Hail, Caesar! – Chats with Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton

Alden Ehrenreich

Was Hail, Caesar! as much fun to make as it was to watch?

A: It really was, if not more. It was such a blast. They really create an environment, where everyone can just relax and have fun and be playful.

Tell us about your character?

A: I play Hobie Doyle, Hobart Doyle, who’s a singing cowboy star in the 50s – big singing cowboy movie star – and I get pulled off a western to act in a very sophisticated parlour room drama.

How does that work out for him?

A: I think we pull it off (laughs). At the end of the day, we get it done.

We see you riding horses, lassoing and proving to be a deft hand with six guns. You had to learn a lot of new skills for this right?

A: Yes, I did. It was kind of like being one of these actors in the old studio era, because it was like as soon as I had the job there would be fencing classes and voice classes and things like that. I pretty much had to start with horseback riding and I had a trick-roping teacher and a gun-twirling teacher and I had a guitar teacher, and I had a horseback stunt man who was helping me do a lot of the stunts, so it was almost like this whole regiment. It’s incredible that these guys know all these things – these old actors were like circus performers with huge skill sets. Also the way they were filming the movies at that time, you know, if they needed a horse to fall, they just put wire round it and pulled. It was really rag tag and dangerous. It’s amazing that some of those are really films. You watch those silent films where the house is falling on Buster Keaton and things like that, and guys would just do that! There were no safety precautions.

He’s a very endearing character. Did you like him?

A: Absolutely. That was there from the first time I read it, and that’s such a tribute to the Coens. I love my character. They’re able to write these characters and they have such an understanding of these people, too. They’ve made all these western kind of films – they’ve made some action westerns, movies that are kind of hovering around westerns – and so they at this point have a really great understanding of how to use all those tropes in that style.

Did working with the Coen Brothers live up to your expectations?

A: Well there was one thing that really no one expected, because they’re so serious in their work. The one thing that was really a pleasant surprise was how relaxed it all was and just what a good time you had. I think that’s one of the ways they’re able to get these things out of people – they treat everyone that works for them with a lot of respect and a lot of confidence. Everybody is made to feel like they really know what they’re doing, and the Coens are so prepared that the way things move never feels chaotic. It always feels like you’re at play, and it was just as enjoyable an experience as I could have possibly hoped for.

George Clooney and Channing Tatum

Could you tell us about your characters in Hail, Caesar!?

George Clooney: I play Baird Whitlock who is a sort of Victor Mature star of the actual film inside the film, Hail, Caesar! who apparently, I’m told now, is not the brightest of actors, but I thought he was the smartest guy (laughs).

Channing Tatum: I play Burt Gurney, which is probably modelled a little on Gene Kelly. I don’t believe Gene Kelly was a communist so I can’t exactly say it was Gene Kelly but his style of dancing was.

So we’re in a Coen Brothers world here – it’s Hollywood in the 1950s but it’s the Coen Brothers’ version of that?

GC: Yes, it sure is. It’s a very affectionate look at that time and there’s a cynical version of it where people say it’s making fun of it but if you see, for instance, Channing’s dance number, it gets huge applause and that’s because the Coens love these kinds of films – they love films – and they get to do all these different genres in one movie.

Channing, how long did it take to prepare for that spectacular dance sequence?

CT: Whenever you get a chance to be in a Coen Brothers film everybody just jumps and says ‘absolutely’ but they buried the lead slightly on how complicated and big the dancing was going to be (laughs). It was about three sentences in the script that says ‘there’s a dance scene on a battleship and he does a knee slide into a bucket.’ And they asked me if I could tap dance, it was like ‘we think we want you to do a little tap dancing..’ And the whole thing is tap dancing! And then they were like ‘we’re thinking you do a little singing’ and I was like, ‘I don’t do any of these things, why did you guys cast me for this?’ So three and a half months later we slid right under the wire and I’m really happy with the way it turned out and there’s no one better to jump off a blind cliff with than the Coen Brothers.

You’ve mentioned the film within films – biblical epic, synchronised swimming, musicals and westerns; they’re all there. How big a challenge was that for the Coens?

GC: The thing is they are cinephiles and they know all of those kinds of films so well. With every dance move they had a reference from a movie and for my character, if you look at it, it’s obvious they’ve ripped off some stuff from Ben Hur and Samson and Delilah and those kinds of films. But every single one of those films feels authentic. When you see the scenes from the Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) movie it actually feels like that movie exists.

I think we need to see some of those movies…

GC: I think that’s the next thing they should do, make each one of those movies (laughs).

Has making films changed much since the 1950s? Or is the job still essentially the same? It’s still cameras, lights, actors and crew, getting together to tell a story isn’t it?

GC: Nothing changes really. And if you think about technology in terms of filmmaking, it hasn’t changed that much. Yes, there’s digital cameras and stuff but it’s still lighting and make up and hitting marks. Not that much changes really, it’s still about storytelling. If you don’t have a good script, you are not going to have a good movie. You can make a bad movie out of a good script but you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script. So in general, things are still the same.

George you clearly like working with the Coens even if they ask you to play some characters, like this one, who aren’t so clever – you’ve called Baird Whitlock a ‘knucklehead.’ Why is that?

GC: I do like that I have done four films with these guys and every time they send me a script they say ‘you’re going to play a knucklehead…’ and I’m always willing to do it but I didn’t know I was going to be this stupid in Hail, Caesar!. I remember they sent me Burn After Reading and they said ‘we wrote this part with you in mind..’ and he’s the biggest jackass who has a sex toy in the basement and I’m like ‘what’s wrong with you people?’ and then they say, ‘OK, now we got one where you play an imbecile who falls in with a bunch of writers who happen to be communists…’ So I’ve greatly enjoyed how much fun they make of me along the way.

