Alden Ehrenreich was 19 when he first met his Rules Don’t Apply director Warren Beatty, several years before the future Han Solo would star in the Hollywood icon’s period passion project about a songwriting starlet (Lily Collins) and an ambitious chauffeur (Ehrenreich) working in Hollywood for eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. A voracious cinephile raised in the Palisades by movie-loving parents, Ehrenreich had questions. Their first lunch lasted for five hours.
“I asked him everything I wanted to know about film in the ’70s, his career, all the actors he’d worked with, the people he admired in the business,” Ehrenreich told The Daily Beast this week in Beverly Hills. He did manage to avoid asking about Beatty’s legendary way with some of Tinseltown’s most glamorous women, one parallel that comes to mind watching the Oscar-winner portray billionaire kook Hughes in their film.
“It comes up once in a while, but not much—I think it’s the part of his legacy that there’s the least to learn from,” the 26-year-old laughed. “What’s the takeaway from that? It’s more interesting to me to hear about the decisions he made in the film industry, what his ideas about filmmaking are, which actors he worked with who were inspiring to him, and everything else that he did.”
Ehrenreich lends an earnest steeliness to Frank Forbes, a God-fearing Methodist from Fresno who takes a job driving Hughes’s contract starlets around town to learn everything he can from his boss, and hopefully one day, go into business with him. Their first meeting comes halfway into the film, as Beatty’s lovably erratic Hughes strides out of a bungalow after putting off their face-to-face for months and takes over Frank’s car without a word, leaving the young man stammering in wide-eyed bewilderment.
The film jumps back and forth in time across a span of Hughes’s later years, when the maverick businessman, studio head, and aviation pioneer became increasingly reclusive. Beatty relishes every scene he’s in, lending a comic fragility to Hughes as everyone around him eventually becomes fed up with his obsessive behavior. Against this backdrop Collins and Ehrenreich sparkle and shine as fate and circumstance send Marla and Frank’s paths surging together and apart, transforming both into unexpected versions of the idealistic young dreamers we first meet.
Ehrenreich considered the serendipity of his timing. Beatty had famously been kicking around the project for decades, certainly since long before Ehrenreich was born. By the time Rules Don’t Apply actually became a go, the young actor had more films under his belt, and had aged into the role. “I think he thought that I was too young for the role,” he said. “So time went on and I grew up a little bit and he luckily decided to make the movie later than he’d originally planned on.”
Then again, Ehrenreich has a lot of reasons to trust in the universe. The true Hollywood story of how he was discovered is the kind of origin tale you never hear anymore, and he’s so grateful for how the stars aligned he still tells it with gusto.
As a teenager, he was spotted by Steven Spielberg when the director watched a video he’d made at a friend’s bat mitzvah. “It was a very silly, goofy comedy short that I’d made with a friend of mine—we used to just make these really ridiculous videos together, just us sitting around filming each other doing stupid things and laughing,” he smiled.
“We showed it to our parents and they said, ‘You look like a moron, don’t let anybody see this,’ and we showed it anyway. At the time I was also writing very serious short films and making them in middle school. Those didn’t get me anywhere. But this one did!”
Then Ehrenreich’s mom got a call from DreamWorks. Ehrenreich went in for a meeting with Spielberg and his head of casting, got an agent, and started figuring out how to jumpstart a bona fide acting career. A few years later—after a few TV guest spots—he landed the Coppola film Tetro, starring opposite Vincent Gallo. Coppola also put him in Twixt, and within a few years he was cast in Richard LaGravanese’s Beautiful Creatures, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Earlier this year he stood out in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar as the terminally twangy Hobie Doyle, stealing every scene he had.
The Spielberg endorsement helped carry his confidence through the first few bruising years of endless auditions and rejections, he laughed. But the roles he did land helped propel him on a path toward his biggest coup to date: playing a young Han Solo in Disney’s untitled, top-secret 2018 standalone prequel movie, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
The spotlight that will come with the highest profile role he’ll likely ever play hasn’t overwhelmed his life just yet, Ehrenreich says. He’s been sworn to secrecy, obviously, and is getting pretty good at deflecting the curious press. “I’m playing Han Solo,” he exclaimed. “I can tell you that!”
But as a kid coming up between the trilogies, which version of Han Solo did he grow up with: the Han that shot first, or the one who, as of 1997, would never?
He burst out laughing, horrified at the conundrum. “Oh God. I don’t have a good answer for that! I don’t have a good way of deflecting that! I don’t remember. So if I grew up with that, then… yeah.” He deflected by changing the subject back to movies, recommending a favorite podcast of his: You Must Remember This, film expert Karina Longworth’s remarkably deep and tantalizing series on old Hollywood and its players.
Ehrenreich explained how he got his name when his parents went to see Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson, with him in the womb and took to the name. He recalled growing up on Turner Classic Movies, hitting Santa Monica’s Aero Theater with his friends in high school to watch the classics.
He’s the rare rising hot Hollywood actor who can name every single repertory cinema in Los Angeles. Maybe movies were always in his DNA. He certainly realizes, with the addition of Beatty’s first film as a director in 14 years, how unusually high his auteur-to-filmography ratio is for an actor of his age.
“I think it’s a weird amount,” he marveled. “I find it remarkable. It’s surreal for me that I’ve gotten to work with so many people who are not only great filmmakers but whose films have had such a direct effect on me. I feel like Francis Ford Coppola’s movies and Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, and now Warren—these are filmmakers whose films I loved so much growing up. I feel really grateful and lucky that I had the opportunity to get to be a small part of their legacy of work.”