Inspired by true events, “Alpha Dog” follows three fateful days when the lives of a group of Southern California teens suddenly dead-ended. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) controls the drugs on the well-manicured streets of his neighborhood.
Where Johnny goes, the party, the girls and his loyal gang follow. When he’s double-crossed over missing deal money by raging hothead Jake (Ben Foster), Johnny and his gang impulsively kidnap Jake’s little brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin), holding him as a marker and heading to Palm Springs.
With no parents in sight, they grow used to having the kid around, and Zack enjoys an illicit summer fantasy of drinking, girls and new experiences. Out in the desert, Johnny and his boys lose sight that the kid is a hostage who can’t just be neatly returned.
As the days tick by, the options of how to get themselves out of their situation start to disappear. Good times turn bad and bad turns worse as Johnny finds himself out of his league and with no idea how to fix it…leading all these players toward a shocking conclusion they never saw coming.
We recently had the chance to sit down with several of the young guys to talk about the project. Amongst them Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Foster and the one and only Justin Timberlake:
Question: It’s fair to say that these characters are morally repulsive. What was the attraction to do this film and how do you feel about the risk involved with portraying someone like that?
Timberlake: First of all, I’d like to thank you for pointing that out. We didn’t really plan out the characters, so we didn’t intend them to be repulsive. The point was to reveal the truth of what was happening in the story. We had all laid so much groundwork all of us as actors. There was so much information on the characters and I think that all of us felt morally responsible for portraying that. It don’t think it’s a stretching statement at all to say that this is a tough movie to watch. This is as close to what happened as we felt like we could make it. As far as the repulsiveness goes, you’ll have to talk to the director about that. He definitely wanted to push that.
Question: Not that you have to justify the character, but did you think it was a risk? Most people want to play sympathetic characters.
Timberlake: My only stipulation for the movie was that I just wanted to crack a couple of jokes here and there. That was it.
Question: Can you comment on your movie career versus the music?
Timberlake: Well I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I haven’t thought that far.
Hatosy: Wait. You have a music career [laughter]?
Timberlake: I know. Yeah, I’m sort of a struggling musician. I’ll give you my demo.
Question: If you still have a copy…
Timberlake: Yeah. I’m sorry I misunderstood that question but to answer that question, for me it was just attractive to be involved [in the film] with great actors and a great director and great material. And that’s what leads me to this film.
Question: How did you guys work together with everybody to establish the characters? Did you guys talk to any of your counterparts and the people who were the actual characters, the various witnesses and all? Also, did you know people who were like this?
Timberlake: Anybody want to jump in?
Hatosy: Nick made us all get together and train actually. So that was helpful for us to get to know each other because I think these characters grew up together, they played sports together, they did everything together; so the opportunity to work out and spend like two months prior to shooting.
Foster: Five days a week, right?
Hatosy: Yeah, that was pretty intense. Five days a week before we started shooting, but I think that was a good idea.
Foster: Yeah, it was nothing short of boot camp.
Hirsch: There is one really funny story though. We had to lift weights and stuff and I got it in my mind that since I was the youngest one, “Yeah, I’m going to make a statement through this work out. And we were doing these exercises where we had these two and a half pound weights but we were doing this thing like a thousand times until your arms were dying. And so I showed up and told Frankie because he was kind of training us and I said we’re moving on to five. And Shawn looks at me and he’s like “Dude, no! No!” And I’m like yea. And I killed myself lifting this five and I only – and as soon as I did [Frankie was like] “You did? You did? Everyone’s doing five.” And so we all did five and it was torture.
Timberlake: Yeah, you made some enemies that day. Thanks a lot.
Hatosy: Yeah, that was awesome.
Question: So have you guys kept it up?
Timberlake: [laughing] Yeah, can’t you tell?
Hatosy: Just take off your shirt. That’s what they want.
Hirsch: That’s what they’re here for.
Question: Getting back to my question, did you have to go and talk to people that experienced this? And did you know people who were actually like this?
Timberlake: I don’t know that I know anyone growing up who specifically like this. But I think you know as an actor its your job to find the relative to play a character, I think you can latch on to some things that might have happened, I think all of us can as kids – kids are cruel. I think that I speak for myself, I actually went with Nick – we traveled to upstate to Cali to go to prison to visit the guy that my character was based off of. Literally, when we signed up for the project, we all got a stack of files. It was like this thick. I mean literally like a novel of files of all the police reports and all the sort of the newspaper reports about what had happened and I know that Nick was able to really get a lot of information. And we really just trusted him with all the information and we all signed up to just do, you know, to portray the truth of what happened. And we followed Nick’s lead on that.
Yelchin: I don’t think it’s scientifically to find similar characters because its relative apathy in general that’s just pervades society. These guys they just took it to a different level you know? With carelessness, or whatever it was. They’re just apathetic. You find that everywhere. It seems shocking when you watch it like how did this happen. But it’s not really when you think about it. Everything is sort of just kind of justified in how ridiculous it is. It just happened and nobody really cared. It’s not hard to find people not caring. It happens all over the world.
