Dark rise

The Divergent Series: Allegiant – Ansel Elgort talks art school and part time DJ-ing in our Issue 12 cover story
By James West | Film+TV | 11 March 2016
Photography Hedi Slimane

Next week (March 18th) marks the release of The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the third cinematic instalment adapted from Veronica Roth’s sci-fi novels of the same name. This latest chapter sees HERO 12 cover star Ansel Elgort reprise his role as the resolute Caleb Prior and is the first of three feature films featuring the 21-year-old actor (soon to be 22) set for release this year.

To celebrate the film launch we here publish our Issue 12 cover interview with Elgort. Featuring sculptural black and white imagery shot by Hedi Slimane, we caught up with the Manhattan-born actor during a rare few hours of calm to talk art school, escaping the spotlight for ice cream and his DJ alter-ego, Ansolo.


James West: Hey Ansel.
Ansel Elgort: Hi!

JW: Where are you at the moment? Are you still shooting in Atlanta?
AE: No, I’m actually back home in Brooklyn, New York.

JW: How’s life?
AE: Pretty good! Good at times, tough at times, busy at times…

JW: So when did you wrap Insurgent? Have you finished it completely?
AE: Yeah, I’m done. We only finished a week or two ago.

JW: How was it? Is it like everyday full-on? Or do you do your bit and then chill out?
AE: It was good, it was long… it takes a while to shoot the big movies. I think, for Shailene [Woodley, Elgort’s co-star in Insurgent] it’s like all day every day, but for me, I would work two to three weeks, and then stop and have a week off. I actually have like a little break now for a couple of weeks too.

JW: I saw Men, Women & Children yesterday.
AE: Ah, nice.

JW: I know it’s a weird question to ask because you’re in it so you have to say yes, but what do you think about it? Do you like the way it turned out?
AE: Yeah, I do. I think it’s different and it really talks about something that hasn’t been talked about in movies. It’s timeless at the same time.

JW: There’re lots of different perspectives in there as well.
AE: Yeah, there’re so many different characters. It tells a lot of different stories, about growing up, about marriage, about relationships. And it does it in this current, modern way, which is really cool.

JW: Can you escape when you watch it, or do you keep thinking about what you would have done differently? What’s your favourite scene?
AE: No, I can pretty much just escape the whole time, which is awesome. The Fault in Our Stars was difficult to watch because I was in it so much, but this one wasn’t so bad. There’re pretty good breaks where I’m not in it, so I could just enjoy the performances. My favourite scene isn’t one with me in it, it’s a scene with Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt.

JW: I know the one you mean. He’s very different in this film.
AE: Yeah. That’s the funny thing about being a comedian, it’s like, good comics always say that to be funny you have to be truthful, good comedy is about the truth. And I suppose he’s really good at that, because he’s so truthful in this movie, in a really honest way.

JW: Sometimes you get those comedians who try and do drama and it goes a bit wrong, but he understood it. I wanted to ask you about your career trajectory which is kind of blowing up. Your two biggest performances so far, in The Fault in Our Stars and now this film, are both really emotionally complex, lots of heavyweight acting. Most young actors at the start of their careers say, “I really want to do something emotionally deep next” to show their abilities, but you already ticked that box. Do you want to do something more light-hearted?
AE: I would do anything. I went to acting school for a very long time and I did so much while I was there. I did musical theatre a lot – like twenty musicals, I did Shakespeare… I’ve done everything. I think that’s what being an actor is, but somewhere along the line actors changed and stopped being as versatile. There’s still a great group of people like Christian Bale, who I really look up to, and Tom Hardy, who are able to play any role. Heath Ledger playing the Joker – you would never have expected that from him. But luckily we have very long careers, hopefully. I’m only twenty so I have a long way ahead of me. I’m not necessarily going to be like, “Oh I need to do a comedy next.” My representatives suggested doing a musical, and I was like, “Maybe in ten years. Then we can surprise everyone.”

