Ansel Elgort photographed May 12 at Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Ansel Elgort photographed May 12 at Coney Island in Brooklyn.
David Needleman

Ansel Elgort Breaks Out With 'Baby Driver' and a Frank Ocean-Approved Singing Career: 'I'm Hopefully Going to Pull It All Off'

by Rebecca Milzoff
June 15, 2017, 8:54am EDT

On a perfect spring day in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, birds chirp in sunlight-dappled trees as an ice cream truck dawdles past a tastefully restored brownstone. Inside, Ansel Elgort dribbles a basketball on his living room’s gleaming herringbone wood floor. “My whole life, I lived in an apartment where I couldn't bounce a ball without getting into trouble,” he says. “Now I can bounce a ball!”

Elgort, the lanky 23-year old actor, singer, songwriter and recently retired DJ (“I was bored of making the same 128 bpm club record”), bought this four-family house two-and-a-half years ago. He had scored a “big bonus” check from The Fault in Our Stars, the breakout hit movie that, in 2014, transformed him into the kind of teen heartthrob who wins best kiss at the MTV Movie Awards -- although he lost best shirtless performance to Zac Efron.

“My parents always told me, ‘The second you can afford to buy a place, buy a place,’ ” says Elgort, who grew up on New York’s Central Park West, the youngest son of pioneering fashion photographer Arthur Elgort and Grethe Barrett Holby, a modern opera director. (His siblings, Sophie and Warren, are now a photographer and film director, respectively.)

Instead of buying “someplace douchey,” Elgort decided to renovate this 1890 brownstone, keeping its original stained glass and abundance of dark wood: a bachelor pad as imagined by Antiques Roadshow. “Because he’s classy!” Elgort’s girlfriend, ballerina Violetta Komyshan -- a petite, cheerful brunette -- explains. She just popped in from the deck to join us for a freewheeling day exploring the city, which, Elgort tells me, is his typical MO when he’s in New York (which is most of the time). “I’m so happy I have my dream place now,” says Elgort, strolling past walls lined with his dad’s black-and-white photos of The Rolling Stones and Leonard Bernstein.

Elgort was raised in the heart of Manhattan’s elite arty-intellectual enclave and met Komyshan, 21, at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (known as “the Fame school”). After years DJ’ing as Ansølo, Elgort, who signed with Island Records in 2015, recently started singing under his own name. He’s joined on his moodily romantic new pop single, “You Can Count on Me,” by the woke rapper-of-the-moment Logic, whose own album just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in May. (Elgort also sings on Logic’s “Killing Spree,” which the two recently performed together at the Governors Ball Music Festival.)

And now, Elgort’s about to star in one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer. In Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver -- a stylish heist film with a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, which Sony bumped up from an August release to the heart of blockbuster season, June 28, after it won raves at South by Southwest in March -- Elgort plays Baby, an enigmatic getaway driver who compulsively listens to music to relieve his tinnitus. The movie itself hurtles forward on the power of a meticulously curated soundtrack ranging from Queen’s “Brighton Rock” to Beck’s “Debra.”

Wearing Wayfarers and an ever-present iPod, Elgort effortlessly lopes through the film like some hybrid of Fred Astaire, Tom Cruise in Risky Business and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. “He’s a soft-spoken badass,” says Elgort of Baby. “He’s all bite, no bark.”

On this Thursday afternoon, Elgort wears a hole-pocked Marines T-shirt, faded black skinny jeans and well-worn sea-green Nikes, and radiates the easy charm of someone who’s used to things working out in his favor. His goofy lack of self-consciousness has helped win him nearly 8 million followers on Instagram, where he mostly posts pictures of himself with Komyshan, or skateboarding and playing pickup basketball, or with famous friends like Martin Garrix and longtime pal Joe Jonas, who praises Elgort: “He’s so talented, with his acting career and now his music.”

He has also been buddies with The Chainsmokers since meeting them through his one-time roommate, the DJ Pierce Fulton. He later opened for them on their 2015 Friend Zone Tour. “It’s a prime example of how success makes everyone hate you if you’re not underground,” he says when asked about the perhaps inevitable pockets of backlash against The Chainsmokers. “And I’ve also been there. It becomes a meme to hate somebody. But don’t be like, ‘They seem like they’re so bro-y.’ They were never trying to fool anyone into thinking they weren’t bro-y.” He takes a deep breath. “Sorry if I sound heated. It’s just so easy to be a hater.”

Elgort has had his share of foot-in-mouth moments: oversharing in an Elle interview that it was easy to “get” a dancer at LaGuardia; telling Seventeen, in a misguided attempt to compliment Fault co-star Shailene Woodley, “I’ve never once wanted her sexually.” But talking to him today, it’s hard to imagine Elgort blurting out anything like that. He even frets, mildly, over his credibility in music. “There are a lot of things I want to do, and I never want people to be like, ‘Ugh, that guy singing? Desperate,’” he says. “Eventually, I hope I can have a career that’s uncategorizable. And that’s hard. I think that would be very difficult to do.” He pauses, thinking. “But I’m hopefully going to pull it all off.”


