When we speak, Lerman, whose classic vibe recalls a young Warren Beatty, has just wrapped up a busy year of work-related travel. First, he was in Iceland shooting the biblical epic Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, which premiers March 28 and co-stars Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Emma Watson.
While there, the 22-year-old funneled most of his energy into his role as Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, though he did take advantage of a break to climb Mount Esja with fellow cast members. The snow-capped volcanic peak offers a panoramic view of Reykjavik and the famous Snæfellsjökull glacier, described by sci-fi novelist Jules Verne as the entrance to the center of the Earth. “I always wanted to go [to Iceland] and never thought I’d get to see it so early on in my life,” Lerman says.
But while it would be tempting to choose his work based on filming location, Lerman instead pursues roles based on the filmmaker. “[Aronofsky] has a brilliant mind,” he says of the Noah director. “He really knows what he wants—he knows it right away. He has a very distinct vision, and he knows how to dictate his vision to each department so specifically.”
After Iceland, Lerman headed to New York to finish Noah, and then to New Orleans to do reshoots for a different film. In the fall, he flew to England—or, as he describes it, “World War II land”—to work with director David Ayer on a yet-untitled war movie co-starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf. In his first fully adult performance, he plays a rookie soldier under Pitt’s command. Though he can’t say too much about the film just yet, he describes the experience as life-changing. “[Ayer] is a lunatic,” he says. “He turned all the actors into a bunch of loonies while making it, myself included.”
After months of preparation and filming outside London and a brief vacation in Paris, Lerman only made it back to L.A. two days before we talked in mid-January. “I travel so much for work now that taking a vacation is almost just being at home,” he admits. “It’s kind of nice to be back in my own bed.”
Lerman grew up in L.A., so it’s not surprising that his screen debut came early, when he played Mel Gibson’s youngest son in The Patriot. The wunderkind’s passion for cinema mushroomed as he grew. “It was my temple, in a weird way,” he remembers, slightly embarrassed by his own sincerity. “It had a higher meaning for me when I saw films that really impacted me.”
Those were films like Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and David Fincher’s Fight Club. For the most part, he avoided the Disney studios, trying for more complicated parts in spite of their dearth for young actors. Though he’d like to direct some day and applied to NYU’s prestigious film school, he skipped college so he could keep acting. He’s already appeared in 17 films—one for every year of his career—as well as a television series. “The older I get, the better the roles get,” Lerman says. “It’s really exciting right now.”
With his unrelenting drive, natural talent and eye-candy looks, those roles are guaranteed to get bigger and bigger, though Lerman claims he doesn’t care about stardom. “I just want to challenge myself,” he explains. “I want to take roles that make me nervous in a way, that are gambles, that are high-risk. Something that makes me feel uncomfortable.” That’s why, as he enters into this new phase of life, he is not worried by critics’ hand-wringing over the supposed death of the old-school leading man.
“If you look at Clark Gable and those guys, they worked with great filmmakers,” he points out. Humphrey Bogart had John Huston. Jimmy Stewart had Frank Capra. Cary Grant had Alfred Hitchcock. Without such stellar minds guiding them, Lerman suggests, those actors may never have become as famous as they did.
“You want to make good movies with good filmmakers,” he continues. It’s a piece of advice he gleaned while in England from co-star Brad Pitt, arguably today’s most famous leading man. “I think that’s the key to longevity. At least that’s what I’m gambling on,” he says. “So hopefully it works out.”
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