Ansel Elgort’s career shifting into high gear
By COLIN COVERT | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: July 3, 2017
After puttering around the track for several years in teen vehicles like “The Fault in Our Stars” and the Divergent series, Ansel Elgort’s film career is about to jump into overdrive. As the wheelman in the car chase crime spectacular “Baby Driver,” he shows the winsome charm of old but reveals the unexpected ability to deal with high-speed crashes, rampant violence and wide-ranging genres of essential pop music.
The title role is a part that could have been created with Elgort in mind. A graduate of New York City’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the “Fame” school), the 23-year-old actor has spent several years building significant sideline gigs as a singer-songwriter and a much-in-demand DJ.
No surprise, then, that his audition for the lead of “Baby Driver,” a lip-sync of the Commodores’ smoothly soulful “Easy,” convinced director Edgar Wright to sign him and add a cover by Sky Ferreira (who plays Baby’s mom) into the movie.
Playing the film’s speed demon antihero was a wild spin, sometimes literally, Elgort said in a recent phone conversation. While most of the high-octane driving was handled in real time by professional drivers, Elgort gunned the gas for several drifting glides himself. When you see him squealing a vintage sedan he has just stolen from a surprised old lady into a fast U-turn, that’s really him saying he’s sorry.
“I learned everything. Everything you see Baby doing in the movie they taught me to do, whether or not they needed me to do the stunts. When they needed interior shots of me in the car, they’d say, ’We need you to do a J turn here. So you’re going to brake, then brake, then a soft input left and counter-steer right here.’ I learned it all in the parking lot.
“I would say 99 percent of what you see on-screen is all real,” he said. “The only time we ever used green screen was when we had to shoot something quickly,” such as a high-speed faceoff near the finale. “Otherwise, everything is practical. Nobody’s being conned in this film.”
That meant a month of 9-to-5 preparation for Elgort to master the choreography needed to bob down several Atlanta streets in a single shot. “It took 28 takes,” he marveled, adding, “I think I got it in one. Maybe it was a focus issue.”
Elgort even underwent roof-leaping parkour training and learned the fine points of American Sign Language. Baby listens to nonstop music through earbuds to ease the tinnitus he developed in childhood, and he chats with his aged mentor and roommate by gesture.
“I sat with a fine coach, and she taught me everything I had to say for the movie. And then when CJ Jones, the amazing deaf actor who we worked with, came to rehearsal, I was able to go over it with him and make sure that he felt I was using the language the correct way.”
The film gave him the opportunity to work with Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm, “actors I have dreamed of working with, and all of a sudden I’m in a movie with them. Every scene I was in with them, I was pinching myself, thinking, ’Wow, I can’t believe I made it here.’”
He bonded with Foxx, visiting his house, playing basketball and comparing notes on balancing simultaneous careers in movies and music. Spacey, “a total pro” and two-time Oscar winner, gave him advice about choosing material and working with directors. And Hamm, “a really classy gentleman,” treated him like an admirable older brother would.
“That’s what was so special. They didn’t have to do that.”
Elgort, who aspires to direct his own films someday, said he also learned a lot from Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), “just watching him work every day. I got inspired. Not many people get the opportunity to be with such an amazing director and pick his brain every day.”
At this point, he said, he doesn’t feel prepared to choose between his twin callings in music and film.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m doing next. I’m producing a number of films, and I am working on a lot of music. That’s keeping me busy right now. I think I would want to stay open to anything.”
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