Ansel Elgort has gone from zero to hero in the last couple of years, appearing in a key role in the Carrie remake and following that up with young adult sci-fi hit Divergent. But it's with The Fault In Our Stars, once again opposite his Divergent sparring partner Shailene Woodley, that he has really marked himself as a man to watch. We spoke to him recently for the Empire Podcast, and here's what he had to say about his young adult adaptations, dressing up as Big Bird and painting Hobbit figurines, for those who would rather read than listen...
So how did you get involved in this movie? Had you read the book before you heard about the film? Did Shailene tell you? No, I got an audition for it, an email that said, ‘Here’s a script and here’s some sides, and make a tape, please’. So I made a tape in my stairwell, which I did three scenes from the script. And they liked the tape. I auditioned with Shailene in LA a few months later, and at that point I had read the book. And, uh, yeah. It was good.
That’s pretty cool. It’s interesting that it’s not a cancer movie. There’s just some cancer in it. Totally. It’s one of the variables, and it was one of the things I was looking forward for us not to play. We didn’t want to just make it all about cancer. ‘Cause that would be, uh, overly sentimental, and, uh, cancer movies are not the best movies.
They’re really hard to watch, as well. Hard to watch, and sometimes they feel manipulative, and it’s important that we embrace the subject. It’s not like, oh, it’s about a healthy person who’s learning from a sick person. Our movie isn’t like that, and that’s what we really wanted to stay away from.
But Gus is a really interesting character because he’s a guy who has obviously been through a hell of a lot of stuff already when we meet him, but he’ s such a big personality, and the thing that struck me is he’s really unhesitant. He does think deeply about things, but he doesn’t let it stop him from doing stuff, which I think is great. It’s a great character to play.
Cancer movies are not the best movies.
Yeah. He’s definitely a really good character. He’s really well-rounded, and he has a real arc. It’s interesting: at the beginning of the story, he is Augustus, and Augustus, I think, was the name of a king or a conqueror? It’s a grand name, and at the beginning he’s strong. And Augustus’ journey is from strength to weakness. By the end of the story, he’s Gus. I think there was a line in the book where he gets upset with Hazel because he says, ‘You never call me Augustus anymore. You only call me Gus now. I want to be called Augustus’. But the thing is, at that point in the story, he’s not Augustus anymore, and he’s not this grand, overly-theatrical guy. He’s a real guy, and he’s vulnerable, and he’s not at his strongest.
I think that’s what’s beautiful about Augustus, is that he’s not your typical black or white character, where he’s the good guy, the pretty guy, or the bad guy. He has a real arc, and he’s a really well-rounded person. Films don’t have these kinds of roles for young people.
Hollywood doesn’t like to give anyone those kind of roles, to be honest. It’s much easier to have the bad guy and the good guy, right? Yeah. So it’s a lot dumber. And what I think is great about our movie is that it’s proving that maybe dumb movies aren’t what people want to see anymore.
In normal circumstances, making a film like this would be a pretty small, under-the-radar affair. It’s a family drama about quite young people with no huge A-list stars, with no disrespect. No, totally. I love that about the movie.
But in this case, it is a book that has, since it was optioned and since the movie started production, it’s become a huge phenomenon. Yeah. It’s true.Thing is, it’s a phenomenon for a reason. The book is amazing. The story is an amazing story that needs to be told, and I love the fact that, like, you look at the movie poster and it’s my face is on there. And Shailene is a star, but she’s not an A-list movie star yet. She will be very, very soon, probably within the next few months. But she’s not like a face that you know, and movie posters rarely put two faces of people you don’t know on the poster. And that’s beautiful! I love that. It’s a little more authentic that way, too. It’s not just two huge stars, it’s a good step for Hollywood. I remember being young—younger—and always being upset when I wouldn’t get cast in stuff. Like much younger, before I had ever worked. I would go to auditions, and I had no chance at that point, and it was ‘cause I would be 16 auditioning for an 18-year old, and a 25-year old would get the 18-year old role, and I’d get so upset. I’d be like, that’s such, you know, bullshit. It’s nice that in our case, yeah, we have a little bit older, but we’re not that old.
Ansel with Shailene Woodley in The Fault In Our Stars
You’re within spitting distance, definitely. I was only two years older. Shailene was only three years older.
So you mentioned going for things in the past. For people who don’t know, you’ve been working and performing for a decade at this point, right? You’ve been on stage. Yeah.
You also went to the Fame school, I believe. Yeah.
Is it really like that? Do you wear out leg warmers every term? The dancers do! I was a drama major, so we wore black everyday, you know? (laughs)
Right, yeah. Just black turtlenecks all the time. Exactly. But yeah, we actually would dance on tables. I learned how to dance in the cafeteria, and we would have dance competitions in the cafeteria before winter break or something. There’d be bands marching around school playing music, going into classrooms and annoying teachers. Halloween was a mess! Everyone would dress up, and everyone is such a character at that school, and then it was a day where you were allowed to be a character.