JW: I guess there are pros and cons starting with such a massive film. The hype around The Fault in Our Stars hasn’t died down at all, and it has such an engaged set of fans. Do you wish you built up slowly with different films, or is it good to come in with such a big bang and to be known for that role?
AE: You know what, I couldn’t be happier about being known for The Fault in Our Stars. I’m lucky because a lot of people get known for big films and don’t really get to show themselves, they are just known because the film is so popular. But this film was so much about the performances and the characters that it really was like an acting piece for both Shailene and me. We are so happy to be known for that because, as much as I think Divergent is a great movie, if I was only known for that I’d be like, “Wait until you see me really act.”

JW: And your social media has gone berserk. Has it been a hard adjustment or are you just the same guy as before, just with two million Twitter followers? Has your life changed?
AE: I don’t think the Twitter followers is a big deal. I do things on there which make it seem like I’m giving away my personal life, but I’m really not. My personal life is mine and I don’t tweet about my personal shit. Twitter and Instagram are so great, I’ve been able to turn so many people on to the music that I’m making and that’s amazing, it’s such a great platform.

JW: So are you quite strategic with it then? Do you plan out how you are going to work it from the business point of view? There’re clips of you playing the piano and being goofy – you have to think of yourself as a brand I suppose.
AE: Absolutely. Lots of people are like, “I don’t like Twitter, I don’t want to share my personal life, so only use it when I want to sell something.” But people don’t like that. In terms of how this has affected my life, it absolutely has, my life is so different. On a personal level, the funny thing about walking around in public is that it’s a very private thing for most people. You walk around in public with a girl, or your friends, or you’re going to get food, you’re completely in private, especially in New York City. You could say anything, you could say the most fucked up thing ever on the subway, and nobody cares. There’re nine million people in the city every day, you almost never see the same person twice, that’s awesome. But that’s gone now, I don’t have that now which is crazy. Kaitlyn Dever, who’s in this movie with me, we wanted to go grab an ice cream in LA and I realised that I can’t go get ice cream in Los Angeles, that’s not an option. I can’t do it. Even if only one person recognises me, the whole shop, even if they don’t know who I am, wants pictures and autographs.

JW: Have you found other ways to escape?
AE: Well, in Brooklyn where I live, I’m sat in a park right now and nobody is bothering me because I’m sitting in a chill area. People here are a little more chill. New Yorkers are also chill, but in Manhattan there are more tourist areas. If you’re in Union Square there’re tourists, those people will destroy you. They come to New York to see famous people.

JW: Have you not got sunglasses and a fake moustache?
AE: That doesn’t work at all, when you wear sunglasses it makes you more recognisable. When I wear a hat I get asked for more pictures. I don’t wear anything, I’m very open and then people double-take and say, “Wow, you look so much like that kid in that movie I saw,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I keep getting that, what’s it called?”

JW: Did you go to the Professional Performing Arts School?
AE: I went there for middle school.

JW: Is that on West 48th street?
AE: Yeah.

JW: The reason I ask is that I stayed in New York for a couple of months once, and it was two doors away. There were so many actor children, always tap-dancing in the streets. It was like living in Glee.
AE: I only went to that one for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. But then I went to LaGuardia High School which is the Fame school, which is on 64th. That’s also a performing arts school.

JW: Is acting school quite a cut-throat in that environment? Or is everyone supportive? I imagine there must have quite a bit of ambition brewing.
AE: Oh yeah absolutely, there’s definitely both. I think there’re different groups of kids – obviously some people get jealous. But I have a great group of friends and we are really close still. And the school was very supportive. I know the dance department is very cut-throat, but the drama department, which I was in, was a little more chill.

JW: Dancing is cut-throat?

AE: Yeah, I’d say more than acting, and singing. It’s very much about who gets the solo. But in acting everyone got a scene, there were no solos until senior year when they did plays. I actually didn’t get to do the senior year play because I was doing a play off Broadway.

