by Harold von Kursk
AUSTIN, TEXAS – It would be hard to imagine a more polite and affable young man than Ansel Elgort. He’s also tall (6’3″), handsome and refreshingly modest. Meeting up with him at the recent SXSW Festival, Ansel gives the impression that he’s almost embarrassed that anyone would want to ask him questions about his life and work. But even though he’s just turned 23, he’s already racked up impressive credits in The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent films.
Today, looking chic in a grey Armani jacket, T-shirt, and jeans, he’s speaking about his new film, BABY DRIVER, an action-packed heist drama in which he plays “Baby,” a master getaway driver in the employ of a sinister gangster (Kevin Spacey). Directed by Britain’s Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Shaun of the Dead), the film also co-stars Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm.
“This movie moves very fast – it’s like a non-stop music video,” Elgort says. “My character suffers from tinnitus, a ringing in his ears, because he was in a bad accident as a kid when he lost both his parents. He needs to listen to music constantly as a way of drowning out the ringing in his ears. But what’s interesting for audiences is that while you’re watching him wearing his earbuds all the time you’re listening to the same music he has playing. There are very few moments in the movie where you don’t hear music.”
Interestingly, Elgort is also a talented musician who released his latest track “Thief” in March accompanied by a music video which his brother Warren directed. His twin acting and musical ambitions stem from his artistic upbringing as the son of fabled fashion photographer Arthur Elgort and opera director Grethe Holby. He originally studied ballet before honing his acting ambitions at the Stagedoor Manor performing arts camp as a teenager. His screen debut came in Carrie (2013). He is currently in a relationship with his high school sweetheart Violetta Komyshan.
Q: Ansel, you’ve been able to enjoy a pretty interesting career so far both in film and with your music of late? Was it fun being part of a film like Baby Driver where music plays a major role?
ELGORT: Music has always been a big part of my life and always will be. That was one of the big attractions of making this movie and getting to play a character who literally can’t live without music.
But it was also an incredible honour and privilege to be able to work with such great actors like Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm. It was like being part of a dream cast. You learn so much not only from their performances but also from the way they handle themselves and how professional they are.
Q: You’ve also just released a new track and music video, Thief. Is that also exciting for you?
ELGORT: I’m lucky that I’m able to do both films and music. I’ve had some great opportunities with some big movies and I don’t take it for granted at all. I love the work so much and I want to keep pushing myself as hard as I can.
I’ve never had to work at any other job than acting. I did an off-Broadway play in my senior year in high school called Regrets. It was my first acting job and it also happened to be the lead! You can’t do much better than that! My co-star was Adriane Lenox who won a Tony for Doubt so you can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to work with someone so talented. I couldn’t have asked for a better chance to start my career.
Q: Your fashion photographer father Arthur named you after another famous photographer, Ansel Adams. When you first started working in Hollywood, did people give you any grief about your name?
ELGORT: (Laughs) Sometimes. It was more that people would do a double-take and ask me to repeat my name. I would say, “Ansel.” Then people would come back with, “Hansel, like Hansel and Gretel?” And I would always say, “No! Ansel! Like the photographer.” Every time I’d get these puzzled expressions. But it’s OK now. In a way it sets you apart which can be a good thing in this business.
Q: Your father and mother work both in the arts. Did they encourage you to pursue your own artistic ambitions?
ELGORT: Growing up, my dad introduced me to a lot of old movie classics, films with Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. I also danced ballet when I was younger and I loved watching movies with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
My dad also loved listening to jazz and classical music and also the soundtracks from movie musicals, things like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and West Side Story. When I was just a kid, I always had a little CD player by my bed and I would listen to all this incredible music on CDs that my dad would burn for me and put on all his favourite tracks.
Q: Did the fact that your parents have enjoyed very successful careers in the arts put some pressure on you to emulate them?
ELGORT: I never felt any pressure. My parents were mainly insistent that whatever I decided to do with my life that I should love it and work hard at it because that’s the only way to succeed.
But they were always very supportive of me and I’m kind of proud that I’ve already been able to do some interesting work and they don’t have to worry about me!
Q: You also DJ and have worked on dance and club music. Is that where your musical taste lies?
ELGORT: I try to listen to everything. I love many different kinds of music. Some of my inspirations are Daft Punk and Skrillex but I also enjoy Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Queen is another one of my favourite bands.
I try to stay current as much as I can since I’m producing and writing music. But I’m also trying to play catch up and re-educate myself and so I’ve been listening to a lot of great music from the past.
Q: Is it hard for you to juggle your twin ambitions of acting and music or is acting going to take priority for the time being?
ELGORT: I feel like I’m still able to do both. I started out as singer and musician and then I got lucky with my acting especially doing some big films which got me a lot of attention. What I like about music is that it’s very different from acting and it opens up a different side of me creatively. When I’m working on my music, I basically lock myself in my bedroom all day and I get to shut out the world. Acting is a much different process.
I’ve never stopped working or thinking about music and that’s something I can always do even when I’m on set where sometimes you’re just waiting around all day. I still DJ at parties and I worked hard on the Thief video.
Q: Was it fun working with your girlfriend Violetta in the video?
ELGORT: I loved working with Violetta of course because she’s not only so beautiful and we love spending so much time together but also because the video was gets pretty intense and racy and I don’t think I would have been able to go that far unless it had been with her. She was really my first and only choice to do it with. I’m so happy with the way it turned out and also having my brother Warren direct it and my sister Sophie taking photos.
What I also liked about doing the video was that Violetta and I were playing characters and I got to play a character the way my idols David Bowie or Freddie Mercury would play characters in their videos.
Q: A lot of your female fans will be impressed with your physique after seeing the Thief video. Do you work out a lot?
ELGORT: Not as much as I used to. A few years ago I would spend a lot of time training at the Brooklyn Boulders gym (in New York) and boxing at the Trinity Boxing Club on Greenwich. Boxing is the best training you can ever do. It’s very tough. I also did rock climbing with some friends although I haven’t been able to do that in a while.
Q: Your life seems to be headed in an interesting direction these days?
ELGORT: I feel very lucky and grateful about everything. Things couldn’t be better.