Ansel Elgort is best known for playing teenagers who die. His breakout roles were as Tommy Ross (brained by a bucket) in the 2013 remake of Carrie and Augustus Waters (cancer) in the 2014 film adaptation of John Green’s hit Y.A. novel The Fault in Our Stars. (As Tim Mooney in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, he takes a suicidal overdose of antidepressants, but is revived.) This summer, the 23-year-old actor is, ahem, shifting gears. In the forthcoming comedic heist film Baby Driver—co-starring Jon Hamm, Lily James, and Kevin Spacey, and helmed by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright—he stars as the eponymous getaway driver, Baby. This meant that he had to learn to really drive.
He had one advantage. “If you drive in New York, you have to be aggressive,” says Elgort, who grew up in Manhattan and got his license at 19, but spent years practicing on his learner’s permit during weekend trips with his parents. “Also, I drove so much in Grand Theft Auto that I feel like I already knew how to do all the drifting, and I already knew how to get away from a cop.”
In order to further hone his real-life skills, Elgort trained extensively with expert stunt driver Jeremy Fry (The Dark Knight Rises, Batman v Superman, John Wick 2) so he could look believable behind the wheel of the tricked-out Subaru WRX STI, muscular Dodge Challenger, and classic Chevrolet Caprice that appear in the film. “He taught me how to do everything. He taught me how to do the J-turns, the 90s, and the 180s, and the power-out 90s,” Elgort says, listing a series of maneuvers named for the shape of their driving line or the angle-measured breadth of their spin.
Fry also bequeathed another skill even more rare among Ansel’s demographic. “I had to learn how to drive stick,” Elgort says, referring to a standard manual transmission, a feature currently included in less than 5 percent of new cars sold in America. Elgort now revels in the cred it conferred upon him: “When I park in a garage, the garage dude is so much more respectful of me because they don’t think I’m an idiot that knows nothing about cars. I don’t know too much about cars, but I guess when someone is driving stick these days, they are into cars.”
Elgort was so excited about driving on set that he would pester the production team about it with near-religious fervor. “Every day I would say, ‘What am I doing today? Do I get to do a stunt today?’ They were like, ‘No, no. Not today,’” Elgort says. He also practiced religiously so he wouldn’t make an error. “Finally when they’d tell me that tomorrow I was going to do a stunt, I would come in and kill it because I wanted them to take me seriously.”
The same, perhaps, could not be said for some of Elgort’s earlier experiences behind the wheel. His most embarrassing incident occurred as a teen in a 7-Eleven parking lot, when he still had his permit. “I was driving my mother’s Audi station wagon, and I was backing up. My mom had always said, you should look back the entire time, you never take your eyes off backing up. So I looked behind me, nothing was behind me, so I backed up, and a car pulled in as I was backing in and I just backed right into a car. It was so brutal,” Elgort says. “Gas stations are overwhelming for a new driver. There’s a lot of moving pieces.” (No one was injured.)
Though Elgort was never really a car fanatic before Baby Driver, he did harbor some muted automotive affections—ones that we feel exhibit pleasantly decent taste. “I remember being a big James Dean fan, and I’ve always loved that Porsche Spyder he had and I’ve always wanted to drive one. And I always wanted to get a Stingray from the ‘70s, a Corvette.”
Instead, for his first vehicle, Elgort went with something a bit more familiar to him, but with equitable vehicular status. He acquired one of the red 2006 Subaru WRX STI picture cars actually used in the filming of the movie. Elgort fell in love with the souped-up, road rally-derived, hawkeyed sport sedan—beloved by gamers, fanboys, and drifters—while on set, and assailed the studio with requests until it relented.
“I just harassed Sony and asked once a week. ‘Please give me one. I know you have like six of them. Let me have one. Let me have one. I’ll pay for it. I’ll this, I’ll that,’” Elgort explains. “I just kept asking, asking, asking. And eventually, they finally said fine, you can have one. We wrapped the film last May. I finally got it in March. They gave it to me for my birthday.”
Elgort bought a house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn a few years back, and keeps the car there mainly to go out to his family’s beach house in Southampton. “Now I’m a total car guy and I love driving stick,” he says. “When it’s raining and I’m in Long Island, and I know I have a little bit of loose traction, I always do a power 90 into the driveway. I love it when a car is behind me—not too close, but a little bit—so they’re like, ‘What the fuck was that?’”