Zombie proliferation is at an all-time high. Between movies, television, video games, and virtually every form of media, zombies are basically everywhere. They've even invaded Australia, as depicted in the genre-defying romantic comedy/zombie horror adventure, Little Monsters. Lupita Nyong'o has earned rave reviews for her performance as Miss Caroline, a kindergarten teacher who is tasked with protecting a class of children during a zombie outbreak at a petting zoo during a field trip. Josh Gad also stars as a bitter children's entertainer who's arguably more dangerous to himself and others than the undead horde.
Caught in the middle is Dave, played by Alexander England (Alien: Covenant). The Australian actor delivers a transformative performance as a wannabe rock star who is forced to grow up and take on some responsibility in the midst of unmitigated terror. Little Monsters could be described as a jolly and heartwarming romantic comedy just as easily as it can be seen as a zombie apocalypse horror movie, and that's a big part of what makes it so magical.
While promoting the release of Little Monsters, Screen Rant sat down with Alexander to discuss his career and role in the film. He dissects his character from every angle and talks about wrangling five-year-old actors in between takes. He also discusses his love of acting, including how he got into the business in the first place.
Can you tell us a bit about your character in Little Monsters?
I play a character named Dave, who is basically what could be described as a "man-child." He's somebody who hasn't taken much responsibility for his life or his decisions. He's very good at blaming other people for the things that are happening to him. He basically has an issue with taking responsibility for himself and the people around him who care for him and want to see better things for him. After some unfortunate events, ends up living with his sister and her son, his nephew. And he ends up meeting his nephew's teacher, Miss Caroline, played by Lupita Nyong'o, who's just this unbelievably gorgeous teacher, and he wants to spend as much time with her as possible. Therefore, he volunteers to go on a school excursion with the kids... Even though children are kind of his worst nightmare. He doesn't like dealing with kids. It's hard and they're sticky and he just doesn't want to do it. But he volunteers to go on the excursion, and while they're on the excursion, there's a zombie event, and everything gets turned upside down very quickly. He has to try to keep up with Miss Caroline and keep the kids safe, and keep them comfortable to survive!
For a character like this, is there anything you had to draw from your youth? What do you think about kids?
Well, I grew up in a big family. I'm the oldest of 23 grandchildren. That's a lot of cousins. I have a big extended family. I grew up in the country, so I spent a lot of time with the kids, among family. You learn to take on a bit of responsibility, being the oldest, looking after kids and that kind of thing. It was great because it was an easy transition in terms of shooting with children. We had 12 five-year-old kids, which is obviously a big undertaking in itself. Just because they're beautiful little kids, they get distracted and they look at the camera. They don't want to sit down when they're needed for a scene. They want to hang out with their mum and dad. There was a lot of wrangling, there was a lot of distracting and playing that was really necessary just before action was called, just to keep them all pointed in the same direction. Thankfully, I have a little experience.
So you found yourself playing babysitter a lot?
Yeah! I think Lupita and I took it on. Also, the kids were introduced to Lupita as Miss Caroline.
They met her as the teacher. The first time they hung out, she taught a class with us. So they really saw her as their teacher. So they would go to her whenever things were wrong or whatever, so I helped share the load with her. (Laughs)
At some point, those kids are gonna recognize her from Star Wars and their minds are going to be blown.
There's no shortage of zombie fiction out there. A big part of what's starting to set a lot of these movies apart is how they are genre films with their own stories... But also have zombies. This is a story about Dave and Miss Caroline and Teddy McGiggle, not quite a love triangle, but... Something's going there. Perhaps more is going on in Dave's head than is actually going on.
That's probably correct, yes.
...And then zombies show up.
And then zombies show up, yeah. I think Abe, when he's been talking about the film, has been clear that, as far as he's concerned, he's not really making a zombie film. That's not what he set out to do, even though the zombie elements are very satisfying. We had a lot of fun with the tropes of that genre. Are they fast ones or slow ones, that kind of thing. There is a kind of meta awareness of the genre. But it is, like a lot of zombie films, going back to Romero's work, the zombies represent something more cultural. They can represent whatever you need them to be. And it almost exists more as a setting than a character in the film. In this one, as far as I'm concerned, the zombies represent... The characters are trying to preserve the innocence of the kids in the face of stuff that's scary! In the face of the real world, which can be quite scary. And giving them the space and the time to be children, and to play, and to laugh, and to have a big imagination before the realities of life come crashing down upon them. I'd say this is a story that certainly features zombies, and the zombies are also the catalyst for a lot of the humor in the film, but it's bigger than just zombies.
I guess, for someone who is trying to avoid responsibility at all costs, when you're in a position where if you don't take care of these kids, they will be eaten, that's kind of...
Yeah, the stakes are certainly very real.
Do you play guitar?
