‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ star Alex Wolff: “The Rock is a real artist”

The rising actor, who's best buds with Nicolas Cage, cracks jokes about Tinder, his "meet-cute" with Danny DeVito and supernatural scares on the set of 'Hereditary'

It’s not easy to get a straight answer out of Alex Wolff. The Jumanji: The Next Level star might be game for all manner of nonsense suggested to him during an interview, but if you ask him a silly question, expect a silly response.

“What if I said, like, Tinder. That would be so funny,” says Wolff. He’s sat in a swanky London hotel room, sporting an electric blue double-breasted suit, and we’re playing a game of ‘Firsts’ – NME’s video quiz that involves a quick fire Q&A. Currently, Wolff is pondering the first app he checked on his phone when he woke up that morning.

Alex Wolff
Credit: Amanda Edwards

“I’m not on Tinder but how funny would that be? I just wake up and immediately have to scroll through Tinder. Watch out, the publicist is gonna launch in here and end the interview in two seconds now!” jokes Wolff. Then, noticing the nervous look on our face, he adds: “Just kidding, I see you’re getting anxious… I actually don’t have a phone.” A couple of seconds pass. “Just kidding again! Who doesn’t have a phone? Sorry, I promise I’ll stop now.”

Funnily enough, that’s precisely why we’re here. Alex Wolff’s inability to “stop” has made him one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young actors. Since his screen debut 15 years ago, in hit kids show The Naked Brothers Band, he’s barely had time to catch his breath. There’s been supporting parts in acclaimed indies like Patriots Day and My Friend Dahmer, the central role in Sony’s Jumanji reboot series, a well-received turn in 2018’s buzz-horror Hereditary – and a bunch more films on the way in 2020, including his dream project with Nicolas Cage.

“Losing Kobe Bryant was the hardest loss of my life”

Far from exhausted though, Wolff is buzzing with energy. It’s impossible to get a word in without him going off on a tangent or trying to flip a question into a gag. Did he have any idols growing up, we ask, before clarifying that he can’t say his dad. “I can’t say your dad?” he retorts. “But your dad is my hero. He’s my hero!” Later, he’ll fake-cry three times, crack a joke about intimacy being his biggest fear and recount (with much glee) the time he couldn’t finish a scene because he was laughing too much. Wolff, it’s clear, is used to having fun – which is lucky because if he had hated the biz, his childhood would have been total hell.

Born in New York to a creative family – his mum works in the industry, his dad as a jazz pianist – Alex began acting at the age of six when his mum produced The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie for Nickelodeon. The subsequent TV series continued to team Alex with his older brother Nat – and after three years and 43 episodes, the two siblings formed a pop-rock duo called (originally) Nat & Alex Wolff. Their debut album didn’t quite fly off the shelves, and Alex focused his career on movie roles instead. He might have worked hard from an early age, but really, Alex says, they were just messing about.

“I remember on my first day,” he says. “Me and my brother were in this bunk bed, right before we shot the first scene [of The Naked Brothers Band] and I was egging him on: ‘You don’t have the guts to kick me’. And right as they rolled the camera, he kicked me in the face and I started sobbing. That was day one of shooting. So from there on it was a very interesting dynamic.”

Alex Wolff
Credit: Amanda Edwards

Luckily, Alex and Nat weren’t always at each other’s throats. For the most part, they behaved exactly as two brothers should, reveling in shared obsessions like The Beatles, Green Day and, unexpectedly, Kobe Bryant. “Long before I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a basketball player,” says Wolff, who doesn’t quite top six feet. “Kobe always inspired me to be a ferocious, unflinching competitor. I loved him, and he was my first hero. No one will ever top Kobe Bryant in my mind.”

Just two days before we speak, the retired Los Angeles Lakers legend was killed, along with his daughter Gianna and eight others, in a tragic helicopter accident near Bryant’s home in California. For Wolff, as well as half the world, it was devastating news. “That’s probably the hardest loss of my life, really,” he says, suddenly serious. “It was like losing a family member.”

