Breaking News everyone, Timothée Chalamet is going to be a star. Yes, it’s a not-so shocking revelation considering the hype his breakthrough film“Call Me By Your Name” has received since it debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival almost 10 months ago, but it’s more than that. Chalamet is likely to win some critics awards over the next month or so. He has a strong shot at earning a Best Actor nomination in January. He already has a well received performance in Greta Gerwig’s indie hit “Lady Bird.” He’s got a major role in Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” which Focus Features will release next year. He stars alongside Elle Fanning and Selena Gomez in the next “Untitled Woody Allen Project” also scheduled for 2018. Chalamet is your next “it” male star and he not just because he’s starting to grace fashion magazine covers.
(Wait, that sounds slightly creepy doesn’t it?)
On this Wednesday afternoon, however, the 21-year-old actor was beaming from ear to ear. Before our interview he was so excited about the results of a photo shoot he went through the Beverly Wilshire looking for his co-star in “Call Me,” Armie Hammer, and interrupted an interview with him to show him the images. And when we finally sat down to speak there wasn’t a sign of exhaustion that even the most seasoned pros display when it’s almost 5 PM and you’ve been discussing the same things and answering the same questions since 9 AM. Chalamet is simply loving this experience and barring some strange twist of fate it won’t be ending anytime soon.
In Luca Guadagino’s “Call Me,” Chalamet plays Elio a young man who falls for Oliver (Hammer), a grad student who has come to spend the summer studying with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elio spends weeks wondering if Oliver would ever reciprocate his feelings before it all comes to light. Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, “Call Me” allows Chalamet to display a naturalism that is remarkable devoid of self awareness. Traits that are hard to find in even some of Hollywood’s “greatest” actors.
The New York native sat down to talk about “Call Me,” “Lady Bird,” the future of his career and more in our discussion below.
Note: There is some broad discussion that does not give a plot point away about the final scene in the film in the context of this interview.
The Playlist: How are you doing?
Timothée Chalamet: I’m doing well. How are you?
Good. So, this is what, your 300th interview for this movie so far?
Listen, I’m a new guy to all this. No part of this experience has left me jaded or cynical, so I’m really just excited.
Yeah, I mean, this is the dream, to be at the forefront of any film. I’ve been up for the projects and didn’t get them where I would have been at the forefront of things that were essentially commercials. Instead, I get to be a part of something that is beyond any sort of acclaim, affecting people on a visceral level when they see it, or at least some members.
I definitely want to talk to you about people’s reactions to “Call Me,” but first is it true you were attached to this for three years?
Yeah, because I met Luca first when I was 17. I had just come back from Canada, where I was shooting “Interstellar” and had a meeting with him that went well. Then he gave me the seal of approval to go meet with James Ivory, who was the director on the project at the time. Then that went well too and then Luca and James, they don’t like to read their actors. Then I was loosely attached. Trust me, I felt like I fooled them as much as you do. (Laughs.) Then it was just a waiting game. It looked like maybe it was going to come together that summer. It didn’t. It looked like maybe the summer following that. It didn’t. And then finally the summer after that, it did.
You were in college at the time and I’m guessing you kept thinking every summer “I’m going to shoot this during my break” and then it just never …
Well, I’ve been loosely attached to other things in the past that never came to fruition. It’s a quick lesson you learn at being in this business, that 99% of things never come together.
I know Luca said that this one was really harder to get financed than he ever thought it would be.
When you read the book and the script did you have any trepidation about playing Elio?
I had trepidation as it relates to doing it believably or doing it well, but I realize what a privilege it is to come from an arts family and that there was no sort of trepidation about the material within the book, because I was doing Christopher Durang’s “Identity Crisis” when I was 15 and “Cabaret” when I was 16. Those aren’t safe, in the conventional sense, pieces of work. Also, I didn’t have a social network on the line. I didn’t have any street cred that I was offering up as collateral, but rather nobody has any idea who I am.
That’s an interesting point. Since this movie you filmed “Lady Bird.” You’ve done…
Yeah, Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.” And then you just played a guy in “Beautiful Boy” who I think is, if I read it correctly, is a meth addict.
So, it’s not like you’re taking really easy roles. These are all sort of challenging parts, in some respect.
