“There’s always a loveable bad guy,” Gia Coppola says of Nat Wolff’s character Fred, an attention-seeking high school student in the film Palo Alto, as she waits for him at The Grey Dog, a small café east of Union Square. The 19-year-old Wolff first won fame on Nickelodeon’s hit mockumentary The Naked Brothers Band. Now he’s starring in Coppola’s much-anticipated directorial debut Palo Alto, based on James Franco’s collection of short stories. —Marissa Mule
Gia Coppola: How did you first get into acting?
Nat Wolff: I’m in a band with my brothers. I got into acting through music. We were on this show based on our band, called The Naked Brothers Band. Doing the show, I got really into the idea of wanting to be a full-time actor. I saw the movies Kramer vs. Kramer and Taxi Driver and did a couple of plays and ended up getting to work with people like you.
GC: What was the experience like having a show with your brothers?
NW: It was good. It’s so funny because I’ve been saying this in interviews—Palo Alto is the closest thing that I’ve had to The Naked Brothers Band. It was all my real friends and we were messing around the whole time on set when we weren’t working. Everyone would sleep over at my house and we would go to work together and have water fights and stuff like that.
GC: You’re super talented. You were always playing music on set, which was really enjoyable.
NW: I play mostly guitar and piano, and it’s funny because I play the guitar and piano in the movie.
GC: Well, I realized I had this talented kid who does so many things, so I thought. ‘Let’s just throw it all in there.’ And you can dance—sort of.
NW: I’m a really bad dancer, but you did have me dance.
GC: I was showing the film to my grandfather [director Francis Ford Coppola]. And my grandfather was like, “Well, Nat can do all of these amazing things. He can sing, dance . . .”
NW: I love that your grandfather said dance. He probably said, “He swears like a sailor.”
GC: It will be fun to celebrate at the Tribeca Film Festival. We’ll all be together for the first time. It’s crazy. These guys have grown up so much since we made that movie and they were 17 at the time. Nat literally turned 18 on set.
NW: Yeah, you need 15 hours a week of tutoring or something when you haven’t hit 18. I was supposed to have a guardian on set, but I didn’t have one. And I was, like, forcing girls to give me blowjobs in scenes.
GC: Was I your guardian?
NW: It was your mom. No, maybe it was you. But, I think it was your mom.
GC: You and I fell in love at first sight. We just kind of met and you were referencing all these movies that I felt were inspiring me when I was writing my characters.
NW: Like Mean Streets and some more ’70s movies.
GC: Yeah, I was really into those teen movies from the ’70s. But you’re nothing like the character Fred. It’s funny how people are afraid of you after seeing the movie, because you are really dangerous [in the film].
NW: When I went to the meeting, I said, “I kind of feel more like the Teddy character.” And you were like, “No, it would be great to see you do the opposite.” I’m the opposite of the Fred character.
GC: It was funny, knowing you in person, and Fred being such a tough character to play. I was like, “Do you think you can do it?” And you were like, “Yeah, I can do it.” That was it. You and [co-star] Jack [Kilmer] had a natural friendship, so it worked out really well.
NW: For this movie, it was finding a lot of unattractive parts of myself and putting them at the forefront. I guess when doing the movie I thought of it as a guy who just needs tons of attention all the time, and he’s used to not getting enough attention, so he does negative things instead of positive things. I think there’s a side to everybody that wants a lot of attention, so that was the drive the whole time. How can I get everybody to notice me and look at me? I remember everyone was calling me method on the set. I did a really crazy scene and it really made me feel bad. And, I had to go to tutoring right after and I just burst out into tears. It was this weird old lady, who just put her arm around me and I was just crying and sobbing and I didn’t know why. I think it was just pent up [emotion].
GC: Really? I didn’t know that. It was heartbreaking when filming ended. We were a small family. It was six-day weeks.
NW: You kept it fun. Even when the scenes were heavier, you kept it light because you would laugh a lot. You were always calm. Filming Palo Alto was the single best experience I’ve had. I always ask, “How the fuck did you trust me?” I’ll never quite understand.
GC: Well, I learned a lot from you. You really helped make this character. It was tough to find a kid that could play such a complex character at such a young age. I’m a first-time director and I haven’t had that much experience with actors, so you really brought it to life and taught me about acting. How was it working with James Franco?
NW: It was good. When we did one scene together, I was like, “I want to really freak him out.” So I started improvising and flirting with him and saying weird shit and he was like, “You’re really weird.” And I was like, “That’s awesome.”
GC: I think you really did freak him out. That scene was so weird. I didn’t even understand what we were doing. How was it working with Emma Roberts?
NW: When I was younger, I had a huge crush on Emma Roberts. And she was 14. She asked my manager for my number when I was 12, then nothing happened. She never contacted me, but it was really exciting. We ended up seeing each other for three years at different events. And you know, I hadn’t seen her again until we did the movie, but I was always a huge fan of hers. She’s awesome. Really crazy, but really awesome. Amazing actress. A good actress in a way that she doesn’t seem like she’s acting. She’s so natural.
GC: Let’s talk about Jack Kilmer.
NW: It was his first time acting and my first time playing a character like this. So it really helped that we became good friends. We’ve stayed really good friends since the movie. He’s a sweet dude and a natural actor.
GC: You guys had a weird adventure the first time you met, right?
NW: I’ve never been set up on a blind date with a guy before. We ended up sneaking into a wedding. Like in Wedding Crashers. And it was this big building that had different parties, so there was a bar mitzvah and a wedding. We went into this wedding and started ordering drinks. Someone was like “Were you invited to this wedding?” And, we were like “Yeah, but we gotta go.” So, then we went to the bar mitzvah, and we started taking strawberries and dipping them in chocolate. Then we got kicked out. But, we were there for two hours. And we were just trouble. It was awesome.