An Old Soul In A Young Body: Why Timothée Chalamet Is A “Once In A Generation Talent”

Timothee Chalamet
Gabriel Goldberg

Timothée Chalamet had a meteoric rise last year, co-starring in two of last season’s most buzzed-about awards movies— Hostiles and Lady Bird—and landing an Oscar nomination for his lead in a third, Call Me by Your Name. But when he first met Nic Sheff, the journalist and recovering addict whose story he tells in Beautiful Boythe film that has returned Chalamet to the awards conversation—Sheff had no idea who he was.

Chalamet’s name was the one Sheff didn’t recognize from a list of young up-and-comers suggested for the role. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Sheff says now. Call Me by Your Name—the film that would make Chalamet a household name—had yet to premiere. “I was immediately struck by what an incredible energy he has. But from the moment he sat down, I could tell that the only thing he cared about was making sure that he did this in the right way and portrayed this honestly and authentically.”

Chalamet was just 21 when they first met. “And he’s like a kid in some ways, yet in others, he’s like an old soul,” Sheff says. He has since watched him rise, through the shoot on Beautiful Boy, the release of Call Me by Your Name, and many festivals, premieres, and press tours. “There’s such depth to his person. There’s wisdom, well beyond his years. He sort of flashes between being just a kid, having fun with his friends, to being this incredibly wise, contemplative and articulate spokesperson.”

Contradictions like this lie at the heart of Timothée Chalamet. Though he’s turning 23 in a month, he might be fated to play teenagers on screen for years still to come. He just has one of those faces; big, doe eyes, and a mop of unmanageable hair. The eyes light up and he animates when the conversation turns to his favorite rappers (Lil B and Kid Cudi), where to find the best bagels in New York City (Tompkins Square Bagels), or what he felt when he saw Moonlight at the Angelika.

And yet that old soul presents itself when he gets to work. It was obvious to co-star Armie Hammer when the two worked together on Call Me by Your Name, in which Chalamet played the pleasures and pains of a 17-year-old’s first love with the wisdom of one who lived it long ago, and who understands it enough to relive it on camera. “I was asking him for advice,” Hammer says of the depth he found opposite him. “I was like, ‘How did you do that? What is that thing? The emotional vulnerability and the rawness; what’s the secret behind that?’”

Chalamet and I meet for breakfast at a West Hollywood hotel, and after his bounding arrival, and some fast-paced small talk, the tone changes when the topic turns to his chosen profession. As he speaks about his journey so far, and the responsibility he feels inherent within his career choices, Chalamet chooses his words with care and sincerity.

That care hasn’t gone unnoticed by his collaborators. “We met and it was instant recognition,” remembers Luca Guadagnino, who directed Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name. “The guy I was talking with had this brooding, unbiased determination and ambition to be a great actor, and yet he had this kind of soft, ingénue naïveté of a young boy. Those two things together were incredible.”

Since Call Me by Your Name, celebrity has come to claim him. The 200-strong army of young fans that camped outside Deadline’s The Contenders London event in October around the time of his arrival are proof of that. He doesn’t appear to be all that afraid of it, still grateful for the latitude it gives him to design his next steps. His priority, though, is on the steak, not the sizzle. Where can acting take him? What can it offer? Which questions can it pose and answer?

“I’m no authority on this, and I don’t want to speak cavalierly,” Chalamet says. He will offer self-deprecating qualifiers like this throughout our time together, before saying something perfectly authoritative, like, “The types of roles I hope to do are things where I’ll hopefully have to shapeshift. It’s important not to feel the work of someone onscreen, and instead to feel the urgency or the reality of the story being told; and that doesn’t mean it has to be immediately relatable.”

He mentions his current mission: understanding the foibles of different time periods. Earlier this year he wrapped on David Michôd’s The King, playing the British monarch Henry V alongside Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Pattinson. As we meet, he’s in Los Angeles on a weekend break from Boston, where he’s playing Laurie in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. “It’s been so satiating to be able to work on something where we have to learn the manners of the period. It’s challenging. It incorporates the madness of this all.” Both films have been, he says, a “deep dive” into another way of life. His chance to shapeshift.

Director Scott Cooper gave Chalamet his first real taste of period work, casting him as a French private of Christian Bale’s army in Hostiles. “I remember seeing him astride a quarter-horse for the first time, certain it was not part of the syllabus at LaGuardia Performing Arts School,” he says. “He was as fear-stricken as his character would have been, a fish out of water wholly unprepared for the journey ahead. But we all appreciated his feverish exuberance.” Chalamet “is really intelligent and open to all of the stimuli the world offers.”

