Ansel Elgort was at a glitzy New York party when the legendary actor and famed lothario Warren Beatty approached him from across the room, yelling: “You probably don’t know why I’m coming over to say hello to you, do you?” A bemused Ansel stood fixed to the spot. Before he could answer, Beatty continued: “I’m saying congratulations. I just saw your film and it was quite spectacular. You’re a spectacular young man.”
Beatty was right. Since meeting him, and in the space of just a few hours, Elgort has eaten a full steak dinner, nearly been knocked over while running through traffic, and dived into a rooftop swimming pool, fully dressed, taking a £5,000 Dunhill evening jacket with him. You do not meet A-listers like Ansel any more. We joke that if it were the 1980s — which, I hasten to add, were well before Ansel was born — he’d have added throwing a TV out the window to his list of accomplishments today.
It’s refreshing just how ‘cool’ Ansel Elgort is. He’d even give Beatty a run for his money. Even the way Ansel replied to the 80-year-old icon is a testament to his nonchalance, choosing simply to say: “Oh shit, this is awesome.”
Given the recent success he’s been enjoying, you can’t blame Ansel for thinking life is good. Everyone in America wants a piece of the baby-faced leading man. He’s starred in Baby Driver, November Criminals and The Goldfinch these last few years, and this year takes the lead of Tony in Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the hit musical West Side Story. Back in 2017, Spielberg even called Baby Driver the best film he’d seen all year.
But far less fame and acclaim has driven weaker young men into the vicious vortex of celebrity meltdown. But, so far, Ansel has managed to avoid the worst trappings of overachievement. From the moment he arrives for our cover interview, Elgort’s behaviour is exactly what you’d expect from a twenty-something — one having one of the best summers of his life.
He’s relaxed and speaks freely. Of course, that could just be because he’s one of the rare, ambitious young men who has the maturity to both enjoy and feel at home in the limelight.
Several years ago, at the MTV Movie and TV Awards, Ansel was so comfortable enough partying with America’s A-listers that he attempted to steal the show by photobombing Cara Delevingne as she took a selfie with some fellow celebrity guests. He later took to social media, writing: “I don’t always photobomb. But when I do, I photobomb Snoop Dog, Martha Stewart, Cara Delevingne and Amy Schumer.”
“I already felt like I was a professional when I first started going to my auditions in senior year,” Ansel says, explaining his seemingly endless well of self-confidence. “So I never thought to myself: ‘How can I possibly break into this world?’ I thought: ‘I’m already here, you just haven’t seen me yet.’”
Self-assured doesn’t really cut it when it comes to Ansel. He’s as happy bumping into old basketball buddies as he walks around Brooklyn as he is partying with the most recognisable names in the world. As the son of a world-famous fashion photographer, Arthur Elgort, Ansel grew up cheek-to-cheek (sometimes literally) with models and celebrities.
“I never knew this when I was growing up,” he says, “but my father was a fancy fashion photographer.” Young Ansel was so oblivious, in fact, that until the age of nine he thought his grandfather was West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein — simply because there was a picture of him on the family piano.
At school, Elgort’s attention-seeking antics earned him the nickname ‘The Ham’. It’s some feat, given that Ansel attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, which counts thespians like Adrien Brody, Jennifer Aniston and Al Pacino among its alumni. In his final year of school, Ansel played Sky Masterson in a school production of Guys and Dolls, a part made famous by Marlon Brando; someone who he has been compared to ever since. The prestigious talent agency CAA saw him in the show and signed him. “I was cast in a play right away and I missed my graduation. It was great.”
Shortly after, Ansel was cast in his first film. “All of a sudden I was the lead role in a movie,” he says. “I’d never done a movie before — I’d never even done television. I had no clue what to do.” But he embraced the opportunity, appearing in Carrie opposite Oscar-winner Julianne Moore and the 15-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, who had just made Kick-Ass 2 and was, by then, already a veteran child actor. He laughs unashamedly as he describes his first day on set, during which he filmed his entire first scene mistakenly believing it was just a rehearsal. But even this wasn’t enough to knock his confidence.
Instead, this was the moment he realised: “Oh, I totally could roll with this crew, they’re not that much better than me. Basically I had the opportunity to go up there in front of a bunch of people and I was like: I’m going to kill it because I worked really hard at this.”
Ansel’s work ethic hasn’t waned yet. His back-to-back performances in the young adult sci-fi Divergent series helped to make him one of the most bankable Hollywood actors of 2014. But it was undeniably his turn as Augustus “Gus” Waters in The Fault in Our Stars that made Ansel into the leading man Hollywood producers would crawl over hot coals to cast.
“I love The Fault in Our Stars,” Ansel says. “It’s a film that people talk to me about every day of my life.” It is a performance that Ansel is particularly proud of, perhaps in part because it is one of the rare young adult films to have earned real cultural cachet. Ansel is unfazed when the label ‘young adult star’ is mentioned — unlike most actors who have risen to fame in films aimed at a younger audience, Ansel isn’t trying to shrug off his past.
