagoans who missed the film during its initial theatrical run this year will be able to catch it at midnight June 8th and June 9th at the Music Box Theatre.
Russell’s second film, “Almost Kings,” will be released June 12th courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures, and features an ensemble loaded with remarkable talent. Director/co-writer Philip G. Flores centers his film on a cult-like group of teen males who refer to themselves as, “The Kings.” These are the sort of guys who compete against one another to see how many freshmen girls they can bed during one semester. One of the “Kings,” Truck (Alex Frost of “Elephant”), reluctantly initiates his younger brother, Ted (Lorenzo James Henrie of “Star Trek”), into the group, which also includes the playful yet pushy Hass (Russell). Hollywood Chicago spoke with Russell about mastering an American accent, being the target of high school bullies, and the tricky task of balancing acting with flying.
HollywoodChicago.com: Has it been a challenge to make the move from Australia to America?
Alex Russell: It was definitely a big challenge getting over here. Even just getting a work visa was a really, really tough milestone. When I got that at the beginning of January last year, it was like a dream come true. It had been a long battle. More than anything, it’s just a long trek from home. Home is that much further away when you’re down and out and things aren’t going as planned. And then, obviously, 99 percent of what you’re acting in requires an American accent.
Alex Russell stars in Josh Trank’s Chronicle.
Photo credit: Alan Markfield - TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
HollywoodChicago.com: How were you able to master the accent?
Russell: Just a lot of practice. I’ve been practicing it for years now. Even before I came here, I was sending my audition tapes to the United States for a long time. I’ve really enjoyed doing accents. I like to create characters that are very different from myself, and the accents are a big part of that. Getting the rhythm of the language is the biggest challenge because you can have everything down perfectly—you can make your vowels the perfect shape—but it’s not going to work if you don’t have the right colloquialisms that come with it. I can thank all of my American friends for that last ten percent. [laughs] When I go into an audition, I’ll start speaking in an American accent. I might pick up food from a café beforehand, and it will take me a half hour to an hour to get to where I’m going. Before I leave to go to the café, I’m speaking in the American accent.
HollywoodChicago.com: Why are you attracted to exploring the dark side of adolescence?
Russell: What makes adolescence interesting to explore is how dark and confusing that time is. In “Wasted on the Young,” I play Zack, who’s a really bad apple. He’s about as bad as they get. He’s a special kind of bully, he manipulates people psychologically. When I was in high school, I was on the other end of that stick. I had a crappy time in high school. I was an outcast for a lot of it. The last years got a little bit better, but I had a tough time. I was “the fat kid,” and all sorts of wonderful clichés like that. So it was actually really interesting for me to explore something that I lived through. In “Wasted on the Young,” I was acting out what I had observed as a kid.
HollywoodChicago.com: Did you find yourself connecting with the human side of these bullying types while playing them?
Russell: Yeah, I absolutely did, moreso in a film like “Almost Kings” than in “Wasted on the Young.” Zack is so bad that there are almost no redeeming qualities in him. Usually that doesn’t work in a film, but somehow the way that Ben Lucas wrote the script, you’re still interested in his character and want to watch what happens to him. But still, I found things that I could connect with as a human being. In “Almost Kings,” they were a little more evident. Though Hass’ actions are very questionable and I don’t condone what he does, he’s still loyal to his friends. He sees them as his brothers. He’s loyal like a dog, he wants to make everyone around him happy and spread positive energy, so there are a lot of redeeming characteristics that you can find when you enter their world through their eyes.
Adam Cagley, Alex Russell, Lorenzo James Henrie, Alex Frost and Guy Wilson star in Philip G. Flores’ Almost Kings.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures
HollywoodChicago.com: Had you done any research into the peculiar group dynamic of these guys, and their method of logging sexual partners?
Russell: We didn’t do any specific research, we just took on the mindset of those characters. Their viewpoint is that it’s cool and hilarious. They’re super-comfortable with everyone in their group, and have a loose, unpredictable, almost dangerous group dynamic. They want to spread a fun distraction throughout the school with these freshman girls. Anything bad that we did felt good because we’re in a group of guys that are cheering each other on.
HollywoodChicago.com: You get a sense that these guys are operating from a place of insecurity and are, in a way, more insecure than many of the people outside of their group.
Russell: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of why people do these things in life, but it’s more of subconscious thing. As an actor, I knew that and then I let it go because people who are like that bury their [insecurities]. It’s part of my subconscious, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it.
HollywoodChicago.com: One of the saddest characters in the film is Reggie (played by Adam Cagley), with whom you have a rather contradictory relationship.
