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Alden Ehrenreich: the reluctant Han Solo

Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford - and he doesn't want to be

Alden Ehrenreich: the reluctant Han Solo
23 May 2018

Alden Ehrenreich is running out of time.

He wanted to see London while he was here, but his 48-hour window is rapidly closing. It’s the first clear day of spring outside, and Alden had the ridiculous notion that he’d go for a walk around central London. Perhaps he’d see Trafalgar Square or take a stroll along the Thames. Maybe he’d just pop across the street to get a coffee. When he realises he’s missed another opportunity to go to the theatre, he looks genuinely distressed: “I guess that ship has sailed,” he sighs.

So here he is, swinging restlessly from side to side in front of a camera in a blacked-out studio in Soho. “When I was filming over here, I didn’t end up spending an awful lot of time in London,” he admits, regretfully. “That’s part of the thing with living in Chiswick. I was close to Pinewood Studios and it was peaceful to come back to, but it wasn’t actual London.”

Ehrenreich has an Old Hollywood way of talking, a drawn-out Californian inflection which can even make ‘Chiswick’ sound like a setting from a sun-dappled Fifties romance, or ‘a costume fitting at Pinewood’ the title of a lost Hemingway novel. He’s an old romantic, the child of an era of films gone by, and yet, about as far from Harrison Ford as you could get.

That’s not to say there aren’t some small similarities. They share a coolness, an apathy that would look right at the controls of the Millennium Falcon. But there’s something else in Ehrenreich: an awkwardness, a stiffness of the hips that seems to suggest his natural habitat isn’t in front of a camera. 

His eyes don’t have the cheeky warmth of Ford’s – they’re blank and icy, operating with the same lack of emotion when he’s discussing Pulitzer-winning prose as they do when he’s pondering whether a baby Wookiee would be called a ‘puppy’ (he thinks ‘cub’ is more likely). They are eyes that could have nothing going on behind them, or more than you could possibly comprehend.

Those eyes are currently stealing cursory glances through the gaps in the black-out blinds at the side of the room, where the nearly-summer sun is making its best effort to creep in. The best he’s been offered during his allocated hour of free time is a game of bowling in the hotel’s on-site alley. Yet he yearns to be outside, lost somewhere in London. You can’t blame him, when his days of blending into a crowd are so categorically numbered.

“I don’t know when that stuff really starts,” he says. “Does it happen when the movie comes out? When does that switch get flipped? I’ve been in so many movies where people have said: ‘Are you ready to not be able to walk down the street anymore?’ But then I’m able to walk down the street just fine.” 

This isn’t any other movie, I point out. Solo: A Star Wars Story has a budget in the hundreds of millions, and a star-studded supporting cast featuring the likes of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover and Paul Bettany. His supporting cast.

“That’s true,” he concedes, and for a brief moment his steely eyes show just the tiniest flash of fear.

How many books do you read at once? Alden Ehrenreich is currently reading four. There’s the one about the eviction process in America, and how it ruins poor families. It’s called Evicted. That’s the one that won the Pulitzer. Then there’s John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a Depression-era workers’ rights drama that James Franco made into an appalling movie with Selena Gomez last year. Next, there’s the short stories of Lorrie Moore, which exist mainly on the spectrum of poignant comedy. Oh, and Alan Watts, too. That’s who he turns to when he wants to read up on his Eastern philosophy.

“I can only do it that way!” he protests, when I tell him this seems a little excessive. “People always differ on this, but on different days, I’m in different moods. I give up on books constantly, too.” If this isn’t the sort of conversation you’d expect from a laser-blasting space criminal, it’s because Ehrenreich’s feet are rooted firmly on Earth.

“I made this funny video for a bat mitzvah… next day we got a call saying Steven Spielberg had seen it”

He can talk about galaxy-hopping stunt action and alien gunfights and barely crack a smile, but when the conversation turns to books, his face lights up like the world’s nerdiest kid in the world’s biggest library.

Or theatre. He loves the theatre, and the high-minded productions he namechecks sound more like the hit list you’d expect from a Rada-trained British thesp than a square-jawed Star Wars lead. “My days off during filming were pretty sparse, but if I ever really had a free evening I’d go to see a play,” he says.

“I saw Hedda Gabler, I saw The Ferryman, I saw John more recently at The National, and Emilia [Clarke] and I went to see Mary Stuart at the Almeida. Whenever I’m here I try to see as much as I can, because it’s half the price of Broadway and the quality is just as good.”

Despite his theatrical fascination, Ehrenreich’s road to stardom has played out entirely on screens – the first of which was at a friend’s bat mitzvah, where a very special guest was in attendance. It’s a story that’s already become part of Hollywood lore, but I tell him I’m sceptical about how accurate it is.

