Paul Weitz’s new film Admission turns an inside eye on a subject near and not-so-dear to many of us—the college admissions process. At the heart of it is Portia Nathan (played by a more serious Tina Fey than we are used to seeing), a Princeton admissions officer whose world is suddenly thrown for a loop when a routine visit to an alternative school forces her to cross paths with a teacher (Paul Rudd) who thinks he may have found the son Portia gave up for adoption in college. Portia finds herself bending the rules, both official college rules and rules she has imposed upon herself to help this boy (Nat Wolff) get into Princeton, while falling into an oddly sweet relationship with his teacher. The film also stars a hilarious Lily Tomlin as Fey’s feminist, fire-breathing mother.
At the press day for the film, Nat Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band) spoke to a small group of reporters about the film and the experience of making it. He talked about working with Fey and Rudd, his “ghetto” audition tape, and preparing for the role. He also gave the scoop on the other projects he’s worked on in the past year, which include Behaving Badly with Selena Gomez, and Palo Alto with James Franco, based on Franco’s short stories and in which Wolff says he plays a version of a young Franco. Wolff also told us of a childhood acting lesson with his idol Dustin Hoffman and the advice the film vet gave to the aspiring actor. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Question: A lot of kids your age are in the middle of the college admissions process, are you interested in going to college?
Wolff: Yeah, I was actually in the college admissions process while I was making the movie. Thankfully I’m done now. But I was, so I was applying, looking at schools right before making the movie and I’d go to visit these college fairs with my mom and I decided because, there was this one college fair where I didn’t see any schools that were in New York or L.A., and I didn’t really, I wanted to go to school somewhere there so I decided to use it as character research. So I went around in character as Jeremiah [his character from the film] pretending to be this math and science genius, when I’m horrible at math and science in real life. So I went up to this M.I.T. guy, and we really bonded and we were talking and I was telling him about all my math and science achievements and then at the last moment when he was asking for my name and my email I felt bad and I gave him my real email and my name, my real name. And so M.I.T. called me like twice a week for a couple months, and I just had to tell them I’m really not good at math and science and um…but now I applied to a bunch of schools, a couple schools, and I’ll find out if I got in…but not Princeton.
Did filming the movie at the same time you were touring affect the way that you were perceiving schools, or affect your opinions?
Um, I guess the movie kind of stressed me out in a good way, the script, because you know, the college admissions process is really stressful, and I think it’s kind of a little ridiculous, so I think the movie captures it well, that it’s necessary because so many people are applying, but it’s kind of crazy these kids who have been preparing since 6th grade for the S.A.T. and that seems kind of crazy to me.
Were you looking for something that would kind of break the mold of what you’re known as?
With this movie? No, I just, I guess so far as I’ve gotten to do in the last year, I did four movies back to back and before that I did a couple since I finished doing the show and I just kind of really responded to scripts. And it’s funny that I’ve auditioned for a lot of things I wasn’t that passionate about and I never get them. And then I auditioned, I was super passionate about this because I love Paul Weitz and obviously Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, but I think Paul Weitz is an amazing director I love About a Boy and In Good Company, and so I was kind of really desperate to get it for that reason and also because the script was good and the part was good, but not in a career sort of way. I actually auditioned for it when I was doing this other movie Stuck in Love on set, and it was the most, I made a tape. And I bet it’s the worst tape, I don’t know how I got cast in this movie because I, it was the most ghetto tape in the world. I was out in the hallway of the hotel, like hoping that nobody came out, I had these lights that Lily Collins (Stuck in Love) gave me, there’s a nice name drop, I’ll just…no so I’m out in the hallway hoping nobody walks by, making this audition tape.
Probably better than the ventriloquist dummy [from Admission] though.
Oh yeah. I think people thought I was crazy because I know it doesn’t seem like it but I practiced really hard at that ventriloquism. I worked with a teacher, and I would just go around the house all the time freaking my brother out, talking with a ventriloquist puppet. And I’ll never do it again probably.
