Olly Alexander isn't very good at introducing himself. "I'm an actor. I live in a house with three cats," he fumbles. "Umm ...."
Let's see if we can't help him out a bit. Alexander, very nearly on a whim, met with an agent when he was 16 and landed a job at his first audition, a spot on the British kids' TV movie Summerhill. From there, he has built up a modest catalog of film work, including Jane Campion's breathtaking Bright Star, in which he played the dying, consumptive younger brother of the dying, consumptive John Keats, one of his more well-adjusted roles to date. To wit: Nursery rhymes aren't really his bag.
"I've mostly worked in weird films playing weird characters, probably because I'm a weird person," he laughs. "In Enter the Void [directed by French director Gaspar Noé], I play a drunk. In another film called Dust, I play an incestual murderer. I just finished a film called Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and I play an alcoholic. I don't know what's wrong with me – I don't know why I only get picked to play strange characters!
"The Dish & the Spoon is good," he continues. "I don't kill anyone."
It's true, the 20-year-old Alexander doesn't kill anyone in Alison Bagnall's quiet little indie. In it he plays a nameless boy, a scrawny British drifter who is taken in by Rose (Greta Gerwig), a heartbroken, betrayed woman on the hunt for her husband's lover. The audience knows virtually nothing about the boy and is only given a few red herrings: a wallet full of cash, a navy coat, and a (possibly true) story about being a rent boy. How does an actor prepare for a character with no name, much less no backstory?
"With difficulty, I think," Alexander muses. "Especially with that character, I just tried to be in the moment that was happening. He's quite close to me. If I had maybe grown up in slightly different circumstances, I would have wound up like him. He lives without any social boundaries or social awareness. The place we were shooting was this weird seaside place in winter and had this kind of dreamlike quality, so I would try and clear my mind of everything and just try to be honest to what was happening."
Both Alexander and Gerwig had a hand in crafting the script. As Bagnall finished drafts, she would send them on to her stars and ask them to provide their input, allowing them to infuse their own points of view into the project. It also helped them collaborate on and more easily realize their characters' relationship. "It helped me so much because Greta's character is so strong that she drives the film, and my character really bends to her; he's very elastic to her needs," Alexander explains. "It was important to have her to react to. Greta made the point that her character was in extreme pain and at that point needed to conjure up a companion. Even though my character was real, if she was to make one up out of her imagination, then my character would be it."
In addition to helping tweak the script, Alexander also added his musical skills to the mix in The Dish & the Spoon. Not only does he play piano in a few scenes, but you can hear him singing over the closing credits. Alexander laughs brightly when he realizes he's been caught out: "Alison told me that she wanted me to build my character and make him work, so I asked myself, 'What are the skills that I have that I can do onscreen?' I play piano, I sing, I do a bit of dancing, so I just decided I would do all of those things. I would just show off!"
Back home in London, Alexander gigs locally in a small rock band, just doing what 20-year-old dudes do when they've got crazy hair and a bucketload of talent, although Alexander downplays his marketable skills. "I just feel lucky to be able to do stuff I enjoy."
Emerging Visions, World Premiere
Saturday, March 12, 10:30pm, Alamo Lamar C
Monday, March 14, 11am, Alamo Ritz 1
Thursday, March 17, 2:30pm, Alamo Lamar C
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