Exclusive Interview with Anton Yelchin from 'Alpha Dog'

Anton Yelchin and Amanda Seyfried star in Alpha Dog
Anton Yelchin and Amanda Seyfried in Alpha Dog. © Universal Pictures

Alpha Dog follows a group of bored LA teens led by small-time drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch). At Johnny's urging, the gang kidnaps Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin), the younger brother of one of their druggie buddies who owes them money. Over the course of three days, Zack is taken to parties, hangs out with the group, and even sort of becomes friends with the guy (Justin Timberlake) assigned to watch over him.

But things go downhill fast when Johnny Truelove figures out the police aren't going to just let them all just walk away after having kidnapped Zack.

Yelchin has been building up a solid reputation in dramatic movies since making his feature film debut in the 1999 indie film, A Man is Mostly Water. When writer/director Nick Cassavetes was looking to cast Alpha Dog, inspired by the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, he chose the now 18-year-old Yelchin for the role of kidnap victim Zack Mazursky because of his impressive resumé.

Cassavetes was quoted as saying about his casting choice, “Anton is able to bring all of the conflicting emotions of Zack — his need to please, his need for independence, his rejection of his upbringing, his devotion to his brother. A lot of the female characters tend to treat him like a lost puppy, but he’s not that simple. He’s got bite, but he’s at odds with where he is in his life, confused with no longer being a kid but not yet a man.

Anton conveys all of that beautifully."

In support of the release of Alpha Dog on DVD, Yelchin talked to About.com about his role in the film and life on the set.

Were you ever worried about taking on a true story?
“Well, everybody always emphasized that it was based on it, but I did feel a great deal of responsibility just knowing that this happened to someone and that even though it was ‘based on it’, that person had to go through something so awful.

So especially in that last scene, I felt sort of… You always want to be as realistic as possible, to the full extent of my abilities or whatever, but I just felt sort of this really had to be as real as I could make it, as real as I could imagine. I tried to pressure myself more and more to see how it would feel, just because of how terrible it was. But otherwise, I tried to keep in mind that it was just based on a true story. It was Nick’s interpretation of what it all meant.”

What research did you do on your own?
“I talked to a historian, Mike Mehas, he’s writing a book about this whole event and he was on set. I talked to him a lot about the family dynamic to try to understand why this kid would have run away in the first place. And it was pretty evident in the script, just the way the script was written, but it was cool for me to find out about the family. I just [did] that kind of research so I could understand sort of the background about the character.”

Was there anything you learned from the research that you might not have gotten from just reading the script?
“Not so much, actually, because the script was really, really well-structured. It just had a lot of layers, and so everything was pretty much there.

I found out extra information I thought was interesting.”

Such as?
“Just about the father, things that were mentioned, really, that sort of were not as emphasized in the script. You know, that he has a kid from a different marriage. You don’t know as much about that marriage. You see that the father was sort of out of the picture, doing what he wanted to do, but you don’t see that too much, you know? Things of that sort. Learning just specific things, really, about what the situation was in the family. There’s also a sister, I believe. Things like that from another marriage.”

Was this a tough character to play?
“I don’t think so. I think any emotions that he feels are pretty much similar to most teenagers. I’ve felt them; I think everybody feels them. I think it’s like they say you always want to push against what everybody’s telling you, even though it may not seem like the most rational thing to do.

But it just seems like people are trying to convince you of things, just because you’re your age. He sort of just felt constricted home. His mother was making him feel claustrophobic, you know? Everybody’s felt that. He just had the situation where his brother was such a crazy character that he was just like the most liberal individual that he could probably think of. He’s a Jewish neo-Nazi – that’s nuts! And so he just wanted to be as free as his brother was. He ran away and then he got kidnapped by his brother’s friends, and it sort of makes sense, you know? He wants to stay with his brother’s friends because they’re the closest people around him at that point, to his brother. They’re not his mom, so it’s all good.”