Chalamet remembers his time at LaGuardia as the first time he felt he had an outlet, “and a way to learn about myself.” It was there that he first started to take acting seriously. His sister Pauline was already enrolled, and he went “a little naïve to what it was going to be. I had an idea that it was like grid-style rows in a classroom, learning about drama.” But they put him on stage. “It made it more of an experience. It feels like there’s honor in how, for so long, people have been in playhouses doing these things.”

But Chalamet is also among the first stars of the post-social media generation. Where many his age seek fame through Instagram or YouTube accounts (and he has dabbled in both), Chalamet also looks to the history of his form and the greats that came before him, voraciously consuming cinema. And yet the dichotomy of his youth means thinks deeply, too, about how technology is changing everything about cinema and the arts. Over the course of our conversation, we alight on the collapse of album sales, the streaming subscription model of movie consumption, digital versus film, and much more. He is determined to bridge the gap between all that came before him, and all that is yet to come.

He once did a reading, he remembers, with Sopranos star Edie Falco, who joked, about a play she’d just done, that it had drawn critical praise because it was only 80 minutes long. “Like you earn a more favorable review because people can get out quicker,” he laughs. “The more cynical way to look at it is that people have shorter attention spans than they used to.” But it isn’t true, he insists. While he was in London he went to see The Inheritance on stage. It’s a two-part play that runs over six hours, and it’s one of London theater’s hottest tickets. “The audience there was, again, a younger crowd.” The forms are being expanded by the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Amazon (which produced Beautiful Boy), not replaced. “I see more liberty in whatever those other forms are.”

YouTube, also, has become a fertile resource for the researching actor. Chalamet turned to the site for footage of drug addiction that would inform his performance in Beautiful Boy. It was this, along with spending time with addicts, that offered the epiphany he sought. “Oh wait, addiction doesn’t have a face. This isn’t a bridge I have to cross to understand playing this. This is a human illness. Don’t play the stereotype of a drug addict. Play a human who’s addicted to drugs.”

Felix Van Groeningen’s movie is based on a true story and adapts two memoirs; David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy and Nic Sheff’s Tweak. It splits its time between the two of them: a son—Chalamet—confronting his own drug addiction, and his father, grappling with an inability to help. Luke Davies, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2016’s Lion, co-wrote the script with Van Groeningen, but nearly didn’t. He had examined his own addiction issues in the 2006 film Candy, based on his novel, and didn’t feel the need to go back there. By chance, as he was readying to refuse to the meeting, in the days after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, his father emailed him, and it was his message of gratitude that his son’s journey had reached a place of hope rather than despair that inspired the younger man to take the job.

It’s especially relevant because Beautiful Boy, both in memoir form and onscreen, does an extraordinary job of tackling the ways addiction affects so many more lives than just those addicted. “It’s really an anti-glorification of drug use,” notes Chalamet. “If films with this subject matter lean into tragedy tonally, you’re almost prepared for it. Or they lean the other way, into a kind of celebratory, upbeat, tragically cool thing. This is, hopefully, what the reality of it is. The subject matter is already tough, and we want the redemption of it to be in plain sight, but the honesty is in how f*cking terrifying it is to be using, and also how terrifying it feels to be sober.”

Chalamet had put the work in before that first meeting with Sheff. “Every question he asked was so insightful,” Sheff recalls. “I could tell that he’d done a ton of research about what addiction looks like, and what these drugs actually do to your body. Even in terms of what the physicality of the detox process is like. I could tell all this stuff because the questions he was asking were so well informed. I left that first meeting with Timmy feeling like there was no one else that could do this.”

“His fearlessness is really his genius,” Van Groeningen says of his decision to cast Chalamet opposite Steve Carell as Nic’s father David. “They had this great vibe together, and it was clear they were the perfect father and son.”

In Nic’s sober moments, the pain and struggle to stay clean is authored by Chalamet with meticulous precision. And when he uses, his performance is colored with shame and regret as much as with relief and pleasure. Nic Sheff struggled with methamphetamine addiction, but the subtlety of Chalamet’s work will be recognizable to anyone who has dealt with addiction in any of its forms. 

“What must it be like to have your heart in one place, your brain in another, and your actual hands doing something else?” Chalamet wonders. “It’s about the fracturing of the human spirit in that way. And how that can still—as a testament to Nic being alive and well today—be redeemed and saved.”

