“I’ve been in front of the camera since the sonogram,” said Alex Wolff.
The 20-year-old actor seems effortlessly comfortable posing for a photo shoot in a New York studio. Despite having been raised in a showbiz family and gaining early success as a child actor, the New York native still takes on a “fake it ’til you make it” mentality.
“I’m never comfortable being in front of the camera, but I’ve learned how to deal with it,” he says. “It seems very unnatural to be posing. That’s why I like to dance during [a shoot].”
The gregarious actor adjusts his “Fifties dad” eyeglasses and requests to hear the smooth vocals of Sam Cooke. “No, no, no,” he says after a moment before shifting the musical direction to a higher-octane track list from rapper Rakim. “Music was the first thing that was appealing to me,” said Wolff, who collaborates musically with brother Nat. “The closest thing to religion our family had was worshipping The Beatles.”
No stranger to show business, Wolff was raised by an actress mother — Polly Draper — and a musician father — Michael Wolff — before gaining early fame as a child actor alongside his now 22-year-old brother on Nickelodeon’s “The Naked Brothers Band” more than a decade ago.
For Alex Wolff, who describes his casual style as “Bob Dylan meets downtown homeless guy,” being in front of the camera has become a way of life. In recent years, the multihyphenate has worked to reinvent himself with mature roles including that of the real-life terrorist responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in the film “Patriots Day.”
“I had played a person who killed people and I know that weight,” the actor explained. “It can drain you, but there’s also a strange thrill you get from releasing a dark part of yourself.”
Wolff took some of that psychological understanding to his latest role as a pal to teenage future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, played by 21-year-old Ross Lynch, in “My Friend Dahmer,” which hits theaters on Friday. While the film’s audience is acutely aware of the title character’s dark future, Wolff portrayed real-life character John Backderf with a surprising lightheartedness.
“[The other actors and I] had to form this really tight friendship very fast,” he explains of the cast playing high school students in the Seventies. “We were always hanging out and laughing and it would bleed on screen. For us it was almost a comedy.”
But Wolff purposefully alienated Lynch during filming, keeping the former Disney star at arm’s length as he hauntingly transformed into the troubled young Dahmer. “I had to keep a distance from Ross [even off-set],” Wolff says. “The only time I’d see him would be when we were doing a scene together. When I put my arm around him [on-camera], I wanted it to feel like there was 100 miles between us.”
Although working steadily since before puberty, the past few years have been a professional whirlwind for Wolff, who also appears in a new adaptation of “Jumanji” in theaters just ahead of Christmas. “I’m doing all of these things at once — writing [music and for film], directing, acting — but it feels like knowing about each thing enhances the others.”
In January, Wolff begins filming “The Cat and the Moon,” his feature-length directorial debut, which he began penning at age 15. Based on his own life, the story follows an artistic teen who arrives in New York to live with an older jazz musician and subsequently befriends a group of upper middle class contemporaries.
“I grew up with a jazz musician dad who was on TV — he played for ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’ — so a lot of it is autobiographical but not totally,” he reveals. While this will be the native New Yorker’s first professionally produced screenwriting effort, Wolff has been working on the craft since age 11 when he wrote another autobiographical work — a musical — about a child obsessed with Woody Allen.
“I would say there were fewer allegations about [Allen] at that time,” deadpans Wolff of the legendary comedian. “I was obsessed. It was really weird.”
Wolff is quickly carving his own path in the industry and recognizes the advantageous position he’s held since birth. “Knowing what I want to do [with my life] at age 20 is the luckiest thing about all of this. Success or no success, I’ll always have that passion and drive and [understanding] that this is what I want to do.”
Shifting his gaze back to the camera’s lens, Wolff bobs confidently to an explicitly titled track from rapper Young Thug. “I can’t imagine a world where I wouldn’t have the means of expression,” he remarks. “When I talk to people who don’t, it seems like they’re really unhappy.”
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