And that’s why he ends up trusting Johnny Truelove and his group, right?
“Exactly, yes.”

Obviously writer/director Nick Cassavetes isn’t a teenage boy so how well did he do writing dialogue for people your age?
“I think it’s pretty accurate. Everything that I read was – I hear it all the time. I know a lot of people had problems with the amount of profanity and they thought it was ridiculous, but I thought it was pretty realistic. I mean I talked to some people that were like, ‘We were offended by the amount of tattoos.’”

That’s a weird thing to take offense to.
“Yeah, I know. But literally they were like, ‘We don’t like tattoos. I liked the film, but I don’t like tattoos so that was offensive to me.’ People have tattoos. A lot of my friends, when they turn 18, have been getting tattoos. But I think people close their eyes to a lot of things, so I thought it was pretty ridiculous.”

Page 2: Anton Yelchin on Justin Timberlake, the Body Cast, and Charlie Bartlett

Most of the cast went through weeks of training together but you weren’t a part of that, were you?
“Yeah, I sort of stayed out of that. They were all supposed to have known each other, their characters.”

Did that make it a little difficult for you on the set because all the other actors had already bonded?
“Well, yeah. I mean, I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but subconsciously I just didn’t know anyone, really.

They all knew each other; they had hung out a lot. But I just sort of came in there and like got to know everyone just the way the character did.”

Before working with Justin Timberlake had you given much thought to how he would handle the transition from pop star to actor?
“No, I didn’t really have any expectations or anything. I was sort of like hoping he would be a good guy, which he is. He is a really good guy. He’s really dedicated to work with, so it was all good.”

The movie focuses on the drug cultural of bored middle-class teens, but what do you think is the underlying moral of the story?
“I think for me it’s about people being absolutely apathetic all the time, you know? They see, but they just don’t care. They’re either living some sort of image that they want to live in, you know, whatever, or they’re just too busy with their own lives and constructing their own lives without realizing that you can’t live your life without paying attention to others.

That has a bunch of different outcomes, but in this story it has an awful outcome. The result is so tragic and it’s all because nobody from the teenage girls to parents themselves paid any attention and didn’t care. That, to me, is the most important thing. I think it’s not just parents, even though parents are a big part of it.

It’s everybody. We live in a really apathetic culture.”

Were you ever able to meet any of the real people who inspired the true story?
“No. Well, I met a couple of people, like the guy that was making my body cast. Initially there was a dead body cast and the guy that was making my body cast went to school with Nick and all those guys and Jesse James Hollywood and stuff.”

Did he tell you anything about them?
“No, he just said they were quiet, just quiet. He didn’t really hang out with them. I met a bunch of guys like that age, they’re in their early 20’s and they knew all of them.”

You had to do a body cast?
“Yes.”

What was that process like?
“I think it was just my head. Yeah, it was just my head because they were just going to make the rest of the body. But they just put stuff on you, it was pretty cool. I imagined it would be claustrophobic, but it wasn’t. It was interesting. I enjoyed it.”

It seems like it would be pretty freaky.
“I don’t know. It was one of just those kind of movie magic things, that’s the way I approached it. You know, like going to Universal Studios and taking the tour. It was similar to that – except happening to me.”

And your next film, Charlie Bartlett, is premiering at Tribeca.
“Yeah, it’s going to be at Tribeca and it’s coming out August 3rd.”

What’s that film about?
“Well that one, it’s about this kid, Charlie Bartlett, who goes to a high school and starts dealing prescription drugs to all the kids and becomes like the school psychiatrist. Robert Downey Jr’s in it. It’s like a nice, nice sort of touching comedy - not sad at all. Just a very pleasant comedy with bizarre characters…”

Is that refreshing after all these dramatic roles you’ve been doing?
“Yes, it was great. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do that. I’m not complaining. Everything that I’ve worked on, I’ve wanted to work on and it was a learning experience for me. But it was nice to get to be funny and stuff for a change.”