‘Looking for Alaska’: Two Scene-Stealing Performances Give Depth to the Coming-of-Age Tale
Actor Denny Love is happy that “Looking for Alaska” became a TV series and not a movie.
“If it was a movie, it would probably be two hours and change. It’s very hard to wrap up the book in that amount of time. This series allowed [producers] Josh [Schwartz] and Steph[anie Savage] enough time to really write fuller lives for these characters,” Love told IndieWire. “You not only get to see the story through the lens of Miles, but you really get to see the depth of Alaska, her wants and dreams and pain. I really think it’s the perfect way to do the show.”
Even set amidst the lush forest backdrop that doubles as Culver Creek High School, the setting for John Green’s novel and its new eight-episode Hulu adaptation, the characters are what really drive this series. Told primarily through the experiences of newcomer Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) and growing affection for classmate Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), there are plenty of other students that help to make Culver Creek feel like a real place and not the remnants of someone’s imagination.
Love plays The Colonel, Miles’ roommate and entry point into the Culver Creek social corner where he meets Alaska. Rounding out this core group around Miles is Takumi (Jay Lee), the cannily perceptive oracle of sorts who helps get Miles situated in the school’s customs and traditions. Without this pair of friends, “Looking for Alaska” could easily become a flat story of infatuation. But having The Colonel and Takumi along for the ride makes for a helpful complement to the life-changing developments that center this quartet.
“It is a coming-of-age story, but it explores the facades that we put up and we think are our identity,” Lee said. “Under really high-stakes circumstances, the people are having to come face-to-face with that facade that they’ve put up and then realize, ‘What’s it all for?’ It forces all the characters to see and appreciate each other for what they have.”
Miles’ first impressions of The Colonel and Takumi are crucial to making him feel both ingratiated into and fascinated by this new forest boarding school environment. To make a successful TV adaptation, those appearances are often the first step, too. Lee remembers starting to get a feel for Takumi in discussing wardrobe with costume designer Matthew Simonelli and assistant costume designer Lindsey Brush.
“Our first fitting together, I was putting on some pair of drop-crotch shorts and a XXL shirt, a knit cap, and a really thin gold chain. And immediately, I realized, ‘Oh, this is what we’re doing!’” Lee said. “It always amazes me how much a change in the body can also reshape the mind. The way that we carry ourselves gives direction and reshapes the lens with which we navigate our interpersonal relationships. To have that before we started shooting was really important. It gave me time to process, digest, live in that space and figure out how I was going to do everything else.”
Miles’ introduction to the world of Culver Creek is an instant contrast because the relationships between the students who are already there feel so ingrained. Part of the reason both The Colonel and Takumi stand out is that they work so well in tandem. The first time “Looking for Alaska” shows the pair of them together, they share a custom mid-conversation handshake without even breaking concentration on welcoming the newest student to their midst.
In wanting to bring the same sense of authenticity he saw in the script, Love says that opening handshake was something he adapted from his own life.
“I used to do that handshake with my family, so I was like, ‘Jay, what do you think about this?’ He said, ‘I love it,’ so we just threw it in the show,” Love said. “We all have handshakes in real life. Me and Charlie have a handshake that’s like a minute and a half. We wanted to make sure that on screen, it read like we had known each other for years. Most of my homies, we have handshakes, so why wouldn’t me and Takumi have one?”
Both actors stressed that their performances benefited from beginning with writing as a distinct starting point, from Green’s novel to the team of adapters led by Schwartz. Both The Colonel and Takumi dispense milestone dates, famous aphorisms, and lengthy lists of protocol as casually as if they were commenting on the weather. That sometimes-rapid-fire delivery could have been intimidating, but Love found it natural.
“Sometimes literary work can be intense to perform because it’s very specific. John Green wrote it in a specific way that you don’t need to take anything out,” Love said. “Josh did such a good job of what feels like to be youthful. The 2005 vibes! He and Steph, they’re masters at it. It was very effortless.”
In Takumi’s case, that recognizable patter comes with an added layer of being the eyes and ears of the friend group. His encyclopedic knowledge stretches from cultural artifacts to a comprehensive knowledge of Culver Creek gossip past and present. Lee doesn’t play Takumi as a standard-issue know-it-all. Instead, he adds an extra layer of understanding, an awareness that role within a school setting comes with its own kind of burden.
“Something that I think about is that relationship to knowledge,” Lee said. “What is it like for 16, 17-year-old to be in school and to be the know-it-all guy who knows everything and then to see the people who are closest to him suffer as a direct result of what he knew and withheld or what he revealed? That weighs a lot on somebody. Developing that relationship between knowledge and wisdom, I think there’s something to that journey.”
“Looking for Alaska” doesn’t work as a story without a very specific atmosphere, one that matches the tumult that these characters face at various turns. Some of the interior scenes were filmed on sound stages. But the overall feel of the series is build on a solid foundation of outdoor shoots, following the central core friend group as they travel from classrooms to bedrooms to their designated smoking spot and everywhere in between.
“It was the greatest gift. The director of the pilot [Sarah Adina Smith] was very adamant about making sure that the majority of the shoot was taking place on location as opposed to on a stage,” Lee said. “I wasn’t actually filming the first day of shooting, but I showed up anyway just to be there. John Green was there and we were talking to him about it and you could tell he was very emotional. It’s incredible what they did, adding all these kiosks and these lampposts, the way they repainted all the buildings. It just felt like this place was blessed with All the Greens.”
Lee also saluted series cinematographer Ramsey Nickell, who he says helped to foster different elements of the performance as all the main characters tackled some of the wordier chunks of each script.
“He always had our back. If you were going to try something different on a take, we could always do that,” Lee said. “There was a fluidity to the way the camera moved and the way is taking in the world with Miles. It’s really beautiful. Having a chance to work with Ramsey, somebody who’s devoted and talented and at that level of mastery of his craft, has been a real blessing.”
And no great performance comes without a little sacrifice. For Love, part of that came with “ambrosia,” a bottle of a milk and vodka mixture that The Colonel takes giant swigs from in times of uncertainty. There wasn’t any alcohol in the on-set container, but after a few different go-arounds with the alternative, he was ready to be done.
“Drank a whole lot of almond milk,” Love said. “I don’t like almond milk anymore because of the copious amounts of ambrosia. The Colonel goes through a lot.”
“Looking for Alaska” is now available to stream on Hulu.
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