JW: And then you worked with Shailene [in both Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars], who didn’t do any formal training at all, but obviously has a lot of experience. What’s that dynamic like – you having all that drama education background, working with someone who brings a completely different set of things to the table?
AE: She just has a little bit of a different process. But everyone has a different process. And obviously she’s freaking amazing, she’s so good. So it doesn’t really matter – every now and again you have people like that, who are so good so it really doesn’t matter.

JW: So you both filmed Divergent, then worked on other projects separately, including The Fault in Our Stars, where you played a couple, and now you’re back together as brother and sister for Insurgent. It must be quite a reset, is it like going back to the the old days, or does it all feel new this time around?
AE: It’s definitely different, but at the same time it works because the characters are different anyway. They have grown up. So you just use it all, if we feel differently it’s fine, because our characters feel differently too.

JW: After your recent films, did you spend any time thinking about your own personal significance in the world? Both Tim [Men, Women & Children] and Augustus [The Fault in Our Stars] are struggling in quite a big way with these ideas.
AE: I thought about that a lot when I was fifteen actually, which is funny because that’s the age Tim is in the movie. I’d look up at the sky and think, “Wow, the world is so huge, but the universe is so huge… which makes the world looks so small – I don’t get it.” I think that every human has those thoughts, they are very natural. So I suppose I already went through that phase thinking of about my significance. More recently, I started thinking about mortality and the idea that everyone dies, you know? We all are going to die. In a hundred years there will be a completely different set of people in the world. Whether you die at twenty, or ninety, you still are spending a very short amount of time on this planet, it’s still finite.

JW: I like that scene in The Fault in Our Stars when your character is contemplating the fact that he’s going to die, and that his life hasn’t mattered. But then he realises that doesn’t matter. It’s a liberating thing if you can properly appreciate that you are mortal and insignificant. You can live in the moment a bit more. But how does that correlate with the idea of fame, which is ostensibly all about one person being more important than another, or at least more recognised?
AE: Well I think it’s an important thing to realise if you’re famous – that it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not the be all and end all. My life hasn’t changed that much to be honest, it’s changed in aspects but not entirely, I’m still a human being, I’m nothing special. I still feel emotions like everyone else, I still get sad. I’m not the happiest person in the world just because I’m famous now. I’m not the richest man in the world because I’m famous either. I still have to deal with sickness and heartbreak. We don’t remember a lot of the actors who were big in the ’20s, and that’s only a hundred years ago. The only thing that’s important is living in the moment.

JW: Once you realise that living in the moment is important, you still need to reconcile that with being ambitious, and wanting to achieve things in the longer term.
AE: But I think achieving your ambitions also makes you happy. If happiness itself was the only thing that mattered then everyone would just be sat in rooms doing drugs all day. It’s true. But people want to live life – life is a pretty cool thing. There are emotions people want to feel, there’s a reason people go to see movies which aren’t just super happy. I suppose it’s like experiencing life.

JW: I agree. OK, I’m going to change gears now a little bit, I just want to ask you about one of my favourite bits in Men, Women & Children, where you pick up [actor] Timotheé Chalamet and smack him in the face. You see a lot of lame fights in movies, and this was just one punch, but it was just so fucking good. I thought, “If I was going to punch someone, that’s exactly how I’d want to do it.” Did you actually lift him that far off the floor?
AE: [Laughs] Yeah it was easy, we worked it out before, I grabbed his shirt, and he probably weighs like a hundred and something pounds, and I’m pretty strong, and a lot taller. So yeah, I picked him up, he put his hand on my hand to make it a little easier. It was very cinematic.

JW: It was very satisfying. I’m not saying it’s the biggest moment in all cinema.
AE: The funny thing is, just before I punched him, me yelling, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” that wasn’t scripted. In fact, after I did it I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, maybe that’s not right for the character.” But I ended up really liking that because you see how he’s been so closed before then and now he’s opening up.

