Years from now, when Alden Ehrenreich looks back on his Cocaine Bear experience, he’s not going to recall dancing with the title character first and foremost. He’s instead going to think of the two producers who surprised him during his first day on Elizabeth Banks’ rainy Ireland set. Those producers were Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who cast him years earlier as Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film they would ultimately depart in the later stages of principal photography.
“One of the most special days was my first day. [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller, who I’d worked with in the past [on Solo], were there,” Ehrenreich tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t know they were going to be there for my first scene in Ireland, and so they surprised me. We stood in this little corner in Ireland, with the rain coming down, and we were on a set together again. So that felt like a homecoming of sorts.”
The presence of the filmmaking duo can be felt in the aforementioned scene where the Cocaine Bear manhandles Ehrenreich’s character, Eddie, a widower who reluctantly returns to his father’s (played by the late Ray Liotta) drug trafficking business. The sequence harks back to Han’s first time meeting Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in Solo, which is one of the few Lord and Miller-directed scenes to make the final cut.
Besides Cocaine Bear, Ehrenreich has an impressive upcoming slate that includes Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play and Marvel Studios’ Ironheart. While shooting Nolan’s historical epic, the Los Angeles native struck up a friendship with Robert Downey Jr., who he later introduced to Ironheart’s titular star, Dominique Thorne. Her character, Riri Williams, took a lot of inspiration from Downey Jr.’s Iron Man/Tony Stark, so the introduction made perfect sense.
“I just FaceTimed him and was like, ‘Is there something that I need to know before I sign on to this?’ I was like, ‘Is he going to say, “Don’t do it”?’” Ehrenreich says. “But Downey didn’t say that, and I sort of had the honor of introducing [Downey and Thorne]. He is so unfuckingbelievably generous and sweet and giving with his time, and he was so happy to talk to her and encourage her.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Ehrenreich also discusses the “jolt” he felt while working with Liotta in what would become one of his final roles. He then explains how Nolan’s Oppenheimer set inspired him to make a short film after wrapping.
So once you heard the title of Cocaine Bear, did you commit on the spot? Was that all you needed to sign on the dotted line?
(Laughs.) Not quite, but shortly thereafter, I had a good conversation with [director] Elizabeth Banks. We talked about what her take on it was going to be. But the title itself — and the zany, outrageous, audacious premise that it is — was definitely a big part of what made me excited to be in it. It’s pretty rare to have a big studio movie that is this unique and unusual.
When Die Hard became popular, it launched a whole subgenre of Die Hard-type movies on a bus, plane, train, etc. So if Cocaine Bear hits, do you think we’ll get a wave of cocaine-animal movies?
Absolutely! Yeah, there’s going to be a whole cocaine menagerie cinematic universe of sorts.
Your performance as Eddie reaffirms how adept you are at comedy, something Hail, Caesar!, Solo and old bat mitzvah videos also proved.
(Laughs.) [Writer’s Note: Steven Spielberg discovered Ehrenreich through a mutual friend’s bat mitzvah video after being impressed by his comedic chops.]
Do you feel most comfortable with comedy?
Not really. I feel like my favorite stuff is kind of a mixture of the two, and in a way, this movie was as dramatic for me inside of it as anything else I’ve done. You have to play these things for real, and what my character is going through is pretty tragic. All the actors that I grew up really loving always had a kind of dynamism between dramatic stuff and comedic stuff, and that’s the space I like to play in the most.
When you performed the line, “A bear did cocaine!” did you have a feeling that it would end up in the trailer?
Yes. (Laughs.) It felt like that. Anyone could’ve said that in the movie, so I was very happy that I was given it.
The trailer also shows a portion of the sequence where the Cocaine Bear falls on Eddie. What did that look like on the day? Was someone in a green suit smothering you?
Pretty much. He was in a tight black suit, and he had a helmet with a bear face at the end of it. He’s a great creatures performer named Allan [Henry], and he was up in my business in a real way. (Laughs.) And then for that part, they just threw a giant heavy thing on me, if I remember correctly.
Were you at all familiar with the bonkers story of Andrew Thornton?
No, and it’s totally nuts. It’s beyond belief. That era was pretty wild.
Sadly, Cocaine Bear is one of Ray Liotta’s last performances. He plays your father. What’s stuck with you from your short time together?
I’ve had this experience a couple times, but this was one of the ones that really stood out. When you admire somebody’s work and then you get this front row seat to play with them, you feel firsthand the power that this person has as an actor. And so we got to do these tiny but big dramatic scenes. It was father-and-son stuff, and that was really gratifying. And Liz let us fuck around with those and get into it and improvise a little bit. So he was doing some improvisation, and I got this jolt from remembering when I was a little kid, watching Goodfellas or Narc. So it was great, and I’m sad that I won’t get a chance to work with him again.
Sari is Keri Russell’s character’s name, and it also happens to be a name that means something to you. [Writer’s Note: Alden’s mother is named Sari.]
(Ehrenreich gasps.) Wow, you are good.
Is this a total coincidence even though it’s an uncommon name?
It is a total coincidence. It’s really bizarre. It’s still weird for me to hear it, and it was weird for me when I was reading it on the page.
So you guys shot Ireland for Georgia?