One year, I rented a Big Bird costume from this huge costume shop. I rented a Big Bird costume, like, if you hired Big Bird to come to your party. It was legit and huge, and I was about eight-foot tall in this Big Bird costume, and I show up to school on Halloween. I didn’t even go to a single class. I just paraded around school wreaking havoc. That’s the kind of school we were at.
You’d be hard-pressed to fit into a desk in one of those. Yeah. I hit my head on the door, on the doorframe as I’m walking in and out of classrooms.
Did you get your deposit back though? You returned it in usable condition? I did! It still cost like $100, though, but it was the best $100 I ever spent.
That’s awesome. So you learned to dance. You can obviously act. I believe you also paint, compose, and you can sing? Yeah, I do a lot of shit.
So what can’t you do? What is completely impossible for you? (Laughs) Um, maybe math. I can’t spell. I can’t really read very well. (Laughs) I’m not perfect. But yeah, I do like to do a lot of artistic things. Right now, currently I spend a lot of time doing the whole Ansolo thing, which is my house music. Like I’ll probably be doing it on my car ride up to Manchester today. I’ll be producing in the car. I always want to stay artistic and doing things, ‘cause even though we’re talking about the movie and stuff, I don’t feel like I’m fulfilled right now, you know? I love to be creating things, yeah.
Ansolo, obviously, comes from your name. I’m guessing there’s also a little bit of a Star Wars fan thing. No, not really. I mean, maybe. My brother says he used to call me Ansolo after Han Solo. But I would just take it because they called me that. I’m not a big Star Wars fan. I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I love Lord of the Rings, but Star Wars, I liked, but I wasn’t obsessed with it.
There was a reference online to you painting hobbit figures or something.
Any movie now that I’m auditioning for, I’ll look at it and I’d say, ‘Does this have a character that I’m gonna be in love with playing?’
Exactly. I paint a lot of Lord of the Rings guys.
So do you have a favorite character? I love Gandalf. Gandalf is really awesome. And Theoden, I love him, too. There’s so many great characters in those movies. It was great because they’re action films, kind of, but at the same time they’re character pieces, and you have so many different characters, and Samwise and Frodo and their story. I love that. I would die to be part of a series like Lord of the Rings because you’re part of something epic, but what so many epics are missing nowadays is the character aspect.
It’s only about the explosions, and there’s no introduction of the characters, and no one gives a shit about the movie. It’s all just explosions and people are dying, but you don’t care about them. Whereas, even in The Hobbit film, I thought they didn’t do such a great job introducing the dwarves. There’s like ten dwarves and, to be honest, I know like two of them, and if one or two dwarves died every movie, I wouldn’t really care if the sleepy dwarf died or the funny, fat dwarf died. Whereas, in the original Fellowship of the Ring, the first movie Boromir dies and even though he’s bad, you’re like, ‘Shoot. Boromir just died? That’s crazy!’
That’s upsetting that you missed out, you’re just a little bit too young to have been in the series. I would’ve died. I would still love to be in The Hobbit. You have no idea, I asked my agents and stuff. I was like, ‘Can I please be in The Hobbit?’ They were like, ‘No, you can’t just go and stand in the background of The Hobbit’.
You’re a little bit tall. You might stand out just a little bit. Yeah. Yeah, I wanted to be a dwarf, and then I was like, ‘Eh, you can’t do it’.
So what else are you interested in? There’s a lot of superhero movies being made at the moment. Is that the kind of thing that you see yourself doing in a few years if you’re lucky enough? Is there a particular kind of thing that you would really like to try? I mean, being able to be a superhero would be cool. Totally. But it would have to be a good superhero. I think, like what Robert Downey, Jr. has done in Ironman, it’s a win-win for him because you don’t feel like he’s selling out by playing that role ‘cause it’s a great role and he plays it really well. I think Captain America was done really well, too. But then there are some superhero movies that I didn’t like as much, um, so, it’s about finding the right one.
Any movie now that I’m auditioning for, I’ll look at it and I’d say, ‘Does this have a character that I’m gonna be in love with playing?’ Especially with, like, a big superhero movie that takes six months to film? Am I gonna be happy, playing the same guy with no arc for six months? No. So…
We talked about superhero movies, but obviously you’ve already got the Divergent franchise, which is not a million miles away. So have you already been working on Insurgent? Are you going back to that now? I’m on it right now. It just worked out that I got to come here. I was filming on Friday. And what is it, Monday?
