The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort talks controversy, his extraordinary grandmother – and dealing with his many online admirers
We all remember our first kiss. Where was yours, at a school disco? Behind the bike sheds? In Anne Frank’s attic?
The Fault in Our Stars has almost necessitated the sale of tissues alongside popcorn in cinemas due to the volume of tears flowing out of viewers.
For those who have not had their tears jerked yet, the film follows the budding romance between Hazel Grace Lancaster, who has incurable thyroid cancer, and osteosarcoma survivor Augustus Waters, and the relationship that brings light to their lives despite the ever-looming shadow of terminal illness. It’s like Romeo and Juliet if the doomed lovers, instead of downing poison in the final scene, had serious bouts of cancer from the outset.
The film is based on the phenomenally successful book by John Green, which reached the top of Amazon’s bestselling list six months before it was published. Since then it has sold over ten million copies worldwide and is the UK’s bestselling book of 2014 so far, despite being two years old.
The big screen adaptation has replicated the novel’s success, taking over $48m in its opening weekend in the US, twice the amount of Tom Cruise action vehicle Edge of Tomorrow that was released at the same time. In the UK it also shot straight to the top of the box office, becoming a low-budget blockbusting hit in a summer strewn with big-budget special effects laden flops.
As incredibly popular as the film is with audiences, critics, though unanimous in praising the sparky central pairing of Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace and Ansel Elgort as Augustus, have vehemently attacked one key scene, when the couple share their first kiss, during a trip to Amsterdam, on a visit to the Anne Frank House.
After Hazel Grace struggles to climb the stairs to Anne’s bedroom, the couple victoriously and passionately embrace. Instead of attracting suspect looks from the assorted bunch of tourists, they spontaneously burst into applause. “Toe-curling” said Mark Kermode. “Actively repulsing,” chimed the Telegraph. “The whole episode feels almost drunk, it’s so bad,” added The Guardian, and many other critics were far less kind.
“That’s the perfect place to do it,” counters Ansel Elgort, who plays one of the controversial kissers, speaking to The Big Issue in London before shooting off to the airport to fly back to New York. “If you’ve read her diary, Anne had her first kiss in the attic, in the same place. I loved that moment and the voiceover in the background.”
Passages from Anne Frank’s diary provide the soundtrack to the film’s emotional crescendo, her words reflecting the experiences of the protagonists – “Where there is hope there is life”.
Augustus, with youthful verve, obsesses about making a lasting impression on the world, while Hazel Grace worries that her family will not be able to move on with their lives, burdened with the memory of their deceased daughter.
But even when The Fault in Our Stars exposes its own faults, any melodramatic bubbles beginning to form are popped by performances that are heartbreakingly relatable and a brutal absence of sentimentality. As such, the parallels between Hazel Grace and Anne Frank are not clumsily conflating cancer and the Holocaust but suggesting the hopeful potential of a lasting legacy after a story’s end.
“Yeah that’s exactly what I think,” agrees Elgort. “Anne Frank is an example of someone who lived a short life but obviously lived a meaningful life.”
Elgort’s maternal grandmother was a member of the Norwegian resistance and helped save Jewish children from the threat of the Nazis.
“She disguised herself as a school teacher and would take Jewish kids from Norway into Sweden which was neutral territory,” Elgort says. “She did that for a while and then she got caught and sent to a concentration camp. She was able to make it out and get to America and have a family.”
The family became an artistic dynasty – Elgort’s father a Vogue photographer, his mother an opera director – while as well as acting, Elgort has done some modelling, trained in ballet and has a side career as a DJ named Ansølo. Is he as perfect in real life as Augustus seems to be in the film?
“What makes Augustus perfect is he is imperfect,” Elgort replies, dodging the question perfectly. “That aura of confidence and sophistication is a front he puts on and I love how that breaks down throughout the movie.”
Like Hazel Grace, countless admirers have similarly fallen for Elgort. Monitor his Twitter for a minute and see the staggering amount of messages of adoration and declarations of love he receives from his million-plus followers.
“It can be crazy,” he says. “There are so many tweets it’s hard to look at them all. Everyone is going to love me because they think I’m Augustus but I know that’s just because of the character. If I had never done this role no one would ever be sending me ‘I love you I love you I love you’. I’m not going to try and take credit for it.”
So was there more pressure convincingly portraying a character dealing with such an intensely emotional story or meeting the wild expectations of teen fiction fans?
“I knew so many readers would see this movie and I wanted them all to be happy,” he says. “In terms of playing the disease right or something, that wasn’t really a big concern because we weren’t playing the disease, we were playing people.
“We spent time with doctors and kids who had cancer – there was a kid who had lost his leg and was in the process of getting a prosthetic – but most importantly these kids just proved that they aren’t their disease and they’re just regular kids.
“In movies about cancer, the main characters are usually healthy people and the story is about a healthy person learning a lesson from a sick person dying. That’s such a put down. It’s basically saying that they’re not important enough to be the main character in the movie.
“But this book and movie tells the truth. It doesn’t matter how long you live, everyone can live an important life. The same goes for the love story. Very often adults are like, ‘Oh you’re just a kid, you don’t understand what love is’, but I don’t think that’s always the case.
“It doesn’t matter how young you are, you can still have a meaningful and beautiful love.”
Thousands of tweeting admirers would be inclined to agree. Part of the film’s success is that though the audience leaves with tears running down their cheeks, they return to relive Hazel Grace and Augustus’ romance. But does the modern day Georgie Porgy not feel guilty about making millions of girls cry?
“No, no,” he chuckles. “I think it’s a good thing. We all need to cry sometimes.”
The Fault in Our Stars is out now in cinemas. Take tissues…