SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Brave New World,” streaming now on Peacock.
Alden Ehrenreich is no stranger to stepping into the worlds of iconic intellectual property: In 2013 he starred in the big-screen adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s “Beautiful Creatures” and in 2018 joined the “Star Wars” universe as the titular Han Solo in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” Now, comes his first television series regular role as John the Savage in David Wiener’s take on Aldous Huxley’s early 1930s novel “Brave New World.”
In the nine-episode first season of the futuristic dystopia, John saved an Alpha and a Beta from New London from a bloody attack during their vacation to the Savage Lands, where he grew up, only for him to learn that his true roots were in the caste-driven system of New London too. He traveled there with them, and was seen as both a hot commodity and a virus, depending on who you asked. John fell in love with the Beta he saved (Lenina, played by Jessica Brown Findlay) but still struggled with many ways of life in New London, including how everyone shut off their moods through a drug called Soma and especially how some people were created simply to serve others in the system. He opened up many others’ eyes (including Lenina) to that unfairness and the possibility of other ways of living, which led to an even bloodier event than the one that landed him in New London in the first place.
Let’s start at the end. How do you feel John is most changed by his experiences in the first season?
Well, I don’t know. I think he sees himself as having changed, but some of that is still to be found out in whatever more of this show there is to happen. We see a person who is different, but he has yet to do anything or say anything about that. What are his new plans? How does Lenina live in his heart at this point?
It’s a good point because although they had this great love affair, they end up apart, and his new way of living, in particular, appears quite solitary and sad. How did you feel about where he ends up?
Over the course of the last episode he starts to see his own actions and takes responsibility for them and realizes that what he does has consequences. He gets through this sort-of persecution complex and starts to see that he doesn’t have carte blanche just because he’s felt out of control forever. He has to own these things. And so I feel like that’s a much better place to be in, in being right with yourself. And whether that adds up to the romance of the love affair, I don’t think that’s over. I think there’s more to that; certainly I think he’s going to go after it. But whatever he does next is going to be from a place that’s a lot more clear-eyed than who he’s been through this season — who was being driven by feelings that were beyond him. And in my personal feelings, whatever happens after that is better as a result.
So you see the hope in it.
I feel hopeful in a certain sense because of who we see at the very end of the show. That’s a person that is seeing the world a lot more clearly and is a little past some of the things that held them in their grips since childhood.
Where the show leaves him is very different from that of the book. How do you think your John the Savage compares to the book’s?
In the book John has, from Shakespeare, this romantic and large sense of what life should be and that it’s very much about love and feelings and emotional things and depth. And that looks different in the series — maybe it’s more of an American sense of romanticism — but it’s still the same plight and the same cause, which is this sense that life should be more and people should be giving themselves to feelings. For me that was really exciting, not entirely unlike “Solo” where you’re the character in the midst of this enormous and incredibly dominant and overbearing system and you have a feeling or a belief that you’re fighting to get across. I’ve always responded to characters like that.
What informed the way you wanted John to move through the worlds, first in the Savage Lands and then in New London?
It’s always a beautiful thing when you start seeing the costumes and you start seeing the sets. That just clarifies it a little bit more and gets it in your body. But it’s all about the people around him — the way in which the relationships he’s in are completely different. He goes from being totally the bullied runt of this town and a low man on the totem pole and everyone around him has a kind of power over him because of his mom and because of being this object of ridicule, and then he gets to the new world and everybody’s fascinated by him. And I think at first it feels like, “Oh they’re making me into some small thing again” and it takes him a moment, but then he realizes, “Oh no, actually I have a kind of power over them.” That happens in the middle of the season, and that got really fun — where he realizes that even though these people are sophisticated in these other ways, they’re actually quite naive and quite gullible and “I can start doing things I’ve always dreamt of doing.” I think the guy you see later was inside of him in the Savage Lands, he just didn’t have a way to express it there.
Do you feel the person he got to be in New London was who he truly was, or did he just get swept up in a life he didn’t expect?
I think it’s not who he is; I think what he really wants and dreams of is to have a deep, connective, larger than life love, and take his stand there. But what’s also true is he’s been essentially a nerd — or whatever the Savage Lands equivalent of a nerd would be — for so long that it’s irresistible to not take advantage of this newfound power and popularity and that people are attracted to him and want to sleep with him and all of these things. It seduces him for a moment, but it’s kind of like that “Twilight Zone” episode where this guy goes to the afterlife and he says, “OK I want to win at craps every time,” but after a while, he says, “Can I lose once in awhile?” Eventually he says, “If this is heaven, I don’t want to be here,” and they’re like, “What makes you think this is heaven?” So in that same sense, once he gets all of that superficial popularity, he realizes that there’s no there there. And he turns away from that.
And during the time he is swept up in it, he also just experienced both his mother and father’s deaths, and he’s not really dealing with that trauma.
