Just before Christmas, on an empty playground basketball court in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Ansel Elgort hits jump shots from 10 feet, then 15, then 20. He takes a step behind the free-throw line, squares up, rises, and drops another perfectly arcing shot through the hoop. “I want to dunk in the game,” he says, eagerly grasping the ball at chest level with both hands. “I want people to know I can do it.”
Two years ago, Elgort was the starting center for New York City’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the singing, dancing, theater-geeking inspiration for Fame. “The best kid on the team was the trombone player,” he says. But now, after starring in a pair of 2014 teen-idol-minting blockbusters, Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, Elgort, 20, is intent on sharpening his skills for his first nationally televised contest—a rite of passage for any young celebrity who can adequately handle both the rock and the gale-force bursts of adolescent attention.
He’s talking about the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at Madison Square Garden in February, an annual exhibition whose past MVPs include Justin Bieber, as if it’s the game of his life. “I’ve been training, doing plyometrics, working on my legs,” says the six-foot-four native New Yorker, flashing a grin that’s both playful and knowing. “I want to dunk on Kevin Hart.”
Wearing jeans, high-tops, and a gray Nike sweatshirt, Elgort catches a pass and pops in a slo-mo left-handed layup. “It’s important to be good with both hands,” he says. It’s also critical, Elgort explains, not to get cocky with a lead like he did last year playing one-on-one with his Men, Women & Children costar Adam Sandler. “I went hard at him right away, before realizing he’s Adam Sandler, not just a guy, and I probably shouldn’t destroy him. Then he got in a rhythm and beat me.” Elgort wouldn’t repeat the mistake. “When we played again,” he says, “I kicked his ass.”
For all the talk about posterizing Hart and slaughtering Sandler, Elgort doesn’t come across as macho so much as striving and self-assured. Even his form on the court betrays a cool confidence, a willingness to ease into things. Despite hitting multiple shots in a row, Elgort doesn’t announce that he’s on fire or making it rain. Instead, he quietly glides from spot to spot, like in a team drill, hands out, ready to receive the next pass and make good on it.
He could have just dunked: peeled off his sweatshirt, turned his cap around, charged through the paint, and thrown one down—hard—replaying a moment he has Instagrammed to his 4.2 million followers before (he has also occasionally Instagrammed his abs). Finally, Elgort picks up the pace and explodes toward the hoop. He takes two big strides and lifts off, soaring to the rim before . . . finessing a finger roll into the basket. “I’m not just going to start jamming out here,” Elgort says, smiling as he tucks his hands inside the cuffs of his sweatshirt. “You need to warm up first.”
Onscreen, too, there’s a sense that Elgort is still just getting loose. Playing Augustus Waters, the James Dean of adolescent cancer patients, in The Fault in Our Stars, he has already flashed the kind of dramatic chops that later, with the subtraction of SMS romance and the addition of several birthdays, win adults Oscars. Honing his stroke, Elgort went emo again in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, playing a high-school quarterback who quits the team, deeming it and most everything else in his life meaningless, before overdosing on pills. Both roles portend even more nuanced ones, and bigger things, to come. “Ansel looks and feels like a young Brando,” Reitman says.
Elgort begins to dribble with increasing purpose as a pack of first- and second-graders amass around the playground’s gates. They’re shrieky, collectively bouncing, wearing little hooded puffer coats. Before they can rush us, their teacher instructs us to leave. It’s recess. Dunking will have to wait. “I think they’re a little young to recognize me,” Elgort says.
Later, when we head into the Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden, the screams are all for him. A wall of sound meets Elgort’s chauffeured SUV at the stadium’s curb, cries of Ansel! Ansel!! ANSEL!!!! The decibels rising, the pitch sharpening. The exclamatory wails running the emotional gamut, from desperation to hope to—ANSELLLLLL!!!!!!—joy. It feels like an IRL rendering of Elgort’s Twitter feed, where many of his 2.5 million followers engage him constantly. They beg for his attention: Follow me, Ansel. I would die if anything happened to you, Ansel. I would die if I MET you, Ansel.
Wearing glitter and braces and pink beanies, all the Anselites come into focus, and Elgort works the rope line. He crowds in for selfies and hugs before entering the arena to introduce performances by Ariana Grande and Calvin Harris, whose success Elgort hopes to emulate as his EDM alter ego, Ansolo (more on him, and his deep house sounds, in a beat). At one point, Elgort leaves the backstage VIP area to watch the show with his dad, the fashion photographer Arthur Elgort, and his mom, the opera director Grethe Barrett Holby, in the crowd. “People saw me and jumped out of their seats,” Elgort says. “Everyone started rushing over. Security could not stop them.”
