The young actor’s roots in saccharine young-adult novel adaptations may be biting the dust.
With the release of Edgar Wright’s much-anticipated Baby Driver this week, Ansel Elgort is pushed back into the spotlight. He first shot to prominence as a bona fide YA heartthrob in The Fault in Our Stars and the doomed Divergent series. He even makes a cameo in another John Green adaptation, Paper Towns.
Then Elgort disappeared off the radar for a while. Now, due to the understandable buzz of Baby Driver coupled with the films he has further down the pipeline, it seems like his career is decidedly shifting.
According to Deadline, Elgort is set to headline Mayday 109, playing a young President John F. Kennedy. Producers Basil Iwanyck and Beau Flynn insist it’s “not a biopic nor a film about politics.” Instead, the film will reportedly focus on JFK’s iconic status as a hero figure. Alongside countless other portrayals of the former president, the film seems keen on mythologizing “a young man who was a hero long before becoming the iconic 35th President of the United States.”
It appears as though Elgort is refashioning his career in a similarly deliberate way. He may not always play a hero. But like the Logan Lermans and Aaron Taylor-Johnsons before him, there is a discernible pattern in his upcoming projects that hint at a distinct curation of his image.
Post-Baby Driver, Elgort has already bulked up his filmography with starring roles in a couple of upcoming crime dramas, namely November Criminals and Billionaire Boys Club.
November Criminals may be an adaptation of a YA novel — one that sees Elgort re-teaming with his Carrie co-star Chloë Grace Moretz — but the novel’s themes of drug trafficking and murder might prove a darker venture nonetheless. Meanwhile, he will lead Billionaire Boys Club alongside Taron Egerton and Kevin Spacey. The film will depict a real-life social club known for its affluent members and fraudulent activities in the 1980s.
Both these projects began production in 2015 and have taken some time to finally get tentative release dates. But Elgort’s commodity as a leading man is rising as he breaks out of roles in young adult fare, and this will likely open many of the doors he needs to try and head for leading-man status in Hollywood.
It’s important to note that YA films aren’t inherently inferior by virtue of their genre, and it isn’t as if Elgort was never praised for his work in them. But his most prominent works pre-Baby Driver have relegated him to secondary characters, either as the fairly uncomplicated romantic lead or the traitorous petulant brother.
His recent choices are further removed from that. There’s a hint of possible anti-hero connection between the protagonists he has sought since appearing in YA films. Elgort is vying for a spot that’s front and center, and he doesn’t necessarily want to be liked, either. In fact, his career trajectory seems rather familiar.
Variety likens Elgort’s Baby Driver performance to that of Ryan Gosling’s in Drive. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Billionaire Boys Club ends up a micro version of The Wolf of Wall Street, given its emphasis on hedonism and, well, money. Moreover, the source material for November Criminals is supposedly “a darkly funny, pot-infused novel of teenage maladjustment,” according to Goodreads. And for what it’s worth, The New York Times published an excerpt from the book, told in the first-person:
“So let me begin by saying that it’s hard, ladies and gentlemen, for me to consider myself a bad person. […] Everyone, even a real champion of immorality, sees himself as good. […] Nonetheless – judged by my actions — I am a bad person.”
It already sounds like an age-old narrative that allows its white male protagonist to personify a modicum of unlikeability yet remain somewhat redeemable. Whether writers Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal) and Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) can pull it off and find an apt balance for Elgort is a whole other speculative exercise. It might just end up being Chuck Palahniuk lite.
But to give Elgort a little bit more credit, a lot of actors go for roles like these. As long as Hollywood remains at the ready to greenlight the next white dude starrer, there will be an insatiable number of opportunities for actors like him. And in all fairness, Elgort is pretty much going for a “serious actor” formula grazing a variety of genre conventions. He is trying first and foremost to break out of the box many have placed him in.
We can only hope his projects actually deliver on that.