A Former Child Star Dodges Teen Perils, Leaps From Nickelodeon to Tina Fey and Paul Rudd's 'Admission'

From left: Tina Fey, Nat Wolff and Paul Rudd
From left: Tina Fey, Nat Wolff and Paul Rudd
 Focus Features

The second act of Nat Wolff’s show business career is starting out with a bang.

For many -- read: anyone over 30 -- the upcoming film Admission will be the first real glimpse of the lanky, soft-spoken 18-year old, who plays a high school genius opposite Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.

It's a long way from his last role in the public eye -- Wolff spent the early years of his adolescence starring alongside his younger brother Alex in The Naked Brothers Band. A 2005 mockumentary cast the pair as members of a rock band of Beatles-level popularity and caught the eyes of Nickelodeon, which turned the concept into a sitcom for three seasons. It was far from pure fiction; the Wolff brothers wrote the music for the film and subsequent series run by their mother, the actress Polly Draper.

In 2009, seven years after hanging a sign on his door demanding that his parents let him become a star, his first act was over, an elusive fame attained and abandoned by the time he hit puberty. Life would be normal again -- for a while.

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"I had parents in the business and they made sure that the art was the biggest concern," he explains during a conversation in a hotel in his native New York. "Because they’ve both been famous and then not famous and then famous, and they say that stuff goes in and out and you have no control over it ... If you’re going for [fame], you’re going to get lost. And I think a lot what happens to teen stars, and what happens to people, and they get just lost."

To wit: In an interview earlier in the day, Fey was asked if she’d consider casting Lindsay Lohan, who another lifetime ago starred with her in Mean Girls, in the upcoming musical version of that film. Fey simply sighed and crossed herself, a prayer for the troubled, fallen star. Wolff, meanwhile, is eating a muffin when the interview begins, and is bummed when the continental breakfast buffet is rolled out of his room -- decidedly normal teen stuff.

Wolff went to school but didn’t stop auditioning, and booked several small parts in films like Valentine’s Day. Yet, along with his parents’ guidance, the four-year gap between major roles helped him avoid that teen fame trap. Later this year, he’ll star alongside Selena Gomez in the dark comedy Behaving Badly -- which he says was referred to on set as "Ferris Bueller on crack”" -- and praises her for handling the leap from Disney tween princess to more adult fare with aplomb.

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"She’s not like that," he says, referring to fame-hungry teen stars. "And she was famous on a level that I never was. She’s famous on a superstar level that I don’t know will ever go away, and she’s made a transition to doing more films that are R-rated. Spring Breakers and this movie I’ve done with her, and she’s done it seamlessly. She’s a good person and I think just a really good actress and I think that separates who makes it.

Admission focuses on the hyper-competitive college application process, with Fey playing an emotionally distant Princeton admissions officer, and Rudd portraying the head of an experimental, new age high school. Fancying himself a mentor, Rudd pushes to get Wolff’s character, Jeremiah, into the prestigious institution, a struggle on screen that took on some real life significance for the young actor.

As a senior in high school who is currently going through the rigors of college admission himself, Wolff says he’s seen many peers at ultra-competitive Manhattan private schools dedicate their lives to the pursuit of Ivy League validation.

"People said [his career] would help me get into college, but I think it’s crazy to get in no matter what you’re doing outside of school, and I was gone so much, I don’t have the best grades -- well, I actually have okay grades. It’s just become such a business, getting into college," he offers, hinting at the mounting frustration that students nationwide feel nationwide. "I see that a lot in my friends, their parents were so on top of them about getting into an Ivy League school since they were so young, they were just drilled and drilled and drilled, to the point that they just don’t know why they want to go. They’re just going because that’s the trajectory that someone’s picked for them."

Stardom can be equally as exhausting, and alters the course of entire lives when it gets intertwined with the pains of growing up. The Naked Brothers ended, he says, after his family and Nickelodeon disagreed on the future of the series. "It was a confusing thing, it wasn’t really canceled. They wanted us to do a couple movies for them, but we didn’t really want to do that," Wolff explains. "Or, they wanted us to do 60 episodes during the school year, but my parents wanted us to go to school, so we couldn’t do that. They didn’t want to keep doing what we were doing."

Nickelodeon, when reached for comment, would only say that the show was not renewed after three seasons.

"I was super bummed when I found out, but in retrospect I’m really glad that happened, because I was on the edge of getting burned out," he admits, finally old enough to take a step back and better understand the madness around him. "The first two seasons, we were all really, it was my best friends in the world, and we were just hanging out. And by the third season, I was really taking it seriously."

The same ambition clearly shows in the list of Oscar-approved writer/directors with whom he’d like to work, from Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh to David Fincher -- though he's nervous about how many takes the Social Network director often demands. Then again, he may be inoculated against on-set eccentricities after starring alongside James Franco in the adaptation of the actor/director/producer/writer/artist/porn expert’s book of semi-autobiographical short stories, Palo Alto.

"It was really cool. I got to play a really dark character, who was just drunk and crazy and misogynistic, but it was fun in a certain way, to kind of be loose and go crazy," Wolff says, a smile irrepressible; after years on a children's show, the freedom was clearly welcomed.

Wolff found out about halfway through the shoot, when he finally met Franco, that his character was based on aspects of the actor as a young troublemaker; he had assumed that his co-star was doing all the conjuring of the youthful cutup. Yet despite some initial apprehension, due largely to media accounts of the source material's superhuman work ethic and creative tics, Wolff now raves about the experience.

"I had heard a lot of really crazy stories, all these crazy things he did on Spring Breakers and stuff, but I loved him"  he enthuses. "My goal was, we did a lot of improv in that movie, and I was like, I’m just going to freak him out. So I started saying the craziest stuff to try to make him uncomfortable, and he was really good about just giving it back to me. And afterwards, I thought he’d be weirded out and annoyed, but he was super sweet and supportive."

With a blooming career and college set to collide, Wolff has some major decisions to make. Maybe his nerves are calmed by all experience -- and success -- under his belt, as he doesn't seem all that worried.

"There’s no master plan, I’m just going with what I’m inspired to do and what I get asked to do, and luckily the things I’ve been the most passionate about, I’ve gotten to do. And a lot of times I’ve gone up for movies that I didn’t really care that much about, and I never got that."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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