Owen Asztalos Talks About His Breakout Roles in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and ‘The Flight Attendant’

(Featured image courtesy of Lacey Terrell and Netflix)

Despite restrictions on entertainment production lasting most of the year, this fall season saw no lack of film and television offerings. Between all the royal families, iconic superheroes, and Oscar hopefuls, the ever-expanding streaming world gave us countless reasons to spend another day at home.

Two of the season’s most  anticipated arrivals were Hillbilly Elegy and The Flight Attendant, from Netflix and HBO Max. At first, it may seem like there’s not much tying these two projects together. Hillbilly Elegy is a film based on the bestselling memoir of the same name, following an Ohio family’s real-life history of abuse, economic struggles, and drug use. On the other hand, HBO Max’s new series (recently renewed for a second season) focuses on a flight attendant who is caught in a web of international intrigue when a date with a first-class passenger goes horribly wrong. One is a sobering look at the state of the American social hierarchy, and the other is a darkly comedic thrill ride of mystery. While their similarities may not be obvious at first, both of those stories’ protagonists are influenced by pasts riddled with parental abuse and addiction.

On a more literal level, the connection between these projects is teen Owen Asztalos. The breakout star plays the younger versions of Hillbilly’s J.D. Vance and The Flight Attendant’s Davey. TV Wasteland sat down with Asztalos to discuss both of his exciting new projects, the process of filming intensely emotional scenes, and collaborating so closely with Oscar nominees.

While other kids had soccer or football or swimming growing up, acting had always been Asztalos’ hobby of choice. “During the summer, I was spending most of my time in theater camps, which I guess I kind of had a knack for.” He began appearing on various TV shows like Jessica Jones before he was even a teenager, but his favorite experience came with Shades of Blue. His guest role as Brian Kovach was also his first speaking part, and “it was my first real taste of going through the entire process.” He was thrilled to get his own cast chair and meet Jennifer Lopez, but he was truly blown away by Ray Liotta. “That was incredible. He actually had some really really cool words of wisdom to share to me and to everybody on set.”

Just a couple years later, Owen was cast in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid reboot as the iconic Rowley, awkward best friend to the titular wimpy kid. Asztalos was “a massive fan” of the series before joining the project, and it was actually a tradition for him and his cousin to buy every new book for each other every Christmas. He described working on that film as really “special” in that he was able to approach the project as a fan who could enjoy just the simple experience of bringing Jeff Kinney’s iconic stories to the screen. He remembered wanting to “make sure that [he was] giving this performance a hundred and ten percent” out of respect to the source material.

Hillbilly Elegy, in all honesty, was a project like… nothing else I’ve ever done before.” Owen found himself constantly on his toes among legends like Glenn Close, Amy Adams, and Ron Howard, who motivated him to keep up with them. He sees the experience as making him a better actor, as he was able to become a sort of “sponge for knowledge” and soak up everything that his experienced coworkers had to offer. Hillbilly is a very intense film, filled with emotional outbursts and arguments, and Asztalos stressed the importance of alone time to prepare for those scenes. “That’s sort of something that a lot of actors do… zoning out a little bit.” Owen spends a lot of time figuring out the emotional state of his characters during any scene, placing that shot or moment in the history of the world before it, putting a lot of emphasis on the conflicts (both internal and external) “that comes between that end goal and where you’re at before.” He would also constantly have his earbuds in, letting music help take him to whatever specific emotional space he needed to reach that day.

(Courtesy of Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX)

It can often be difficult to keep true stories accurate to the real-world source material, and Asztalos admitted that playing a real person was “a different beast” from everything he’d done before. However, he had the opportunity to meet with J.D. Vance during pre-production (alongside his older counterpart Gabriel Basso), who was able to give the two actors advice on how to best portray his personal story. He was also given many of the Vance family’s home videos, which provided a strong base of source material for him to cultivate his performance from. He found that listening to the audiobook helped him immensely, as hearing the voice of J.D. telling his own story gave him a better sense of his way of talking. While building a fictional character is more of a process starting “from the ground up, creating each attribute myself” he already had a head start with J.D. with the amount of material he was able to study.

Howard made the decision for the first week of filming to move the entire Vance family cast (Asztalos, Close, and Adams, along with Haley Bennett and Bo Hopkins) into a Georgia bed and breakfast. “He wanted to replicate a family dynamic for all five of us, and we would have dinners every night at five o’clock… We would spend a lot of time out on the porch. I would play guitar, and Amy and Haley would sort of sing along.” He found the experience incredibly humbling, and that week is likely the one to thank for the tight, realistic family dynamic seen in the film.

Only two days after Hillbilly Elegy’s premiere, The Flight Attendant (starring Asztalos alongside Kaley Cuoco, Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet, and Rosie Perez) premiered as one of HBO Max’s first original series. For Owen, working on that series was “nothing short of really, really great.” He praised Cuoco’s talent and artistry, and he found he was able to learn a lot from her on how to completely transform yourself into a person “so different from you” and “step into the shoes of a very drastic character.” Owen also made a connection with Huisman, who he highlighted as being “one of those actors that makes it look so easy.” While the nature of Asztalos’ flashback role didn’t allow him to share any scenes with T.R. Knight (who played the older version of Davey), they did briefly meet early into production. Knight was “sort of the heart of the character, and I would just watch what he did to replicate that.”

(Courtesy of Phil Caruso/HBO Max)

The series was one of the projects halted in March due to the sudden beginning of the pandemic, but after a period of uncertainty, production resumed in the fall to finish out the last couple of episodes. Owen received a swab test twice a day, and while the process was definitely complicated by all the new guidelines, he was willing to do whatever had to be done to stay on top of safety protocols. “Hey, if the show must go on, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” Even beyond the new rules, there was a new, tighter atmosphere on set as everyone realized that they couldn’t take this experience for granted as they might have before. Emphasizing how amazing it was to work with everyone on that set, he named The Flight Attendant as a time he won’t easily forget.

Owen Asztalos has been lucky enough to have two strong breakout roles this fall, and he’s done phenomenally with each, crafting memorable performances alongside some of the biggest names in the industry. Be sure to keep an eye out for his name in any upcoming projects, as we’re sure that his career’s flight won’t be making its descent any time soon.

You can find Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix right now, and The Flight Attendant’s entire first season is currently available on HBO Max.

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