How to play the asshole

Nat Wolff has perfected the jerk as the predatory, brash teen terror Fred in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto

This year a lot of pricks have elbowed their way into films – the holier-than-thou Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip, the disapproving dad from Wish I Was Here, the ape from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes… Thing is, none were as grating and dickish as Nat Wolff's teen torture Fred in Gia Coppola's suburban saga Palo Alto (see proof above). Fred bullies BFF Teddy (Jack Kilmer) into drawing dicks in library books and skiving class. Fred also pulls a clothed girl in the pool, which, in grade school, was a relationship ender. Much like the thuggish Telly in Harmony Korine's Kids, he's cocksure and ignorant. But IRL, Nat Wolff had to pull the unpleasantries out of an asshat.

You were a bit of an asshole in the movie.

Nat Wolff: Yeah, it was weird – when I read the script I found him oddly charming in a fucked up way. I thought he was definitely not a good guy, a really damaged person. I found him weirdly seductive and I understood his appeal to people wanting to be around him even though he was so destructive and I guess that it was a really exhausting part because of that. You know because it was basically every day finding the parts that I liked the least about myself and putting them to the front.

Did you base your character on anyone you’d met before who was a jerk?

Nat Wolff: Yeah, there were definitely people who I went to high school with and had grown up with who were just destructive in that way. I spent my teenage years avoiding them, you know what I mean? I found myself sometimes oddly wanting to be around them, interested in them. A lot of it was  just finding that part of myself that needed a lot of attention and a lot of validation and putting that to the front because if you’re just a person who needs attention and you’re not getting it for doing good things then you start doing bad things.

That’s got to be tough though, a little bit of self introspective discovery.

Nat Wolff: Yeah, it was exhausting! I liked the people I was working with so it was good to blow off steam with them afterwards. You know we all lived together so it was…

That’s really cool, like with Jack Kilmer and stuff?

Nat Wolff: We lived together during the movie. We lived in (Gia Coppola's) mum’s garage. They just had two twin beds for us. It was really fun because we ended up getting so close. We weren’t like in our characters or anything but having that history was good.

Were they good roommates then?

Nat Wolff: Yeah because Andrew Lutheran – the kid who plays Ivan – was living with us a little bit too. We were good roommates but like it was kind of a disaster. We were up all night and then working the next day.

Did you know Gia before you got cast?

Nat Wolff: No, Gia had seen me in a movie and the character in the movie was the exact opposite of Fred. So I went into the meeting and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I am this guy.' I said, 'I’m much more like the Teddy character,’ and she said, ‘Yeah but I’ve seen you do that before I want to see you do something else.’ She gave me a big chance and I don’t know exactly why she trusted me with it, but we’re trying to find something to work together on again.

Did you goof off a lot with Jack?

Nat Wolff: Yeah, the whole living together was nuts. He had never acted before and I had never played a character like this before so I think it helped that we had each other; we felt kind of safe with each other and I mean, we ended up going to In-N-Out Burger and Gia and her mum would always come over to the house and be worried that we were up to trouble.

But you weren’t?

Nat Wolff: Errrr, you know (laughs).

What kind of things did you do?

Nat Wolff: We were working all the time but we’d skateboard a lot. None of those guys in Palo Alto are good at basketball. They all just like skate and stuff, I like skating.

“Gia said, ‘I want you to seduce her, don’t tell me how you’re going to do it’ and I was like ‘Fuck’” – Nat Wolff

When I was watching it, it seemed really real to me.

Nat Wolff: A lot of the conversations that they have – little things like the ‘would you rathers?' – were real things that Gia and her friends would do. There’s a scene where I drink alcohol out of a vase and that was something that was a real thing. We’d all come in with different ideas from what we’d seen in high school parties and what’s so genius about that movie is that somehow even though it’s showing all these kids who are damaged – every single kid in that movie is flawed – but it really doesn’t judge them, you know? That’s why Gia is a genius director and a great writer because it was like that in the script. It was just, 'Here, let’s give you these people and I’m going to present them honestly and try to find the good and the bad and you take what you want from it.' As opposed to like a director making fun of kids or a director talking down to the kids.

So she felt like a collaborator in a way?

Nat Wolff: Yeah and also like, yeah, on set too she wanted, you know that scene where I seduce Emily (Zoe Levin) with the guitar? That was all improvised and she just said, ‘I want you to seduce her, don’t tell me how you’re going to do it.’ I was like ‘Fuck!’, and then there’re no lines – like I just say, ‘Can I bring a guitar?’ So then we ended up doing that. I’ve had a lot of people come up and say that’s their favourite scene because it’s really uncomfortable… That scene I can’t watch, yeah.

Have you ever done that before?

Nat Wolff: Seduced a girl with a guitar? No.

Palo Alto is out in cinemas now