George you have worked with the Coens and you also worked with Quentin Tarantino. What’s the difference in working with the Coens and Mr Tarantino?

GC: Well, there are two of the Coens, so there’s double your pleasure right there. I didn’t work with Quentin as a director, I worked with him as an actor, which is very different and a lot of fun, we had a really good time. I’ve been luckily enough to work with a few (contemporary directors) –like Steven Soderbergh and Alexander Payne. So I’ve worked with some interesting directors and Joel and Ethan are certainly two of those. Listen, I think we are all here because we are thrilled to work with these guys, that’s the truth, if you look at careers of directors they are very seldom doing this kind of work this late in their career – and I mean late, like the end really (laughs). It’s really fun and they are great fun to work with and I think all of us feel very lucky to get the chance to work on a Coen Brothers movie, that’s the truth.

Josh Brolin

Hail, Caesar! is available on Digital HD from 27th June and Blu-ray™ & DVD from 11th July, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).

Where does Eddie Mannix fit into this story? He’s a guy who has to keep the studio’s stars in line and make sure that their misdeeds don’t get into the press, is that right?

A: What I’ve learned, especially from this book I was reading called The Fixer, is that this was an extremely debauched era. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs and a lot of hiding of one’s behaviour, and on a massive scale. The real Eddie Mannix, I even think there were deaths that happened that he could kind of squash and make go away, but I play some amalgamation of the PR guy of that time, Harold Strickland, and Eddie and Louis B. Mayer. So there was a lot of different guys that we constructed Eddie out of, at least in the Coens’ creation. I think he was a guy who was just making sure the image of the studio stayed intact in a certain way as to bring them the most profits possible.

So he’s controlling the myth?

A: Yeah, that’s what it is. If you look at the kind of Jesus manifestation of Eddie – he’s dealing with this guy, (studio head) Nick Skank, who you never see, who’s the kind of god, the studio boss. He’s protecting the profits of the upper echelon.

So he’s dealing with the dirty laundry but deep down does he love Hollywood?

A: He does. It’s like when he meets with the guy in the Chinese restaurant and the guy says, ‘What you do with these little brats, this is a thing that’s going to come and go, and when you have the television set, all of these moving pictures are going to go away,’ and he’s like, ‘No.’ You can tell he gives a ****. He cares. And when it comes down to it, it’s like, ‘I want to do something that means something.’ Movies have an impact on society, we see it happening. It’s hard, it’s difficult to keep these little bratty children in line, but ultimately it’s kind of great what we get to do, we get to manifest great storytelling and people are affected by it. I still feel that way. I feel more like Eddie after this movie (laughs). I have a deep appreciation for what we do. Somebody said the other day, you know, ‘It’s kind of a horrible business that we’re in.’ I said, ‘Really?’ They said, ‘There’s some scumbags,’ but there’s scumbags in every business. That’s what’s great about working with the Coens is that they don’t allow that stuff, like what happened to George (Clooney’s character) in the movie – the power and the influence of somebody else and suddenly he starts thinking that he’s above everything. We stay grateful, man. We stay grateful that we get to make movies like this.

Has filmmaking changed all that much from the ‘Golden Age’ that we see in Hail, Caesar! to now?

A: We tell a story and sometimes it’s humiliating and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s an elusive element to this business that will never change. Somebody likes stories with a beginning, middle, and end, other people like stories that are more elusive and just like this, where it’s more like a day in the life, and it’s just a conglomeration of scenes that you put together that are just amazing.

Tilda Swinton

It looks like you were having huge fun making Hail, Ceasar!

A: The answer is yes, it was great fun. To make this film it was at least as enjoyable as it is to watch it because all of these characters and all of these environments – it’s like a mountain range and you just get a tip of all of them and we all had these fantasies about what else lay beneath.

My fantasy about the Thacker twins was that they had been put on the stage by some incredibly competitive stage mother and they had failed to be movie stars and they were incredibly bitter and competitive with one another and so they turned into these genius journalists.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to try and keep them happy but it’s not easy – he makes one deal with one, and then the other comes round the corner and he thinks he’s made… he’s parlaying the same secret to the right person, and he isn’t. They’re a trip. My fantasy about them is that they’re failed movie stars, and they’re sort of bitter. They really care more about one another than anything, and they will print anything to get more readers, which is a tendency that we’ve heard about which may or may not be fiction in the world of journalism. They make his life hell.

That was a very interesting cultural phenomenon, those social commentators of the 50s. They held so much influence…

A: It is a really interesting collusion, particularly between those two roles, the gossip columnist and Eddie Mannix, because he is dictating – with others I think. In reality, it would have been much more of a committee, and maybe the head of the studio would decide, you know, ‘Dirk Bogarde is going to be Spanish.’ I think they had a Spanish name all rolled out for film. ‘He’s going to be Spanish and we’re going to make him a Spanish star by putting him in black leather trousers in this film, and this is how it’s going to work. He’s going to be straight and he’s going to go out with these people,’ and whatever. Whoever it was, was given their brief, and then Eddie Mannix’s job was – he was sort of beyond PR – he was really a magician in terms of creating it, and then he had to protect that image from the Thackers of the world who would come in and try and see round the back of the circus tent and see what was really going on. And then they did deals, and presumably he would say, ‘Okay, we’ve got this young starlet and we want a puff piece.’ But for a puff piece, then you have to give them something. Presumably it still goes on. I mean, how would I know? But I’m sure some of my co-stars might know something about that.

Hail, Caesar! is available on Digital HD from 27th June and Blu-ray™ & DVD from 11th July, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).

Order Hail, Caesar! on Blu-ray from one of these retailers:

Colin Polonowski

Updated: Jul 11, 2016

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Hail, Caesar! – Chats with Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton | The Digital Fix