Certainly. He’s being seduced by the New London equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll. And he is on drugs — he’s on Soma for the first time ever and going with that. Fundamentally he has an integrity and a belief system that he goes away from for awhile and wakes up in the equivalent of the rock star hotel room at 6 in the morning with vomit on the carpet and goes, “F— this s—.”
John does reject New London’s ways for awhile, but he ends up putting the eye implant in anyway. What did you need for him to feel in order to justify that drastic action?
There’s an emotional leveling and losing hope and being like, “F— it.” He gets this shot with Lenina to have what he’s really wanted forever, which is this big love, and he can’t do it because he is too overwhelmed by all of these complicated feelings. And I think that’s what’s really strong about the show: It poses a lot of very interesting philosophical questions about how societies function, but it really lives inside the most complicated version possible about what these characters are going through emotionally. That’s really where each scene resides, and that’s really the point of each scene — that thousand different variations on how these people are affected emotionally or repressed emotionally. There was something so interesting to me about how jealous [John] gets and how the thing he wants the most he’s not willing to lose, but he has trouble with those feelings. And there is an interesting thing I remember talking with David about a lot: There is a version of this show where we become monogamous and then the society finds out and has to tear us apart, and that’s the force of antagonism that we’re up against. And that is the more traditional way to go, but he made a very conscious choice to make it be the sides of us — and John in particular — that can’t deal with it, that is threatening to break us apart.
There are moments where John is the only one who can feel anything. Was it complicated to find the level of emotion you wanted to deliver, knowing you would be opposite actors who were keeping things severely muted?
No, I think the contrast there is nice. And it definitely changes because he’s not really safe, except in these moments with Lenina. So he is in a more emotionally erratic constant state than the rest of them. His sense of purpose makes the character very active.
How does having source material affect your interest in a project and what you want to do with a character?
You have a sense of the world from the start, and it conveys a level of intelligence to it that I think adds something for me. “Brave New World” is different from the average, run of the mill dystopia or utopia series because you know that there’s a level of philosophical depth and emotional depth to it from the book. I had an experience, I guess seven years now, doing a movie called “Beautiful Creatures” that was based on a book, and it was the first time I’d done this, and I felt the only way to really serve it and do it is to treat the script like the script. You know what the basic feeling of the source material is and you make sure the [adaptation] is capturing its essence, but then you go off of the story you have to tell. And certainly in something like “Star Wars,” if you’re too constantly aware of all of the other stuff that came before, you just can’t move, you can’t do anything.
How does that expectation affect what you do?
With Han Solo, there are more specific things you have to do to make it rhyme because people have a visual sense and they know what the character has looked like and talked like and all of these things. But I think once you ingest the source material and it’s in you, the best way to serve it is just to give yourself to it and make it as personal to you as you possibly can and trust that it will be more alive as a result.
“Brave New World” was written so long ago and the show of course expands on some of the themes and fears about society, given where the world is today. What piece of it do you find to be the most cautionary tale?
Ultimately what the show ended up being is way more resonant than I even understood when we were doing it. It hadn’t been fully written when we started, so it evolved as we went, but the thing that really caught me was my first meeting with David. I’m going to butcher the exactitude of this story, but he told me this story about George Orwell, who was a student of Aldous Huxley, and Aldous Huxley wrote him a letter after [Orwell] wrote “1984” saying basically, “Great job with the book — it’s a great book — but my concern for the future is not that there’s going to be an overtly totalitarian Big Brother that takes us and controls us, I’m concerned that we’re going to be so lazy and unaware and our servitude is going to be made so comfortable and convenient for us that we are going to happily and willingly recline into their hands.” And that resonates way more to me every time I click “yes” to some [online] permission I’m being asked to click to — that I don’t read at all because I don’t have the time or patience to read through the thing. That’s a vision of the world to me that feels very dangerous.
Is there a cause you care about right now — a charity or a general issue in the world — that you feel is helping create a better vision of the world?
I’ve been working with United Way for the last couple of years. Having grown up in Los Angeles, the blind eye we turn to the people who are living outside is, I think, something we will all look back on in the way we’ve come to look back on other things with a lot of shame and a lot more awareness. The work that they’re doing of creating more affordable housing, both for the people who are currently homeless and also for the many people, especially post-COVID, who are a paycheck away from homelessness matters a lot. And also there’s a broader cultural recognition that these are people and we can’t keep telling ourselves that the system we’ve built isn’t working for people [without also] recognizing that a lot of the people who are on the streets are the result of that system, and you have to deal with them empathetically.
Things you didn’t know about Alden Ehrenreich:
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
How he unwinds on set: “I always read.”
Last book he read: “The Stories of Bernard Malamud”
Last show he binge-watched: “Hillary”
Hidden talent: “I’m a great whistler.”