Yeah, the last couple years I shot a movie [Cocaine Bear] that takes place in [Georgia], in Ireland, a movie [Fair Play] that takes place in Midtown Manhattan, in Serbia, a movie [Oppenheimer] that takes place in D.C., in Santa Fe, and then a show [Ironheart] that takes place in Chicago, in Atlanta. So that’s what all this stuff looks like now. But I’d always wanted to go to Ireland. I’m a little bit Irish, a teensy bit. I’m also a big fan of Irish writers like [James] Joyce and [W.B.] Yeats. So it was really thrilling to get to go there, and I got to go to the Abbey Theatre. I also just love the people. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.
So in between bowls of plain penne pasta, did you and O’Shea Jackson discuss the fact that he had scenes on Obi-Wan Kenobi with Han Solo’s future wife, Leia?
He would talk about that. I don’t have a great grasp on the whole universe that’s come after mine at this point, but yeah, he was into it. And Keri is in Star Wars [The Rise of Skywalker], too. It was a real Star Wars alum situation.
I’m always badgering your former co-workers for more Solo because I really loved what you and Emilia Clarke did in that movie.
Do you think Han eventually figured out that Qi’ra left him in order to protect him from Maul, as well as other Crimson Dawn enemies?
It’s a great question. We’ll see. I have no idea. I haven’t heard the term Crimson Dawn in a long time.
Cocaine Bear isn’t the only Universal Pictures film you’ve made recently. So what can you tell about your experience on that epic historical drama that’s coming out this summer?
[Oppenheimer] was just terrific. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve gotten to work for master filmmakers like that, and it was so thrilling just because of the way people feel on set all day long. It’s a different quality. Everyone’s super focused. They’re bringing their A game. They’re honored to be able to be a part of it, and you just feel in the hands of this master. All of my scenes are with Robert Downey Jr., and we developed a really nice friendship. And then when Ironheart happened right after, I got to call him and talk to him about it before I started. I also wrote and directed a 15-minute short right after, and being around [Christopher] Nolan right before that was such a huge kind of cinephilic and inspirational thing.
Was there a moment early on where you realized why he has the reputation that he has?
Yeah, the level of specificity and detail and control that he has on set and his complete dogged commitment to all of that is so inspiring. He is not afraid to demand every piece of it be the way he wants it to be, and that was really great. It’s very pared down. There’s no stand-ins. There’s no fat on the bone. This is the filmmaking experience everybody kind of lives. People don’t have big fancy trailers, and he is controlling every aspect of that set to his liking. And that’s a great, great feeling to be a part of. When you surrender to somebody’s vision and just trust it, it makes such a huge difference.
So did the reaction to Fair Play, especially Netflix’s reaction, just completely bowl you over?
Yeah, that was one of these rare and really wonderful experiences where something has this life and this reaction that you didn’t necessarily expect. And the Sundance experience was really cool. You’re talking to people on the ground who have just seen the movie and have just had these genuine, very emotional experiences with the movie and with a story that maybe they’d lived but had never seen before on screen. So that’s my favorite thing. It’s when somebody gets something out of a movie on that depth level, and it really was a privilege to be able to hear it, first person.
Going back to Ironheart, I actually met Dominique Thorne recently, but what sort of advice did Downey Jr. give you?
Well, it wasn’t so much advice. He was talking about “microdosing” commercial projects alongside artistic ones, and then right before I said yes to it, I just FaceTimed him and was like, “Is there something that I need to know before I sign on to this?” I was like, “Is he going to say, ‘Don’t do it’”? I think they asked Harrison Ford before [Solo] what he would say to the next Han Solo, and he said, “Don’t do it.” But Downey didn’t say that, and I sort of had the honor of introducing [Downey and Thorne]. They didn’t know each other and hadn’t talked yet, so I put them in contact with each other. He is so unfuckingbelievably generous and sweet and giving with his time, and he was so happy to talk to her and encourage her. So that was really nice.
Do the machines of Marvel and Lucasfilm feel similar at all?
[Ironheart] felt really different. I think I was a part of a very different … At this point, the Star Wars universe is a lot more expansive, but at the time [of Solo], it was just a movie a year. So Ironheart was a much more laid-back experience for a lot of reasons, but similarly, the people there are excited and fun while the kid in them is coming alive. So it was nice to be back in that kind of environment.
So as we just discussed, you have the buzzy comedy in Cocaine Bear, the prestige blockbuster in Oppenheimer, the Sundance Darling in Fair Play and the Marvel series in Ironheart. What do you chalk your well-rounded 2023 slate up to? [Writer’s Note: This interview took place before THR reported that Ironheart may bow out of 2023.]
It’s mostly just chance. I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity to work a lot more. The Cocaine Bear experience was such a good time that I was really revved up and excited to go act again. And I also wasn’t really interested in working before I was vaccinated. It just seemed like one too many things to have to consider on set. So it’s all really exciting, but it’s not by any particular design. Those were just the projects and the parts that came about and that I just responded to and liked. So I love doing it, and I’m very, very grateful that I have all of those this year.
Many decades from now, when your great-grandchildren ask you about the time you made Cocaine Bear, what day will you tell them about first?
(Laughs.) O’Shea and I had such a ball doing all these different things. Going into the river was really fun. Driving around in the truck was really fun and doing the whole kind of dance shuffle with the bear. But one of the most special days was my first day. I did the scene in the bar, and [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller, who I’d worked with in the past [on Solo], were there. I didn’t know they were going to be there for my first scene in Ireland, and so they surprised me. We stood in this little corner in Ireland, with the rain coming down, and we were on a set together again. So that felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Cocaine Bear opens in theaters on Feb. 24th. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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