“I’m a Beatles obsessive – I have ‘Here There And Everywhere’ tattooed on my arm”

Shortly after it became “obvious” that Alex’s ball-handling skills weren’t going to put food on the table, he pivoted to another more industry-appropriate fandom: The Beatles. “The first concert I went to was Paul McCartney at Madison Square Garden [in New York] when I was three years old,” he says. “It was the best. And then I saw The Police reunion show there a year later! I got some good gigs in the books early on.” 19 years later and ‘Revolver’ is still his favourite album (“’Rubber Soul’ is a close second”) and he has the song title ‘Here There and Everywhere’ tattooed on his arm. But sadly, Alex still hasn’t managed to rub shoulders with Macca in person. His brother, infuriatingly, has though. They met at a restaurant in LA last year – and Alex still hasn’t forgiven Nat for betraying him.

“Yeah, and I’m still mad about it!” says Wolff, when NME reminds him of his sibling’s treachery. “I actually don’t wanna even talk about it. I’m so [upset] that he met him. I screamed, and I told him, ‘this is not how it was supposed to happen, we’re supposed to meet him together!’

Alex Wolff
Credit: Getty

Post-Nickelodeon, Wolff took small parts on independent productions to build his chops, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he got his big break. Cast as the central cog in a reboot of Robin Williams’ 1995 creature feature Jumanji – in which the late funnyman is sucked into a magical board game and trapped there – Alex got to spend significant time learning from the biggest movie star on the planet.

“I flew to Hawaii and hung out with The Rock for a full day,” says Wolff, who shared the same character as his musclebound co-star. In the film, high school loser Taylor (Wolff) stumbles upon a dusty old games console with a conspicuous title. Transported to a sprawling jungle by the glitchy software, Taylor and three classmates are transformed into avatars. The Rock plays Taylor’s in-game form, Smolder Bravestone.

The Rock
Wolff with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Kevin Hart at the ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ premiere. Credit: Getty

“We worked on the character together. He’s like Daniel Day Lewis level trying to figure out all the different [parts]. He’s intensely devoted to being an amazing actor and not just being a movie star. I think that’s why he’s still number one, because he’s a real artist.”

Financially, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was a massive success, raking in just shy of a billion dollars. For the sequel, though, director Jake Kasdan and the studio wanted to mix things up a bit. So in came action legend Danny Glover, rising star Awkwafina and Hollywood icon Danny DeVito, the latter to play Alex’s on-screen grandpa. There’s never a good time to meet Danny DeVito, but when your tummy’s rumbling things can get especially awkward.

Jumanji The Next Level
Alex Wolff alongside Danny DeVito in ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’. Credit: Sony

“The first time I met Danny DeVito was at the table read for the new Jumanji,” says Wolff. “It was like a meet-cute, I’m not even kidding. There was a table of croissants and we both grabbed the same one. He said, ‘Oh sorry!’ But I was like, ‘no, you’re Danny De Vito, you take that croissant’.” Noble, you might think, until you hear the rest of the story. “He didn’t take it in the end, because I heard that it was the last one, so I ripped it out of his hands and went into the other room and ate [the croissant].” It’s hard to tell if Alex is being serious here, partly because he’s spent the whole interview making jokes, but also because it’s in his nature to mess about like a kid.

Take his relationship with fellow actor Asa Butterfield. The pair have been best buds since they co-starred in 2017 comedy drama The House Of Tomorrow, and Alex is staying at the Sex Education stalwart’s house while he’s in London. Keeping in touch via social media, the pair also formed a band for the film (NSFW names include Chicken Jizz, Dumb Fucks and Sir Dicksalot), with Alex teaching Asa how to play bass during filming. If you needed more evidence of the lads’ bromance, Wolff tells NME that the first thing he did that morning was “jump on Asa’s bed to wake him up and slap him in the face with a pillow.”

“If I’m not in the next Jumanji, I’m going to freak out”

While 2017 saw Alex take a huge step up on the showbiz ladder, 2018 was the year industry bigwigs really sat up and took notice. Fresh from the biggest box office victory of his career, the NYC native swerved away from the mainstream and took a pitstop in the horror genre for one of this century’s most acclaimed films.

Directed by critics’ favourite Ari Aster (Midsommar), Hereditary sees Wolff play the son of a grieving mother (Toni Collette) who is haunted by tragic and increasingly batshit occurrences. It’s harrowing in the extreme – and about as unsettling an experience as you can hope to have in a cinema. Collette is without doubt the star of the show, but Wolff’s performance got a lot of attention too. In one scene, his character Peter is sat in class. Suddenly, he begins to repeatedly smash his face against the desk lid. It’s horrible to watch, but the film’s creepiness wasn’t confined to the screen, says Wolff.