Question: There are so many people that witnessed this. One of the brilliant parts of the movie is the on-screen labels if “witness” and “suspect”. Can you speak individually on that, the entire panel on how it was to meet the actual characters and their actual families who let this happen before their eyes?
Timberlake: You know interestingly enough when we screened the film at Sundance I think when we all saw the film, when you see it without an audience you don’t see things like that coming but literally the first half of the film when the witness credit would kind of come people would giggle – at Sundance. So I think that sort of helped support the point it served Anton sort of made. I don’t think that it was, you watch it as those kids, as those characters watched it happened. That’s what I think is sort of special about the film is that you literally watch it through their eyes. No one saw that happening and I think that is sort of the point.
Hirsch: I never met Jesse James in Hollywood. He was sort of on the run at that time. I thought that, his dad was on set almost everyday. And he told a lot interesting stories, and he definitely wanted to get across that he loves his son, and he’s like my kid is a good and it’s complicated talking to a father about his son like that. Because you don’t want to be like oh my god get away from me, you monster. You have to be understanding and reasonable.
Yelchin: Well you know that obviously I didn’t my character but the weird thing is that when you watch the film, kind of like Justin said, the terrible feeling you get at the end of the film is because you liked the characters for the first half of it. When I watched [the film] I thought these are cool guys – I wouldn’t mind spending time with them. And the more you like them, the more you either feel guilty or at least uncomfortable with yourself for liking them. It’s normal. You just spent an hour liking somebody and then you spend the next 45 minutes being shown what you just had affection for and just liked [about them.] And it’s terrible. When I saw it I didn’t really know what to do with myself. And I knew, I knew everything obviously but you watch it and you aren’t sure how you feel. You want to like these people but there’s just no way you can. It’s almost like a paradox.
Timberlake: It’s morally repulsive.
Yelchin: Yeah, yeah it’s morally repulsive.
Question: Were you able to talk to his parents?
Yelchin: No I didn’t. But probably one of the most depressing things I’ve seen was this website they created dedicated to their kid. And they wrote letters about it him. And I looked through that and it was another one of those things I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The only person I really kind of felt clear about was the kid himself because I don’t know how much you can blame the family. How much you can feel bad for them.
You read these like, the mother wrote letters to her son and how she misses him and how she’s lost him and she sees him everyday. And he’s this angel. It’s just heartbreaking but at the same time she drove him away just as much as she loved him and it’s really hard to handle. It’s one of those things that you want to point fingers at everybody but you can’t. The weird thing is that you sort of, the only choice you have is to make sure you don’t do anything similar in your own life – I don’t mean to sound like hahaha you know, but it’s true. All you can do is hope that you are not going to be as selfish.
Question: Did you meet any of the witnesses?
Yelchin: There was actually a guy at Sundance who was like friends with all these -I met this one guy a tall guy that was like …
Timberlake: This movie created…I don’t know – in California, it became like almost like legend. It was really interesting because I found just around town, around Los Angeles and outside of it – I mean literally people would come up to me and say hey you’re doing that movie, on the Jesse James and Nick Markowitz thing right, and they would always label it like that. And I would always say yeah sure and [they would say] yeah, I knew that guy, I knew Jesse James Hollywood.
Like everybody knew somebody that knew him – it became this interesting thing. It actually helped when we were making the film to hear those kinds of things because you realize how kids spread and how young people converse with each other. You can tell immediately that half of the people that would came up to you and sort of tell you about it knew nothing about it. All they knew that he was kidnapped and murdered but they would always be like ‘Yeah I knew him.’ And I found it interesting that through his infamy he became this weird sort of tall tale to these young people who are in some weird way wanting to be involved with it.
Question: Do you have any thoughts on your viewing audience, specifically the younger crowd that will see this film, and what they come away with or you hope they come away with?
Hatosy: I think the theme that we are missing though is that there were a lot of parents that were there that were witnesses as well and they could have done something. So its good for young people to see and its also good for parents to see it because these kids were misguided in every sense. Even the love that Jack Hollywood had for his son was misguided.
Question: Anyone else? What do you feel about the audience who will see this film especially the younger ones?
Hirsch: I think it’s a good cautionary tale in a certain sense because you got this kind of party lifestyle world and get like this is oh it’s so crazy and there is a certain glorification of that. But the glorification is just very inherent. That’s part of the self. That’s the hook that gets you. Then it kind of hits you over the head with reality. And that’s what a lot of this stuff is you know – a lot of the violence in the media, a lot of the music we listen to today there’s the whole myth and when the myth is confronted with the actual reality of acting any of it out in real life, it kind of shatters the myth. And I think that’s what “Alpha Dog” does so I think it’s even more important for young people to see this because as much as every kid may love rap or really violent music or violent video games its good for them to get just a healthy dose of reality so that they don’t think it’s just always going to end riding off into the sunset on a horse with no cops around. It’s good to see consequences.
Question: But it’s rated R.
Hirsch: Well yeah, but young people over 17.
