Nat Wolff's story is a familiar one: a former Nickelodeon star attempts to break out in feature film. But in two upcoming performances Wolff demands your attention. On Friday audiences will be able to see Wolff in Palo Alto as Fred, a veritable harbinger of mischief. Next month he'll be seen in The Fault in Our Stars as Isaac, a teen with cancer losing both his eyesight and his girlfriend.
My expectations for Palo Alto were mixed, having long ago grown weary of many of James Franco's antics. But despite his turn as a soccer coach lusting after his teenage players—in which he is never not creepy—the movie feels less like one of Franco's art experiments, than the foundational work of exciting emerging artists. Gia Coppola has clearly inherited some of her aunt Sofia's predisposition for imbuing her work with a dreamlike quality and indie music, but the movie isn't all artifice. Coppola has created an ecosystem of teens that you are actually able to care about despite their horrible behavior. And the Wolff's Fred is the worst of them all.
The movie opens on Fred and his friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer, who is, yes, Val's son) sitting in a car in a parking lot. Out of nowhere, Fred slams the car into a wall. It's the first indication that Fred is something of a Tasmanian Devil, prone to leaving destruction in his wake. He vandalizes a children's book. He chops down a tree with a chainsaw. He pushes a girl's head down, making her give him a blow job, and later taunts her. Wolff portrays Fred as a kid who quite literally can't sit still. His gangly frame is almost constantly bouncing up and down. But what is perhaps most miraculous about his performance is that he actually makes Fred somewhat alluring, even though his behavior is vile and revolting. It makes sense that a teenage girl would find him attractive, or that a boy would hang out with him despite being warned time and time again not too. "Gia told me, I want you to find the fun and the humor and the lightness," Wolff told me at The Fault in Our Stars press junket this past weekend. "The asshole’s already in the script. You don't have to play the asshole. Play the other. That opened me up."
In the short time we chatted it became clear that Wolff—whose first adult breakout role was arguably the 2013 comedy Admission—takes his work seriously. Still, he couched his comments in enough self-deprecation that he didn't come off as pretentious. He said he has realized that each role is going to be "hard" if it's going to be performed well. "It’s become so uncool to say that you’re a method actor," he said. "But I am." It goes way back, he explained his mother—the actress Polly Draper—would do acting exercises with him when he couldn't sleep. He only realized what she was doing once he started going to class. (Draper wrote and directed The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie, which launched the careers of Wolff and his brother Alex, and became a successful Nickelodeon show.)
To prepare for his role in Fault he spent time practicing being blind. "I wore an eye patch for a day, just saw how that made me feel, kind of woozy and stuff," he said. "Then I just closed my eyes and put glasses on and did everything blind. I ended up putting Tiger Balm on my toothbrush accidentally." (He wears contacts that blacked out his eyes in the movie.) For Palo Alto he described the process as a freeing one, having initially told Coppola that he didn't feel like the character he was set to play. "There’s a part of me that’s like that, and it’s a part that I keep so hidden," he said. "So basically that role was almost liberating. It was finding this part of myself that needs a ton of attention that I usually keep hidden and bringing it out to the front."
Isaac and Fred have little in common, but both brim with a sort of nervous, at times angry, energy that makes them magnetic to watch. Fred's anger is nebulous, whereas Isaac's is pointed. He is, after all, a cancer patient. Isaac is also secondary to the story of The Fault in Our Stars, which focuses mostly on the love story between Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort). Wolff will have a bigger role in the next movie based on a John Green book: he's set to play the co-lead in Paper Towns, a book he read on the Fault set at the recommendation of Green. He'll also re-team with Fault director Josh Boone—who used Wolff in his first film, Stuck in Love—for the Stephen King adaptation, The Stand. He thinks of Boone and Coppola as two of his best friends, he told me.
"Now I’m sort of getting to the point where I have more control over what I do, but I want to work with really great people and and do stuff that’s good," he said. "That’s been my drive more than being the most successful actor in the world. And I would love to be successful, I love the people who are going to Fault. Nothing against success, obviously. I just mean, it can’t be my number one priority or I think I’ll make the wrong choices."