If you’re a veteran cinephile, a student of film, or perhaps of a certain age, the name Alex Montalban may ring a faint or even a loud bell in relation to the world of cinema. You may not even really be sure why.
Well, let me connect the dots for you: actor and former stunt man Alex Montalban is none other than the grandson of the late bonafide Mexican legend of cinema that is Ricardo Montalban.
On first appearances, this seemingly confident ‘jock’ type is not an immediately obvious choice for a character that struggles with mental health issues. However, it soon becomes apparent whilst watching Natalie Rodriguez’s The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019), that Alex Montalban sensitively handles the theme of mental health with an expertly delivered performance. So much so that it genuinely moved me as I watched it and I almost paused at a couple of moments to collect myself. I was surprised to learn, after watching the movie, that he has only pursued an acting role in recent years.
In the following interview Alex discusses about how he originally got into stunt work somewhat accidentally on the set of John Wick (2014); how the Meisner technique has helped him to draw on personal experiences to inform his acting; and why he was so keen to accept the role of Alex in The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019).
FF: Tell us about The Extraordinary Ordinary (2019), how you became involved and the part you played?
AM: Yeah, I grew up playing hockey and, in Hollywood, there’s actually a pretty small knit group of people who play. Within that group there is this incredible, extraordinary woman and actress, by the name of Maddison Bullock. She’s actually a former semi-pro figure skater. So, we would see each other out at rinks, skate around; I put a hockey stick in her hands; she’s extremely athletic. She’s also very plugged into the film industry.
She wrote, directed and produced her own movie called Ice (2018) and there was a hockey player role in there which she liked me for. I read for it and then she ended up casting one of my good buddies who I skate with.
We kept in contact with each other and then she texted me one day with, ‘Hey, I want you to read this script. There’s a character in there…coincidentally the character’s name is Alex. Give it a read and see how you like it?’ I was like: ‘Yeah, send it over to me. I’m happy to!’
I read it and immediately fell in love with the story and the character. Maddison said: ‘Can you put yourself on tape for Natalie?’, I said: ‘Yeah, of course.’
So, they sent me two scenes: one of them was a little flat and with the other one I was like: ‘OK, I can knock this one out of the park!’ And basically the role just called upon an emotional preparation that just needed wholehearted sensitivity and a vulnerability coming from a leading man which you don’t see a lot of – so that’s kind of what I wanted to bring to the story. So, I put myself on tape, I sent it to Natalie who apparently watched it over and over again, cried, and I got hired!
FF: Did you draw on personal experience to produce what seemed like a very authentic performance?
AM: Absolutely. So, I’m theatre trained, I studied the Meisner technique in LA for two and a half years. During that time my best friend since I was five years old – we grew up playing hockey together – passed away. This was about five years ago, while I was going through the programme. and the Meisner technique trains you to do exactly that: it’s to live your truth. So absolutely, you can pull on past traumatic experiences or other life experiences, then you just hit that note or emotion at the top of your scene with your lines buried rote. The camera picks up the rest.
FF: Am I right in understanding that it was your first role in a feature? And, if so, were you nervous?
AM: Yeah, it was my first role as a lead. Yeah…such a good question… I think had I booked that role while I was still studying the technique then I would have been nervous because you tend to kind of go up in your head when first learning a method when first learning a method. You have all these bricks, right? And you’re slowly building a house with these bricks, but each brick also has its place. So sometimes you’re like ‘Wait, does this brick go here?’
So, I think by the time I put myself on tape for the movie I was so far displaced from my training, that it had already become SO etched in my DNA. So, I just got to have fun with it. I got to play and, no, I wasn’t nervous.
Maddison, my co-star, has almost everything to do with that too, she built me up so well, and she knows some of my weird idiosyncrasies: I can be self conscious about my hair, voice, or the way I look. She helped me throw all that out the window and concentrate on having fun and it was such a blast filming.
FF: You’ve moved over from stunt work in films like John Wick (2014) to acting roles. When did you decide to transition over or was it always your ambition to get into acting?
AM: Well, it’s definitely always been an ambition of mine. My grandfather, Ricardo Montalbán, was a pretty successful actor. I always looked up to him as a kid. So, in the back of my head, I always wanted to work in the industry in some fashion. I just didn’t know exactly how. Then when he passed away while I was a senior in college I took it as a sign Like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go back to LA.’
As soon as I graduated from Michigan I went back to LA – I worked at Creative Artists Agency for about three and a half years. I worked for Keanu Reeves’ agent for a couple years and that’s how I ultimately resigned from the agency, got thrown on a flight, and started working with the stunt team in New York, for John Wick (2014).
Then, maybe six weeks into production, I showed up to set one day and there’s two co-directors: one has been Keanu’s body double since The Matrix franchise and for the past 20-25 years. One morning one of the other directors grabs my head and points it to the other one: ‘Hey, what about Alex? Yeah, screw it, send him to hair and makeup’.
So, next thing I know, I’m just getting suited and booted, with a fake cigarette and assault rifle. We’’re staging and setting up for this stunt where I’m supposed to get sniped from, like, 400 yards away! In the stunt world they always say, ‘Hey, if it takes you more than three takes: see ya!’ So I basically had to do like a footfall and then just hit the sack.
First take, I kind of cradled my fall, second one was a little better, but it’s like, ‘OK, here’s the third one!’ So, I just went for it. I smacked my head and actually knocked myself out! I came to 20 seconds later with everyone applauding my first stunt. Unfortunately that scene hit the cutting room floor!
I got another 12 or 13 days of stunt work afterwards and that’s how I fell in love with it. The stunt world is actually pretty small, so that coordinator put me in touch with another guy at HBO I have worked on season 2 of True Detective (2015). I also worked on a show called Roadies (2016) on Showtime. Then a lot of sport and special ability stuff like playing hockey or roller skating or basketball, football – like pretty much every sport under the sun.
I just love being in front of the camera. As alluded to earlier, I studied the Meisner technique, got myself an agent, and started going after whatever came my way. I found this little niche in ‘sport and special ability’ acting.
FF: You mentioned your grandfather… For any budding actors who are going to watch or listen to this or read the article, could you give them any advice that maybe your grandfather passed on to you or any advice that you’ve learned yourself already?
AM: Yeah, I guess, I try to navigate myself through the world like he did. I think authenticity is everything. It’s really important to not only be who you are, but just be a stand-up kind person.
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.