New York City’s skyline glistens opposite the quiet Brooklyn waterfront where I stand with Ansel Elgort, the strikingly charismatic 20-year-old who has recently arrived as Hollywood’s new It boy. Like the buildings before us, the six-foot-four star towers over me. His tousled, light-brown hair peeks out from the flat orange brim of his New York Knicks hat, and he’s sporting a gray hoodie—it’s a look his on-screen persona Augustus Waters would wear.
By now, YA fans know exactly who Augustus Waters is: one half of the extraordinary teen duo from The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s best-selling book with more than 7 million copies printed in 46 languages. The literary sensation turned film, branded as “one sick love story” on the movie poster (which immediately went viral), is about two terminally ill kids who meet at a cancer support group and stars Shailene Woodley as protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster.
It was Divergent, however, that initially brought Shailene and Ansel together, when he played her brother, Caleb Prior—only his second movie role (his first was jock Tommy Ross in Carrie, starring Chloë Grace Moretz). But being cast in the blockbuster almost prevented him from landing the part in TFIOS: “John Green was like, ‘Please be anyone but the girl’s brother from Divergent,'” Ansel remembers of his audition. He made a tape in his parents’ stairwell (his father is famed Vogue and Teen Vogue photographer Arthur Elgort, and his mother is opera director Grethe Holby) of three “tough scenes,” and Ansel won the role, beating out several higher-profile actors.
“Augustus is quirky, weird, and nerdy,” Ansel says, his brown eyes squinting against the morning light. “That’s kind of how I am in real life. Really!” While he cites slightly more cool-kid interests—like playing basketball, producing house music, and rock climbing—among his favorite things, he admits: “I paint miniatures and play video games, too. I have a lot in common with the guy!”
It took two months to film TFIOS on location in Pittsburgh, the city set meant to be Indianapolis. The actor stayed in an apartment building there, sharing a floor with costar Nat Wolff, who plays Augustus’s best friend, Isaac. Having recently moved out of his parents’ home, Ansel is relishing the chance to do things his way: “I’d be playing video games, and my parents would come in and say, ‘Good. Keep it up!’ And I’d feel like, S***! Guilted! Now that I live alone, I can do whatever I want. In Pittsburgh I liked having my freedom.”
Preparing for the role of Augustus, who has a prosthetic right leg from a battle with osteosarcoma, was an emotional process. “I thought, I should know my disease; I should know what it would be like to lose my leg,” he says. He spoke to doctors and befriended Tanner Boatwright, a teen who’d been injured in a hunting accident and who served as his body double on the movie’s set. “Tanner said that when he lost his leg, there was no mourning period,” he recalls. “I think Augustus was that way, too. He’d probably be like, ‘I’m going to tackle this.'”
Even still, Augustus fears oblivion and wants to make his mark on the world. “Augustus seems almighty,” Ansel says of his character’s debonair attitude when he first encounters Hazel Grace. “But clearly there’s stuff underneath that. He finally finds something that he thinks matters, which is Hazel. Whatever she likes, he likes too.”
And what better Hazel than Shailene, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young actresses? “She is a rare girl,” he says of the down-to-earth 22-year-old. “And not just in this industry—I mean out of everyone I’ve ever met. She plays Hazel negatively in the beginning, which is not very Shailene at all. Then you see her open up because of Gus, and it’s beautiful.”
The movie demanded that the pair spend 12-hour days shooting scenes, many involving particularly heartbreaking moments (if you’ve read the book, you know which ones I’m talking about). “We would cry all the time,” Ansel says. “It felt good. I let it out.” After wrapping in Pittsburgh, they went to Amsterdam for a week and filmed at the Anne Frank House and various outdoor city locations. “We had a wonderful time in Amsterdam together,” he says dreamily. “I bet we walked every single block.”
As fans around the world eagerly await the film’s release, which will magnify a story that already means so much to them, I ask Ansel what his personal takeaway from this experience is. “It makes me think of a significant other,” he says carefully. “Fault is a beautiful, honorable love story that I hope I’ll get to experience in my own lifetime. It makes you grateful for any love you have in your life.”
Soon after we speak, the rising star will fly to Los Angeles to present at the MTV Movie Awards with Shailene. “I’ve realized how big the fan base is and how they’re embracing the movie. It’s so cool!” he says as the biggest smile erupts on his face. “But everyone’s going to be like, ‘Who the hell is that kid? Shailene Woodley and… who?'” He laughs. I have a feeling he’s about to be proven dead wrong.
To see more, pick up our June/July issue on newsstands June 3rd.
Ansel Elgort Opens up to Teen Vogue About ‘TFIOS,’ His Relationship with Shailene, and Being Secretly Nerdy