Ansel Elgort's Star Rises With 'Divergent' Movie With roles in two highly anticipated films, the 20-year-old actor is being called "the next big thing."
NPR logo Ansel Elgort's Star Rises With 'Divergent' Movie

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Ansel Elgort is a name you may not know now, but The Hollywood Reporter calls him the next big thing. He's got two highly anticipated films coming, both based on hugely popular YA, or young adult books. Opening tonight, "Divergent." Like "The Hunger Games," it's set in a dystopian future, a war-ransacked country divided into factions based on personality traits.

So for instance, the selfless are in Abnegation and the intelligent in Erudite, the dauntless are the Brave. The film centers on Beatrice or Tris played by Shailene Woodley, born and raised in the Abnegation faction. Ansel Elgort plays her brother Caleb who gives her some advice before choosing day when young men and women decide which faction they want to belong to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIVERGENT")

YOUNG: The next day, they choose to leave their family faction. And then, well, there are actually three books, so there are additional films planned in the entire arc. As we said, Ansel Elgort has that film, and another coming out this year. He plays the love interest for the young girl with cancer in the film version of John Green's best-selling YA book "The Fault in Our Stars" - pretty heady stuff for someone who just turned 20. And Ansel Elgort joins us from the studios of NPR West. Welcome.

: Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: You know, it is a name that is going to become, as we've said, much more familiar to people. But can we stay with the name for just one second?

: Sure.

YOUNG: Because it feels like it should be in a "Harry Potter" book or movie.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Ansel Elgort. Ansel as in Ansel Adams?

: Yes. My dad's a photographer. So I suppose he named me Ansel just in case I would take over the family business. I guess I failed him.

YOUNG: You are in pictures, though.

: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: And Elgort. What an interesting name.

: Yeah. I think it's Russian. His father was a Russian Jew who fled and was an immigrant in New York City and grew up in Washington Heights. My dad grew up in Washington Heights. I grew up in New York in Manhattan. So we're purebred New Yorkers.

YOUNG: Well, and it would seem so. You danced the "Nutcracker," you've performed in theater. Had you read - start with "Divergent." Had you read the books?

: No, I hadn't. I mean, I've read them now, obviously, and I read them before I did the movie. Just as if I was doing any production, you know, you read as much as source materials you can get.

YOUNG: Well, we've spoken with the author Veronica Roth. We linked people to our interview at hereandnow.org, and they really are quite something. They tap into something really primeval. They tap into, you know, the high school class system. As you try to get into your character, into the film, what is it that you found about this story of people breaking into factions, having to maybe betray families to change factions? There's just something sort of...

: Something wrong about it.

YOUNG: Yes, sort of wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

: Yeah.

YOUNG: And also high school about it, which is maybe...

: Totally.

YOUNG: ...yeah, why it appeals so much to young people. What did - what pulled you in?

: I know. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. I mean, I think that does - it is totally wrong. People aren't meant to be pigeonholed into personality groups or these factions. And that's why this world doesn't work, and that's what sets the conflict. That's what makes it an interesting story. But also, people enjoy these dystopian stories for a reason because you have a heroine like Beatrice, and she can make a difference, which in modern-day society, young people especially, or anyone, you know, can't really make that big of a difference. It's hard to change a lot. So people watch these dystopian stories, and it's inspiring and it's fun to watch.

YOUNG: Well, the character played by Shailene Woodley, Tris, quite the hero. You play her brother. Your role, smaller in the first film. It'll grow over the films. In this scene, Tris, who's joined Dauntless - this, again, is the brave - pretty much the military. They're like this huge roving gang. Your character has joined Erudite. And she comes to speak with you when she thinks she's going to be thrown out of Dauntless. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIVERGENT")

YOUNG: First of all, Ansel Elgort, what's it like for you to play a character, knowing the huge arc of this character? A lot of people seeing the movies have read the whole thing, and they're going to be looking. Is he signaling where he's going to go in book two and...

: Yeah. Definitely, it's interesting. You have that challenge within just, you know, even one story. But when you have like many stories, it's even more challenging. But it's also helpful because you do know where the guy is going. So you can piece together, OK, this is a kind of guy who would go there, so this makes him this kind of guy. But at the same time, people don't always - you don't know where you're going to go in a month.

YOUNG: He hasn't gone there yet. I mean, yeah.

: Yeah. Exactly. So you have to take it into account, but you don't live by it. I don't think Caleb knows he - he's a - he really becomes an antagonist in the second story. I don't think that he knows he's going to do that quite yet, especially some great events happen in the first story. And I think he's just in a lot of shock, and he doesn't know where he's going to go. And once the dust clears, he - maybe he starts to make those decisions.

YOUNG: Yeah. We're speaking with "Divergent" actor Ansel Elgort. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And we're speaking in code for the people who will see this movie and don't yet know where your character is going. But what about the people who are going to come and you better be the Caleb that they had imagined when they were falling in love with these books?

: Hopefully - that's my job, and hopefully I'm good at it. I'm able to read these books, read the script, understand who the guy is and then become him, you know? The rest of the world is really made for me. You know, I didn't design the costumes. I didn't design the sets. Because of that, they're going to be brought into the world. All I have to do is be there as a real person who people can relate to.

YOUNG: Well, interesting observation too. In this film, you and Shailene Woodley play brother and sister, as we've said. But in the film that's coming out in June, the film of John Green's "Fault in Our Stars," she plays the young girl with cancer. You play a young man she meets in a cancer support group. You fall in love with the same actress that you play brother to in another film.

: Yeah.

YOUNG: What questions arise there?

: I think that's sort of what we do, you know? It was helpful, honestly, to do this one first just because you become friends, you become comfortable with each other.

YOUNG: Ooh. But then you're brother and sister and now you have to fall in love.

(LAUGHTER)

: Yes, I suppose. Ideally, no one will think that, you know? When I watched - I've seen both movies now, and they're really such different people. The world is different. The characters are so different. They look different. They feel different. They talk differently. So hopefully people go to the movies and they don't even notice. Or if they do, then they forget about it very quickly.

YOUNG: Yeah.

: I mean, I know I did and I'm even the guy. I view Caleb and Augustus the way I brought them to life in the characters I see on screen as two totally different people. Luckily, Shailene is, I think, one of - she's probably few best young actress right now around. So, you know, it was never hard with me saying, oh, this is Beatrice, this - no. It was Hazel Grace, you know?

YOUNG: Yeah. When she switched characters.

: Yeah.

YOUNG: And, by the way, she is amazing. The movie is quite something. I was a wreck at the end of it, talking about "Divergent" here. How are you feeling? I can ask you to look at this really, you know, a resume actors would die for right now. And you just turned 20. How are you feeling when you look and see yourself on the screen?

: It's amazing, you know? Just in terms of the opportunity I've gotten is amazing. I consider myself super, super, super lucky. But then you never know how that can pan out. So for these opportunities to fall in my lap and for me to really execute on them, I'm super lucky.

YOUNG: Ansel Elgort, one of the stars of "Divergent" and the upcoming "The Fault in Our Stars." Ansel, thanks so much.

: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: And remember, you first met him here.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.