“To me, it just felt like playing people,” he explains. “If you are in a young adult movie you don’t think about it when it’s a well written one.” The part of Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters now seems perfect for the fresh-faced Ansel, who shares many of the charming traits which made the character so endearing.
This natural cheek and charisma has won him the adoration of millions of teenage girls the world over. Luckily, it also shielded him from the most poisonous aspects of this rare type of fame. Very few young men can deal with the degree of invasive scrutiny and attention that accompanies being a poster boy for teenage girls, and Ansel is one of a handful of people, including Robert Pattinson, Harry Styles and Justin Bieber, who genuinely knows what it feels like to be mobbed by hordes of them screaming his name. “I definitely had that craziness and it has toned down, which I have been very happy with, but for a year it was nuts for sure.
“I’ve been chased around the streets of New York,” he says, pointing out the window towards a group of tourists milling around beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. “Everyone had been in the theatre all summer long watching The Fault in Our Stars and I walked by a school with my friend near Union Square. This group of girls saw me and started walking over to me. Normally if it’s just photos they want I’ll take them because it’s a few minutes, but this time I was with a friend and that was a few minutes we wouldn’t be hanging out. So I just kept walking.”
But the girls refused to give up the hunt and before long he found himself running through the streets of New York. “So I’ve dealt with mobs before and I can’t imagine it getting worse than that.
“You know what? Growing up is traumatic for everyone,” he says with more maturity than his years should allow him. “We all have experiences while growing up that make us think or act differently. It’s about getting over things from a young age and I started early.”
Ansel retreated from public life in the few years when he couldn’t even get the subway without being hounded for autographs. “I definitely hid away from it at first,” he says. “You have to understand that my only aim was to be a working actor, it was never to be a movie star. In theory I could have said: ‘Now I’m fancy, let’s move to a fancier place in Manhattan and go out every night and be a movie star’. But I didn’t do that. I’d have friends up from L.A. and all they wanted to do was hang out in places where they were famous. Instead I’d say: ‘How about we go to my house, get Chinese takeaway and play some video games?’ Of course, they never showed up.”
Instead of chasing fame for fame’s sake, Ansel has sought to use his status to open the doors to new creative opportunities. “During all the craziness, I sort of melted into a different world where I had to start from the bottom again.” Adopting the moniker Ansolo, Ansel decided to become a DJ.
“I definitely had an advantage, people wanted to help me out,” he admits, “but I was still starting something new rather than being satisfied with what I had already achieved. I wanted to climb the ladder and so I did and it was awesome. I got to perform in front of a shit-ton of people.”
Having another creative goal to pursue is how Ansel says he avoided the pitfalls of fame. “How did I handle all the bullshit that came along with success in the beginning? I handled it by being creative in something else and not by just embracing the fact that as well as being an actor, now I’m also famous. I just never spent any of my time being a celebrity.”
He jokes about the low-level fame some of his ‘celebrity’ friends chase in New York. “Five or so people come over to you in a restaurant,” Ansel jokes. “I’ve gone on stage in front of 30,000 people — now that was dope. All those people who need attention in life should try jumping up and down, blasting music to a crowd of people in Japan. That shit is a crazy rush and maybe it helped me to just get over it. I much prefer the buzz I get in a music studio late at night. Knowing we’ve made something that sounds cool is an incredible feeling.”
If this is the case, then West Side Story is all but guaranteed to give Ansel the biggest buzz of his career. “It will be a big film, but The Fault was a big film too, so I’ve been in big films before. But it’ll be a film older people will enjoy so I’m not going to be mobbed as much, because 25-year-olds don’t really mob the same way that 14-year-olds do,” he jokes.
“I’m still a kid,” he continues. And, given how relaxed he is, it’s easy to forget how young Ansel actually is. “But I’m totally cool with playing people my age. A lot of young guys try to look a certain way and act a certain way because they want to be a man. I’m going to be a man soon enough and then I can do that for the rest of my life. But for now, as much manliness as comes naturally into my life, I’ll be. But I won’t try to shun my youth; I’m going to hang onto it for as long as I have it.”
This maturity sums up Ansel neatly. He is perhaps one of the few actors in Hollywood who is genuinely comfortable with who he is. And I mean this very literally.
On the day of the photoshoot, Ansel has been messing around in the hotel all day. As the end of the shoot nears, he decides that it would be funny to jump, fully suited, into the rooftop pool. After drying off, posing for a selfie with the GJ team, and laughing about how ‘awesome’ the video of him falling in the pool is going to be, Ansel bounces off to watch a basketball game, leaving his pool-soaked underwear in the bathroom sink.
Wherever Ansel’s increasingly epic career takes him, it’s safe to say he’ll make himself feel at home.
Want more from Hollywood? We speak to The Invisible Man’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen...