How Jacob Elordi Became Gen Z’s Leading Man
The door opens to a low-slung house in the California desert town of Twentynine Palms, and there’s Jacob Elordi, draped in a loose linen shirt, unbuttoned past the chest, his six-foot-five frame filling the doorway like he’s on MTV’s Cribs. As he leads me inside, he explains that he’s just back from Europe—he saw the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco and the Rolling Stones in Madrid. But as soon as he landed in L.A., he felt the need to get out again. So the 25-year-old Australian actor hopped in his Range Rover and drove two and a half hours east, out past Joshua Tree, to this rental. “I could live out here,” he says, taking a cross-legged seat on a large white sectional. “It’s lovely. You don’t have to see anyone.”
Though the NBA-size Elordi is used to standing out, the swiftness of his rise to fame has left him feeling a bit unmoored. Five years ago, he was recently out of high school in his native Brisbane. Then came a role as hot hunk Noah Flynn in Netflix’s The Kissing Booth, which was seen by tens of millions of people—Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos called it “one of the most watched movies in the world right now” after it was released in 2018—and turned him into a celebrity overnight. That’s not a turn of phrase. Netflix released the movie at midnight in L.A., so Elordi went to bed as a normal kid and woke up to 4 million new followers on his Instagram. “I had to go through and delete my high school pictures because that was the Instagram that I used for my life,” he tells me. “I wish people could understand how drastic that change was.”
If that was the spark that set his career aflame, what came next was a wildfire: a starring role as Nate Jacobs in Euphoria, HBO’s prestige drama about the depraved lives of Gen Z high schoolers. The first season aired in 2019 to wide critical acclaim. Then the pandemic hit and that wildfire became a supernova: Audiences held captive at home found escape in the world of a hedonistic high school that was equal parts disturbing and intoxicating. Euphoria exploded, and when season two aired this year, 19.5 million domestic viewers tuned in per episode, the most for any non–Game of Thrones HBO show since 2004. All of a sudden, Elordi was the very handsome antihero of a show that had caught the zeitgeist, and he found himself in a slipstream of celebrity he’s been trying to navigate ever since.
He came to Twentynine Palms to get some distance from his life in L.A. and to prepare for his next role as a British aristocrat in Saltburn, director Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman. At Fennell’s suggestion, Elordi has been reading Brideshead Revisited to get in character, and he explains that his outfit—a billowy shirt and a pair of linen trousers—is an attempt to inhabit the “loose privilege” of the novel’s protagonists. He can already feel himself starting to slip into his new identity. “When I’m out here,” he says, “I can kind of be anyone or do anything.”
Since he was young, Elordi has known who he wants to be: the actors he grew up revering, both legends like Brando and Olivier and also more recent ones, like Ledger and Bale. In high school he started reading biographies and profiles of them and stole off to the library to watch their movies. He pierced his ears because Daniel Day-Lewis did. He wears a Saint Christopher medal, like Steve McQueen did. He’s carrying his Saltburn script around in a worn leather binder that used to belong to Gary Oldman—a gift from Oldman’s son Charlie, a close friend. He’s spent years emulating these stars, and has the classic Hollywood looks that could one day place him in their ranks—strong brow, expressive eyes. Squint and he’s a very tall version of Jeremy Irons from the ’80s version of Brideshead.
But Jacob Elordi is also contending with something his idols never had to face. He found fame in the most modern way, with millions of new Instagram followers overnight. That would be a disorienting experience for anybody, but it’s been particularly challenging for an old soul like Elordi. And that makes you wonder: Can this burgeoning young actor conjure the durable careers of his silver screen heroes in a TikTok climate? His slate of upcoming projects suggests that he’s on his way—besides Saltburn, in which he stars opposite Rosamund Pike, he’s appearing in a thriller with Zachary Quinto and in a road movie made by a collaborator of the Safdie brothers. But he’s found that when the camera stops rolling, existential doubts creep in. “I can see an edge of a cliff, and I’m just teetering on the edge,” he says. “My fear is: What step can’t you go back from?”
