LOS ANGELES - There's a storm brewing at the box office, set to leave an enchanted path for two young actors in its wake.
This weekend, Alden Ehrenreich, 23, and Alice Englert, 18, transform into Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural love story based on the popular southern Gothic young-adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, that - to quote Hollywood - fills an empty slot left by a money-minting machine called Twilight.
To Ehrenreich and Englert, Creatures is a nuanced, wit-infused departure from the vampire-meets-mortal franchise (no offense). To the world, they may be the new Edward and Bella.
Ehrenreich plays Ethan Wate, a frustrated (mortal) teenager whose book collection provides an intellectual oasis inside the conservative community of Gatlin, S.C. Enter new student Lena Duchannes (Englert), a magnetic free spirit with frightening abilities. She's a Caster, what the series calls its witch-like creatures whose strengthening powers turn Light (good) or Dark (evil) at a Claiming on her rapidly approaching 16th birthday.
Creatures, currently No. 6 on the USA TODAY Best-Selling Books list, has sold 1.3 million copies of its four-book series, The Caster Chronicles, nationwide. It has been translated into 27 languages and comes complete with its own curse-laden mythology. Helmed by director Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You), the film adaptation was seen as a likely star-maker; the kind of film that launches careers, segues into merchandise and funds homes in the Hollywood Hills.
Magic dusted the casting, with Oscar darlings Emma Thompson, Viola Davis and Jeremy Irons interested. There was only one hiccup: The two young, largely unknown stars LaGravenese wanted for his leads hadn't called him back.
"I'll be honest with you, the reason I really wanted to meet them and talk with them is because neither one of them wanted to do it," says LaGravenese, who adapted the 600-page novel into a screenplay that he says honors the characters while slightly altering the original tale to make a cohesive standalone film. "I had to go after them."
Today, on a sunny patio at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ehrenreich and Englert sit side-by-side at the lunch table, volleying questions, teasing each other like siblings and debating the menu. (It'll be the scallops and prawns for him; a burger and a "flat white" coffee for her. "It's not a L.A. kind of coffee," the Australian actress explains of her native drink. "It's just a little fattening, yummy thing.")
As his big-pawed puppy, Addie, curls up under the table, Ehrenreich stows his copy of 100 Years of Solitude. The Prius owner is a young Luddite; his flip phone rests on the table. It has one app (Yellow Pages), which sort of works. "I just decided to scale down and simplify," he says. "I had an iPhone. I was just done."
With Englert poised to move to London, her worldly possessions are currently sitting in her hotel room: "I've just got one bag," she says, filled with her uniform of skirts and sweaters.
Born in Sydney, Englert was happy existing in the indie world as a mortal 17-year-old when the project surfaced. "You don't want to remake something that's just been made, as an actor," she says, referencing The Twilight Saga's long shadow. "I passed. I mostly saw (Creatures as) a studio film, and I'd done nothing. I've done small films but that's still nothing in Hollywood." But producers kept e-mailing her. "The subtext was, 'You silly, silly girl, stop being silly and come and meet us,' " she laughs. When she finally read the script, "I just loved it. I was terrified I wouldn't get it. And then did one audition and did."
Filled with sly humor and ghostly Civil War references, Creatures soon ensnared Ehrenreich. After meeting the director, "I saw immediately that what Richard was doing with this had its own DNA from anything else like it and had its own intelligence and wit," he says. "Within two pages of reading the script I knew I wanted to do the film."
The photogenic pair never did one chemistry test together. Just weeks after being cast, rehearsal began full steam in New Orleans.
From book to screen
Told from Ethan's perspective in print, "you do still feel like it's Ethan's story," says Garcia, who visited the set with Stohl. "Alden is so much like Ethan. He's so funny and brave and open on screen that I think he feels like the main protagonist even though it is a love story."
The authors say they always imagined Irons as patriarch Macon Ravenwood, a wealthy town recluse determined to protect his niece. When LaGravenese cast Irons, "I thought Richard was joking," Garcia adds.
"My earlier drafts were the entire book," says LaGravenese. "But for me, I didn't feel anything for characters as much because there was too much plot and too much magic and too many devices. So I reinvented - I haven't read the other books yet - but I reinvented, because this (film) can stand on its own as a great love story and a great adventure and a great story of a girl claiming herself - for herself."
"He took the mythology really seriously," Stohl says."We trusted him and we really went with him."
LaGravenese wooed Davis by fusing together the character of Ethan's trusted family friend and the town librarian. "I knew that I would only get an actress of her caliber if there was a challenge to the part in some way. And the same for Emma." Thompson took on the role of Sarafine, a deeply powerful Dark Caster who swoops into Gatlin and inhabits the body of the ultra-religious town crier Mrs. Lincoln, plotting to overtake Lena's Claiming.