Question: Have any of you considered that you have a role in this myth making by virtue of the fact that you are entertainers. I mean you can talk about rap and all that but it’s not all 50 Cent. Some of the myth making comes and from us too. We are all complacent.
Timberlake: Yeah I find that every conversation I have with anyone after they’ve seen this film is sort of like this group therapy discussion, and rightfully so. I think it’s all in there but I think what this film does is that it doesn’t you know – it’s fun it’s fun it’s fun and then all of a sudden it’s not. And that’s the way it ends and that’s how this story ended. That was the responsibility of us. Yes we are entertainers but this is sort of this is a different theme and what I like about the film is that it doesn’t treat you like a dumbass so to speak. It lets you feel what really happened…I find that 100 percent of the people that I know, like friends that I’ve brought to screenings or anything, they have to speak about the film, they have to talk about it, they have to talk it through. You’re right its not all just rap with any group of kids what I took away from the film is that is how just the little perspective on things can change a humongous outcome in someone’s life and that’s what I took away from it.
Foster: I mean you bring up rap but it’s not rap…
Timberlake: It’s hip-hop damnit! [laughter]
Foster: [laughs] Got it. It’s a violent culture and this is not a film that you can practice kids pulling triggers. It’s just a vacuum of culture. It’s prioritizing things that don’t actually have value. The idea of fast cars and a fast lifestyle and bitches is not solely rap. It’s a Hollywood sort of culture we’ve always had violence images in our society. We’ve always had violence and it’s nothing new. It’s getting worse because we have it, because we don’t have the moral guidelines to guide us along to process these images and these major entertainments. So I just wanted to say it’s not just about rap.
Timberlake: Yeah, I think it’s a short change on the film to say that rap music created this. That’s not what happened.
Hirsch: I would think movies, more than music would…
Foster: We’ve always had violent films. Be it lions attacking gladiators, we’ve always had a form of violent entertainment. People are drawn to that but what is lacking in this society is people guiding us along to find our own morals and ethics. There is just a vacuum right now. And I think that for anybody should watch this film – teens know this film. This isn’t an education for teenagers. We know that young people have this lifestyle. It’s not an exaggeration. This is what it is and I think that’s what drew all of is into participating in it because the script is so authentic. Nick did such and incredible job in documenting it and interviewing with kids for these sequences. When you watch it, it feels legit. I was shocked. I knew these kids. I grew up in Southern California you know. I know these guys. And the fact that it escalated was a lack of guidance and its not movies and its not video games and it’s certainly not hip-hop.
Question: This question is for Justin, what’s the difference in process from acting to music. As opposed to going to a studio for writing and bouncing off all these guys…
Timberlake: There are lots of differences. In creating music you are the writer, the director the producer – you create it from scratch. Obviously in playing a role in a film, you take guidance and put your trust into the director and the writer and also I find it even more collaborative especially with a project like this. You come into it and you really trust the people you are in front of the camera with which was very easy I can’t speak about how amazing the other four actors are here. I was a sponge the whole film just watching all of them.
Well except for Emile (laughs). I was just kidding. It’s sort of like you are playing a position on the team. You are like okay today we need you to play small forward; we don’t need you to play point guard. That’s probably the closest analogy, it’s probably a really crappy analogy but that’s the closet one I can think of off the top of my head is that you play a role and you’re part of a collaborative movement. Obviously, with creating music you are solely responsible for the creation of it. So to wrap your mind around those two things, you definitely approach it differently.
Question: Obviously this is an emotionally charged film. Can you talk about which scenes or parts were the most emotionally challenging for you?
Yelchin: The pool scene was quite challenging for me personally. (laughter)
Timberlake: The pool scene was challenging for us to watch because we weren’t in it. That was just not fair. (laughter)
Hatosy: It was crazy driving Anton’s character up the hill, up to the final scene and actually doing it – walking him up the hill. It’s one thing to do it as an actor but it’s a whole other thing to realize that it happened. I remember going through it thinking ‘God this really happened.’ People were walking by that could have stopped it.
Timberlake: I found that for me personally the hill top scene wasn’t the most challenging for me because I could relate it to so many times when you might have been intoxicated or whatever and something happens and all of a sudden you are not in control of the situation. The reaction to that I didn’t’ find difficult. The most difficult scene for me was with Shawn and I when we were sitting at the hotel sort of on the steps and he’s kind of talking me through why this should happen and for my character to accept that – that was the toughest scene for me to sort of wrap my mind around. I think that for me to get through that scene I just had to accept that his decision was based solely on fear. When you are afraid at the moment, you either don’t take control of the situation and you don’t do the right thing or you let the wrong thing happen and by doing that you don’t do the right thing. That was probably the toughest scene for me to kind of wrap my mind around.
Foster: It took a long time to cool down after this project. [The toughest scene for me was] probably with Sharon [Stone] – when she’s missing her boy and doesn’t know how to deal with that and she starts hitting Jake. The hits are real and that’s a lot of pain to absorb. I got a fantastic bloody nose from it.