To be the center of so much activity — so many doors opening to reveal cameras and trees of lighting equipment, so many entourages slipping swiftly out of one room into another next door — the mezzanine level of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza is curiously empty, and quiet. Until a publicist pads across the expanse of the carpeted lobby, beckons an interviewer from the waiting area, and deposits him inside a room that's mostly bare except for two things: an exhausted young guy in an dapper summer suit, slouched back slightly in his chair, and an exhausted young woman sitting straighter, almost warily, about six feet away.
This must be what it was like to meet The Beatles the week before they went on Ed Sullivan.
At this point, it's only May, and there's still a month to go before the movie version of John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars opens in theaters. And yet just the night before, the prospect of seeing its two leads, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort — along with co-star Nat Wolff and novelist Green — in the flesh drew an estimated 2,500 fans to War Memorial Plaza for a 10-minute peek at the film and an onstage Q&A. It's their third stop on a whirlwind four-city tour, and their rest-deprived rapport after a third straight morning of press duties is more like the siblings they played in Divergent than the star-crossed soulmates of Green's book.
"It's weird to think that yesterday morning, we were in Cleveland," Woodley says.
"Two days ago, we were in Miami," Elgort says.
"A day and a half ago, we were in Miami," she corrects him.
"That was nuts," Elgort sighs. His grin suggests it was quite a trip.
"Usually, the third day is when I crash," Woodley says, her voice at this point a husky murmur. "But I don't feel too exhausted because it's so important and so beautiful, and we're both so proud of it."
Still, it's weird to be alone, even for 15 minutes in this hostage negotiation of access for promotion, with two people who have little more than a few weeks before their lives become very, very public. Not that either can be called a newcomer. Woodley established herself as a major talent with breakout performances in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now before boosting her career up a rung with the movie version of Divergent earlier this year. Elgort not only co-starred in Divergent but played the teen-dream prom martyr in Kimberly Peirce's underrated remake of Carrie.
But The Fault in Our Stars entrusts them with roles that are the closest thing the 21st century has offered to Romeo and Juliet, or even to Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic — a 16-year-old girl diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the brash teenage kid who breezes into her life in a rather desperate show of bravado. The plot, in outline, is a recipe for maudlin uplift or disease-of-the-week drudgery. The miracle of Green's book, a bestseller that has grown into a publishing phenomenon, is how deftly and unsentimentally it sidesteps those traps — in part because of the arresting first-person voice of Hazel Grace Lancaster, its fiercely clear-eyed protagonist, who's going anything but gently into that good night.
It's a book, therefore, whose impact hinges largely upon nuance and inflection — and that puts a special burden on Woodley and Elgort, as the actors who must provide them. As an adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone from a painstakingly faithful script by The Spectacular Now screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is careful and sensitive, even if it tones down Green's commendable bluntness about the physical and mental ravages of cancer. (No bed-wetting or "asshole tumors" in this version, alas.) What makes it memorable is its cast — especially Elgort, who pulls off the tricky balance of showing off and frailty that is Augustus Waters, and the amazing Woodley, who conveys paragraphs of Hazel's inner thoughts in just a well-aimed look or labored breath. As part of the movie's promotional juggernaut, the trailer says it will change lives. Yet the lives it seems most likely to change are the two people sitting in this Nashville hotel room, where thermostat ninjas keep tiptoeing in to adjust the arctic AC.
One person who seems to understand this is John Green, no doubt the most approachable person ever to wind up on a Time magazine list of the world's 100 most influential people. (Let's see Charles Koch or Carl Icahn offer to repair your stalled digital recorder.) Before the book, the award-winning author had already won a devoted following, as much for his previous novels Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns as for the Nerdfighteria online community that evolved around the VlogBrothers YouTube channel he runs with his brother, Hank Green. But the novel's snowballing popularity was something else entirely — a gift that brought new power, and with it new demands.
"You can be a very introverted person who has a very public life," Green says in his AM radio announcer's voice, seated next to Nat Wolff in a nearby room. (They've been paired on the interview circuit, and with their laid-back rapport they could pass for a couple of pals waiting for pizza in a downstairs man cave.) "But then after a while, you can't be. It turns out that doesn't work forever."
The challenge, Green has found, is to try to maintain what matters to him — the intimacy and sense of connection he values with Nerdfighteria — while using his vastly expanded bully platform for good. For example, while he's out stumping for the movie, he can use the occasion to tout other writers who deserve bigger audiences. (If M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks have had mysterious sales spikes lately ... case closed.) He can also call attention to his brother's new album Incongruent, which had just come out that week. The night before, he and Woodley had peered under a curtain to watch Wolff play a short set at War Memorial with his own brother Alex. "It was so fun to see you with your brother," Green tells Wolff, "because it reminded me of my relationship with my brother."
This probably isn't the end of the road for the Wolff-Green act. The young actor, still drawing strong notices for his much darker turn in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto, just got cast in the movie version of Green's novel Paper Towns. Green, who holds the rights after a trying previous attempt to get the movie made, agreed to do it only if he could get the same filmmaking team from The Fault in Our Stars. He got Wolff and screenwriters Neustadter and Weber. Wolff and Green exchange "Woo-hoo!"s and high-fives shortly before a publicist corrals them for their next interviews.
That leaves Woodley and Elgort, waiting. They have to leave for Dallas in less than an hour. Then they've got less than a month before the movie comes out, and they will likely find it very hard to go out again without being recognized. After the circus at War Memorial, they took advantage of some of that freedom — she by eating a burger at the bar at Burger Up, he at the upscale steak house Kayne Prime. "Soooo good," he purrs.
"Is that fancy?" she asks.
"I love it that I went and had burgers, and you went to Kayne," she teases.
"I had house-made bacon covered in cotton candy," he says. She looks incredulous. "Like, spun cotton candy."
She makes a face. "I definitely wouldn't have liked that," she says. He grins Augustus' crooked grin.
"You would've liked it," he says. "I know what you like by now."
Read more from the interviews with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, and with John Green and Nat Wolff, at the Scene's blog Country Life.
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