As Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar! hits UK cinemas, Film4.com site editor Michael Leader speaks with actor Alden Ehrenreich about singing cowboys, the studio system and working with the Coen Brothers…
Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! is a movie by and for movie lovers, and it’s packed with so many references and homages to Golden-Age Hollywood. Hobie Doyle, the ‘dust actor’, seems to be playing on the old Western archetype of the singing cowboy. Did the Coens ever say, in the screenplay or on set, ‘this is Gene Autry’?
They make some references to that. I grew up with a lot of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah Westerns but I’d never really seen any of the ‘singing cowboy’ stuff. Certainly the most famous people in the genre would be Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but they kind of created their own. It doesn’t really sync up in the way that some of the other characters do, to one person in particular. I feel like they really created their own, unique guy which was what made it so fun to play.
If you didn’t have any prior knowledge of this sort of Western star, did the Coens set you any homework, or did you do any research into the genre yourself?
Yeah they showed me a couple of things. Not so much for the character, specifically, but they sent me a clip of Roy Rogers that they thought was really funny, where he says a line and immediately after the line he just starts singing. We also watched a clip of Will Rogers doing trick-roping.
One earlier Western that I really loved growing up was Destry Rides Again, which was made in 1939, the same year as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It’s Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich and it’s great. I have a few favourite actors of that era, but Jimmy Stewart is one of my favourite actors in the world. I adore him. He chose to play a certain type of role and you believed him, I have a lot of respect for that.
James Stewart & Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again
Looking at the era of Hail, Caesar!, where you have contracted movie stars who would have guaranteed studio work for a set amount of time, there must have been something quaint and attractive looking back at those days.
Absolutely, like you just said the job security seems really appealing. My other favourite pre-World War II film star is Spencer Tracy, and I remember him saying something about actors – which I don’t agree with – but he says that actors were better then because they were constantly working, and they were constantly trying different things and they were challenged. And that’s really appealing.
Now at the same time, there’s the great story of James Stewart talking about being forced to do a musical, and him not being able to sing at all, and he was horrible in it, which is kind of what happens in Hail, Caesar! – you would end up playing parts that you weren’t right for. So that’s the downside. And you didn’t have any control over what you were saying or what kind of films you were doing, but on the other hand the upside is the consistency of work you were getting.
It’s so true. I recently watched a screwball comedy from the 1930s called The Awful Truth, with Cary Grant, and he’s amazing in it. He just looks like Cary Grant as we know him, the iconic star wearing the suit, pratfalling and quipping. But I read that he hated the experience, and tried to quit the production – yet that was the film that created the star persona that defined the rest of his career.
The other one is Clark Gable, who was forced to do It Happened One Night as punishment because he kept saying no to things, and so MGM lent him out to Columbia, a smaller studio, and he thought that it was the worst thing that had ever happened. And yet it won Best Picture! It was a happy accident.
Writer-directors Joel & Ethan Coen
Are there any happy accidents when working with the Coen Brothers?
The Coens in a nutshell are unbelievably prepared and they have everything, like the writing, so complete that when you get to set it’s a very relaxed environment, because there’s only so much that can go wrong. And if it does go wrong you have the feeling that they know exactly how to fix it.
And then when you get there, because they’re so prepared, they give you a lot of latitude and a lot of freedom. I’ve never been on a set that was so relaxed, so fun. They’d say “you can go home now”, and I’d be like “it’s only noon, can I stay and watch?”
Hail, Caesar! is released in UK cinemas on March 4th 2016. The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis premieres on Film4 on March 2nd.