PTSD on the set

PTSD on the set

“Hereditary” actor burdened with dark remembrance from time on set

When an artist becomes too invested in the craft, it can consume the mind. So is the tale of Alex Wolff, an actor with post-traumatic stress disorder from his lead role in A24’s latest horror film, “Hereditary.” Wolff’s character, Peter, is a disengaged teenager that toes the line between masochism and innocence in the face abysmal despair. Peter’s wretched fate is to be expected, but not Wolff’s; for the post-production symptoms he describes having are concerning to say the least.

In an interview with Vice, Wolff said that the nerve-racking production left him in a “raw and volatile state.” Furthermore, he described having fits with memory loss, as he couldn’t remember shooting some of the film’s most iconic horror scenes, not to mention the post-production flashbacks he has experienced regularly. Much like his character, Wolff isn’t letting this torment consume him, but he is aware of its presence and mindful of its gravity.

For anyone who hasn’t seen “Hereditary,” it will go down in history as an “Exorcist”-esque family drama that wheels through perpetual grief and satanic rituals only to leave the audience with a black hole where their soul once was by the time the ending credits roll. In the film, every character either ends up decapitated or possessed in some way. To say that the cast had to embody a level of darkness for their role is putting it lightly. Even watching the movie is emotionally taxing, as it is a two hour cinematic dance with one of the eight kings of Hell.

“It’s hard to describe eloquently, it’s just a feeling,” Wolff said in his interview. “I don’t think you can go through something like this and not have some sort of PTSD afterwards.”

Although vague at first, Wolff’s statement makes sense after seeing what his character goes through in the film. To omit the main spoilers, Peter’s torment in “Hereditary” is, in some ways, relatable to Frodo Baggins’s plight in “The Lord of the Rings,” if, instead, Frodo fell into the pit of Mount Doom and watched Middle-Earth turn to darkness as he slowly burned alive rather than returning home to the Shire at the trilogy’s end.

Wolff, a rising star on the silver screen, is widely known for his role in “The Naked Brothers Band,” a Nickelodeon musical-show that he starred in as a child in the early 2000s. Then for his recent acts in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Patriots Day,” where he proved his acting prowess as an adult. But Wolff’s most recent performance in “Hereditary” sheds light on the darkness he is willing to embody for a serious acting career, as his dedication to the role required some weighty preparation tactics.

In discussing the film and the repercussions it had on his psyche, Wolff revealed that some of the movie’s disturbing scenarios haunted him during the filming process and is still doing so today. But Wolff does not shy away from the abyss, instead he sees it as a petrol for an acting career.

“When I started talking about it, all these flashes with all this disturbing sh*t I went through sorta came back in a flood.” Wolff said, “It kept me up at night to where I got into a habit of emotional masochism at that point of just trying to take in every negative feeling I could draw from.”

Wolff described the darkness he forced upon himself in order to tap into the role of Peter. He described it as sitting on a furnace: rather than abandoning the pain, he would sit and soak every ounce of the inferno until it became unbearable — then remain seated.

“It’s a reverse emotional thing […] I had to do the exact opposite of that and absorb the pain and let it burn.” Wolff said.

When asked why he took on such a traumatic role, Wolff responded, “I sorta hate myself, so that’s probably it. I just want to punish myself and give myself the hardest time possible.”

“The unique experience of ‘Hereditary’ was that I was very very isolated in a way that I had never really experienced.” Wolff continued, “I just felt like I was literally in the wilderness, literally. I was in the middle of Park City, Utah, [the setting of “Hereditary”] so it’s like me and a hotel clerk that was like that one dude from ‘The Shining.’ Just this terrifying experience.”

In one of the more terrifying scenes of the movie, Wolff’s character becomes possessed in the middle of a highschool lecture and breaks his face on a classroom style desk. What’s more appalling was Wolff’s dedication to that scene.

“I remember telling Ari [Aster] when we were talking about it to give me a real desk.” Wolff said, “I told him, I wanna do a real desk man, and he was like, ‘I appreciate the commitment, but I’m pretty sure legally, I’m going to get sued if I do that.’ So we went with a foam desk.”

However, Wolff went on to describe how he intentionally jammed his face onto the foam desktop so hard that it began to flow with real blood. And being the young, dedicated actor that he is, he simply laughed it off and called it, ‘a unique experience.’” But an experience is not much if it can’t be remembered.

Wolff commented, “I watched [“Hereditary”] for the first time and I was like, holy sh*t, I don’t remember shooting that scene. I’m not even kidding, I was like, what the f*ck is going on?”

Wolff is proving that his post-production PTSD is merely a facet of his ability to act. He has a few upcoming movies to be released and is well recognized for his groundbreaking performance in A24’s highest grossing film. Amidst the darkness, the future’s looking bright for Wolff. But one cannot help reminiscing to recent years where another actor fell too deep into their character.

In 2008, Heath Ledger portrayed a terrifyingly, unforgettable likeness of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film, “The Dark Knight.” Known for his method acting and weeks spent in isolation to prepare for the film, Ledger did not live to see the screening, as he died from a prescription drug overdose months before the film’s release.

That is not to say that Ledger’s role consumed him to the point of death, but the eeriness of the situation is that he kept a personal diary for the Joker, filled with disturbing entries that acted as triggers for him to break into the persona. And one of the final entries that Ledger added was, “Bye Bye,” etched in a large disordered font across an entire page, as if to say goodbye to the life of the Joker. But, sadly, there was more tied to the Joker than just a script, and shortly after that entry, Ledger passed away.

The surroundings and situations of both actors are similar in ways and vastly different in others. There are a hundred different stories where acting has gone too far and, in turn, corroded a vital part of an actors subconsciousness; when taken seriously, character portrayals have the potential to consume a person to a point of erraticism.

It is important to remember that pain is pain; it is relative to the beholder. Many will take their pain and create an art piece with it, while few will embody the world’s pain and create a masterpiece. Though we were not bred for this: to become a vessel which collect the world’s despair. It may be the formula for a masterpiece, but it requires something more than just dedication. It requires a soul.

Written By: Jarrett Rogers — arts@theaggie.org