From Elgort’s privileged vantage point, just nine months removed from being a teenager himself, this is what rising stardom looks like. And he’s quickly growing into it. Categorically, 20 feeds on contradiction. It’s dependent and independent. Raging idealism clashes with new responsibility. Base humor and emerging wisdom butt heads. One day—July 31, 2014, if you’re Ansel Elgort—you can tweet, “To the guy standing behind me on the escalator. I farted, and I am truly sorry.” The next—August 1, 2014, for Elgort—you can express yourself as the kind of public figure you see yourself becoming someday but also, very much and very intensely, as the man you are right now: “Doing something you don’t love is difficult. Doing something you do love is easy. Try to make your living doing something you love.”
Watching his parents, Elgort understood this edict from an early age. He also realized “something” can, in fact, mean many things and that creativity combined with talent is a gateway to the experiential breadth he craves. As a kid, Elgort took ballet, acting, and voice lessons. He played trumpet and taught himself piano. He won competitions for painting tiny, fantastical soldiers. “Warhammer,” he says proudly. “Twenty-four-millimeter scale.” Starting when Ansel was 5, Arthur brought him on shoots for Vogue, photographing him alongside top models like Stella Tenant and Karolina Kurkova, while Holby cast her son in operas. “One was called Animal Tales, with a libretto written by George Plimpton,” Elgort says. “I was a frog who couldn’t jump.”
He has made nothing but huge leaps ever since. A manager spotted Elgort in a December 2011 high-school production of Guys and Dolls and, soon after, had him cast in the director Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake of the horror classic Carrie, playing the prom king. “I hadn’t even graduated from LaGuardia yet,” Elgort says. “I could tell everybody who was saying, ‘You’re making a mistake, go to college,’ that I wasn’t making a mistake. I missed graduation to shoot.”
• • •
The week after the Jingle Ball, Elgort, always prompt, is waiting for me outside a Williamsburg record store. He’s clutching a skateboard and wearing a crisp Knicks strapback cap. “So much has happened since the last time I saw you,” he says, speaking as Ansel and Ansolo, articulating that both performers are in high demand. “Man, I can’t believe how much has happened.”
Elgort should probably get used to both speaking this phrase and feeling the feelings that come with it, which, for now, include disbelief, gratitude, and an eagerness for more. Today, his happenings consist of getting back together with his high-school girlfriend after a five-month hiatus (“I was doing okay,” he says of being single, “but I knew something was missing, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s love'”), spending time with Jay-Z at Taylor Swift’s birthday party, and announcing the nominations for the 2015 SAG Awards with Eva Longoria in Los Angeles. Further, he’s in discussions, and reportedly will soon sign on, for starring roles in two upcoming movies, November Criminals and Baby Driver. Prada has cast him in its spring advertising campaign, prominently featuring his likeness in jeans and a sweater vest, pensively peeling an orange. And Ansolo has landed his biggest gig yet, playing Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, a prime event on the EDM circuit, in March.
Inside the music store, with its monklike clerk and its vintage-vinyl fragrance, Elgort thumbs through LPs in the curated Afrobeat section. He flips over the price tags on a few pieces of retro hi-fi equipment—a Harman Kardon receiver, an Optonica turntable—none of which seem to hold as much weight as his iPhone. Songs are playing in the store, but the place, which is older than both Elgort and Ansolo combined, maintains the hushed solemnity of a temple. Elgort comes across a Diplo record. “I should get my stuff in here, too,” he says, amazed to see the DJ mixed in among the classics, before shuffling across the room to where something has caught his eye. Elgort reaches for the copy of Pin Ups, David Bowie’s 1973 album of covers, and sizes up the singer at 26: his glam mullet, his heavy makeup, his piercing gaze. “This guy’s eternal,” he says. “I wonder who from today will be eternal?”
Shailene Woodley, Elgort’s costar in Fault and Divergent and its sequel, this month’s Insurgent (not to mention the franchise’s two-part conclusion, Allegiant, the first of which is due in 2016), believes the answer to that question is none other than the baby-faced guy who asked it. She’s not, however, sure about the medium. “Ansel is not just an actor,” she says. “He’s a musician and a producer. He can paint miniatures and dance like a motherfucker. If he wants to act forever, then he’s going to. If he wants to be a musician, he’s going to be a musician. If he wants to climb Mount Everest or become a professional hang-glider dude, then that’s what he’s going to end up doing.”
