From the live-action Cowboy Bebop series to Joel Coen’s take on Macbeth, the stars are aligning nicely for Alex Hassell.
Alex Hassell is not the easiest person to research. Which is strange considering how many projects he’s been a part of and how many full-tilt productions are set to explode globally. When we first spoke he had just gotten back to London after filming in New Zealand, a stay that kept him away for 14 months, the longest time he’s ever been away from home. But with upcoming roles in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth opposite Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington, and having just wrapped the new series on Netflix, Cowboy Bebop, Alex Hassell will be looking at longer stays that keep him away from home.
Cowboy Bebop hits Netflix on November 17 and it’s a live-action series of the late-90’s Japanese science fiction neo-noir anime television series. One would say it has a huge following. One could also say it’s a rabid fanbase. I checked the trailer out and at the time of this writing it has over two million hits. I was like holy crap, there must be such a junkie following. Although it’s a live-action of the anime series, the 2021 version will have lots of CG elements. Hassell will star opposite John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda and play the role of Vicious.
You’ve seen Hassell before so his face is not foreign. Hassell most recently can be seen playing the role of Translucent in The Boys, the dark comedy for Amazon Prime, created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. He also starred in Suburbicon with Matt Damon, Oscar Isaac, and Julianne Moore and directed by George Clooney; the film was written by Ethan and Joel Coen, hence the Coen connection. Hassell also starred opposite Chris Evans and Sir Ben Kingsley in Red Sea Diving Resort, which is currently streaming on Netflix. He played the leading role of Johannes in the BBC One adaptation of The Miniaturist opposite award-winning actor Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) which aired on BBC 1. He has also starred in the second series of Genius, which told the story of Picasso played by Antonio Banderas and can be seen on the National Geographic Channel.
The Bebop series is thought largely as a space Western, interested in exploring American ideas and tropes harkening back to classic Western films and kung fu martial arts films. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they sort of knock around the dialogue the way they are in the face of grave danger, bursting out with their guns. That is very much the tone in terms of the kind of comedy and camaraderie of the characters of the bounty hunters.
“It has a wonderful nostalgic flair and right through the show it is built on nostalgia,” says Hassell. “It’s fast, quippy, lots of editing, lots of bright colors and imagination on the screen. Hopefully that blend will appeal to the masses because what is so cool about the show is that it’s a real cult. I somehow think it will appeal to a great number of people because it catches a lot of themes and tones.”
Hassell’s love for acting initially began when he was 12 and went to see a local amateur musical. He had no inkling that he wanted to be an actor, yet came out of that show absolutely sure that acting was what he wanted to do. Without any questions. At 12.
Hassell trained and grew up doing amateur musicals and theaters and dancing and singing, getting into Shakespeare. He then went to drama school in London which is a theater-based training and then did a bit of TV and films but mainly lots of theater. But he had to study and assumed the more he learned the more he would absorb. He spent 2 1/2 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company on stage and rehearsing every day.
That love of theater resulted in Hassell cofounding the Factory Theatre Company in 2009, starting with Hamlet and then The Seagull. “I think as a younger actor—or for any actor unless you’re incredibly lucky very early on and then continue to be incredibly lucky—you have great periods of downtime. And then to begin again (unless you’re exceptionally lucky), you’re often doing a “cough and a spit” in something. Or you’re doing a few scenes or something or you’re doing an ad or whatever and then how many months later you’re doing another two lines and something and I found it incredibly difficult to learn and to grow.
“So I wanted the opportunity to just work all the time. Maybe not work and get paid but pay into my own craft and engage with it and learn as much as possible. And at the same time a lot of my friends around me that I thought were exceptionally talented and much more talented than myself also were not getting the opportunities that they deserved. I felt that I wasn’t getting the opportunities that I deserved at that time.” So Hassell and some friends decided to get together and set something up whereby every Wednesday night they’d just get a group of actors together, invite all of their friends and they can invite their best friends that they know, and will get together and will work on something really really difficult to learn. Hamlet was the first play. “So basically it came out of that and then we just kept playing and playing and playing. What we don’t wanna do is spend our time raising money. We want to spend our time acting and doing the work.”
Hassell and his friends would turn up on other people’s film sets or a music venue or in a park or in someone’s flat. They played hundreds of different places in the end. The casting would completely change, they’d all learn a bunch of different parts and use that as the real foundation. “And it just became this massive underground hit. It became this kind of thing that because we would release the information like a club or something, we release information on a Monday and they’d come see it on a Sunday and people would queue around the block. It was nuts.
“I felt that I wasn’t getting the opportunities that I deserved at that time.”
Covid has put a damper on a number of filming schedules. During his filming in New Zealand, Hassell took the opportunity during Covid to reflect and re-calibrate and look at one’s life in life choices and use of time. “I definitely tried to take that opportunity to see what it was like not to work constantly and not to constantly be trying to sort of move forward,” Hassell insists. “And it’s been really quite profound actually as it has been for many people and I think the forest time in New Zealand changed me in that respect and I’m interested to see now getting back to work and getting back to London will affect my life moving forward in terms of work and in terms of everything really.
“I think these sorts of experiences heighten strands of everybody’s personalities I suppose. How you deal with it, and how you value it, and that definitely can be surprising and I think the reserves have been absolutely amazed at the emotional reserves of resilience that people have had in general, globally, but speaking more of my friends and family, especially those with kids. How they have managed to cope and keep their heads above water like on top of that look after each other and their children and indeed in many instances it seems have really sort of flourished as a family; forced to kind of work out how to live together in a way that is enriching for everyone. Which is no mean feat.”
After Bebop comes The Tragedy of Macbeth by Coen. Getting that role was a stroke of luck for Hassell: turning an injury to Bebop lead John Cho into a starring role. Around two years ago Cho ruptured an ACL and they shut down production. Hassell told his agents he’d be coming home and they immediately started phoning casting directors and locked on Macbeth. They sent him the script and he read it on the plane and made the audition tape the next day and got the part. The film premiered at the New York Film Festival in September and closed the London Film Festival in October. Alex is Scottish nobleman Ross and importantly, Macduff’s cousin.
“It was an amazing stroke of fortune. John [Cho] is fine. His leg is fine. He is completely fine and I’ve now thanked him for the fact that that happened, but it’s amazing. I ended up in LA and we did rehearsals for about two or three weeks. Getting to see them [Mc-Dormand, Washington, director Coen] and being part of the collaborating process was an amazing gift. And they’re both obviously, it goes without saying, exceptionally fine, intelligent, empathetic, detailed, passionate actors. And it was amazing to be part of the group grappling with this stuff. And also having directed Macbeth and knowing Macbeth and having a history with Shakespeare, being able to kind of get on the floor with everyone and hash [out] and jump in together about what was going on was just a privilege from start to finish.”