High school is a time when even the most centered people struggle with the turbulent nature of four years’ worth of emotional friendships, raging hormones and impending adulthood. And for those whose impulses are much darker -- like the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer -- it can be ground zero for what’s yet to come.
The new film My Friend Dahmer, which is in theaters on Nov. 3, explores the genesis of Dahmer’s desires through the prism of high school and the viewpoint of his friend, John “Derf” Backderf, who would grow up to write the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name on which the film is based. Alex Wolff, who steps into Derf’s shoes, tells ET the script thrilled him from the start because of its dual nature.
“I was intrigued by the fact that it was about friendship in the 1970s while also tackling this serial killer narrative,” he says. “It’s mixing two types of films that you wouldn’t see together, like Dazed and Confused with this dark, pulsating thriller. I thought it was a really cool concept.”
While Dahmer (Ross Lynch) certainly comes off as an odd kid from a damaged home -- he collects roadkill and attempts to dissolve it using his chemist dad’s acids -- his senior year begins to change when he meets up with Derf and his crew, who sort of adopt Dahmer as their mascot for pranks and other high school foolishness.
“I found Derf to be a really interesting character -- someone who seemed really warm and inviting, but he’s also full of contradictions,” Wolff says. “He’s the coolest of the nerds, but I liked that he’s in-between. You want to like him, you want to feel for him, but he lacks a little bit of empathy and it takes him longer than you would like to realize that there’s something off about Dahmer. The movie is a really riveting depiction of the breaking down of a friendship, the disintegration of a connection between these two young people.”
Wolff didn’t meet with his real-life counterpart before filming -- and the artist, who worked on the graphic novel for nearly 15 years, understood Wolff’s decision. “Everyone has their own process and, having one myself, I respect that. He studied the book, of course, and there’s more than enough material there for him,” Backderf says. “I think the film is excellent, very true to the book. I’m very pleased with it.”
The movie, part of which was shot in Dahmer’s real-life childhood home in Akron, Ohio, walks a deliberate tightrope of presenting Dahmer as navigating through the fraught high school years and tamping down the monstrous urges that would appear shortly after he graduated. Those brief moments during high school when Dahmer was just a dorky guy trying to find his way lend an eerie sadness to the film, one that Wolff says was a challenge when trying to make a movie about such a notorious individual.
“What this movie does so gracefully is that it makes you see Jeff and not always Jeffrey Dahmer,” Wolff says. “This shows you how that friendship informed his life. The challenge is not tipping our hand. The one thing I like in the movie is there’s a mark about halfway through where you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to change history and he’s not going to become a serial killer.’ Even if you know the history, you think it’s going to be OK, because they’re all having fun. But then it breaks your heart. It pulls the rug out from under you, which is why it’s such a disturbing movie.”
While the film marks a stark departure for Lynch, who made a name for himself on Disney’s Austin & Ally, Wolff has found a comfortable distance from his family TV background on The Naked Brothers Band with brother Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars) by taking on darker roles and discovering his own path as an actor. “I’ve always done things that were true to me,” says Wolff, who previously appeared in the coming-of-age drama Coming Through the Rye, inspired by J.D. Salinger, and 2016’s Patriots Day. “This is just the work that I’m interested in doing now. You have to be honest to what you’re into at the time. I’m proud of that show, but I see myself every time as I get older, trying to honor what I’m interested in at each stage of my life.”
The next major step for Wolff comes later this year, when he stars alongside Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in December’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the big-budget sequel-slash-reimagining of the beloved 1995 Robin Williams film. “I loved the original and I also really, really love our version,” Wolff says. “It’s a really fun, scary, badass movie. Everyone is so good in it. It’s a movie that I am excited to see now, and I know I would have seen 850 times in the theater as a 13- or 14-year-old. It’s a nice change in tone for me, because I’ve been talking about all these other dark movies that I’ve been doing.”
Another bonus for Wolff was a chance to work with Johnson, aka The Rock, whom the actor says is “the coolest guy in the whole damn world.”
Also coming up is a reunion with Nat in the family drama Stella’s Last Weekend, which was directed by their mother, actress Polly Draper. While Alex says he and his brother are competitive outside of work (“If we play basketball, we’re trying to beat the [crap] out of each other!”), when it comes to acting and music, they are each other’s biggest fans. “There’s no one more supportive of each other than me and Nat. We go to each other’s premieres and say, ‘My brother’s the best’ and ‘I liked my brother before it was cool,’” Wolff says.
“But we are so different. We get along because we are inverse personalities in a lot of ways. Naturally, the roles we’re going up for and the roles we are doing are completely different, so we have completely different paths. I think we kind of always will.”