I had met Paul because I had met him on the set of This is 40, but I didn’t really know him too well. But just in that little interaction I had I knew he was a super nice guy and I was so excited to work with him. Tina I had never met but I was a huge fan of, and both of them turned out to be even nicer and more supportive than I thought, yeah. And it’s not, I’m not just saying that honestly, it was an amazing experience.
What did you do to prepare to play someone who’s on the autism spectrum?
Yeah, I mean I try not to classify it but especially when I watched it I thought about it, I mean…I had a friend, this guy who, I’m in a band with my brother and [this friend] produced our first record and he’s kind of…he has similar qualities to the character. And somebody was describing him and said- this was right before the movie and I was feeling a little anxious about the character- and he said ‘he has the openness of somebody who’s truly intelligent.’ And they were talking about this other person but something about that clicked for Jeremiah and I thought, people who try to show their intelligence all the time, or prove how intelligent they are, to me seem a little insecure about how smart they are. Whereas Jeremiah is so smart that he doesn’t need to prove it to anybody. And I didn’t want it to be a caricature of a smart kid, so I kind of found it in myself, I had to do a lot of research to know what he was talking about cause I didn’t want to just play at it, I wanted to feel like I was, I knew the stuff because I’m not as smart as the character. But I had to find a way to pretend to be I guess.
You wanted the words to have meaning.
What are you looking at doing next?
I did, I’m not sure, I did 4 things in a row so I’m kind of exhausted now. And I was just thrown right back into school but I did this movie called Stuck In Love which is coming out in June, which turned out really well too, and I did a dark romantic comedy with Selena Gomez [Behaving Badly], and then I did Palo Alto, which is this, based on James Franco’s short stories, kind of played a version of him when he was younger. But I’m super crazy in that movie.
How was it channeling James Franco?
Well, ok, when I say that…cause I talked to him about it, it’s about two boys, and everybody thought that the other kid was kind of him, but I talked to him about it because he’s in the movie, and he said they’re both based off him a little bit, parts of him. So I didn’t actually think about channeling him as much as, I read the stories but the script really had the…my character is a compilation of a couple different characters in the stories but that character is really dark so it was kind of a dark place to be in for a month and a half.
Can I ask about the Selena Gomez movie? Can you talk about the basic plot of the movie and what it was like working with her?
Yeah, the plot of the movie is, we were calling it ‘Ferris Bueller on crack.’ I play this kid who’s just trying to get this girl, the most beautiful in school who Selena plays, and in the process of trying to get her I’m such an idiot that I get involved with these mafia people and strippers and it all kind of becomes this big mess and I have to put it back together to get her in the end. But it’s really fun, it’s really crazy and funny. She’s really amazing, she’s a great actress and a good musician, you never know what to expect with somebody who’s that famous cause it’s, I don’t know how I would deal with it and I think a lot of people don’t but she just kind of lives her life in a really, she just deals with it really well. She’s probably the most famous person I’ve been around, I guess Tina Fey and Paul Rudd too, but I think with young girls and stuff they’re crazier, they’re just all over her all the time. And she just deals with it with a lot of ease.
Did you read the book upon which this movie was based?
Actually not before doing the movie, my mom read the book because she wanted to but I talked to Paul Weitz, the director, about it and he said my character is so different that it’s better just to go off the script and I read it directly after, and I got scared, that maybe I would get insecure from reading it or something. But I read it after and my character is way different than it is in the movie but the book’s awesome too. It’s just different, and the whole ending is really different in the book.
Paul talked about Dustin Hoffman, said you had a similar quality and said you actually had an experience with Dustin Hoffman can you tell us about that?
He said that? That makes me really happy! Um, but Dustin Hoffman is probably my favorite actor of all time, and I won a contest where I got to have an acting lesson with him when I was in 8th grade. And he was, I mean I was so nervous you can’t believe it. So I did a scene for him to help me out, I did a scene from Ordinary People and I was probably horrible because I was so nervous but he was super, super cool and gave me a lot of good advice. Cause I said something like, I was in 8th grade, ‘I really want this scene to get to a really angry spot at the end of the scene’ and he said ‘you know, you can’t do that, you have to make sure that you’re just being true to the moment all the time.’ And when I went back and watched all his movies after, I had seen all his movies before, then I watched them after and I see that he’s not trying to make anything happen or trying to indicate anything he’s just letting it all happen. And that opened up a huge door for me.
