“Oh my god, I know you!” Austin Abrams exclaimed about halfway through our phone interview when I confessed I am in fact the author behind the infamous 2018 article labeling him cougar bait. It was inspired by his roles in shows such as The Americans and Smilf, after noticing that he had, more than once, played characters with the very specific trait of attracting older women. I asked if he had noticed that about his characters before or if it was a new revelation for him and he replied, “I think it was a revelation. I think your article really brought that to light. In terms of that, I’m not really sure. I am thankful for that, that they can be more mature or intellectual. It’s just pretty interesting to try and explore. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in terms of being able to play those characters.”
He’s also lucky with his latest character, Henry, in the new teen drama film Chemical Hearts, now available to stream on Prime Video. In the film written, directed, and produced by Richard Tanne (Southside With You) and based off of Krystal Sutherland’s novel Our Chemical Hearts, Abrams plays a high school student and co-editor of the school newspaper along with a mysterious new student, Grace, played by Lili Reinhart. It’s not so much a cougar bait role, but it is one that allows him to lean into his specialty, playing characters, even at the high school age, that seem to be mature beyond their years, wise, and in possession of a sensitivity with which most young men in that age group are often not portrayed. In the case of Henry specifically, he’s honest! He’s a good listener! He likes her for her! These characters are likely not a stretch for Abrams who is just as skilled of an actor as his contemporaries such as Ansel Elgort or Timothee Chalament, but one who has stayed purely focused on working and choosing interesting projects, and completely resisting any involvement in the Hollywood scene, even deciding to stay off of social media altogether.
Of initially reading the Chemical Hearts script, he said, “I feel like there was a real story there. People really dealing with some real issues. Also, Rich, the director, was a big draw. I watched his movie Southside with You and I thought he was really good. And then Lili, of course. She was a producer on it, she had a lot of passion about the project. Also, they were both very collaborative people. That’s always wonderful, when you have people that have a strong idea and vision of what they want, but they’re also collaborative people. That’s always huge.”
He also had nothing but compliments to pay his co-star and producer, saying of Reinhart, “She did a really, really great job of being an actor as well as being a producer. But at the same time, I forgot that she was a producer throughout the whole process of us actively working together. Which is good, because we’re working together and we’re supposed to be actors in that moment, doing that job. But she was very much a part of the whole movie. A really intricate, huge piece of why it was even made. She went to Rich and got him to be the director and writer. The whole movie was made because of her.”
And much of what makes the movie work is their earnest scenes together, as the characters get to know each other and fall for each other. “Thankfully, we kind of just have a natural chemistry that’s there,” Abrams explained. ”A lot of times, honestly, you kind of have that or you don’t have it. We worked together when we were 15 on this movie called Kings of Summer, so we’d known each other for a bit of time and that’s super helpful.”
It’s what helps sell moments such as when Henry leaves a nervous, bumbling voicemail for Grace, a scene that is quite frankly impressive to be included in a film in 2020. Do people — young people! — leave voicemails anymore? “I think what happens sometimes is you think they’re going to pick up, and then they don’t pick up,” Abrams said. “You get the voicemail and it’s quick, and it’s like, ‘Do I hang up? Bah — nope! Fuck it, I’ll talk.’” But to be fair, even the most thought-out written word can still be lame too, he reasoned. “You can send a very bumbly text message too, you know?” he said with a laugh. “You can send a text message that you look at later and you’re like, ‘Oh, god damn. Why did I do that?’” OK, sure, we all relate. But still, this is someone with no social media presence, so when his character does a bit of harmless “research,” shall we say, looking up his new school friend on social media, I asked Abrams if despite not being on the platforms he had still stalked someone on the internet. “Look — all I’ll say is that I think everyone does,” he admitted.
Abrams is known for roles in films such as Paper Towns and Brad’s Status and shows such as The Walking Dead, This Is Us, and Euphoria, and while his 24th birthday is on September 2nd, he’s spent much of his career portraying teenage characters, an age group Chemical Hearts understands is just about as formative as it gets. “That’s such a pivotal, strange time,” Abrams said. “Your mind is actively changing and so you’re really experiencing everything for the first time and in a totally different way. You’re dealing with a totally different brain and a totally different way of thinking. I feel like everything is a lot more primal, I suppose. Because once you get older, you just get more familiar with yourself. But when you’re that age, I feel like when you’re a teenager, everything’s much rawer.”
Which brings us to HBO’s gritty teen drama Euphoria, where Abrams plays Ethan, yet another enlightened teen, but one we might not see return in Season 2 for quite some time. I asked if there were any updates about when production might resume and he said, “I know literally as much as you or anyone else. I have absolutely no idea. But I would love to know more!” What I wanted to know is if a show as authentic and modern as Euphoria would dare to include the pandemic in its next installment. While Abrams didn’t know, he did muse on it a bit, saying, “I think it’s kind of hard, because the difficult thing is, it’s all changing literally every day. So I don’t think we know what the future is going to look like to any degree. Say you did write about it, and then the show comes out, and then it could be almost completely outdated, in a way. If you do the show in the future where maybe things are back to normal — but maybe they aren’t back to normal in a couple years, as they were however many months ago. I could imagine as a writer, that being a tricky thing to do. That’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about myself.” And like the rest of us, he’s thought about it when watching anything pre-March 2020. “I was literally watching parts of Boogie Nights last night, and I was like, ‘You’re going into a store, man. You’ve gotta put your mask on!’ It’s strange, but also, it’s nice to be reminded. Every time someone hugs, you’re a little like, ugh.”
So what has Abrams been doing for the past six months? “I think I’ve been doing what literally everyone else probably has been doing,” he sighed. “Which is like, trying to make the most of this situation. I think it’s a difficult time where I’ve noticed seeing myself or perhaps other friends, where a lot of times we’re judging ourselves a little bit harshly, in terms of, ‘What am I doing with this time? Am I doing something productive?’ It’s important to remember that these are strange times that haven’t been dealt with for about 100 years. So I don’t know. I feel like it’s important that people at least try to give themselves a little bit of a break. In terms of like, there’s no rule book for what’s happening right now.”
So while most of us grasp at something to look forward to, Abrams has got another project that he filmed last year and will be streaming later this year. “I did this show Dash & Lily on Netflix that’s coming out at the end of the year. It’s a nice show that I think people will enjoy and be able to feel good about. It’s about two teens in New York exchanging a notebook back and forth of dares and getting to know each other. New York’s kind of a character in and of itself in the story. But I think it will be nice for people to be able to have a bit of a nostalgic moment.”
Abrams then spent the next few minutes genuinely inquiring about current life in New York: How was it? How are you doing there? Are you able to go out and walk around? Are there restaurants open? It was the kind of conversation I’ve had numerous times with close friends and family members, but never really occurred in the dozens of interviews I’ve conducted in the last six months, yet felt comfortable and pleasant as the conversation steered toward looking on the bright side. “That’s another thing that’s nice about this. I think the appreciation of life is a lot more heightened,” Abrams said. “Just being able to be outside and walk around is a wonderful thing. I appreciate it a little bit more now.” He even recalled a time in the spring about a month or so after the initial lockdown in Los Angeles, where he said, “I remember walking to a local park and looking around, and I couldn’t find one person that was on their phone. I felt like I had traveled to 20 years past or something like that. I can’t even remember a time where I’ve seen something like that. It was pretty incredible, just seeing everyone appreciate being outside. It was really a special thing.”
I hung up smiling at what an enjoyable and charming conversation it had been. And while the unassuming actor wasn’t even aware he was setting it, I realized, a decade his senior, that I too had taken the bait.