Euphoria is a show about high school in the way that Drive to Survive is a show about cars. The kids of East Highland High are doing what most of us did as teens—pushing boundaries—but they’re just doing it to the extreme, with a lot more opiates and underboob. It’s thrilling and panic inducing at the same time, and that’s largely because creator Sam Levinson’s neon-and-glitter aesthetic captures just how intense and dramatic high school can feel. Only, it’s even more intense now. For this generation, the anxiety you once felt walking into the cafeteria—that sense of figuring out who you are while everyone’s watching—follows you everywhere there’s Wi-Fi. Euphoria is a show about constructing your identity in a very online world—and the painful process of closing the gap between who you are and who you want to be.
Elordi’s character, Nate Jacobs, feels that distance acutely. On the surface, he’s a classic TV bad boy: the stud quarterback who loves the gym and has a raging alpha male dark side. His toxic behaviors include, but are not limited to, drinking (and driving), blackmail, assault, choking, catfishing, gaslighting, more assault, and having sex with his best friend’s ex (who also happens to be his ex’s best friend). On the inside, though, he’s engaged in a struggle with a secret: As a young boy, he discovered a stash of recordings his father had made of himself having sex with young men and trans women. So much of what Nate does is meant to cultivate an übermasculine identity that he feels might protect him from turning into his dad.
Playing Nate, Elordi tells me, is a matter of imagining the opposite of his own adolescent experience. He calls his dad a “totem of the kind of man that I would like to be.” A housepainter by trade, John Elordi spent 13 years building the Brisbane home Elordi grew up in, instilling in his son a work ethic and toughness. His father is happy for him, Elordi says, even if he doesn’t totally understand his famous son’s new life. “He’ll still be like, Are you going to shoot the one…where you’re kissing? In the booth? ‘No, Dad, I’m making good movies, I swear.’ Is that the one where you’re an American? ‘I’m American in all of them, Dad.’ ”
But Elordi’s closest relationship is with his mom, Melissa—he calls her “the most present, loving, just beautiful, angelic human being on this planet”—and she gets a bit more invested in each of her son’s characters. After Nate got arrested in season one for assaulting his girlfriend, she called Elordi, clearly upset. “I think she sees him as me,” Elordi says. A stay-at-home mom, she volunteered to work at his school lunchroom, so every day, while he was eating the lunch his parents packed for him, he could also hang out with her. Both his parents have T-shirts with printed images of nearly every character he’s ever played.
Elordi became fixated on acting when he was 12, the age at which Nate, in Euphoria, was beginning to sculpt his alpha male identity, developing a routine that involves pull-ups and screaming so loudly that no one could ever accuse him of being effeminate. Though Elordi was an emerging thespian, he was an athlete too, a member of the school’s rugby team, and he was beginning to feel the dichotomy between those two worlds.
“From the moment I did a play I was called gay at school,” he tells me. “But I had this abundance of confidence in myself. Because I could do both: I was quite good at sport and I think I was quite good at theater. I felt like I was above it, or it made me feel older. It made me feel wiser. I never was worried that my peers would think that I was less than a man. And also, there’s the classic thing of I was doing plays with girl schools. I’m spending my weekends with the most beautiful women from the school next-door, reading the most romantic words ever written.”
One of his roles involved playing Oberon, the King of the Fairies, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was excited, he tells me, for the chance to fashion an Oberon that transgressed conventional gender lines. He wore a leather jacket and rings on his fingers. “When they said I was gay, I remember leaning into the makeup,” Elordi says. He wore purple glitter on his face, and spiked hair with pink stripes. “I was like, if I’m going to be the King of the Fairies, I’m going to be the fucking hottest King of the Fairies you’ve ever seen.” The experience was transformative. “I started welcoming those kinds of characters. I started welcoming the femininity. I started speaking with my hands. I started really playing the thespian.”
Elordi was beginning to understand the power of subverting expectations, and it thrilled him. “I enjoyed playing the actor,” he says. “I stepped away from beer culture and from sport culture, and I was like, Well, if you think this is gay, I’m going to be who I am when I was your friend, which is this hetero guy, but I’m going to play the arts. I’m going to do it, and I’m going to show you that’s bullshit. I could never understand, how could you label anything, ever? How could you label sport as masculine? How does your sexuality inform your prowess as an athlete, or your prowess as a performer?”
