Alex Neustaedter has been acting for a third of his life now, with a short here and a TV guest spot there, but he's now getting his big break thanks to Meg Ryan. The 18-year-old stars in Ryan's directorial debut, Ithaca, a quaint coming-of-age saga about love and death, family and telegraph messengers, set amidst World War II. "I'm really glad that Meg was able to make it. There are not a lot of movies like this," Neustaedter humbly told ET by phone.
In this exclusive clip from the film, Homer's (Neustaedter) younger brother, Ulysses (the scene-stealingly adorable Spencer Howell), pleads with him not to leave home, like their late father (Tom Hanks) did and like their older brother, Marcus (Ryan's son, Jack Quaid), did when he went off to fight the war.
ET: What was the audition process for this like? Is it intimidating auditioning for Meg Ryan?
Alex Neustaedter: Yeah, it was! It started as just a tape, so I had a couple of times to go through the tape and make it what I thought the character was. And I didn't have Meg looking at me, which really helped for that first audition. I sent off the tape and about two weeks later, I heard that she wanted to meet with me face-to-face, so I flew out to New York and I did the audition in front of her. It was intimidating, but I was so excited and so into the story and the character that I didn't really think I wasn't going to not get it. I felt like it was my role to be had. There was a sense of confidence once we started. The waiting period was pretty nerve-wracking for me. After the audition with Meg, I had about an hour and a half between the audition and when they told me I booked it, so it actually wasn't a lot of waiting around. I got a call very soon after, which was kind of remarkable.
What kind of conversations did you have with Meg about your character, Homer, and the movie as a whole before you got to set?
She wanted to kind of get in my head about what I was thinking about with the character, but she also wanted to breathe life to some other people, like Marlon Brando, James Dean -- those kinds of names. Jimmy Stewart. So, I watched a lot of older films that she wanted me to get a sense for. There was a lot of that discussion about James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. And a lot of small things too, like what Homer is wearing and how the telegraph uniform looks and fits on him. There was a lot of really great discussion that we had that I hadn't really ever had with a director before. We sat down a couple times and just read through the script and went through the entire story and just shared a lot of thoughts and feelings.
What is a Meg Ryan set like? What kind of vibe does she create?
She's very chill. There's no sense of panic or urgency on set. She knows what she wants and when she gets there. We always had a little conversation after a couple takes, and she would ask if I wanted to do another one to change it up. I think she was experimenting with that part of it herself. But it was a very calm set. It was probably my favorite set to ever be on, because of the rapport with the cast and crew. Everybody really got along well, for the most part. That has happened on the majority of the sets I've been on, but this one stood out to me for some reason. It was a special, special time for me.
I always think it has to be such a trip working on a period piece. You're living in the '40s and then the director calls cut and everyone can go do their Snapchatting or Pokémon Go-ing or whatever.
It really was! It was very immersive. It was so enjoyable because, honestly, it felt like everything else kind of went away when we were on set. You know, at the time, Pokémon Go wasn't out, so nobody was doing that, thankfully. [Laughs] There were actually not many people using their cell phones. I think a lot of people kind of resorted back to and really embraced what that time was like. It was amazing to act in it, because it really came to life and it really felt as though I was in that time period. It's a little different than being on a set or a stage or a green screen, when you can pop out of it. Where we were in Petersburg and Richmond, the town was at it looked. It really had that same vibe and I think it just carried over into the film and the story. And that's why I really enjoyed it so much, because that's one of my favorite time periods and I can't say enough about how helpful that was as an actor and it just really made everybody stay in it.
Not only were you directed by Meg, but she played your mom, so you got to act opposite her. And you were on set with Tom Hanks for some of his scenes. What was that experience like for you?
It can't get much better than that, right? It was amazing. It was such a joy to be able to work with actors as amazing as they both are. I didn't have any scenes with Tom, but just being in the room with him and feeling his presence, it was really special, because I've looked up to both of them and what they've done with their careers. It's something that I'd hope to aspire to be or do it as they've done. And to watch them work together and see how that connection is -- it's a real connection! They're just such close friends. It's really special. It was just special to be a part of it.
Did you get any advice on acting or words of wisdom from them?
I mean, just from watching them-- it was a lot of resilience being an actor in Hollywood. It's very difficult, from what they've conveyed, with all the pressures and everything. So what I really took most from it is just how each of them had their own techniques, and they had their own styles of how they went about filming a scene and how professional they were. And I was just a sponge and soaked as much of that up as possible to use in the future. I think I took more from nonverbal lessons, which was equally helpful for me.
Here's a very technical, very serious acting question. You do both in the movie: is it harder to vomit or cry convincingly onscreen?
[Laughs] That's a good question. I think throwing up has its challenges, just because the convulsions and how it looks when it comes out and the sounds of it. But I mean, it's difficult to get to the crying stage, too, where it doesn't look like I'm just trying to cry to cry. Where it seems like I'm in it. This is a tough, tough question. Honestly, I'd say crying is probably more difficult, just because I feel like throwing up you have a couple more takes in you to get it done. Crying, it takes a lot out of you. That's my answer!
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]