”I do suck fat. I will suck the fat off my steak,” actress Alice Englert warns as she slides into a booth at Musso & Frank in Hollywood on a dreary, overcast day. “I just want to prepare you in advance that I’m known to be disgusting when I eat steak.” Alden Ehrenreich, her co-star in the new film “Beautiful Creatures,” is unfazed by her eagerness. Perhaps it’s because after enduring a shoot involving sweltering, 90-degree Louisiana days, food poisoning and Southern accents, the two on-screen sweethearts have an easy familiarity. Or maybe it’s that they’re enjoying a few final days of relative anonymity before their movie breaks wide and the critics and masses will determine whether the film, a supernatural tale of young love, becomes a phenomenon on the order of “Twilight” or falls flat as a pale imitation. The four-book “Beautiful Creatures” series from authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl has sold 1.3-million copies in the US and currently resides at No 2 on the New York Times children’s bestseller list. Teenage girls and their mothers are eager for the big-screen adaptation, which centers on a group of witches hidden in a small, conservative Southern town. Likewise, Hollywood would welcome a film that fills the void left by the conclusion of the “Twilight” series.
Englert, 18, and Ehrenreich, 23, come from opposite ends of the world: she from Australia, the daughter of famed director Jane Campion (“The Piano”); he from Pacific Palisades, raised by an interior-designer mum and orthodontist stepdad — and discovered by Steven Spielberg.
“I’m excited by this movie,” said Englert before ordering a 16-ounce porterhouse steak with French fries. “It’s a mainstream genre movie, and it still manages to have interesting things to say.”
In a twist on the new crop of girl-centric fantasies, “Beautiful Creatures” centres on a restless teenager, Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich), who longs for a life outside of the fictional town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where small-mindedness reigns. With an ambition for attending a faraway college and a love of banned literature, he is smitten when the mysterious Lena Duchannes (Englert) turns up.
But other locals are unwelcoming, and the 15-year-old harbors her own secret — as a member of a family of witches, or casters, her soul will be “claimed” for good or evil when she turns 16. The supporting cast includes Viola Davis, Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson.
Initially, Ehrenreich was sceptical of the project. The actor, whose first feature was Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro,” hadn’t read the script but wasn’t enthused about the generic pitch he received.
“It sounded like something that had been done before in a genre that’s been done,” recalled Ehrenreich, taking a sip of his vodka martini and weighing whether to give his extra olive to his costar. “You’re always wary of that. ... Hollywood isn’t making personal films but films that are repackaged from what worked last week.”
Both Englert and Ehrenreich had come close to landing roles in big studio movies before “Beautiful Creatures”: Englert got close on “Snow White and the Huntsman” (which eventually went to “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart), while Ehrenreich engaged in a rigorous stunt and weight-training programme before his “Spider-Man” screen test, only to be passed over for Andrew Garfield. Those experiences hardened them, making each believe they were better suited to the world of independent filmmaking — where competition with big stars wasn’t as stiff.
Englert said “Creatures” producer Erwin Stoff had to coax her in for a meeting — she was sure they would choose someone more famous for the role of Lena, and that going would be a waste of time.
“I thought the fact they wanted to meet me was silly. I knew they weren’t going to cast me. I knew they would get to that stage and then they would cast one of the people on the list. There is always a list. My mother’s a director, I’ve seen the list,” said Englert. “It’s a good way to go into this industry, knowing how basic the decisions can be. You really have to love doing it and know that you are not likely to make any money doing it.”
Ehrenreich, who had first been approached about the role when he was a senior at NYU, joined the cast at the last minute, after the actor who was originally cast, British-born Jack O’Connell, dropped out. Ehrenreich said he was sold by the third page of writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s script.
Englert came aboard after finding her vision for Lena meshed with LaGravenese’s, a veteran screenwriter-director who penned “Water for Elephants” and wrote and directed “P.S. I Love You” among other titles.
“The girl should be like Sigourney Weaver,” Englert said, between bites of steak (and sopping up the gravy with her fingers). “I didn’t want her angst-driven because I thought that was a cliché way of looking at teenage life.”
The duo headed to Louisiana last spring to meet up with the rest of LaGravenese’s cast, including Davis (who plays Ethan’s surrogate mother), Irons (who plays Lena’s uncle) and Thompson (an evil witch trapped in the body of a conservative mother). While the trio of industry stalwarts were supportive of their young leads, Englert and Ehrenreich said they felt pressure on the set — especially Ehrenreich, who only had a week to master a Southern accent.
Perhaps that explains one particularly embarrassing moment: One day, Thompson came over to cheer Ehrenreich up over a scene that wasn’t going well, and he accidentally tripped and fell on top of the Academy Award-winning actress.
And a bout of food poisoning led to his first day with Davis being a constant battle with his stomach. “It was 90 degrees. I was wearing a wool Civil War uniform and in between each take I was running to the bathroom. That day was all about don’t puke on Viola Davis,” said Ehrenreich with a laugh.
While Davis tried mothering Ehrenreich into drinking a home remedy of Italian bitters, she said the young actors didn’t need much guidance.
“I found them both extraordinarily mature. Very authentic,” said Davis by phone from Atlanta, where she’s filming her next movie. “I saw them as peers, not as two young people out to find a movie to gain celebritydom.”
Early interest in the Warner Bros./Alcon Entertainment film is strong, with the Valentine’s Day release on track to earn close to $20 million for the four-day weekend. And though the reviews have been middling, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr praises Ehrenreich for his “mischievous, down-to-earth sanity,” while the Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey says “there is a distinctive quality and depth to Englert’s acting that has the feel of something special.”
Whether the fans of “Beautiful Creatures” can propel the film beyond the reviews remains to be seen, but the actors, who are contracted for the next two books, would be eager to reprise their roles.
“In the past you’ve had whole generations of young actors and you know what they can do,” he said, gnawing on the T-bone. “That’s not there right now because the parts aren’t there, so you don’t get to see how good people are. There aren’t great parts. It’s why I did this movie. I loved my part.”
Just two weeks after “Beautiful Creatures” debuts, Ehrenreich will be seen in the Nicole Kidman-starrer “Stoker,” and has landed a part in Woody Allen’s next feature. Likewise, Englert is not wasting any time. Next up is her role opposite Elle Fanning in Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa,” opening March 15, while her indie horror film “In Fear” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Englert, like a bright star, is charismatic and effusive, helplessly unaware of her table manners yet very self-attuned to the challenges of her chosen profession.
“I really hope to be sucked dry by this career. I want them to take everything I could give and then move away,” she said, running her fingers through her long, brown locks. “I don’t want to hang on to something where the hanging on overcomes the rest of it.”