"When Richard LaGravanese said to me, 'There's not going to be any CGI, you're just going to have to act one (character) and then the other immediately afterwards,' I said, 'Off we go,' " says Thompson. "That's such a wonderful acting challenge. And something I enjoyed more than I can say."
What resulted is a distinct brew of supernatural storytelling. "I think that even though it deals with the mystical, with the supernatural, all the characters and all the players are very three dimensional and very human and still very familiar," Davis says.
Fame is brewing
It doesn't go unnoticed that just over the roof of LACMA, a billboard with Englert's and Ehrenreich's faces hangs on the skyline. Fame is calling, and fans are starting to scream at signings.
"I'm in denial," says Englert.
"It's still uncertain what exactly the mountain we're climbing is," adds Ehrenreich.
Earplugs may help upon ascension. "They're both incredibly literate and they have no interest in this sort of celebrity fame scene," says LaGravanese. "They're a really new exciting generation to me of the sort of post-reality TV celebrity-for-celebrity's-sake generation, and they're into doing really interesting work."
"We have a zero tolerance policy about not going online, not Googling (reaction). Because there's no reason to do that," says Ehrenreich. "Imagine going online and hearing some horrible thing about yourself."
Davis, who laughs recalling a scene in which Ehrenreich watched in horror as she drank a glass of raw scrambled-egg mixture, mistaking it for orange juice, marvels at their composure on set. "Listen, I'm going to put it out there that I think the movie is going to be very successful, and it absolutely is riding on their shoulders," she says. "It's a huge responsibility. But I did not see that. I did not see two actors who were aware of that."
Their childhoods were worlds apart. Raised by his mom, an interior designer, and stepdad, an orthodontist, Ehrenreich grew up in the Palisades, just outside of L.A.. At 14, he and a friend made videos, including a funny short for a cousin's friend's bat mitzvah, which Steven Spielberg happened to attend. A week later, Ehrenreich found himself at Spielberg's daughter's birthday party. DreamWorks had a project he might be right for. "And that's how I got an agent," he says.
Though the project never found footing, Ehrenreich's career eventually did, and in between studying at NYU, he was cast in CSI, the CW's Supernatural and eventually the Francis Ford Coppola drama, Tetro.
In person, Englert easily passes for Ehrenreich's contemporary, though she's barely out of high school. Her parents are filmmaker Colin Englert and director Jane Campion, who wrote and directed The Piano, which earned Anna Paquin an Oscar at just 11 years old. If anyone understands what it costs to be young in the spotlight, it's Mom. "We talk a lot about films," says Englert. "We talk a lot about work."
Life inside a filmmaking family has been a globe-trotting journey. "(Lena) is somebody who has learned that hello is very quickly followed by goodbye. It's something I was familiar with," says Englert.
While Ehrenreich gravitated toward Hook growing up, her childhood was filled with Japanese animated films such as My Neighbor Tortoro and Princess Mononoke. "My mom would put on a lot of movies I shouldn't have been watching at that age. It was hilarious, she'd be putting Taxi Driver on. I'd be like, Mom! I'm 10. It's R. She'd be like, it's fine."
Thompson finds Englert's individuality bewitching. "There's a homogeny required of young actresses now that is reductive and sends out a very dangerous message to our audiences," says Thompson. "So I like it very, very much when young people buck the trend and say I don't want to do that, I won't do that and I refuse to shave this or pluck that or lose that. I am who I am."
It's why living in L.A. is "too scary" for Englert. "I don't drive. I eat meat. I don't go to the gym." Should Creatures entrance moviegoers this weekend she and Ehrenreich will be back for more installments (they next star in indie films Ginger & Rosa and Stoker, respectively).
With the film now in theaters, beware the drum of dating rumors (they're not), Twihard-friendly monikers (Ehrenglert?) Alsquared?) and paparazzi shots of coffee runs. A sequel could even spawn a shirtless six-pack.
Or not. "When we're in the bedroom (scene) and I'm going to tell him I'm a witch when he wakes up - in any other teen film he would have been with his shirt off or with it open, with some sexy sweat on him. He's wearing a weird, terry towel blanket. It's a furry blanket," says Englert.
"And a washcloth on my forehead," Ehrenreich points out.
"Up to there!" Englert laughs, pointing at her neck. "You ain't getting nothin'."
Ehrenreich throws the mortal with the check a bone. "I have some photos of that, if you want," he says, grinning. "I carry them with me. "
By Andrea Mandell