By Junsui Films | September 2011
Alex Haw, star of Christopher Nolan’s Following talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his experiences on his first and only film…
Junsui Films: How did you come to be involved in Following?
Alex Haw: I’d always acted a lot at school and UCL – my undergraduate college. I’d been in a play, acting alongside Jerry Theobald who was mates with Chris (Nolan) and it was Jerry who told me about this film audition. I’d never done film and had always wanted to. I was surprised to get the part.
JF: What was your reaction when you first read the script?
It was slightly like drugs – both awesome and confusing on your first hit. Aside from the funky mathematics, I was struck by the focus on logistics and movement over character – perhaps a staple of most film scripts. It completely repositioned my view of the role of the actor – as a cog in the whirlwind of mechanics whose effect I couldn’t yet anticipate.
JF: How did you prepare for the role of Cobb and were you given any specific notes from writer/director Christopher Nolan?
Chris was light on the notes to actors. He was extremely easy-going; unnervingly so. I remember only one rehearsal (there may have been more) but generally we didn’t prep much at all; we just ran through the scene before the shot. Quickly. I learned lines on the trot, before the take – again, something I hadn’t done before. I tried to kill as few people as possible as prep for playing the psycho.
JF: Despite the film’s lean running time of 70 minutes, it took almost a year to complete due to the ‘extreme’ low-budget. Tell us about the shoot and any challenges you encountered.
It took so long it felt background; an addendum to your life, rather than an immersive obsession like theatre was normally. We could only shoot outside our day-jobs – generally on Saturdays – so there was very little temporal continuity; it had none of the immersive nature of acting in theatre. As a theatre junkie but a film novice, I was surprised how excruciatingly boring it was to hang out on set waiting for the hair to be removed from the lens.
There was a long break over Christmas when I personally didn’t shoot for months and the film drifted to the back of my mind; I got a drunken haircut in New York that Chris has never (politely) forgiven me for; it was a serious continuity challenge.
We had to shoot on location, whatever was happening – so we often had to wait for stuff to calm down or people to get out of the way. We had no budget for anything so everything was begged or borrowed or, ahem… There wasn’t even any budget for film so we never saw rushes; we had no idea how we were coming across on camera; thus my horror at the final moment.
But two challenges do immediately spring to mind: 1. How to look like you’re wreaking violence in close-up when you’re not and 2. How to rapidly pull latex gloves on and off like a pro.
JF: The film was met with great acclaim on the festival circuit. Can you tell us about the festival experience and the first time you watched it with an audience?
I had just started my masters in architecture at Princeton at the time so I was quite out of the loop; I didn’t know about the whole circuit everyone was doing. I had never seen the film properly before I saw it at MOMA in New York (my 1st and last festival experience), where I was amazed that so many random people hung out waiting for any old random autograph. By contrast it was fascinating to hear how much the PR crew and other people promoting the film generally hated actors.
I couldn’t watch the film; it was too painful to see my atrocious acting projected so large. The worst was that some lady behind me I had never met said something like ‘Alex what’s your problem? Sit up and watch the film!’ and tried to make me emerge from my cringe-spot beneath the seats. I had no idea it was Chris’ mum!
JF: Christopher Nolan has of course gone on to become one Hollywood’s biggest directors. What was it like working with Chris on a daily basis and did you always envision he was destined for great things?
I never worked with Chris on a daily basis – we only met on shoots, which was rare. He was very efficient but I missed being directed as an actor. In retrospect this was just me being naive about most filmmaking – and the fact that it’s generally a techno-mechanical process where actors are props and not the essential core that they are in theatre.
We didn’t get personal – he’s not into chat – but it was great to talk about culture. He clearly had a brilliant mind – encyclopaedic on many aspects of cinema – and he had a clear, focussed, calm attitude; he didn’t stress about stuff because he knew what he wanted. I knew he was good but I didn’t foresee the great stuff he’d do.
JF: Following was your first and only film. Why did you decide not to pursue a career in acting?
Because my acting was so god-damn abysmal that I wouldn’t have wished to visit it upon another human again, ever. I momentarily reconsidered when some reviewers wrote a few nice things. Some agents called and I went to see them a few times but they never called back, so I got the message.
When I started studying video at Princeton, I began to think my skills lay more behind the scene; more making the scene, than being in it. I think of much of my stuff at atmos (Alex’s architecture company) as being about helping others set a scene; setting up everyday forms of performance that aren’t centred on an actor and have nothing to do with narcissism but everything to do with unleashing the potential of everyday people; celebrating life. Perhaps more documentary than fiction, with the fantasy of features woven in.
JF: Following is now thirteen years old. Looking back, how well do you feel the film has stood the test of time?
I haven’t watched it since MOMA. I’m sure it looks stylistically dated (clothes, hair…) – we couldn’t afford to design it. But I think its core innovations – the structuring and fluid narrative grasp, the editing flair and all Chris’ genius – will really stand the test.