I don't! No, I had to rapidly try to learn what I could. I had a lot of lessons to try to look the part! (Laughs) Keep the neck of the guitar pointed in the right direction and that kind of thing. But I'm safe in that my character, Dave, is not a great musician. It would be very different if the character is tackling Rachmaninoff's Fifth or something, but no. I always thought of Dave as a teenager, even though the character is much older. I always thought of him as a teenager in his room, bashing it out, he thinks it sounds pretty good on his electric guitar and his little amp. The character is not a great musician, and his dreams of being a rock star are probably fairly misplaced. So I was able to learn enough to get away with being a bad musician.
I've been there.
(Laughs) You know that feeling.
Yes I do.
You know the sting.
I didn't get to be the drummer in my own brother's band until his regular guy left. He was like, "Okay, I guess you can be the drummer now." But that's not important right now! So, are there any people from your life, or fictional characters, who you drew on for this character? Like, "Ooh, I can see a little bit of that person in there?"
I was really more focused on trying to look at immature qualities. So, in that sense, any 16 year old was an inspiration. The goal for me was to have a clear sense of who he was at the start of the film, and then see how things play out throughout the film as he's changing. In that sense, yeah, because my character goes on a similar journey to the children, and he's just learning from Miss Caroline, from Lupita, with Lupita having done so much research and work... She didn't just look at being a teacher, but at being a Kindergarten teacher specifically. And also a Kindergarten teacher in Australia, since the film is set in Australia. She came in and taught, and I spent a lot of the film with my eyes open, just watching her. So for me, the focus was more about having a clear sense of where we're dropping off from, and it was more about the psychology, the selfishness, immaturity.
As an actor, do you always build your character in a vacuum, if you can? And then, in hindsight, you can kind of go, "Oh, that's a bit like so-and-so," it'll happen to work out that way?
Sometimes I look for something to hang it on, something postural, there might be something that... I played a character who was a real person, and I learned that he always carried change in his pocket and would always jingle the change around. And that unlocked a lot for me. Having something to hold on to, it's a real place to build from. What kind of person carries around change like that? Why do they jingle it nervously? In my research phase, I did watch a bunch of YouTube videos of kids who loaded stuff of theirs up, of them playing guitar. There was some great physical stuff of, you know, wannabe rock gods.
One of my favorite bands, The Toy Dolls, the singer/guitar player did a bunch of YouTube videos with tutorials and stuff, and he says in one of them, something like, "Okay, we're going to do some cool stage moves, but don't learn these moves until you learn how to actually play the songs." And every 15-year-old I've ever known who plays guitar, they always know the moves before they know the song.
And that sounds a bit like Dave.
Yeah, that's it. It's trying to be something without having done the hard work. Trying to look the part, trying to be the part. What that unlocked for me is that this character was really looking for identity. He's trying to find out who he really is. He was good at putting the parts on, but it means something that he wasn't a great musician. It meant he didn't do a lot of practice, he didn't work hard, even though he had been doing it for years. It was more about appearing as one thing rather than actually being it. And I think, for the film as well, the character finds a sense of identity through responsibility.
A lot of people daydream about being actors. About being movie stars. I do! That's why I'm here!
Sure, sure. I though you were going to say people daydream about how they would survive a zombie event.
Oh, no, no, I'd be the first one to get eaten. It'd be a heroic sacrifice, though. Very noble.
Hold the door! Hold the door!
Exactly. But was being an actor always your dream from when you were a little boy? Or was there something that you wanted to do that maybe you can see a little bit of Dave in yourself?
Absolutely, now that you mention it. I certainly had a sense of... I finished high school, I loved school. I really loved the social aspect as much as anything. But also, yes, it's a structure, it gives you a way to structure your day and position yourself in space and time. When I finished school, I really was floating for a little while. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I felt this pressure to kind of find a calling or a passion or whatever that might be. I had always enjoyed drama in high school, but that was always about making my mates laugh. Acting certainly didn't seem like a career, growing up in a country town. It was actually my parents who thought I might enjoy studying acting. They got me access to a short course, which was skills-based training in voice and movement and all that kind of thing. I just love the social side so much. I love working with other actors, and working with other classmates. From there, I did a three-year acting course, got an agent, and started working. Now, acting is such a great fit because it is hugely social, but things are always changing. There's always a new story, new people around you, a new place. So I think I was very lucky that I had someone to give me a helping hand and let me say, "Hey, let me explore this world." I think it's crazy that kids are asked to sign up for a career or an occupation when they're a teenager. You're still trying to figure out what to do with their life.
I don't know what I want to do now!
That's very natural.
I mean, I'm having a good time here, of course.
Yeah! (Laughs) I think we've got to take the pressure off people to do the right subjects to get the right course to get the profession they want. I think it's just crazy to think you're gonna know what you want to do when you're 16 or 17 years old.
Little Monsters is out now on Hulu and in theaters.