So the hope is to do a whole movie with him right?
Just to be his best friend. I actually saw him at the Toronto Film Festival and my dad had kind of known him but he had totally forgot so I didn’t think he was going to remember even having a lesson with me but I went up to him and I was like ‘uh, Dustin?’ [Laughs] No, I said ‘you gave me an acting lesson when I was in 8th grade and you said at the end that now I’m a real actor and now I’m here with a real movie.’ And he was like ‘oh, I should have charged you more! I’ll charge you more next time.’ [Laughs]
Did you learn anything from Tina and Paul while you were doing this?
Oh, totally. Yeah, what I was saying about Tina is she, I was amazed how much she has to juggle. Because she has a kid and she’s writing 30 Rock episodes and she’s the star of this movie and you could, I don’t think I could, I can barely multitask, do anything. I need to just focus so hard on the one thing but she’s able to, in the moment focus really hard then go do something else and I realized that you can do that and be successful and then when I saw the movie I saw not only are Paul and her really great comedians obviously but they’re both really good actors compared to anybody. As good as anybody.
Do you like working on comedy or drama more?
Uh, I don’t really…I don’t know. I haven’t really worked, I guess the one I did with Selena Gomez was pretty much a comedy, straight ahead but for Admission and the movie I did Stuck In Love and Palo Alto there’s comedic elements and dramatic elements. When I saw Admission I saw it at a screening and people were crying and I was like ‘wow.’ I didn’t really expect it. It was my mom. No, I’m kidding. Uh, my mom was crying, she was there so but were a bunch of other people. I guess it’s good to find the comedy in, if it’s too dark then it’s not fun and if it’s, to find the reality in the comedy, I think that always makes it better.
Would you be interested in going back to music?
I’m still doing music so I’ve kind of been able to, in a lot of these movies I’ve done I’ve actually gotten my songs in them which is cool but not in this one unfortunately cause it was all girl songwriters, which makes sense you know. But I’ve gotten music in a bunch of movies and I’m still working with my brother and we’re playing a show in a week.
What about a movie musical?
That’d be cool. Like what? I don’t know. Yeah, music is kind of, I’m always doing music and my brother and I are always recording and writing. But music has played a big part in my acting too because I always listen to music on set and so I think, both things, I’ve been able to do both things.
What music gets you going on set?
It depends on the character I guess. I have a Jeremiah playlist. I still have it on my phone, I just thought it was funny to keep. But I can read you off some of the songs, here we go- this is the Jeremiah playlist- Magnetic Fields, got some Beatles, some Flaming Lips, some uh…Wilco…but kind of more, a little more fun. Sometimes it’s also just, not to get me in a mood more to just make me not nervous, to relax me I guess.
Your character goes to an alternative school, what was your high school experience like so far?
My high school experience was yeah, I’m a second semester senior so I don’t have to care anymore. But I went to a middle school, I started coming on TV when I was in middle school and everybody would ask me ‘does everybody want to be your friend now?’ and I would say ‘no, everybody was my friend before I came on TV.’ But I felt really alienated and I think people were weird about it, when I was that age. But I went to this school where everybody kind of does their own thing and it’s a regular high school but everybody is kind of working and everybody was really supportive and my teachers weren’t made at me when I would miss to go work and they were supportive and my teachers have been coming up to me lately and saying they’ve been seeing the Admission trailer so that’s pretty cool. So my high school experience I guess was a little weird in that way just cause the rest of my life is weird, but I lived in New York and went to real school so I guess it’s as normal as anybody who’s working in the business could have.
What was your favorite subject in high school or extra-curriculars that you really enjoyed?
I probably did, probably English because I just like writing and reading. And I really do like reading, because that’s maybe how I connect to Jeremiah too, and I think if I’m going to go to college, you know I’ve studied a lot of acting and a lot of music and I probably want to study history or English.
Admission opens this weekend.