Ansel Elgort has had a stellar first year as a movie star. After a start in theater, the 20-year-old—who happens to be the son of famed photographer Arthur Elgort—starred in last year’s horror film Carrie, and followed it with roles in two high-profile young adult novel adaptations: the first, playing Shailene Woodley’s brother in Divergent; the second, playing Woodley’s love interest in The Fault in Our Stars. His performance in the latter—about two cancer-stricken teens who fall in love—as well as in Jason Reitman’s recent Men, Women & Children, which paints an all-too-real picture of how technology hinders relationships, have gained Elgort notice as one to watch.
Your characters in The Fault in Our Stars and Men, Women & Children are very different. Is there a throughline for you that connects them?
Yeah, absolutely. In both films it’s me playing someone who is coming to terms with getting older. You relate a character to yourself in your real life: “All right, this is a part of me that I need to bring forward.” And then there are parts that I draw blanks with, and I either bring those to the table, or try to understand them by doing some sort of preparation. I played a lot of World of Warcraft for Men, Women & Children and I got really addicted. I just liked how that felt, of sitting in a chair and being in a different world. But at the end of playing, you know that you wasted so much fucking time and you feel like an asshole. But you still want to play more than anything. There were other things I could relate to in the film, like (my character) Tim wondering if he really mattered. I’ve been there. I remember being 15 years old and looking at the stars all the time and being like, “Wow. This place is so big. I don’t mean shit.” That’s something a lot of young people go through. I went through it, too.
There’s a scene in Men, Women & Children when your character is on Facebook and sees that his mom just got engaged to a new guy. There’s a lot of emotion that you’re exhibiting even though you’re acting opposite a computer screen. Is that something that you and Jason, or anyone, had discussions about?
I think we just sort of did it. In that scene it’s the same as if I got a phone call, or my dad comes in and says, “Your mom is getting remarried.” It’s the same kind of shock; I just found it out in a different way. It was nice. Jason didn’t rush those moments. Even though there are so many storylines in the film, and with timing issues I guess he could have rushed me if he was a bad director, but he’s not. He’s amazing. He knew those moments need their time. Acting opposite technology is very easy because we work with technology every day. It’s real, and I’m glad Jason put that in the movie because everyone acts opposite their technology every day. I love that Jason wasn’t afraid to make that so prevalent in the movie. It makes us talk and it makes us think.
This movie is so relevant to how technology shapes our lives and Jason did a great job orchestrating such a large cast. What it was like working with him and how were you able to observe him keeping it all together?
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I think he’s my favorite director I’ve worked with. He had very specific direction for us. He knew exactly what he wanted. I came from theater, and in theater you don’t really have a say as an actor. The director has the say, and the writer has the say. You don’t have that much freedom. And what I’ve realized now, after being in movies for two years, is that actors often take the director as just someone who gives them some guidelines. I let myself become a blank canvas and just took all of Jason’s direction. He really shaped the character for me.
Even though the film has a large cast, you mostly worked opposite Kaitlyn Dever, who plays your love interest, and Dean Norris, who plays your dad. What was that like?
The first day I met Dean was for a big, emotional hospital scene between our characters. He’s in a corner with his head in his hands, getting ready, and I’m getting ready. I sit in the hospital bed and he comes over, and we have a moment of, “Nice to meet you.” And then Jason called “Action.” It was like, boom. The cameras were on me first and Dean was totally in the scene. He has tears coming down his face, he’s totally emotionally available. I’ve worked with amazing actors, but not every actor does that. They save their tears for (when the camera is capturing) their side. I never save my tears for the side, because as you can see, I cry in every fucking role. Tears come very easily to me, and I guess they do for Dean, too. So that was nice. He was really there and wanted the best for me. I wanted the best for him. We both were like, “Thank you.” And then he took me to get sushi.
Do you think Men, Women & Children is an important film for people of your generation?
The film tells a very simple story about people, about growing up, about going through a marriage, about going through high school. It just does it in a modern way with technology as a background. Technology doesn’t scare me because it’s just the way the world is. Every generation has always been scared of the next generation: “The telephone is ruining everything. No one’s connecting. No one’s writing good old letters anymore.” I’m sure the telephone was a big thing 50 years ago. But clearly, things are OK. I don’t think this movie is supposed to scare people. At the end of the movie, all the little cuts are of two people together, with no technology. Human connection will prevail over all.
It’s been a big year for you. What are you hoping these roles, and this well-rounded variety you have under your belt, will provide for the next arc of your career?
I just want to keep doing things that challenge me, and keep working with directors that challenge me. I also make music and I just want to keep making music that interests me. I’m 20. I hope that I’m acting until the day I die, and have a long career ahead of me, there’s no reason to rush things. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to work so much in my first year out of the gate. It’s absurd how lucky I am, how lucky I’ve been this year because I worked really hard for it. But a lot of people work hard. This doesn’t happen to everybody and I’m totally aware of that, and I’m really appreciative of that.
Photograph of Ansel Elgort by Mark Mann