Hereditary
‘Hereditary’ became indie studio A24’s highest grossing film of all time. Credit: A24

“There’s a certain Shakespeare play that Ari Aster and I have agreed to never say [the name of] ever again,” says Wolf, referring to blood-soaked tragedy Macbeth. “We’ll just call it the Scottish play because we were talking about it on set while we were doing the seance scene [in Hereditary], which is a very emotional scene. We were talking about how similar it is to the Scottish play and the moment I said the name, the glass [I was holding] in my hand exploded. Everybody saw it and was terrified. Ari and I are both very neurotic and very anxious people. So we had to go and say some lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to undo it because of our OCD craziness. We pray that it worked.”

Thanks largely to Hereditary – and the slew of memes it inspired – Wolff took his place at the head of a new wave of Gen Z actors that includes in-demand talent like Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever (with whom Alex was pictured leaving a Baftas party recently), the aforementioned Asa Butterfield, and Insta-savvy Brit Jessica Barden (set to star opposite Wolff in upcoming US drama The Line). Without a doubt, it’s a great time to be Alex Wolff. But there’s plenty more exciting stuff in the pipeline, including (hopefully) another Jumanji sequel.

“If I am not in the next Jumanji [movie], Sony will be getting a call from me. A very angry sobbing call,” says Wolff, when we ask if The Next Level’s post-credits scene, which suggested a new cast might be called in for future movies, means we’ve seen the last of him in the franchise. “I feel so lucky to be a part of these last two that… no, I’ll be upset, I’m not gonna lie, I’m not gonna do an interview answer. If I’m not in the new one, I’m going to freak out. I’m going to be so mad. I love doing these movies and Jake Kasdan is the greatest guy in the world. So you heard it here first at NME, if I’m not in the new one, someone’s getting in trouble.”

Beyond a potential return to the jungle, the now 22-year-old has something even more exciting up his sleeve – a film with Nic Cage. Due out later this year, indie drama Pig sees the divisive, mercurial actor play a truffle hunter whose beloved foraging hog is kidnapped. Devastated, the reclusive farmer must return to his past in Portland, America, to rescue the helpless porker. And if that synopsis sounds like a cross between John Wick and Disney’s animated classic The Black Cauldron, that’s because it basically is. But unlike Keanu Reeves’ action blockbuster series, Pig is a buddy movie, with Wolff more than holding his own against the Cage.

Nic Cage
Alex Wolff and Nicolas Cage at the LA premiere for ‘Color Out Of Space’. Credit: Alamy

“He’s one of the greatest actors who’s ever lived,” says Wolff. “He’s one of my best friends in the world now, we talk almost every day. We connected on an emotional level and I felt like he was guiding me across the lake during scenes. He always wanted to do a couple of takes for himself and then he would want to spend a lot of time on my coverage.

“On day one I had to do a scene where I get in a car with him and I have to freak out and start screaming,” adds Wolff. “I was imitating him a lot – and I said to him before we did the take, ‘listen, freaking out in front of you is like doing a guitar solo in front of Jimi Hendrix.’”

“Freaking out in front of Nicolas Cage is like doing a guitar solo in front of Jimi Hendrix”

Alex does actually play guitar, although maybe not to the level of Hendrix, and you get the sense he wouldn’t attempt an imitation either. When Wolff talks about his heroes, there’s a reverence in his voice that belies his happy-go-lucky nature. In those moments, Wolff resembles a school kid who’s trying to behave himself when the teacher asks a question. On-set, he spends much of the time trying to soak up what he can from the greats. But who else is there left to learn from?

“I’d love to work with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Ryan Gosling. Also Natalie Portman and Marion Cotillard,” he says. “But Regina King has been my favourite actress since I was really young. I met her a couple of times and she’s so sweet. I don’t think she’d remember who I am, but she’s someone that I’m still trying to find something we can work together on.” Given the hot streak Alex is currently enjoying, don’t bet against that happening very soon.

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is out on Digital now, and then on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on April 13