Ansel Elgort broke hearts with “The Fault in Our Stars.” Now the teen idol is twisting minds with “Jonathan,” a low-budget sci-fi head fake of a film that also boasts a bold performance from Elgort as twin brothers, John and Jonathan. One, John, is a care-free ladies man, while the other, Jonathan, is a buttoned-up and slightly priggish architect. The film debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Elgort is riding high. He headlined “Baby Driver,” an off-beat heist film that was a breakout hit last year, and scored the lead role of Theo in the big screen adaptation of Donna Tartt’s acclaimed best-seller “The Goldfinch.” In his spare time, he also makes electronic dance music under the stage name Ansolo.
Elgort spoke with Variety about his foray into indie filmmaking, Hollywood’s sexual harassment crisis, and the challenges of embodying emotionally damaged characters such as Theo and Jonathan.
How did you get involved with “Jonathan”?
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It was one of those scripts that your agent sends you and they’re like, “This is really good, but you probably won’t do it because it’s a small budget and it’s with a first-time director [Bill Oliver].” I don’t like reading scripts that much. I like doing other things, like working on music, but I started looking at it and I usually read the first five pages and then throw them away. This one was different. I couldn’t stop reading it. It felt very pure. There are really only three actors in it. It felt like the equivalent of going on stage.
How do you pick your roles?
I’m selective, because I have not enjoyed every movie I’ve done in my career, which is crazy. I’m an actor, you should love your work.
On “Jonathan,” I had to convince Bill that I could be a young architect. It’s easier to sell me as John, the kid who plays basketball and has a girlfriend. Jonathan is the straight-edge architect guy. So the question was could I be that? “Baby Driver” hadn’t come out yet, so it wasn’t like everyone was begging me to do their movies.
This is your first indie production. How did “Jonathan” compare to doing studio films?
I didn’t make a dime, but it was a great experience. There was no trailer. The [cinematographer] had just done one little movie before. It felt like making a student film. I really liked the indie vibe on the set. It made me feel like I was a part of something and not a piece of it.
The film rises and falls on your performance. Was it exhausting to appear in nearly every scene?
What’s more exhausting is showing up to set and having like three lines to say in the background after sitting around for five hours.
After the success of “The Fault in Our Stars,” did you ever worry about being typecast as a romantic lead?
Before “Baby Driver,” I was in demand for certain things. There’d probably be an offer coming in every week to play the lead in a second-rate version of “Fault in Our Stars.” I shit you not, the movie would be about two kids in love and my character would literally die of cancer. That’s how specific it was. They were also lucrative offers where they’d pay me a lot of money to do the thing that I’ve already done. You see that happen with actors. But I’m lucky because I come from a really supportive family, and I never felt pressure to take any roles for money.
I think I can play anything. People don’t think that because they know me and I’m a celebrity and shit, which is like a curse for some actors because it makes people think you can’t do things. If someone gives me an opportunity to be a character, I’m going to be a character. Between “Jonathan” and “The Goldfinch,” I didn’t do any movies for a year and a half, because nothing was right. I was always being offered something that would have made too much sense.
Why did you want to star in “The Goldfinch”?
The book is crazy, my character is crazy. What I didn’t realize is be careful what you wish for. Now I’m just finishing up playing basically a heroin addict. The guy is addicted to painkillers oxycontin, and he is traumatized by this terrorist attack he was in and his mother’s death. So I don’t have to die of cancer or be emotional about that, but I also don’t have a beautiful love story where you get to feel all the emotions of falling in love. When you act, it’s real. You get to experience whatever your characters are experiencing. In “Goldfinch,” I am experiencing the heaviness and weight of being Theo, and that’s a terrible thing. The next character I play is not going to be a drug addict. For sure.
Do you have trouble turning it off when you’re playing a demanding role?
If you’re playing a broken character, you can’t go home and have fun. You have to stay broken. That’s tough for me, I’m a happy-go-lucky dude.
Would you do theater?
Absolutely, but you have got to be careful with that. I remember being 17 or 18 and doing this play called “Regrets.” I saw Andrew Garfield at Joe Allen between shows of “Death of a Salesman.” He was at the table, and he looked broken. I had loved the play, but I knew not to go up to him and say anything. He was in his space and he held on to that because every night he had to catch his dad cheating on his mom. How do you go home and just let go of that? If you do, you’re not doing your job.
Would you ever direct a movie?
I’d like to direct a music video soon. Maybe one of my own or someone else’s. Directing seems like a very tough job. Just being an actor is tough enough. I can’t imagine being the maestro of the whole thing.
What do you think about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and their impact on Hollywood?
I’m glad that I’m young. I haven’t really had to deal with this stuff. People who are older, their whole careers they’ve dealt with harassment. That sucks. I’m proud to be part of a younger generation that’s not putting up with that and is changing everything. Men right now, we don’t look to good. I’m proud to be a young dude who can set a good example for men.