As Hollywood continues its quest for the next Twilight/Harry Potter/Hunger Games franchise sensation, it’s also continuing its laudable practice of (usually) seeking out genuinely talented young actors to personify young adult lit heroes and heroines.
This week’s offering is Beautiful Creatures, based on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s YA supernatural romance.
The 2009 novel, the first in the four-book Caster Chronicles series, focuses on Ethan, a literature-loving young man yearning to escape his small South Carolina town. Ethan falls for Lena, a mysterious newcomer whose family’s local history is cloaked in Southern Gothic rumors–rumors, it turns out, that are not just the product of wild Evangelical paranoia: Lena and her family are in fact witches… er, “Casters.”
The film adaptation is from writer-director Richard LaGravenese who’s scripted his share of literary minded films, including The Fisher King, Water for Elephants, Beloved, The Horse Whisperer, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Bridges of Madison County, and A Little Princess.
But LaGravenese’s best move in Beautiful Creatures is his casting of two young on-screen talents: Alice Englert (from this winter’s indie film Ginger & Rosa, and the daughter of directors Jane Campion and Colin Englert) as Lena, and Alden Ehrenreich (Francis Coppola’s experimental films Teatro and Twixt, and the upcoming thriller Stoker) as Ethan. The film also features Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Emmy Rossum.
A couple other writers and I sat down with the delightfully charming Englert and Ehrenreich a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about Beautiful Creatures, doing Southern accents when you’re from Australia and Los Angeles, the usual “Byronic assholes” male protagonists in young-adult romances, and the idea of introducing teenage girls to the poetry of Charles Bukowski.
Beautiful Creatures is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Alice Englert: We didn’t want to audition at first, because we had just read the brief and not the script. The script made all the difference. Richard LaGravenese saw me in an audition I did for a different film, where I improvised a speech about an anorexic girl while holding an apple, which I kept passing back and forth. So he, from that, went, “Oh, yeah, ‘witch.’ Let’s do it.”
And then I was like “No, no.” But when I actually got the script, I loved it and wanted to do it. But I was afraid of the word “studio.” I thought that they would want me to play it in an appealing, certain way, and didn’t want to do that — I wanted her to be a horrible, unappealing person, that no one wants to connect to at all. And Richard was like, “Great!”
Alden Ehrenreich: I’ll be doing something with my friends where we’ll write parts for each other, and sometimes you come across a line in a script that just fits, and you could say it all day, and you just get it. I think it has to do with understanding the point of view of the character. It’s like having chemistry with somebody.
And when I read the script, I just felt that. I just got it. I got what Richard’s point of view on the character was, and I sort of knew that I had a take on it that was in line with where his head was at about it. After I left, I just was like, “You never know.” Sometimes I’ve walked out of interviews and said, “That was it,” and not gotten it. That happens a lot.
Englert: You always have feelings like, “This is it!” And then… “no.”
Ehrenreich: Isn’t that more realistic, though? I don’t really know much myself about this genre, but the authors are very involved in it, and they said that in these young adult books, the guys were always these cold, aloof, impenetrable kind of jerks to the girls, and the girls were always intimidated. So they wanted to write a story that had a guy character who was literate, and polite, and nice, and a good guy, basically. It’s written for the girls who look at these stories for their models for their kinds of boyfriends, the 13-year-olds.
The males are usually these Byronic assholes.
Englert: They only write the books about the one-in-a-million jerks who are hiding a lovely, soft soul. [Laughs.] I loved the character of Ethan because he was a character that was not just a good guy–he’s got flaws, he’s a real guy, that’s what I liked about him. What I think was so important in this supernatural story was to have someone who is really human, like a real, flawed, full-on, feeling human being who desired and wanted things. People ask me what attracted to me character was the way she feels about Ethan, because I could understand that, I could believe that. And go with that.
Ehrenreich: Great alliteration.
Englert: Heh, I know. I’ve been wanting to work that one in all day.
Englert: I wanted to play away from any magical thing, because I think the special effects do enough of that.
Ehrenreich: To me, that’s one of the things that are special about the story. It starts off about what is a witch?, what is a caster?, and then transitions to her, because she wants to be a normal person. It’s almost like Ethan doesn’t fit into this town of small-minded people, and she doesn’t fit in this caster role because she’s more of a real person. And it becomes an investigation of what it means to be a normal person. What does it mean to be a human being? That’s what the title is about. That’s explicit in the book.
