Ask Ansel Elgort how he is feeling today, and he might meet the query with a pause. “That’s a big question,” he says, looking skeptical. “I have a lot of feelings inside me.”
Can he describe them? “Complex.” Another pause. “I feel like I’m at the psychiatrist’s.”
My probe is a routine icebreaker, hardly a probe at all. It’s certainly not meant to be existential. Most people respond with something more typical: “Oh, I’m fine” or “A little tired, but it’s OK” or some other stock response.
“Well, I’m trying not to be stock,” he says, “I’m kind of over that.”
But Elgort has never been stock. In the summer of 2017, when the kinetic heist smash “Baby Driver” confirmed his position as a bankable movie star, Elgort called himself “super easy to hate,” already aware that his reputation as a privileged Hollywood golden child, shirtless-selfie herald and part-time DJ (stage name: Ansolo, like Han Solo) provoked accusations of douchebaggery, whether or not that’s fair. If ostensible nice guys like Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges and Tom Holland supplanted his “it boy” status in the intervening two years, Elgort has the chance to reclaim some currency this week when “The Goldfinch” opens in theaters. Maybe, somewhere in the back of his mind, the ebbs and flows of young fame were part of his complex feelings.
When the 25-year-old actor hinted at his emotional state, we were seated in a hotel suite at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Goldfinch” — an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel from 2013 — made its world premiere. This is Elgort’s first wide-release project since “Baby Driver,” for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination.
His movies in between didn’t go far. The sci-fi indie “Jonathan” bowed on Netflix in January to little fanfare; the Ponzi-scheme drama “Billionaire Boys Club” grossed all of $1,349 in the wake of his co-star Kevin Spacey’s numerous sexual assault allegations. Now, “The Goldfinch” will put a couple of ideas to the test: Can a film based on a literary phenomenon still thrive at a time when adult dramas are inching toward box-office poison? And will audiences take to Elgort here the way they did to him in 2014’s weepy teen romance “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was also based on a bestseller?
Elgort plays Theodore Decker, the New York protagonist whose mother died in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was 13. Theo, played in teenage flashbacks by “Pete’s Dragon” breakout Oakes Fegley, is bandied about from home to home, which makes for an increasingly troubled adolescence. A friend’s mother (Nicole Kidman) takes him in, until Theo’s reckless father (Luke Wilson) and his druggie girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) whisk him away to a desolate Las Vegas exurb. There, he befriends a sweet but hard-living Ukrainian rebel (Finn Wolfhard) who introduces him to booze, LSD and other frenzies. When another tragedy strikes, Theo absconds back to New York, moving in with a kindly furniture dealer (Jeffrey Wright) and almost getting his life together — until everything falls apart again.
All the while, Theo is in possession of the titular painting, a 1600s Dutch masterwork worth millions. He stole the canvas from the museum under a misconception, and now he’s the subject of an FBI search.
“The Goldfinch” spans nearly two decades and, in book form, totals 784 pages, including a stint that unfolds in Amsterdam. It’s far too much to squeeze into a 149-minute film, even for a proven director like John Crowley (“Brooklyn”). Elgort’s contemplative narration opens the movie, but he disappears for large stretches fixated on Theo’s youth. He doesn’t get enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
It makes sense, then, that he sort of wishes he could go back and do it all over again. “I was just trying to figure out who that character was,” Elgort said. “Now I feel like I know who Theo is more than ever. If it was a play and it was still running, I’d still be doing him, which would be so interesting.”
In person, as on-screen, Elgort has a somewhat inscrutable affect. At 6 feet, 4 inches, his stern face, which has provoked James Dean comparisons, folds into a sly smile emphasizing babyish cheeks. Upon meeting him, he asks where I’m from. When I say Louisiana, Elgort proceeds to banter about the intense polarization in today’s politics, specifically what happens when everyone in a region subscribes to the same philosophies at the expense of those who disagree ― you know, light conversational fare. Remember, the feelings he is feeling are major.
“I have no hope,” he eventually says of the current state of things. “There are some issues, though, that hopefully we can detach from politics and take into our own hands, like the environment. I hope that people all over can throw out the window [the idea] that it has to do with politics. They think, ‘I’m a right-winger, so those crazy environmentalists are the same people who are trying to take away my gun rights.’ The problem is that the left overexaggerates and the right can feel that overexaggeration, so then they shun whatever scientific proof there is. It all becomes super confusing. I feel like we all need to sort of meet in the middle there. But I’m trying to detach myself from politics, to be honest with you.”
That’s easy to say when you grew up on Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side, the son of a Vogue photographer and an opera director. At 23, when many people are still counting coins, Elgort used his “Fault in Our Stars” paycheck to purchase and renovate an expensive Brooklyn brownstone.
But there’s integrity in the career he is building for himself. After leaving Toronto, Elgort will return to the set of Steven Spielberg’s buzzy “West Side Story” remake, in which he plays the romantic lead. Landing such a distinctive song-and-dance showcase was grueling, but so was “The Goldfinch.” See also: last year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Elvis Presley biopic, neither of which he got.
“Everything that is a good role, you have a fight for,” he says. “‘Goldfinch’ I had to sort of fight for. I did a lot of auditions and made sure I did a good job in those auditions. Same with ‘West Side Story.’ I auditioned for months and months. I kept having to go in and prove to them that I could do it. The Han Solo thing, I remember having a terrible audition. With Elvis, I think it just wasn’t right. Or so they thought. That’s fine. Baz has a vision.” (Plus, as he told my HuffPost colleague in 2016, the bright side to not playing Han Solo is that he didn’t have to change his DJ name.)
Elgort is famous enough now that when he doesn’t get a high-profile role, it becomes a headline, which can’t be the most pleasant way to build out your professional life. But in Hollywood, it’s also a badge of honor. After all, it was only several years ago that he was recording an audition tape in his stairwell for the soon-to-be-troubled “Divergent” franchise, desperate to land his second role after 2013’s “Carrie.” If anything, he says, not booking parts was a tougher blow back then, even if he had the benefit of privacy.
“I really wanted to get my career going,” he recalls. “But now I feel like it’s no big deal. If I don’t get Elvis, that means I get to go do a play sooner. … That wasn’t a bad audition. I think it was great. I was in the middle of filming ‘West Side Story,’ so it was a little hard. I watched a ton of footage and memorized some of his interviews just to get his speech pattern down and sang a bunch of his stuff. But I wasn’t really prepared.”
Elgort has his eyes set on the stage. He mentions a few times that he’d like to do theater, where actors get to refresh their performances every night without needing to adhere to the tedious technical mechanics of filmmaking. Not playing Elvis means he can “go do a play sooner” — after he portrays Tony in “West Side Story,” a young John F. Kennedy, journalist Jake Adelstein and a crime thug opposite Jake Gyllenhaal.
That’s an enviable roster for a stud who hasn’t succumbed to the superhero craze that’s driving movie stardom. Whether “The Goldfinch” will prosper among its built-in fanbase — reviews out of the Toronto screenings weren’t great, to say the least — is yet to be seen, but at least Elgort seems to know what he wants.
“‘Divergent’ was my second movie, so that was super exciting but not exactly the type of work I’d like to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I may have stumbled into another franchise with ‘Baby Driver,’ but that’s different. I don’t think I’m going to do another YA franchise or anything. … The most important thing is that I can be honest with myself. And then you can be a good artist. Just being an artist all around, that’s what brings me happiness.”
“The Goldfinch” opens in theaters Sept. 13.
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