At this pivotal time in his young life, a point when so many of us are driven away from certain pursuits because of fear or peer pressure—the very forces that give rise to Nate Jacobs’s all-consuming identity crisis—Elordi found a steadfast self-assurance. “I had a lot of confidence at school, so I could navigate that path myself,” he says. “Playing rugby made my dad proud. Being in the theater made my mom proud. So if I could play to both sides of how I was raised, then how could I lose? And that sounds like a hindsight thing, but I knew it at the time. And I still carry it now. I hope that’s what the performance is in Euphoria. It’s muscle and heart. It’s Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.”
The Kissing Booth was shot in South Africa, and after filming wrapped in 2017, Elordi took his bags and moved to L.A. He crashed on a friend’s couch in the San Fernando Valley for a couple of weeks. Sometimes he parked his 2004 Mitsubishi on Mulholland Drive and slept there. “I wasn’t booking jobs,” he remembers. “I think I had—I don’t know, $400 or $800 left in my bank account, and Euphoria was my last audition before I went home for a little while to make some money and recuperate.”
Of course, he landed it, one of the first roles cast. But when it came time to shoot the pilot, one of the producers noticed that Elordi was spending an inordinate amount of time in his trailer and in the car parked next to it. “My car was like a hoarder’s, stacked with boxes and coat hangers and things,” he says. The producer got him a room at the Standard in West Hollywood, and he’s been in L.A. ever since. “I got really lucky,” he says. “Which is just an L.A. story, you know?”
Elordi remains grateful for his good fortune, even on the most grueling days. On the Euphoria set, Sam Levinson’s shoots can be long and intense—filming the New Year’s Eve party that begins season two lasted all night, an experience Elordi has previously said was “like being in hell.” But he remembers it differently when we speak in June.
“For me, working on that set is an absolute treat,” he tells me. “When I’m working with Sam, I’m in the trenches with him, and I trust him, and I work myself to the bone for him. I think I’ve read people saying, ‘Look, that’s a bad image to set, you shouldn’t have to work yourself to the bone for art.’ Fuck that. I enjoy it.” Elordi stresses that he doesn’t want to minimize the experience of anyone who might feel differently but points out that one of the reasons Euphoria is so successful is because of the long shoot days. “What everyone’s seeing on television, the shots that people are talking about, the feelings that they get, the conversation that’s around the show, that’s because certain shots take 30-something takes.”
Eric Dane, who plays Nate Jacobs’s father, Cal, recognized in Elordi a veteran’s ability to handle those long days. “There’s a level of focus that you maintain throughout the day, so that you can stay at that low boil, and keep delivering the performance over and over again—and he has that,” Dane tells me over the phone. “He has this gregarious charm and we goof around a lot, but he’s always focused, and he’s always prepared.”
To get into the mindset of Nate Jacobs, Elordi took himself to a gym where TikTokers trained, watching how those kids walked around and talked to girls, what songs made them beat their chest. (“A lot of Pop Smoke,” he says.) And, because Nate can be a predatory maniac, he turned to a very specific source of inspiration: documentaries about sharks. “Nate is always watching,” he says. “He’ll bump into someone in the hallway, like a shark when they test someone’s leg—and then he comes up from the deep and just fucking annihilates them.”
Elordi even took this level of intensity to his preparation for The Kissing Booth, an approach that, in hindsight, he admits was a bit absurd. The movie was based on a Y.A. novel that the actor read like a sacred text, and when he noticed discrepancies between the script and the source material, he sounded the alarm. “I remember saying, He smokes in the book. I need to smoke. He needs to have cigarettes. He’s a bad boy.” He was informed that, unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen. “I was like, This is bullshit! I remember going to war for it. I was like, Are we lying to the fucking millions of 14-year-olds out there? This guy smokes nicotine. It says here on page four—look! I imagine people were just like, ‘Jesus fucking Christ. Is this guy serious?’ ”
The thing is, Elordi is serious when it comes to acting. “For me,” he says, “acting is breathing.” If Elordi often talks ponderously about “process” and “craft,” it’s because acting in film and theater—and studying great stars of the stage and screen—has been his only real education. “I didn’t finish university, I barely finished high school,” Elordi says. “All I know is from the books I’ve read, and the plays that I’ve read.”