“It’s honestly true,” he laughs. “It’s a fairytale. It’s really insane, it is, and every time I tell this story it still seems so surreal. I was 14, I made this funny video with a friend of mine, and they screened it at this girl’s bat mitzvah. The next day we got a call saying Steven Spielberg had seen it, and was interested in me for a movie. I went for a meeting at DreamWorks and I got an agent based on that.”

From there, he’s bounced from indie flick to indie flick: he had a starring role in two of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent ventures, Tetro and Twixt, and has popped up in the likes of Blue Jasmine and Stoker. If you recognise him, though, it’s probably from the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, in which he played well-meaning but preternaturally vacant dimwit Hobie Doyle.

It’s the slack-jawed role for which Ehrenreich is best known, yet his butt-of-the-joke performance was the springboard to one of the most coveted leading-man roles in movie history. In 1977, he wouldn’t have stood a chance – but now, in a world saturated with muscled-up blockbuster stereotypes, perhaps a self-effacing bookworm is exactly what an action hero looks like.

I might have been wrong about Ehrenreich’s eyes. It seems there are a few topics that make them light up, that make him break out into a full-faced, childish grin. Woody Harrelson is one of those topics.

“Woody is very mischievous,” he laughs, recalling their time filming Solo together. “He started a big snowball fight in the Dolomites with me. And he won, of course – he was certainly the most aggressive.”

During breaks, he and his co-stars would use the Millennium Falcon as their own personal rec room. “We played a lot of games in there,” he says, trying to explain the rules of a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-type affair in which Ehrenreich, obviously, played the part of trivia master. “You’re all in there together for several days, so you play games to pass the time. Being in the Falcon and realising how comfortable you are in it, that you’ve spent so much time in there and you know it really well, that’s the most gratifying feeling.”

In every anecdote about Solo, in every titillating on-set story and every wide-eyed audition tape tale, the ghost of Harrison Ford looms large. After all, ‘playing Ford’ is a tougher gig than playing Han Solo – for every fan who expects a pitch-perfect impression, there’ll be another who was looking for something else entirely. How does he cope with that balancing act?

“I watched all of the original movies very early on so I could get a sense of it. But after that, you don’t want to do an impersonation – you want it to feel alive.”

“I had to know that I wasn’t just doing it because in other people’s eyes it would be crazy not to”

He pours himself some water from a glass bottle on the table, retaining the bottle cap which he’ll proceed to twist and bend and pull for the duration of our interview. “You want it to feel personal, but you still want it to have a certain continuity with the other ones.” 

Restless hands aside, there’s something almost disconcerting about how chilled-out he seems about taking on the role. While you can imagine the anxious enthusiasm you’d get from a Taron Egerton or a Miles Teller, all Ehrenreich’s eyes can muster is a semi-apologetic look, as if he won the role by accident and doesn’t want you to hold it against him.

And, if you are one of the hundreds, nay, thousands of disgruntled Star Wars fans who took to YouTube comments sections and Reddit threads to protest his casting, Alden Ehrenreich can’t hear you anyway. “I don’t have anything online, or anything like that,” he says. He actually had a flip phone up until a couple of years ago – it isn’t the Ehrenreich way to fire off a self-congratulating tweet or pouting Insta selfie. 

Weirdly, for a man whose face is about to be on the side of every bus in every city in the world, he likes to stay off the grid. “I’m not interested in social media. I’ve never had an interest in it. There’s people for whom I think it’s a wonderful means of expression and communication, but it’s not for me. I can easily see a lot of damage being done by getting too attached to that stuff.”

If he did spend more time online, you’d forgive him for having buckled under the pressure by now. Solo has received more scrutiny pre-release than any film in recent memory, especially after original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord were unceremoniously replaced at the 11th hour. And Ehrenreich hasn’t escaped the rumour mill; quotes from an ‘insider’ suggested he needed an acting coach as he was struggling with the role. Does it annoy him when these things are taken out of context? 

“You try to tune that stuff out,” he says with a shrug. “The thing with the acting coach was simply that Chris and Phil had this person they liked to work with. It’s pretty common for directors to have those people in their utility belt, that was really all it was.”

OK, fine, he is feeling the pressure. But only a little bit. “I’ve been living with the pressure for two years now. You’re always nervous about something like this coming out, but it falls under the category of things I don’t have any control over.” The bottle cap, still between his fingers, has been crumpled beyond recognition. “One of the tasks of taking on something of this scale is that you give yourself to it completely.

I had to know it was what I wanted to do, and that I wasn’t just doing it because in other people’s eyes it would be crazy not to. I spent some time on it and eventually I felt like I absolutely did.” He draws breath and cracks a helpless smile. “That meant saying yes to everything that comes with it.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story is at cinemas nationwide now

(Photography: Mads Perch/Other images: Disney)