Alex Wolff auditioned for the role of a 19-year-old kid who was heavily influenced by hip-hop and constantly tried to impress his older brother. Only when he Googled the name Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did he make the connection that he was auditioning for the role of one of the two the Boston Marathon bombers in “Patriots Day.”
“When I got the script, they very smartly did not specify the role of the Boston Marathon bomber in the description,” the actor told TheWrap about Peter Berg’s fact-based drama. “They just described him as a 19-year-old kid, hip-hop influenced, cocky and desperately trying to please his brother as a radical Islamist. I was like, I can totally take this on. When I looked up the name, it was the Boston Marathon bomber.”
Wolff added that when the explosions went off during the Boston Marathon in 2013, many people told him that he looked like Tsarnaev, who was identified as the one of the bombers along with his brother Tamerlan.
“When he came on the Rolling Stone cover, it was shocking for my parents, because we looked so similar especially with the look he was giving and the chin hair and even the shirt he was wearing — I had one like that,” he said. “I knew in the back of my mind, if they are going to make a movie about this, I might be at least considered.”
But when he was actually given the part, there was a lot of hesitation from him and his family. He’s the son of jazz pianist Michael Wolff and former “thirtysomething” star Polly Draper, and the brother of “The Fault in Our Stars” actor Nat Wolff (with whom he starred for three seasons on Nickelodeon’s “Naked Brothers Band”).
“My first thought was, ‘No way, I’m not going to do this,’ even though I’m ‘right for it,'” Alex Wolff said. “My mom was like, ‘No way, I’m not going to let you be seen in this light.’ There was a lot of hesitation, but I ended up thinking about first of all being part of history and telling a story. If I didn’t play this role, someone else will do it and it might be out of the character, and he wouldn’t get into who he is and he maybe wouldn’t see the vulnerabilities that I did of trying to please his older brother. I thought, better me than anybody else.”
Plus, the film was shaping up to be a high-profile movie with a starry cast led by Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan. Themo Melikidze plays Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Instead of approaching the character as a terrorist, Wolff said he tried to tap into certain, less violent personality traits to understand Tsarnaev. “I didn’t play a terrorist, I played what I thought was more true, the parts that I understood about him. I couldn’t hurt anybody — I’m a tall, skinny dork, I can’t get myself there,” he said.
“So I thought, if I couldn’t do what this guy did, let me see some personality traits I can try to tap into. I have this overwhelming need to please my brother, Nat, so that’s a real way in. Then I thought about the place I grew up, the kid who wanted to be this tough, hip kid, who was really someone else, who was really insecure about his own masculinity. I just got into the hip-hop thing so I knew that guy … Sure enough, I started to have a three-dimensional, real person.”
To prepare for the role, Wolff read Tsarnaev’s Twitter feed and started to memorize each individual tweet, and also watched a video of Tsarnaev being “chillingly sweet” to his niece over and over again. But the one thing he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — do was meet Tsarnaev in person.
“Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to,” he said. “He doesn’t deserve that. I wanted to develop my own character. If I did meet with him, there would be so much hate, there would be no way I could talk to him. I had to disconnect myself from him in order to play him.”
That disconnect between the sweet kid on videos and his violent actions on marathon day were part of what intrigued the actor. “I found it really interesting that someone who could appear so lovable could be so dark and disturbed inside,” Wolff said.
The actor said the most difficult scene to shoot was one in which a young police officer gets killed during the manhunt. “There is something about looking a man in the eye and watching him getting murdered, trying to grab his gun while he was dying,” Wolff said. “That was really cold-blooded and a pretty savage, horrible thing to do.”
Wolff recently wrapped production on next year’s “Jumanji” reboot co-starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart. Wolff told TheWrap that he agreed with Johnson’s description of the movie being a “continuation” of the franchise, not a reboot: “It’s not even close to a remake,” Wolff said.
“Patriots Day” opens in limited release on December 21, before hitting theaters nationwide on January 13.