Zachary Quinto, who appears alongside Elordi in the forthcoming thriller He Went That Way, was particularly struck by the books Elordi would carry around with him. “It was a lot of philosophy, I feel like there might’ve been a Nietzsche,” he says. It suggested to Quinto someone with a depth beyond his years. “I don’t think a lot of people Jacob’s age would necessarily be classifiable as seekers. There’s a real sense of intellectual curiosity that probably belies his age. We live in a time which is so defined by social media and by, you know, more frivolous pursuits than Nietzsche.”
Elordi ties his interest in acting back to his early discovery of books, which expanded his imagination and helped him tap into a fuller spectrum of human emotion. “Someone has said that every human being is capable of murder,” he tells me, “and I like to think of that a lot when I’m acting. It’s always there, it’s in your bones, every single piece of grief or loss or happiness or sadness you feel in your life is there. It’s just figuring out how to get to it.”
On the coffee table at the house in Twentynine Palms, there’s a copy of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography Last Train to Memphis. Elordi bought it because he saw the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis biopic and realized that Presley had also harbored grand Hollywood ambitions.
“I was just like, Damn, Elvis Presley wanted to be James Dean,” Elordi says. “He wanted to be Marlon Brando. I’ve researched almost every actor from that time period, and I passed [Elvis] off as an entertainer and singer. But then he was an actor.” Elordi is doing a deep dive, taking notes as he reads. “I guess, in a way, I’m trying to learn from these people,” he says. He thinks of the actors who came before him almost as friends. “Because I obviously don’t have any friends that have been through the same thing, really, so they’re almost like guiding beacons.”
There’s an interview with Elvis that Elordi watched and found particularly resonant. “He was talking, and he was so charming to the press, but you could see in his eyes that he was just tired,” he says, before launching into a spot-on Elvis impression. “He’s like, I’m tired, man. I only get four, five hours of sleep, I’m tired. That’s really sad to me, because it’s a different period of time and it’s someone who’s gone 10 billion times anything I’ve experienced, but the same kind of feeling.”
That kind of fatigue hit Elordi in the aftermath of The Kissing Booth, and it still very much bothers him—the sudden rush of attention, the relentless scrutiny of his personal life. He wanted to quit acting, he says, “which might sound quite sensitive and dramatic, but I am sensitive and I’m very dramatic. I hated being a character to the public. I felt so far from myself.”
He didn’t quit—instead he made two sequels—and the scrutiny has only been amplified in the years since. The first time a member of the paparazzi photographed him with someone else utterly terrified him. “It felt like, all of a sudden, I was a poster,” he says. “Like I was a billboard. It felt like it was for sale. Then my brain went through the fucking wringer. Like, I wasn’t sure if I was genuine. It really skews your view…. It creates a very paranoid way of living.”
Particularly bothersome to Elordi were certain theories on dark corners of the internet, speculations that he was calling the paparazzi to direct attention to himself. On the set of Deep Water, he sought advice from his costar Ben Affleck, himself no stranger to the tabloids. What Affleck told him, as he recalls it, wasn’t exactly reassuring. The worst part, Affleck said, is that in certain bleak moments you start feeling like a phony. You start wondering whether maybe you really did want the paparazzi to catch that snapshot of you. Elordi worries that the media attention will become so disorienting that he’ll numb a part of himself to make moving through Hollywood smoother. He fears that some of his life force will go out, that he’ll be reduced to the handsome face on a billboard.