So for those who haven’t read ahead in the books, what can you tell us, without massive spoilers about Caleb in the second book, ‘cause he’s a character who has a really interesting arc. Yes. He gets a lot more interesting, which is good. Even in the first movie, he starts at Abnegation, and then he goes to Erudite, and then he comes back and he’s confused, and he feels guilty. In the second movie, they all run away to Amity and live on Amity farms, and, we’re just the faction outside of the wall, and then…interesting choices are made by Caleb, and there’s a reason why he’s not the most loved character in the series. And that’s good to play. You know, I don’t always want to be loved. I feel like Caleb and Augustus are very different. Even the way I hold myself, the way I see myself, is different. Gus is a leading man. Caleb is not a leading man kind of guy. That’s important for me. I don’t want to always be the leading man. You know?
It would get boring. Definitely. Definitely! Some actors can do it, but I don’t know if I could. I have to play some characters sometimes.
Starring alongside Shailene Woodley in Divergent
Now, do you read ahead? I remember asking Shailene this last time, and she, at that point, hadn’t read Allegiant and, and didn’t want to. I know what happens in Allegiant, but I haven’t read it yet. But I know what happens. I mean, Veronica [Roth, the author] told me. It’s funny. I heard it from the horse’s mouth. She was like, ‘Do you want to know?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. I kind of heard something big happens’. She was like, ‘Yeah, a little bit. Let me tell you about Caleb’. It’s good to know. I haven’t read Allegiant yet, but I probably should soon enough. I mean, I’ll read it before I do Allegiant!
Reading ahead is good because then you know where your character is gonna go, but at the same time, if you do that, you have to be careful about playing the future. Caleb changes a lot, and he’s very wishy-washy, but the only thing I can take from what happens to him in the future is that he’s not always sure of himself. Because if you’re really very sure of yourself, you’re not gonna change your mind. And Caleb changes his mind a lot and changes direction a lot in the series, so that’s the only thing I can take from that.
The example that’s coming to my mind is Snape in the Harry Potter books. He had to know the future to play it the right way throughout, so JK Rowling told him the end. She did? That’s cool. I’m glad she told him. Alan Rickman is amazing.
He’s pretty impressive. Who are you a fan of? I hear you’re a big Paul Newman fan, is that right? Yeah. I love Paul Newman. Very recently I’ve seen him in Cool Hand Luke. That’s a great one.
Have you tried the egg challenge?
I would still love to be in The Hobbit. You have no idea.
(Laughs) No. Maybe I could do it. I’d have to eat a lot of eggs. Uh, how many does he eat? Fifty? And then his friend says, ‘Why couldn’t you have said thirty? Or forty-five?’ Paul Newman is a great role model for me just because…first of all, he’s an amazing actor. He played a lot of different kind of roles, so he wasn’t always, like the good guy, and he wasn’t always, technically just the handsome leading man. He didn’t only do love stories. But at the same time, I’ve heard from people that he loved his wife and that anytime you saw him around his wife, he was grabbing her, kissing her, for thirty or fifty, sixty years, and he was always in love with her. I love that. He was a great guy. He started the whole Newman’s Own thing. He has just done good things, and everyone always said he was a great guy. On top of being an actor and being an artist, like, I want to be a great guy, and I want to have a family, and I want my kids to respect me and love me, and that’s something really important to me. And be a real good man. I think I’d like to be like him. And I’m already worried with my life now, how do I balance family and loved ones and career life? But he’s a great example of someone who did that.
Has it gotten weird for you, with such high-profile films such as Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars? I mean, you have some really passionate fans between Initiates and Nerdfighters. They really feel strongly about this stuff, so has that affected you? Or are you kind of able to sidestep it a little bit Not quite yet it hasn’t affected me that much because I’m not, like we said, an A-list movie star yet, so I don’t get recognized everywhere I go. A little bit now, but I’ll see, like, three young girls pass me, and I’m like, okay, probably a 50% chance they know who I am, but I kinda turn my head the other way, and I’m wearing a hat, and I look down a little bit. It’s really great to have that kind of fan base, ‘cause then hopefully I’ll have them for the rest of my life. The interesting thing about careers now and social media, no one ever had that before, and no big actors ever had it before. Like, Paul Newman didn’t have a Twitter! I think that things are changing and you should have a Twitter, but it’s how you handle it. You know, how would someone like a Paul Newman handle a Twitter? Obviously right now I’m young, so I think that I should be interacting with my fans, but as I get older, I might get less interactive, but always try to set a good example. I think the way John Green handles his Twitter is great. He sets a great example, talks about important things. I really like the way he handles it.
And finally, what’s next for you? What have you got coming up? Um, a Jason Reitman film called either Men, Women and Children or Pale Blue Dot, and they’re still working on the title. It’s a great movie. Most of my stuff is opposite Dean Norris, who played Hank in Breaking Bad. He’s my father. Or it’s opposite a young actress named Kaitlyn Dever, who’s really awesome. She was just one of the stars in the movie Short Term 12. So I’m excited about that. Very different role than Augustus. Very different. And that’s a good thing. That’s what I always want to do.