JW: I think that’s a powerful thing that he was so introverted and then just flips in that scene, because he’s protecting someone else. And I also wanted to ask – is it confirmed that you’re working on this film about Van Cliburn, [the American pianist who won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in the depths of the Cold War] is that definitely happening?
AE: Yeah, I mean I’m attached to it, there’s no script and no director yet. They attach people early on in the process to get financing, but the movie’s going to happen.

JW: Yeah, you’re just lingering there by yourself on the Internet Movie Database page, so I just wondered how far along it was.
AE: I think they’re close to having someone direct. I really love the idea of that story. He’s not going to be the craziest character but he’ll probably be a great character because you’ll definitely get to see all his colours.

JW: Yeah, what a story. He’s a pianist, and you also play the piano – music is a big part of your life isn’t it?
AE: Yeah, a big part. I do it all day when I’m not working.

JW: Is it an escape, or do you do it with a view to perform it?
AE: I make music everyday and I don’t put it all out, I keep a lot of it to myself. Music has been a big part of my life forever, I used to play piano and sing, I still do but now I’m just doing so much electronic stuff. I just can’t imagine living without it. I do it in my trailer.

JW: I kind of feel like I should be off my tits when I’m listening to it. Who do you think of when you’re making it? It’s quite full-on.
AE: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: Dirty ravers.
AE: Yeah I love that, I love that my music makes you feel energy, I love energetic music. The two guys who worked on my two original productions on there [Elgort’s SoundCloud, username Ansolo] are both from London. One of them is Tom Staar, and the other is Eden Anderson from Special Features. And it was actually Tom and this other guy called Kryder who both have this groovy house-style, I always loved it, and I started making stuff like it. Then I started collaborating with them, now we’re friends. I love that kind of music, it’s so much fun.
JW: I know you’ve done some bits of DJing, does it bug you when other celebrity DJs actually do fuck all, they stand there, put a playlist on, wave their hands about and pout a bit?
AE: [laughs] Yeah, but unless you’re doing open format, or using vinyl and shit, it’s very easy. DJing is not hard, anyone who’s like, “I’m a DJ” and you’re like, “Do you produce too?” and they’re like, “No”. Yeah, they’re doing fuck all.

JW: They just plug it in and press play?
AE: It’s so easy to DJ, it’s a joke. I could teach you in an hour and you could play a gig. I have a friend who played like a big gig pretending to be someone else because they couldn’t show up, and he had never DJ’d before. Someone taught him for like an hour before and he went on.

JW: How long does it take you to write an original song or make a track?
AE: I have synthesisers, but I also I wrote a whole album using just a piano and singing. I wrote like twelve songs over three months. I have, like, over a hundred channels going on at once. I don’t use too many samples, it’s more about manipulating, sampling can be one element of your track but it’s not very sample-based. Then you have to do all the engineering in the track too, which takes so long. It’s very technical but at the same time it’s so musical, I love it. It takes me a long time because I’m not just using a preset sound. I might layer ten different sounds coming from different synthesisers and EQing and compressing and all this different stuff to make an entirely unique sound.

JW: Do you get the same feeling when you finish a track you’re happy with as you do from giving a good acting performance?
AE: No it’s very different. In acting, one of the biggest things you learn is that you never want to think, “That was good” or “That was bad.” It’s very much about, “Was that truthful, or was that not?” Acting is a very mental exercise where you literally transport yourself, the minute you start thinking about whether you’re doing a good or bad job, you start fucking up really bad and it isn’t going to be believable. Music is great because I can do it all myself in my room and tweak things which I don’t think sound right.

JW: I guess it must be hard to see the end result when you’re acting, but with music you can imagine the complete picture?
AE: Yeah absolutely, sometimes I’ll be like, “I want a track like this, I want it to sound like this” and I’ll be sat there for so long tweaking it and eventually I’ll get there and I’ll be like, “Fuck yeah I did it,” and I learned stuff whilst I was doing it. Maybe I got a new synthesiser or a new compressor which I used and it’s just very exciting. It’s a little geeky and nerdy in that way too.

JW: Nerdy is good, weird is good.
AE: Oh it’s important definitely.

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