If The Host, based on Stephenie Meyer's novel, is really the new Twilight, then Max Irons (Red Riding Hood) and Jake Abel (I Am Number Four, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) are the new Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner—two young, emerging actors whose characters are both pining after the same heroine.
In this sci-fi soap opera, leading lady Melanie Stryder (Saorsie Ronan) proves more complex than Twilight's Bella Swan, as her dueling beaus are courting both her and the alien life form she's carrying. The heady premise called for young stars who could play lovestruck hunks in a dystopian world. Abel, 25, and Irons, 27 (son of acting legend Jeremy Irons), sat down with Details to discuss The Host, what to eat to prepare for an alien invasion, and why two actors needn't spar to make a love triangle compelling.
DETAILS: Naturally, this film is going to get a lot of Twilight comparisons. Did the success of those films put pressure on you? Did it feel like a lot to live up to?
JAKE ABEL: I think the reason we were allowed to make this movie was because of the success of Twilight, which is great, but I don't think there was a lot of pressure. No one went into this expecting it to be the next phenomenon, nor did anyone who made Twilight. You can never really predict those things. For me, it never felt like I had to live up to this great thing in the sky.
MAX IRONS: I was anxious when I first saw Stephenie's name on the script because I'd been involved in one studio picture [Red Riding Hood] and seen a lot of others that tried to reproduce the formula that Stephenie came up with. But then I felt it was a real departure from her previous work in terms of genre, scope, and the questions posed to the audience. So, yes, it has the romantic element, but so does Bridget Jones's Diary. Stephenie admits that she's upped her game with The Host, and that, for her, it was an antidote to Twilight.
DETAILS: You each play a man in love with one half of the same girl, which presents a kind of tricky, almost unspoken rivalry—not exactly the Jacob/Edward scenario. What was it like working together on set?
MAX IRONS: Jake's a great guy. I was really nervous when I first went to meet him because I thought, "I'm going to be with this guy for three months, and then I'm going to be doing press with him, and if I don't like him it's going to be a nightmare." But we hung out a lot and became really good friends. I once did a film where there was another actor and we were supposed to have a rivalry, and at a dinner, we were sitting together and the director split us up. She said, "No, he has to sit on the other side of the table and you're not allowed to talk. You're supposed to hate each other." It's like, hang on, we're actors. We don't actually have to hate each other. I imagine if all actors went around doing what they did on screen it would be nuts.
JAKE ABEL: Yeah, you never know what you're going to get when you work with other young actors. When I found out I'd be working with Max, I asked a casting director friend of mine about him, and she said, "Oh my god, you're going to love him. He's great." So that set me at ease right away. And then I met him, and he's become one of my closest friends. I didn't grow up in theater like he did, but my mentors grew up in theater, so we have the same vernacular and work on the same wavelength.
DETAILS: What about working with Saorsie Ronan? Jake, you'd worked with her before on The Lovely Bones, but Max, had you ever worked with her?
MAX IRONS: She and I actually got cast in a film together when she was about 14. I was just out of drama school. The project fell through, but I knew how great she was and I'd seen her work. Not only is she incredibly talented, but she's also level-headed and down to earth, which you may not expect considering she's a child actress and has had so much success. She makes it easy.
JAKE ABEL: We didn't really have any scenes together in The Lovely Bones, and I've been waiting ever since to have that. She was every bit as professional at 14 as she is now. She's one of the good ones. She brings something out of you.
DETAILS: The director, Andrew Niccol, has already done his share of sci-fi films, like Gattaca and S1m0ne. Were there any other sci-fi flicks you watched to prep for The Host?
JAKE ABEL: Nothing that I turned to for inspiration, really. I think I liked [The Host] because, personally, it reminded me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my favorite sci-fi films. It burns really slowly and it's an interesting human tale that shows how people deal with an invasion that's really bizarre, but not violent. That's what drew me to the story—it doesn't fall on the old tricks of sci-fi, like shooting lasers or blowing up the White House. It has a '70s sensibility, and it lets you see the aliens' perspective.
MAX IRONS: I read a lot of Arthur C. Clarke. He used to write short stories in these scientific journals, and there's one in particular called "Childhood's End," that spoke to Clarke's fascination with invasion and intervention. But, again, it wasn't about taking over the White House or blowing up the Empire State Building; it was more about kickstarting the next stage of human evolution.
