Nat Wolff stars in not one, but two movies centered around young people this year — Palo Alto and The Fault in Our Stars. While both of the projects are focused on teens, Wolff's characters in the two projects couldn't be more different. In Palo Alto, Wolff transforms himself into the charming yet unhinged bad boy Fred, while in The Fault in Our Stars, he plays the sweet yet cynical best friend Isaac. We chatted with Wolff ahead of the premiere of Palo Alto at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss working with first-time director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia) and James Franco (who wrote the book the film is based on) and how he made the transition between the two films.
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POPSUGAR: How would you describe Fred? Do you think he's kind of a live wire, or is he the bad boy?
Nat Wolff: I don't know exactly how I'd describe him with one word, but he's just an attention-needer. Whenever he goes into a room, he needs eyes on him at all times. He grew up in a family situation where he wasn't getting attention for doing good things, so he started trying to get attention by doing bad things. Actually, when I did the movie, I found ways to really like him and ways to . . . I felt bad for him. When somebody comes up to me and they're like, "Man, I really hated that guy," it hurts my feelings, but in a good way, because I know that was the intention.
PS: How do you prepare to play someone like Fred?
NW: First of all, with any character, [it's] finding out how he's like me and how he's not like me. For me, it was finding that part of myself, that kind of really unattractive side of myself that needs a lot of attention. Also getting in the head of this kid who really has trouble feeling anything, who's kind of locked down but still is funny and charming, and there was something that was just, to me, really special about that character in the script.
PS: Did you find yourself relating to him at all?
NW: Actually, I related much more to the Teddy character. I went in to the meeting with Gia Coppola and said, "Look, I don't know. I'm not this guy. I'm not Fred; I'm much more like Teddy." And she said, "Yeah, that's why I want you to play Fred, because you can play the opposite and try to find the sweetness and the pain of the character."
PS: Being just 19 yourself, do you think that this movie is an accurate representation of teens?
NW: Yeah. Anytime a movie deals with their subjects honestly, it vaguely represents real people. With a lot of teen movies, they're either super-super-clever to the point where it's not believable — they'll speak in long soliloquies that are way too eloquent for teenagers — or they're horrible and you just don't want to be sitting in a movie theater watching them for two hours. And it seems like the director's making fun of them or saying, "Look how horrible our generation is." Whereas Gia's not really making — in my opinion, when I see the movie — any statements about them; she's just saying, here they are. You take what you want from it, and that's my favorite kind of movie. I think people are so worried about having a point of view that they lose sight of that. If you present something honestly, you'll take a lot from it.
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PS: You were working very closely with two people who were in new situations — for Gia, this was her first time directing, and for Jack Kilmer, it's his first film. What was it like working with people who are new to the game?
NW: They're both just so talented. As soon as I got in the room with Gia, we really clicked. We both love Mean Streets, and we saw the similarity between Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets and me and Jack — Jack and me. My parents will get mad at me if they see grammar mistakes in interviews! With Jack it was great, because I never played a character like this before, and he had never acted before, so we both were in this scary new world together, and we became best friends. We lived in a garage together, and we really became so close that we could go really deep with the characters and feel like we had support.
PS: Wait, you lived in a garage while you guys were filming?
NW: Yeah, we lived in Gia's mom's garage. In the actual garage. We slept on twin beds next to each other.
PS: Do you think that made you guys bond more?
NW: Yeah, I think it shows on camera that we have a relationship, that we have a bond. The film gives you that feeling that these guys have been friends for a while, and it's way easier to actually be friends with the person than to pretend to be friends.
PS: I know you didn't have any scenes with James Franco in the film, but was he around during filming of your scenes at all?
NW: I did a scene with James, and it got cut. But the cool thing about working with James was that the first day we worked together, I said, "Teddy's character is supposed to be you. Who am I supposed to be?" Because it's not really in the book. And he said, "You're supposed to be like the devil version of me." And I thought that was funny, because I felt like Teddy and Fred are sort of two sides of the same coin. It's like they both want the same thing; they just go about it so differently. So I thought that really opened up a lot of doors for me, hearing that.
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PS: Was it helpful having someone who had written the source material being there with you?
NW: Yeah, it also gives you faith in the project, since I look up to him so much. He really is one of my heroes, and working with him has only made him more of a hero to me.
PS: And then you went on to The Fault in Our Stars after this, which has you inhabiting a completely different character. What was it like to make that transition?
NW: I liked it. After Palo Alto, I had gotten so deep into that character, I said, "I just want to play someone who's f*cking nice. I don't want to play f*cking assholes." I had so much fun with all the people on Palo Alto, but staying in that character all the time, it was exhausting. But Fault in Our Stars turned out to be its own level of fun but also exhausting, too, because it was a hard character, balancing the comedy and the truth. I realize now that nothing is easy. If you want to do anything well, it's going to be hard.
PS: Are you excited for The Fault in Our Stars to come out?
NW: Yeah, I'm excited. It's gotten so much attention, which I love. And the idea that I'm in two good movies about young people, I just feel really lucky. In fact, there are so many bad movies about young people, so it's nice to be in a good one. I can't get a cooler indie movie than Gia Coppola's first picture with James Franco, and then Fault in Our Stars is like the biggest movie in the world where there's no car chase. So I feel superlucky.
PS: They're both teen movies — did you notice any similarities between the two of them?
NW: Not too many similarities. Except that there are really good actors in both of them. The one being me! [Laughs.] "There's one really good actor in both of them, a really hot, really sexy guy!" No, they're truthful, well-acted movies with young directors who I am close friends with. They're two of my favorite experiences. I really feel like these are the movies that people are seeing of movies that I've done. And that makes me really happy.