Paper Towns, the second film adaptation of a hit John Green YA novel (the first being The Fault in Our Stars), hit theaters Friday. The marketing team put together a promotional tour with the cast and crew; stars Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Sage, and the "nerdfighting" author himself hit multiple states with Q&As, sneak previews, and pizza. When Fox approached me (at the request of Mr. Green) to host said events, I figuratively peed myself.
I hosted two dates of the Paper Towns tour, in Indianapolis and Columbus.
There was a thumping energy in the green rooms at the Old National Center in Indiana. Though I arrived earlier than the cast and used the extra time to pep-talk myself into some semblance of Ryan Seacrest, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the debates, laughter, and harmonizing happening in each of the rooms. Nat — who portrays lead character, Q, in the film — and his younger brother Alex were set to open the event with three songs, including one from the soundtrack. They definitely focused all of their energy on perfecting a falsetto harmony written into "Look Outside."
Halston Sage — who plays Lacey in the film — arrived next, and though I didn't really get to meet her until after the show, she was all smiles while waiting patiently with her makeup artist in her room.
The screams of voracious
stans fans reached a fever pitch in the century-old brick of the venue upon the arrival of John Green. His charisma and gratitude (he signed hundreds of posters and books in a full suit on an 85° day for a half hour before walking the red carpet for media interviews) was inspiring. If online video is responsible for the rapidly changing face of traditional media, John Green might be the most pervasive force in changing the way celebrities connect with their fans.
We all gathered backstage in the dark and put our thumbs in the middle of a circle (like every band documentary and televised concert special you've ever seen) and I took the stage. I could barely hear myself as I alerted the audience that Cara Delevingne would miss this event due to a scheduling conflict with Suicide Squad, but that she sent her love. The crowd's disappointment evaporated as Nat and Alex crooned flawlessly to the at-capacity room.
John addressed the crowd and asked them to greet his brother, Hank, with his YouTube intro ("Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday!"). Shortly after, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard declared July 14th, 2015 "John Green Day." If the blushing and loss of words was any indication, moments like this are more gratifying to Green than the pomp and circumstance of TV appearances and interviews. His hometown loves and appreciates what he's done for the area (many portions of Fault were filmed in Indianapolis), and it was clearly that he was moved by being recognized by his neighbors.
The Q&A session that followed was a blur, and I reunited with my visiting mother backstage after curtains. John's team notified me that we (me and my mother) were invited to a dinner at his home with his wife and the cast.
Sure, the hosting/planning/hair/makeup of it all was exciting, but I loved the time we spent that evening just relaxing and chatting. John Green might be crazy famous, but he's just a guy. Sure, he has an incredibly popular YouTube channel, multiple best-selling novels, loads of ventures ranging from educational video production to this past weekend's mammoth VidCon event — but in private he's a normal guy.
He eats tacos messily, sometimes forgets words, and jokes about his lack of cooking ability and how surreal it is to be experiencing all of this success. He has remarkable stories about his children and traveling with his beloved wife, Sarah. He speaks critically and hopefully about his own work and what he plans to contribute in the future. He wears weird T-shirts, and brings his publicist ice cream cake for her birthday. He doesn't mind that you wear shoes in his house.
After eating too much cake and hugging my mother goodbye, the cast, crew, and I set off for the airport for the next day's event in Columbus at the Palace Theater.
After a little breakfast and hair and makeup, I was driven to the venue to relax before the cast and crew arrived for the red carpet and event.
Cara even managed to get away from set to appear in my last stop on the tour (let's pretend I was the reason she came).
Cara Delevingne is obviously having a moment — Vogue cover, two major movies, and a high profile dating life — and she travels deep with her team. Like 6-10 people deep. She is a hurricane of energy on stage, but soft-spoken and engaging when you get to chatting with her. I got the sense that she is most comfortable/least fidgety when she's in a small group, and that meeting fans is genuinely thrilling for her. Also, she throws a mean napkin.
After the show, we had a final dinner together and gushed like old friends about what projects everyone was working on, how nice it is to get away and relax, and how upset they are that this journey would soon be coming to its close.
Stars always talk about how close they become on set, but sharing a meal with everyone as they lamented the premiere — if only because it marked the definitive end of their regular reunions — really drove the point home for me, an observer. Hell, I only spent two days with them and I was incredibly bummed that it was over.
To lighten the mood, I proposed Cara and I do a Dubsmash before I had to head back to New York, and she was totally in (and really killed it after just 3 takes).
Moments later, I was hugging my new friends goodbye and riding to the Columbus airport to return to NYC.
My Paper Towns experience concluded Thursday night after the "Night on the Towns" livestream simulcast in theaters nationwide, but in many ways it will stay with me. Meeting the people who gave life to Paper Towns — and seeing them as complex and multifaceted individuals — has made me re-evaluate my thoughts about Hollywood and fame. The book is about looking beyond the surface to discover the truth about other people. Being with these really talented young stars for a few days proved to me just how important that notion is.
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