Russell: To me, Reggie is like the brother that I’m embarrassed about. I still take care of him and I still defend him, but he’s not quite there. We’re using him. Reggie’s wealthy and he has a big house where we can have parties. There’s still a camaraderie there, but I don’t really consider him a brother. The reason that they hang out is a shallow one. When Hass goes to Reggie’s defense after Zach puts the cherries in Reggie’s bag, he beats the crap out of Zach because he sees it as a slight on the whole group rather than on Reggie.
HollywoodChicago.com: Was it challenging to perform some of the film’s more brutal scenes with a young actor like Lorenzo?
Russell: Lorenzo was 15 or 16 when we shot the film, but he was very mature for his age. By the time we got to those grueling scenes, we were already a fair way into the shoot and had already established a rapport amongst all of us. When those scenes came up, we’d be goofing around with him and creating a friendly environment on the set. If there wasn’t a lot of time in between takes, we’d just respect each person’s personal process, especially for scenes that were more strenuous emotionally. We just made sure that we were taking care of each other, so we didn’t run into any issues. If anything, I would expect the girls to have a more difficult time with their scenes, but the girls expressed that, “the guys were all so sweet and respectful.” It’s a bit lame that I’m now quoting this. [laughs] During all the film’s challenging scenes, I felt that everyone was very professional.
Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell star in Josh Trank’s Chronicle.
Photo credit: Diyah Pera - TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
HollywoodChicago.com: On “Chronicle,” how did you develop a rapport with your co-stars?
Russell: Josh Trank and our producer Adam Schroeder put us in a house in Cape Town for almost two weeks during pre-production. We all lived together and hung out drinking wine, eating at local places and checking out the town. We bonded on X-Box video games and had a great time, so by the time we got to our first day of shooting, the rapport was already there.
HollywoodChicago.com: Were the special effects difficult to work with, particularly within the boundaries of a found footage film?
Russell: Oh yeah, hugely. For one thing, doing a found footage film is challenging enough. I found it hard to look at the camera because it kept bringing me back to the fact that I’m on a film set. It makes it even harder to imagine that the whole crew isn’t there looking right at you. It’s much more of a strain on the imagination and it takes a little bit of extra focus. You’ll also have scenes that are three minutes long with no cuts to hide behind, so your consistency has to be ace. You need to feel like you’ve hit every beat and yet feel super-naturalistic and relaxed in that environment. Combining that with the special effects was a massive challenge.
There’s a scene where I arrive in Andrew’s bedroom and we have a big argument. At the end of the scene, I fly out the window, and that was all done in-camera. I had ropes attached to me during the whole scene, and that is a very challenging scene emotionally. It’s the point of no return for Andrew and I, and we both get fired up during the scene. The next time we see each other is when we’re hundreds of feet in the air outside the space needle. It’s a big scene for an actor, so it was quite tricky doing it with four ropes hanging out of my back and a harness that was creeping up my nether regions. [laughs] That proved to be quite uncomfortable at times and it was a challenge to focus past that. Obviously, they erased the ropes in post. I was so impressed by all of the effects.
HollywoodChicago.com: Andrew inspires warring emotions within viewers. On on hand, he’s enormously sympathetic, and on the other hand, he gradually inhabits the role of “the villain.”
Russell: But he’s not a villain. He’s a kid who’s been given nothing but a beating his whole life. Andrew’s been given nothing but negative energy and he’s felt nothing but suppression. He’s just a person who’s had power taken away from him his whole life, and then he’s suddenly had power put into his hands in surplus. He never meant for any of it to happen. I believe what Matt says in the film: “[Andrew’s] a good person with a good heart at a terrible time in his life.” I’ve been at a place where I’ve felt that much hate and had that much of a negative viewpoint when I was young kid, maybe younger than Andrew. I would like to think that I wouldn’t do what Andrew did, [laughs] but I thank god that I had good parenting and that I didn’t have telekinesis. There’s a real sadness in regards to how good Andrew is deep down. I think Andrew is also affected by the powers in a way that Mark and Steve haven’t been yet. There’s an unexplained ambiguity to Andrew’s actions that goes further than his home life and his emotional insecurities.
Almost Kings will be released on DVD June 12th.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures
HollywoodChicago.com: How much freedom did you have to improvise?
Russell: We had freedom within boundaries, but you’d be surprised by how much of the final product is true to the script, probably 90 percent. Max Landis wrote extremely naturalistic, free flowing dialogue with lots of “likes” and “ums” and ellipses in the precise places to allow you to speak as you would [unscripted]. He’s a great writer and we didn’t feel the need to change it. But knowing that we had the freedom to not have to stick to every word and piece of punctuation as if it were Chekhov, made it even easier to feel comfortable and naturalistic. Coincidentally, when we’d look back at the script, it would be exactly what we did anyway.
HollywoodChicago.com: What’s up next for you?
Russell: I’m shooting Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie” for MGM and Screen Gems…oddly enough, after “Chronicle.” [laughs]