DETAILS: There's a good amount of physicality required of both of your characters. Were there any intense training regimens?
MAX IRONS: We had a stunt guy on set, and we had a lot of fight choreography. But going to the gym was the main thing for me. Lots and lots of lifting weights and eating steaks.
JAKE ABEL: Yeah, Max and I hit the gym six days a week. I dropped a lot of weight beforehand because I figured the characters live in a cave, so I ate this, like, cave diet. But then I got to set, and looked in the mirror, and I was way too skinny for this film. And that's when I started eating more steaks and lifting more weights. But our thing was not to be big for a movie's sake. Everything had to be functional—functional strength. I wanted to be light and quick, because that's what you'd have to be to survive these elements.
DETAILS: You both have additional projects based on popular novels—Jake with the Percy Jackson franchise, and Max with the upcoming series based on Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. That's a lot of built-in fanbases. How often are you thinking about pleasing the readers when tackling these roles?
MAX IRONS: It's hard not to think about those things, but I don't think it's very healthy to do it. You can't please everyone, and you'll be working back to front if you think of it like that. I went up to Stephenie on the first day of The Host and I asked her, "Am I getting Jared right?" And she said, "Listen, we hired you for your instincts and for your interpretation of the character. Just move forward with confidence and make it yours." It was nice advice, because it made any of that remaining pressure evaporate.
JAKE ABEL: As someone who's a fan of books, and goes to see the movie versions of them, I do think there's an importance in fighting for specifics. For example, in Percy Jackson, my character, Luke, is supposed to have a big scar on the side of his face. They didn't want me to have it, but it's important for the character—it's a mark of shame that dictates who he is. They didn't go for it, but there was a fight in the first film that leaves me with a smaller scar, and that's in the sequel. So there's the rub. For Ian in The Host, he's supposed to have black hair, but I was contractually obligated by Percy Jackson to not change my hair.
DETAILS: You're both young, but has your personal style changed over time at all? Max, you've had some modeling experience. Has that had an influence on the way you dress?
MAX IRONS: I hate questions on personal style. Look at me, I'm wearing black jeans and this purple sweater. I have a boring taste in clothes. It doesn't really evolve. I see people walking around New York City who are so cool, and trendy, and I'm just not one of them.
JAKE ABEL: It's funny, ever since I was young, I think I've always wanted to dress smarter. But when you're a kid growing up in Ohio, you just can't. It's like, you're not allowed to, in a way. So I try to dress smarter now. I like the style in [The Host], actually. It has this sort of '60s, Steve McQueen, tailored vibe. I'd ask the costume designer every day: "Will you go shopping for me? And pick out these things?"
DETAILS: Is there anything in your closets that you've held onto for a long time? A piece of clothing or accessory you can't get rid of?
JAKE ABEL: I have some stuff, though it's not fashionable by any means. I have a blue T-shirt from elementary school signed by every kid in my class. I refuse to part with it.
MAX IRONS: I have this coat that I was given when I was 18. It's a Trans-Siberian Express driver's jacket from the days when the Trans-Siberian had a proper smokestack and steam engine. It was beaten down and reconstructed, and it's great. There were only two of them ever made. I love it.
DETAILS: What's something most people don't know about each of you?
MAX IRONS: I get very anxious. As an actor, you find yourself having to appear confident, relaxed, and at ease with oneself all the time, and half the time I'm totally not.
JAKE ABEL: I used to have a fear of heights. But after Percy Jackson I no longer have a fear of heights, because I was forced to do things on wires really high off the ground. And now, in The Host, I'm running along the sides of mountains.
DETAILS: Any words of advice for young actors just starting out? Max, any pearls of wisdom from your dad?
MAX IRONS: One really good piece of advice he gave me was to keep working. If it's not a film and you have some time off, go and do a bit of theater, a little one-act play above a pub—which I've done with some friends. He's absolutely right; it keeps the imagination ticking and it keeps the muscles working.
JAKE ABEL: I've had a lot of teachers and mentors, but one in particular was [actor] Morgan Sheppard. I have a whole journal of tidbits he taught me, but one that comes to my mind right now is "I am who I say I am," which means I can be anybody on any project. If I say I'm Popeye Doyle from The French Connection, I put on the porkpie hat and I'm Popeye Doyle. I'm a motherfucker. Because I say I am. And with that sort of commitment and madness, that's how you keep reinventing yourself.
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @AddisonDeTwitt.