For some in the industry, Elordi’s desire to transcend that handsome face is precisely his appeal. Sean Price Williams, who worked as the cinematographer on the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, is directing Elordi in an upcoming movie called The Sweet East. He says Elordi reminded him of Good Time star Robert Pattinson, who worked hard to gain serious acclaim for his acting after Twilight made him a heartthrob. In fact, he says, the character Elordi plays in The Sweet East was modeled after a post–Twilight Pattinson. “We get these young hunks and they get a franchise and then they want to do something a little more edgy,” Williams says, “which is almost his story now.”
Quinto also picked up on the transitional moment Elordi finds himself in. “Jacob’s in a really particular part of his journey as an actor and particularly as a celebrity,” he says. “Those are two very different things. He’s navigating the balance between those two things.”
Elordi’s now afraid that the demands of being a celebrity are dulling the sensations he needs to draw upon as an actor. “The fear,” he says, is “that going on a walk in Byron Bay, at my home, maybe one day that won’t hold the same value to me, because I’ve sanded down all my edges. I have no taste anymore. I have no taste for life. I only know this one way of being, which is smile, and wave, and being graceful all the time, and not feeling anything, and always being the graceful one in a situation, and always knowing what the right thing to do is, and always knowing how to handle myself. I got no idea. I’m 25 years old.”
The day after we meet in the desert, Elordi greets me at the house he rents in L.A., which is, quite literally, down the hill from the Hollywood sign. It’s also a bit of a museum to the movie business. The living room is decorated with a framed photo of Clint Eastwood and a Japanese Rebel Without a Cause poster; there are hundreds of books stacked in piles on the floor, an 1,100-page Brando biography among them.
Elordi tells me that, after I left yesterday, he was driving through the desert and saw a guy grilling meat on the side of the road in the nearly 100-degree heat. It made him reflect on how good he actually has it, and how grateful he is for the line of work he has. “I’m aware I’m sitting here in my foresty midcentury home, watching movies and playing little characters for a living,” he says. But one of his friends recently told him something that deeply resonated: It doesn’t matter if you’re drowning in a small bowl of water or in the ocean—you’re still drowning. Sometimes, these days, Elordi feels like he’s drowning. It reminds me of something he told me about his character Nate: “That kid is in the ocean and there’s a storm and he has no sail, no idea. He has no rule book to follow of the kind of person that he should be.”
Elordi has had a rule book—up until now. But he’s getting to a point where the confidence that’s buoyed him his entire life is running up against a swell of celebrity he isn’t totally sure how to navigate.
His main fear is that other people’s perceptions of him are beginning to muddle his own identity. “I don’t want to lose the entirety of who I was when I was little, and when I grew up, to whatever this—I won’t say beast, because it’s not at all negative—to whatever this public version of myself is now. I still want to be in touch with my younger self, which is everything that I am. I don’t want to look at everything from the outside. I want to be in it. I want to see it all from my eyes.”
He’s been searching for that playful feeling that originally got him into acting, and felt it kick back up again, recently, when he went in to read for Saltburn at a casting office in London. He had his book bag slung over his shoulder, and other actors that he knew were coming out of the casting. He felt like he was back in school, in Brisbane. “I felt like an actor again,” he says. “I realized when I was in that room and it was stripped back to just two people reading the scene, I was like, This is what acting is about. This is what I came from. This is what I love—live theater. This is on the spot. The stakes are high, but there’s no stakes at all. I feel like I got the gift given—I got it given back to me.”
It was the most excited he’s been since he moved to L.A., but he knows it might come at a cost. I think back to something he said earlier: I can see an edge of a cliff…. What step can’t you go back from? “I’m so excited,” he tells me, “but with that comes great fear. I think that’s what keeps you going.”
I tell him it sounds like he’s going to jump.
“I think so, yeah,” he says. “Bukowski has this thing that’s like, if you go all the way, go all the way. You might end up on a bench. You might end up in jail. You’ll lose girlfriends, wives, family. But if you go all the way, I guarantee you, you reserve a seat with the gods.”
Clay Skipper is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of GQ with the title “Jacob’s Ladder”
Photographs By Eli Russell Linnetz
Styling By Mobolaji Dawodu
Hair by Erol Karadag using Oribe
Skin by Holly Silius for Tata Harper
Set design by James Rene
Production by the Studio Venice Beach
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