 

There’s a Steinway piano overlooking the street on the first floor of Elgort’s house. “In middle school, I really liked John Legend,” he says with a grin, sliding onto the bench and starting to play “Ordinary People.”

When he starts to sing, in a croon that sounds like Frank Sinatra meets Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, Elgort displays the commitment of a kid at theater camp, which makes sense. He grew up attending the School of American Ballet, and though he hated it, he decided to become a singing, dancing leading man after seeing Oklahoma! and 42nd Street on Broadway.

By his senior year at LaGuardia in 2012, Elgort was one of the school’s top actors (“like being the quarterback on the football team at a Texas high school”), but he had also discovered a different kind of music: at a small Southampton, N.Y., club, he watched Steve Aoki rev up the crowd with “Turbulence,” and he caught Avicii at a summer festival. “When I heard electronic music, it felt like my thing,” says Elgort. Rock concerts “sucked. It felt like everyone was old. No one’s jumping up and down or dancing. It’s awkward as fuck. But at EDM concerts, everyone’s going ape shit and having a blast. It felt like youth to me.”

He started to DJ, mixing for his friends on weekend Hamptons trips and immersing himself in the dance music blogosphere, only briefly taking a break when, senior year, he played Sky Masterson in LaGuardia’s production of Guys and Dolls. The second the play was over, Elgort was back at his laptop, teaching himself production. “I would make records with over 100 channels, just layer them like crazy,” he recalls.

“When you hear Ansel’s music, you know he has really taken the time to study,” says Logic. “In the studio, we’re on the same page. It’s just like being with any of my other homies.”

Three years ago, when Elgort auditioned for Baby Driver, he was far from the vintage-leaning world of the movie’s soundtrack. “I was literally doing sessions with Steve Angello from Swedish House Mafia, so my mind was all electronic music,” remembers Elgort. In the audition, Wright wanted Elgort to choose a song to dance and lip-sync -- “and pull that off without seeming like an actor doing choreography,” says Elgort. “I’m like, ‘I need to find some pop record, a song Edgar would appreciate.” He chose the Commodores’ “Easy.”

“It was one of the many things that made me feel he was right for the role,” says Wright. “When I was a teenager, I would listen to a lot of older music, usually without the context of who the artists were. This character, it’s like he’s listening to other people’s record collections. And Ansel was extraordinary: He knew every lyric, every riff.” Wright ended up writing “Easy” into the movie.

It helped, of course, that Elgort, who is 6-foot-4, could also move. An extended sequence follows Baby as he ambles through the streets of Atlanta, dodging ladders and carrying coffee, all in precise rhythm with Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” “In the script it literally says, ‘He’s the Gene Kelly of the coffee run,’” says Wright with a laugh. The film’s choreographer, Ryan Heffington (who has worked closely with Sia), was impressed by Elgort’s “showman ability,” adding that “there’s something childlike about him that I think is great. He has a natural tendency to inject a little bit of humor into what he does."


"Oh, my God, I love Le Pain Quotidien!” squeals Komyshan.

We’re trying to keep up with Elgort as he darts through Greenwich Village. I suggest that Le Pain Quotidien -- a glorified coffee and sandwich shop she has just spotted -- is, perhaps, not the most exciting culinary spot in New York.

“It’s extremely solid,” says Elgort. “Some people are like, ‘You’re from New York, have you been to, like, insert-five-really-douchey-places?’ I haven’t been to any of those places. I like my solid places.”

A New York University student passes by, silently acknowledging Elgort with a bowed head and prayer hands. “That was chill,” decides Elgort. Just as I ask if he’s usually able to walk the streets unnoticed, Elgort casually points toward an older man walking past us. “Mr. Abraham is!” he says with a smile -- meaning F. Murray Abraham, the veteran actor and Amadeus Oscar winner. “Crazy fucking timing!” he whispers excitedly. “I’ve met him before, but I wasn't expecting that. He gave me a nod!”

This seems like the right time to tell Elgort that he is a frequent subject of discussion on Who? Weekly, a popular podcast about not-totally-recognizable celebrities (like Abraham). “That’s cool,” says Elgort with an approving nod. “I don’t walk around calling attention to myself. It’s important to be able to blend in; otherwise you turn into a Hollywood douche bag. I’m sure plenty of people think I am one, too. I’m super easy to hate. But it’s fine. It’s hard to be liked and successful."

He admits that he recently had a “who?” moment at the Met Ball, when Frank Ocean approached him. “I was like, ‘He looks like Frank Ocean ... but why is he being so nice to me?’” recalls Elgort. “He said he had seen me singing ‘City of Stars’ [from La La Land] on Instagram, and he said, ‘You have an amazing voice.’ ” Post-Met Ball, the two hung out in Chinatown, “and no one bothered us, never,” says Elgort. “Then we walked into an ice cream store with a lot of kids, and after two minutes it was like, ‘OK, let’s bounce.’”