I read this quote to Sheff himself. “It’s really a brilliant way of saying it,” he notes. “When I saw the film, the thing that struck me most about his performance was that he captured something I’ve honestly never seen captured before when it comes to addiction. He’s under the influence of these drugs, and you see him doing all of these unconscionable things, but at the same time, you also see the person that he was, and that sweetness and sensitivity doesn’t ever go away. It’s almost like he’s been possessed by the drugs. It’s like Get Out and he’s in the Sunken Place, but you can still see that he’s there. And that’s exactly how I felt. I saw myself doing these things, and I felt all this guilt and shame, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing them.”

Chalamet won the role in Beautiful Boy before Call Me by Your Name put him on the map and charged him toward becoming the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominee since Mickey Rooney in 1940. On stage at our London event, he modestly joked that he was grateful simply for getting the job. But through it, he sees the importance of its resonance. “I feel the pressure of wanting to get Beautiful Boy out there. It’s extremely important, not only for people all across America, but also for people my age. We’re going through this, and inherent to that is the difficulty of discussing something that is really upsetting and devastating to a lot of families. But I think that’s the importance of art and movies.”

Responsibility, he says, is the first feeling he must always tackle. “Responsibility to the story, and what the material is all about, and to bringing that out in the most human way.” This matters to him. So too does social responsibility. When allegations of historical sexual abuse by Woody Allen resurfaced, in the wake of the reckoning of the Time’s Up movement, Chalamet chose to pledge his salary for his role in Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York—as yet unreleased—to Time’s Up, the LGBT Center in New York and RAINN. “This year has changed the way I see and feel about so many things,” he said in a statement.

His focus now is on working with directors who feel a “lifeline” with the project they’re directing. “I know Greta feels that way about Little Women. Luca was trying to get Call Me by Your Name made for eight years. Beautiful Boy took 10 years. Denis [Villeneuve] talks about Dune like that book was one of the loves of his childhood. I think it’s important, especially in the urgent time we’re living in, not to indulge, but to try to tell stories with people that are coming from the heart.” 

And, as is his nature, he credits the influences that have crossed his path for instilling that purpose in him. “I feel really grateful, first with Armie Hammer, and now with Steve Carell, to have worked with good people whose intentions were, creatively, in the right places.”

“I had an amazing dance partner,” Hammer counters. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a scene partner who’s given so much, and given you the luxury of all of his emotional vulnerability, just right on the surface, in a totally unguarded and unprotected way.”

Beautiful Boy

“Like the best actors, and those more seasoned than Timmy, he arrives well-prepared and full of ideas,” recalls Cooper. “Once we began working, it was clear that the talent he possessed was preternatural, and that he was likely a once-in-a-generation talent, not unlike Christian. But because he’s too young to have a great deal of technique, what we’re witnessing is a wonderful combination of talent, bravura, and fearlessness that I hope he never loses.”

Chalamet will navigate this Oscar season all the wiser for his time with Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird a year ago. But his mind is also on Little Women, which has reunited him with Lady Bird’s star and director, Saoirse Ronan and Gerwig. He will take the red eye out of L.A. at the end of this weekend to get back to work. 

“I’ve talked about it with Saoirse and Greta, but I’ve never been on a set where the first week or so isn’t about establishing a working relationship with everyone,” he says. “I think a lot of the rhythms we’ve had are continuations from the set of Lady Bird, and the awesome time we had on that. Weirdly, there’s another layer of how much time we spent together last year in general [on the awards circuit]. Leaving school and working on stuff with your friends has that feel, that you just all speak each other’s language. It’s really weird to have that on this movie. But it’s really nice to be able to tune into Greta’s and Saoirse’s creative wavelength.”

He’s itching to get back. “You learn so much from each job, and not just from the role or what you have to learn, but from where you are in the world. That could be Pittsburgh in the winter, or Budapest in the summer.” On Little Women, he’s in the Massachusetts heartland where the book is set. “[Author] Louisa May Alcott is buried out there. The book takes place in that setting. We’re immersed in the legend of the book every day.”

He had never read Little Women before the job came along. “A lot of guys aren’t aware of the importance of it, and how impactful it was,” he says. But he’s put the work into getting up to speed, and can speak with confidence now. “A lot of Louisa May Alcott’s male friends claimed to be the Laurie that the book was based on—I think there’s evidence that it was one person, and that a lot of people were wrong in the assumption that it was them.”

And yet still, within it all, the eternal contradiction of Timothée Chalamet means that he also feels it in his bones. Long before he did that reading with Falco, he remembers her showing up at LaGuardia to give his class a lecture. “Someone was like, ‘What’s your process?’ Which is the greatest softball if an actor wants to meat-up an answer,” Chalamet laughs. “She said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I just do it.’ That really made sense to me.”

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