My 12-year-old pal Julia clutched her torn, paperback copy of “Beautiful Creatures” during my interview with actors Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, who star in the film adaptation of the young adult book series.
I had brought Julia to the interview because she’s the one who turned me on to the “Beautiful Creatures” books. We’re both big fans of paranormal and dystopian young adult novels, the ones that usually wind up turning into successful movie franchises. We’d spent a lot of time thinking about the actors who might bring our favorite “Beautiful Creatures” characters to life.
Ehrenreich, who plays the affable, loyal Ethan in the movie, looked over at Julia’s book, noticing its wear and tear, and asked her about it.
“I’ve read it three times,” Julia explained.
Ehrenreich’s response was a flash of shock. And maybe some panic. “That’s great,” he said, nervously.
In that moment — which came during one of the actor’s first interviews leading up to the Valentine’s Day release of the movie — Ehrenreich seemed to understand that he has a tough audience to please, one that might know his character better than he does. It’s the same pressure that Robert Pattinson spoke about when touring with “Twilight”: the burden of knowing that thousands of readers had already fallen for their idea of Edward Cullen. It’s also the same pressure that casting directors felt when they revealed the cast of the upcoming “Mortal Instruments” series; the “Divergent” dystopian series; “Blood Sisters,” the soon-to-be-made adaptation of Richelle Mead’s popular “Vampire Academy” books; and “Delirium,” which according to casting news released on Thursday will be filmed as a television pilot starring Emma Roberts.
Any book-to-film casting news inspires criticism among loyal readers, but fans of young adult paranormal romance novels can be particularly hard to please.
When the first trailers for “Beautiful Creatures” hit the Web last fall, Julia and I were already nervous about what we saw and questioned whether the lead actors would “get it” like we do. Ehrenreich looks about right, but would he be able to capture Ethan Wate’s humor and vulnerability? And Englert, who stars in Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa” with Elle Fanning, was what we pictured for Lena, but could she play our favorite brooding character with enough depth? Did she understand what it meant to be a 15-year-old whose 16th birthday might end her life as she knows it?
Ehrenreich, who has already wrapped “Stoker” with Nicole Kidman and has a role in Woody Allen’s upcoming release, “Blue Jasmine,” told us that this is all new to him — strong opinions like ours and the fanatical world of young adult literature that spawns movies, fan sites, mall tours, and fan fiction. “I’m totally ignorant of almost the entire world out there, of this genre. I’ve never seen the ‘Twilight’ movies.”
Ehrenreich, 23, believes the cult of YA is actually a new thing. “It didn’t exist,” he said. “There was Harry Potter, but that was it.”
Ehrenreich — who began auditioning for movies after being picked out of the crowd by Steven Spielberg at a bat mitzvah — didn’t have much time to get to know the fictional Ethan Wate before he arrived on set. Up until a few weeks before production began on “Beautiful Creatures,” the book’s narrator (think: a male Bella Swan from “Twilight”), was to be played by English actor Jack O’Connell. O’Connell wound up pulling out of the project at the last minute, and Ehrenreich was called in a week before production.
“I auditioned for [writer-director] Richard [LaGravenese] and I read the script,” Ehrenreich said. “About a week later I woke up with a phone call at 8 a.m. saying I got the part, and at 4 p.m. I was on a plane to New Orleans.”
Ehrenreich says he knows that if “Beautiful Creatures” becomes the next “Twilight,” there will be more scrutiny and judgment. But with that success comes more options.
“This movie ‘On the Road’ with Kristen Stewart — they were trying to make that movie for 30 years. She says she wants to do it and they can finally make it. You have so much at your disposal if you’re in a successful commercial film.”
That isn’t to say that Ehrenreich took the part because he thought the film would be big.
“It’s appealing to me to get to be in a commercial film without feeling like I sold out. This movie has so much going for it. I didn’t feel that it had less depth because it’s a commercial film.”
Englert, 18, who happens to be the daughter of Australian director Jane Campion, was cast as the brooding, supernatural caster (a nicer term for witch) Lena Duchannes after one audition. She says she tried to block out the expectations of readers and focus just on the girl in the screenplay.
“It’s always a huge mistake to try to play the character in a book. Reading something, it’s in your head — it’s your own personal world. There are so many heads and so many different Lenas. I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that I was going to play the Lena I read in the script. What I found is that I think the essence is in there.”
The actors had the benefit of being surrounded by a cast of veterans, whose characters might be almost as important as the leads. “Beautiful Creatures” is about Ethan’s courtship of Lena, despite her supernatural powers and that looming 16th birthday, when she’ll either be claimed for good or evil. But it also has a list of strong adult characters, including the maternal Amma (Viola Davis), Lena’s eccentric Uncle Mason (Jeremy Irons), and Lena’s evil mother, Seraphine (Emma Thompson). Ehrenreich said he and Englert would watch scenes with those actors, even if they didn’t need to be on set. “We would go watch those scenes on the monitor when we weren’t in them. You see how they go from take to take . . . the aestheticism of how they sustain themselves throughout the entire process. You see how they arrive at that final take.”
But of course, fans like Julia and I are most interested in Ethan and Lena. We couldn’t stop asking them about how they played the characters and why.
Ehrenreich explained, “I feel like my character was sort of the character from the book with a few extra things that Richard [LaGravenese] brought [to it] himself. For him to do the long haul of making this film, he had to personalize it. There are maybe little elements of himself thrown into the character.” We liked it when Ehrenreich added, of the book’s Ethan, “I loved the character and I loved the way it was written, and his values and point of view.”
Englert, who Julia and I decided did carry herself a bit like the beyond-her-years Lena, told us, “I love Lena. I love her outfits. She’s got a cute boyfriend. I love her wisdom. I just thought she had such an interesting clarity of being an old soul but also being confused with the emotions of being young. And hormones. Hormones are so full on.
I’m telling you,” she added, after a pause, “14 is bad.”
“I had the best 14 of my life,” Ehrenreich said, looking at Julia. “And the worst 15.”
Such an Ethan thing to say.