Nat Wolff skillfully juggles acting and music

 Nat Wolff skillfully juggles acting and music
Actor Nat Wolff inside Art's Delicatessen in Los Angeles. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Possibly the earliest fan of actor and musician Nat Wolff? The white-haired hostess at Art's Delicatessen in Studio City.

She places her hand at her hip. "I knew him when he was this big," she coos, after the 19-year-old climbs out of a black chauffeured sedan and enters the restaurant.


Wolff was born in Los Angeles, and his parents frequented the deli before moving to Brooklyn when he was 3. It's a familiarity Wolff enjoys.

"I think it's great to have those neighborhood places that you go to where people know you," he says, cozying into a window booth and awaiting matzo ball soup with a side of bagel chips.

Like the young female fan whom he greets warmly and snaps a photo with in front of the deli counter?

"That's different," he says, "and that's new."

For Wolff, the shift to feature films, including "Palo Alto" in 2013 and "The Fault in Our Stars" this year, is new as well.

"When I was a kid, I had a list of my top favorite actors, and it was like Dustin Hoffman, Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro," he said.

So it's more than fortuitous that after the actor's first major gig on a Nickelodeon series, the projects sitting atop his IMDb filmography include a forthcoming feature with Rourke ("Ashby") and a small part in a Nancy Meyers-directed De Niro flick ("The Intern").

"I got to have an acting lesson with Dustin Hoffman," he says, referring to a prize he won in a charity drawing at age 13. "I'm just working my way down the list."

Wolff, the son of jazz pianist Michael Wolff and actress-producer-director Polly Draper, first came to audiences' attention on Nickelodeon's "The Naked Brothers Band," a musical comedy that centered on Wolff and the real-life band he formed with his brother, Alex, now 16. Draper created and ran the show, which filmed in Brooklyn and captured Wolff from ages 11 to 14.

"I think I was lucky in a way that the show was a huge hit, but it never got so massive that I was never as famous as Justin Bieber or something like that," Wolff says. "I always lived in New York. I was always separate from L.A. and Hollywood."

After finishing the show, he said, he spent three to four years touring and playing music with his brother. "It wasn't until I was 17 that I started being in movies," he says.

Wolff studied acting in New York as a teen but got many of his lessons from the New Hollywood era of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and others who honed their craft in film school and brought edgy characters to the screen.

"I grew up watching a lot of '70s movies," Wolff says. "I really love 'Taxi Driver' and 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Five Easy Pieces.' All those movies from the '70s were kind of what made me want to be an actor."

His chilling role as the rebellious, attention-seeking Fred in director Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto" is the kind of character-driven work that pushes him as an actor, Wolff says. As Isaac, a blind cancer patient in "The Fault in Our Stars," the actor pressed himself further, wearing contact lenses and glasses that rendered him visionless to immerse himself in the part, director and friend Josh Boone said.


"He likes those challenges and likes those movie stars from the '70s that did those great physical transformations," Boone says.

Boone first worked with Wolff in the 2012 romantic comedy "Stuck in Love," and the pair will team again as Boone directs Wolff in a film adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Stand."

On the set of "Fault," Wolff says his perfectionist attitude sometimes got in the way of his performance. "I was just having a real hard time with this one scene," he says, adding that co-star Shailene Woodley advised him: "'Nat, sometimes you just gotta fake it till you make it.' And I was like, 'Yup, you're right.' Sometimes when things aren't right, it just destroys me."

Wolff's most recent film, "Behaving Badly," however, seems to exist to be forgotten. When asked about the R-rated exploration of raunch, which co-stars Selena Gomez, Wolff coincidentally coughs on his soup.

"When I start talking about 'Behaving Badly,' I just get all choked up," he jokes, offering little other comment about the project.

But he's already moved past that snafu, speaking excitedly about a lead role in the coming film adaptation of John Green's young adult novel "Paper Towns," moving into his first apartment in New York and continuing to write music with his brother for their band, Nat & Alex Wolff. The band released an album in 2011 and is pushing out new singles. With a schedule now filled with feature films, it's a balancing act he's still figuring out.

"I got to meet Jared Leto at a screening of 'Dallas Buyers Club,'" Wolff says of the 30 Seconds to Mars frontman and Oscar-winning costar of that film. "He was really nice, and we started talking about music and being an actor, and I said, 'How do you schedule the two?' He started giving me this really in-depth answer and then this beautiful blond model walked up and he was like, 'Hold on one second,' and I never got to talk to him again."