Englert: Yeah, a line that got cut from the movie. [Laughs]
Ehrenreich: That beautiful creatures are just people, because people are so foolishly hopeful.
What fascinated the most you about the Southern way of life in America?
Englert: I think the culture’s real acceptance of the supernatural is key. When we were shooting Ravenwood Manor exteriors in New Orleans, I tongue-in-cheek asked the housekeeper if there were any ghosts. She went, “Oh yeah, we have one. He just stands up in that room. He loves Western music.” And I’m, wow, I’m having a conversation about the Civil War ghost that lives in your house.
Ehrenreich: That story was like a Lenny Bruce routine. You were doing all the character voices.
Englert: I haven’t even done the Civil War guy yet!
Ehrenreich: For me, the cool thing was I felt like my character was written as an update or comment on the Southern gentleman. I had a lot of fun playing around with that, and Lena even has that line, “You’re just oozing charm.”
Englert: Drooling it. The line is, “Drooling charm.” “Oozing” makes it sound like you have an infection. Though “drooling”’s not that great, either.
Ehrenreich: Having this story where I get to play this classic figure in American mythology was cool of the Southern gentleman, “come over here, Scarlett” kind of thing, but it gets picked apart as he learns his way out of that. The film takes the position that he’s so drawn to how she’s not covered in any kind of veneer, how open and direct and honest she is. ([Pointing to Englert] Good casting! [Laughs]) That draws him to her, so he learns his way out of the Southern charm, so later in the film when he explodes and shows how he really feels in the more angry scenes, that’s the under arc to my character. It’s subtle, but that’s hopefully in there.
How was it finding and doing the accents correctly?
Englert: As an Australian, we have to learn accents, always. It’s so much a part of rehearsal, and doing a character, that it is not such a strange thing to have to deal with. But it is always a huge struggle, and then it just happens. Learning an accent is a very full-on thing. It’s the way your mouth moves, and the whole way you present yourself changes.
Ehrenreich: When I watch some of the movie, I have never looked like that. My face doesn’t work that way. The accent activated something in me that I would have never consciously done. But we had a dialect coach named Rick Lipton who was so amazing. He really taught us not only how to do the accents, but why people talk like that in the South—he taught us about Southern culture. If you’d ask him, “How do I say this?” he’d say, “Well, why are you saying it in that moment?”
Englert: The other thing that I think was great is that the accent is so much about the manners, and the intonation. I had to move my whole voice higher—that was really hard for me, because I’m usually like… [mumble-mumbles in a low voice].
Ethan surrounds himself with a lot of very interesting, distinct, mature books. Vonnegut, Burroughs, and especially Bukowski.
Englert: It’s so funny. We’re going to have all these young girls reading Bukowski. In the movie my character gives his character a Bukowski book, and he’s reading the only sweet poem in there! All the rest is like, “I threw up in a sombrero after I ate five dollars worth of hash at the diner…”
Ehrenreich: We were doing scenes where I was reading the Bukowski book, and they were shooting over my shoulder, and I had to make sure it wasn’t open to a page that was all filled with like, “C**t, c**t, c**t.”
For a movie set in the South, there wasn’t any Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor. It was all outsider fiction.
Ehrenreich: It was all about being away from this town. Ethan has that map in his room where little pictures of the covers of the books he loves are posted on the cities where they take place. So it’s all about him exploring through the literature this life that he can’t have yet.
Englert: So much. My god! Seriously, I don’t know what kind of an actor I would be had I not been my mother’s daughter. So much of the way she works has influenced me. It’s so bizarre for me to imagine not having that in my life.
The first thing she ever actually said to me was when I was doing a school play when I was 10, and my teacher had been saying, “Emphasize this word!” And I would be reading my speeches in the car going, “Daaa daaa DAAAA daa da.” And my mom was like, “Look, no, just say it. Breathe when you need to breathe, because it will just happen anyway–what’s interesting will happen anyway.”
This is a school kid’s play, and she’s saying, “The action will happen organically. Just say the words without trying to push the meaning, the words have enough meaning already.” And I’m like, “No, mom! She’s the school teacher! She told me to emphasize it!” And my mother turns to me, this little 10-year-old, and says, “Well, I’m a film director!” And that was it. It was like Moses or something.