At our destination (Saigon Market -- a “solid, even exciting” favorite of his), Elgort’s childhood friend Jonah Kaner is waiting. Kaner, a digital marketer, at one point helped Elgort make Anselfie, a short-lived app that “made funny emojis of my face.” “I remember at my bar mitzvah, Ansel was like, front and center on the dancefloor, the life of the party,” says Kaner. “Your bar mitzvah was lit, Jonah,” responds Elgort. He shows me a video of himself DJ’ing in Japan, playing his klezmer-inflected track “To Life.” “I’m never not jumping,” he points out.

After lunch, Elgort, Kaner and I drop into Warhammer, a small Village fantasy-game shop. Elgort pulls a tiny warrior out of a glass case housing diminutive orcs, elves, aliens and other characters. He painted it himself, and stores it here with his other handiwork. “It’s acrylic paint, and it’s all about blending. That’s what gives it the pop,” he tells me in hushed tones. “You have a little guy you’re going to paint, and you decide how to paint him. It’s the same thing with miniatures as with music,” he explains soberly. “It’s your project.”


 

When Elgort takes up a new interest, he does not do it halfway: DJ’ing; miniature painting; on the Baby Driver set, chess (Jamie Foxx played with him; Jon Hamm preferred Words With Friends). Late last year, he and Kaner decided to get into pool, then played nonstop for three weeks.

“Nobody knows me in here, because I wasn’t in The Hustler or The Color of Money,” cracks Elgort as we walk into Amsterdam Billiards, a cavernous pool hall in the East Village. But he also seems aware that Baby Driver could change that. A couple of weeks earlier, he had entered a party for the Ghetto Film School, a charity he’s involved in, only to be stopped by Warren Beatty.

“He opens his arms,” says Elgort, affecting Beatty’s deep voice. “‘Young man! I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m talking to you...’ ‘Yes...’ ‘I saw your movie, young man, and I just wanted to tell you, it was spectacular.’ And then David O. Russell’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Spielberg saw Baby Driver! He said it was his favorite film of the year.” He takes a deep breath. “I think I’ll be able to work with really good directors now.”

Elgort appears in every scene of the movie, and though Baby’s considered an eccentric brat by, well, pretty much everyone at the start, the actor pulls off an unlikely triumph by the end: Baby becomes the hero, and Elgort, the quietest presence among a trio of formidable scenery-chewers, the one the audience roots for.

As he and Kaner finish up their game, Eve 6’s “Inside Out” comes on the stereo, and Elgort racks the balls in precise time to the music, much as Baby might. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to just go full leading man right now. I’m going to not smile on red carpets, and I’m not going to say anything that offends anyone. I’m going to furrow my eyebrows and like, wear black suits, and only play roles where I’m really cool,’” he says. “But my favorite actors are the guys who are both leading men and character actors: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joaquin Phoenix. And my favorite musicians are the ones who can do anything: Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Daft Punk.”

Already, he’s thinking about the next project: putting the final touches on his new music (his next single, “All I Think About Is You,” will drop June 23) and deciding what an Ansel Elgort show will look like. “I want to have a lot of energy,” he muses as we stroll down Second Avenue, interrupted briefly by his iPhone ringing -- it’s a friend asking Elgort to drop by his Soho apartment. “Moments of stillness at the piano, but I don’t want to forget that I’m young, and my instincts are probably good. I won’t forget about why I hate rock concerts and why I love EDM concerts. I’m going to keep it really fun.” 

Watch Ansel Elgort run down 5 Things You Should Know about Baby Driver, including his favorite day on set (which spilled over into a studio session involving Jamie Foxx and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea):

 


Breakout Tracks From Baby

 

Director Edgar Wright chose Baby Driver’s songs before he even wrote the script. Three you’ll walk away humming:

“Debra” - Beck

Wright named Baby’s love interest, Deborah (Lily James), after T-Rex’s “Debora,” “but then I thought that there could be some funny dialogue if she only knew the Beck song instead.” He’s a big fan of the album it’s on, Midnite Vultures: “I think it has actually improved with age.”

“Easy” - Commodores

When Elgort chose to lip-sync this song in his audition, “I was very impressed,” says Wright. “It’s from before his time, and that says everything about the character.” He wrote the original and a cover by Sky Ferreira (who plays Baby’s mom) into the movie.

“Bellbottoms” - The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion


One of the first songs Wright chose. “When I was Ansel’s age and making movies was a pipe dream, I would listen to this and visualize a car chase,” recalls Wright. Now, it scores the opening sequence -- a (dazzling) car chase.

Ansel Elgort in Coney Island: Behind the scenes video of his Billboard cover shoot:

This article originally appeared in the June 24 issue of Billboard.