Well, that’s the ethos. I mean, that’s the advice I follow that my great agent Brian Swardstrom gives me. It’s just what excites me as an actor is to stretch yourself and not necessarily by way of mannerisms or dialect. I read a Joaquin Phoenix interview once that I really liked where he said he’s not as interested in wearing different scarves inasmuch as he is in chasing a certain feeling. What that feeling is, he has no idea what it is, but he’s chasing it. That’s the closest experience that I have as an actor, that in any of these roles certainly there’s dialect and character work, for instance, in “Hostiles.” But that’s not as exciting to me as much as chasing a certain feeling.
The thing is when you were younger, a teenager, you were in “Interstellar” and Jason Reitman’s “Men, Woman, and Children” which were essentially studio movies. Do you think that’s one reason why you’ve sort of gone in this direction? Not that those were bad experiences, but you think seeing that made you think, “I need to do something more creative in the roles I pick or what I go for?”
No. I mean, the great gift of working on “Interstellar” and” Men, Women, and Children,” particularly “Men, Women, and Children” is that they were really huge budget indie films, and the way Chris Nolan writes and directs is very much like an independent filmmaker at least with “Interstellar” and with “Dunkirk.” Those were original ideas. They’re not based on source material. I guess “Dunkirk is based on an actual [event], so no. The name of the game has always just been to work with great directors. Certainly I can think of great directors in the studio system right now. It’s just those opportunities haven’t come my way. If they do, then it’d be great. I only sit in a place of tremendous gratitude that, like I said, the introduction in front of the door hasn’t been one of those projects, but rather a little movie that we did in the north of Italy for two and a half months and we had no idea anybody was going to watch.
I didn’t know you had two and a half months to make the movie. That’s impressive for an indie.
The actual shooting was a month, but pre-production was a month and a half when I was out there learning the piano, learning Italian, learning the guitar.
You didn’t know how to play piano beforehand?
I could play the piano, not to the degree that Elio could play in the book and not to the degree that I play in the movie. That was the biggest part of the pre–production process, working with an Italian composer named Roberto Solchi every day for an hour and a half in addition to working with an Italian tutor and trying to brush up on those skills.
Are those the sort of things that make you more, I mean, I don’t know what makes you nervous, but are those the things that that make you think “I have to convince people I’m actually a great pianist” as opposed to getting a scene right? Do you have more confidence in one versus the other?
That’s exactly it. Exactly, there’s a technical pride in getting tool-based components of the character right.
Did those two and a half months feel like you were working or did it feel like a summer vacation? Or both?
I think as it relates to one’s sensitivity and self esteem on a set, you obviously create a safe space for yourself. You create boundaries and try to be strong enough when those boundaries are crossed, yet it’s a work environment, so you try to put your ego aside. Let’s say you get a note that isn’t the kindest. That’s part of the job. Yet, I really try not to ever feel like it’s work, because you have to keep a creative bone alive. You have to keep a bone of spontaneity alive, even in a project like “Beautiful Boy” that’s quite heavy. I know as an audience member, what always excites me most, which is again why I kind of bring up that Joaquin Phoenix quote, is that spontaneity and when you don’t see the actor in the control room, but rather living the experience.
What’s the environment that Luca brings to the set? You mentioned getting tough feedback. Is he tough? Does he push or is he sort of just wants to let it all sort of flow?
He doesn’t push if it’s right and it’s honest. I mean, it sounds like a cliché, but he just wants the honest truth of the scene and certainly never by fire. He doesn’t rule by fire. There’s the great thing where, like I said, neither Armie or I read for these roles. I was 17 when I got attached to it. We never met before. So when Luca has such tremendous belief in himself and follows his instincts so unabashedly it eases you up, particularly as a young actor, because you think, “Well, this guy really knows what he’s doing.” It’s not a first-time filmmaker that pretends to know what he’s doing. I mean, this is someone with “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash.” [Actually,] who am I to say that a first-time filmmaker isn’t brilliant? Certainly all the first-time filmmakers I’ve gotten to work with are, it’s been a joy and a very conducive experience. But there’s something in working with a Luca or a Chris Nolan or whoever when they have decades of experience.
But you didn’t audition for the role.