For his part, Elgort talks mostly about finding new ways to stay creative. He discusses the craft of acting more than the business of it, and when he does talk business, and role selection, it’s so he can ultimately find his way back to his craft. “That’s one reason I want to buy a house now,” he says, exiting the record store and snapping a photo of a real-estate listing on Bedford Avenue. “So I can have my place and not worry about money. Then I can do plays. Do Broadway. Make whatever movie I want and not feel like, ‘Well, I have to pay a mortgage and take this job and that job.’ The minute you start thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that, but it’ll make me money,’ is when you start fucking yourself. I don’t want money to ever drive my career. I want my career to be driven by what I want to do in art.”
A little while later, at brunch, Elgort appears to be eating for two (an omelet and cinnamon toast followed by a cheeseburger and a salad in a single sitting) as he explains the birth of Ansolo. His beat-dropping alter ego emerged a couple of years ago, shortly before he worked on Carrie, out of a need for autonomous artistic expression. “I just make whatever music I want,” he says. “It’s my obsession, and it’s very fulfilling.”
There’s no cultural hyphenate that elicits more skepticism than celebrity-DJ. But Elgort, who identifies as a producer, quickly dispels any stereotypes. He’s not in it for the party drugs or the bottle service (“I don’t really drink,” he says). He’s not in it to lazily lay a finger on a turntable while collecting gratuitous appearance fees. And he’s no fan of velvet ropes. “The club scene is terrible,” he says. “I love playing places where it’s about having a good time, not about whose dick is the biggest.”
EDM ethics aside, the more important thing here is this: Ansolo (the nom de nightlife comes from Warren Elgort, who bestowed this Han Solo riff on his younger brother as a kid) has a sound that’s connecting with audiences, contemporaries, and majordomos alike. Notably, starting last spring, Ansolo released his first recordings on Size, the label founded by Swedish House Mafia’s Steve Angello, with more tracks, and plans for an album, in the pipeline. Angello, whose face would be on EDM’s Mount Rushmore if there were one, sees even greater glory ahead. “I don’t know anybody else in the world who’s succeeding so strongly in one profession and wants to start over, from Step 1, in another,” he says. “And Ansel’s not falling into EDM because it’s popular. He’s great at making music. He’s more talented than a lot of guys in the scene. As long as he maintains the drive, the sky’s the limit.”
Watching Ansolo live can be disorienting. In a video he shows me of his recent performance at Echostage in Washington, D.C., he keeps jumping, like a human piston, perfectly oiled. He thrusts his hands up, up, up. Up, up, up. Up, up. He twirls in tight circles. Waves his fingers like blazing guns. Shifts back and forth, adjusting knobs and levers, becoming the beat. Ansolo’s body language suggests he’s having more fun doing this than anybody else has ever had doing anything. “It’s an hour and a half of bouncing around and smiling like that,” he says. “It was my happiest moment in music. It was the first time I felt like, ‘Wow—people are here to see me, people are excited to see me.'”
• • •
After we finish eating, Elgort has to rush to Manhattan to record dialogue for the Insurgent trailer. Despite his two blockbusters, he insists on taking the subway. Among the straggling midday commuters, he goes unrecognized and becomes an observer. He cracks up watching a middle-aged lady apply perfume samples from a magazine directly to her face. He’s confounded by the hipness of a chain of women clad in all black. Elgort talks about his father’s career-retrospective show, currently on exhibition at a SoHo gallery, and how upset he’d been to miss the opening in favor of announcing the SAG nominees in L.A. “I actually cried,” he says. “I left the decision up to my mom. But there’s going to be many more tough decisions ahead.”
Moving forward, Elgort will have to balance Ansel’s shooting schedule, Ansolo’s performances, and a personal life he’d like to keep relatively normal. And, although grateful for their love, he’ll need to eventually graduate from his teen audience, shifting his skill and charm toward a more mature viewership, one that’s hungry for the kind of art he longs to make. But for now, Elgort has the energy and desire to take on all of it, which is, perhaps, the great advantage of both his age and his disposition. “There’s going to be time for everything,” he says.
Hustling toward the recording studio, Elgort weaves on and off the curb and in and out of the tight spaces between the clusters of pedestrians. While telling me he has a handful of movie projects he can’t really discuss in depth until contracts are inked, he pulls a classically boyish gag: a bait-and-switch shoulder-tapping trick on a wild-eyed and walrusy 300-pounder.
As the man bellows in Russian at everyone on the street and no one in particular, Elgort reaches around to his far shoulder, the one closer to me. Reflexively, the man spins in my direction as Elgort bolts up the block, on his way to lay down his voice on the teaser for a film with a nine-digit budget.
“Did I get him?” asks Elgort, still rushing up Broadway when I catch up to him a few seconds later. “Did he think it was you? That would have been awesome.”