INTERVIEW – While filming his big-screen debut, Christopher Nolan’s astrophysical drama Interstellar, Timothée Chalamet knew very little of Hollywood, let alone the world. The native New Yorker had completed two short films and a role on Homeland, but at 17 did not yet know how to drive a car (though one of his scenes did require him to take over steering a pickup truck barreling through a cornfield). Thankfully for him, his onscreen father, Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, was there to give Chalamet some guidance, through the stalks of corn and beyond.
In the time since Interstellar’s 2013 release, the 21-year-old actor has gotten his license, spent a year studying at Columbia University, and worked on upcoming films with everyone from Christian Bale (as a soldier in Hostiles, a Western directed by Scott Cooper), Steve Carell (as a young man struggling with addiction in the film Beautiful Boy), and Greta Gerwig (in the actress’s directorial debut, Lady Bird). He also learned to play a couple of musical instruments and picked up Italian, all in preparation to star in this year’s Sundance sensation Call Me By Your Name. In the romantic drama adapted from the novel by André Aciman, written for the screen by James Ivory and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Chalamet plays a teenager who falls in love with Armie Hammer’s character, an older American grad student working with his father for the summer.
To hear Chalamet tell it, though, there is still much to learn. And there is no better mentor to have than McConaughey, which the rising star was reminded of when he called the screen-veteran last month to discuss finding balance in their business.
MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY: Chalamet!
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET: I can’t believe you said yes to this.
McCONAUGHEY: I wasn’t expecting the call, and I’ve been real busy, but for you? Yeah, I’d like to catch up and let it be recorded.
CHALAMET: I hear you’re in Cleveland?
McCONAUGHEY: We’re off this weekend, camping.
CHALAMET: With [McConaughey’s wife and son] Camila and Levi?
McCONAUGHEY: And [their younger son] Livingston, yes. I mean, shoot. How many years has it been since Interstellar? Three? So they’re all older. Levi is 8 with a real considerate, kind of architectural mind. Vida is 7, and Livingston’s 4. They’re all on their feet, doing their thing. No more diapers in the house.
CHALAMET: In Canada [while filming Interstellar], you had the whole family staying with you on set.
McCONAUGHEY: When we get cool locations like that, I’d rather stay out there.
CHALAMET: We had a 5:30 a.m. call one day, and I remember pulling up to set, next to that gorgeous river, really groggy. I saw a figure swimming among the rocks, and it was you. [both laugh]
McCONAUGHEY: I was just getting ready for work. But how about you, friend? Last we talked, you were going back to New York—school?
CHALAMET: You left me a great voicemail my first semester of college asking me about the move-in and how everything was going. You had just filmed the scene where you watch years of video messages in Interstellar, which, I never got to tell you, but that really floored me. I saw that movie 12 times in theaters. Anyway, I did a year at Columbia, and I just kind of floundered. Maybe it wasn’t the right place for me.
McCONAUGHEY: What do you mean you floundered?
CHALAMET: Columbia takes a wholehearted academic commitment that I think I have in me, but it was just not where my mind was at the time. I’d just left working a month and a half in Canada with my favorite director and you, one of my favorite actors, and had to go back into a structured environment. It was just hard.
McCONAUGHEY: [laughing] I bet it was! You had one leg in, one leg out.
CHALAMET: And then I had a part in a Jason Reitman movie that took some time in the spring semester, and I just couldn’t figure out the balance. So I left school after a year, got an apartment in the Bronx, where I had some family years ago, and have since been getting a nice steady stream of work. I couldn’t be more grateful.
McCONAUGHEY: Let’s also recognize that there are no “Help Wanted” signs in this business. And you’re in now.
CHALAMET: Wow, that gives me chills. You told me the story of a casting director who asked you to take your hat off-
McCONAUGHEY: Angels in the Outfield . Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I walked into the meeting late in the afternoon. I was backlit and wearing a hat with the American flag on it. The guy looks up, squints his eyes at the sun and silhouette, and says, “Look at you! All-American kid.” And I’m going, “Yes, sir.” He asked if I’d ever played baseball. I said, “Twelve years.” And he gave me the part. You know, I’ve talked to millions of people about how they got into the business, and every story is different. And once you’re in it, you can’t be too impressed by it. We have to be respectful of it, but there’s a difference between respect and reverence. If you have too much reverence for something, you can’t look it right in the eye and go, “I’m going to break a sweat and make my own mark.”
CHALAMET: For me, it’s really about staying present, in that wave. Do you think when you were my age that you already had that mentality?
McCONAUGHEY: No, I can’t say that I did. It’s something I learned over time. There are initiation cycles in this business. You have a one-year initiation and then I think there’s a 12-year initiation. You’ve got to get the joke; it’s not personal. It’s not personal that someone won’t call me back anymore because my last movie didn’t make enough money. It’s still a business, and you’ve got to get into the joke. I got that advice pretty early.
CHALAMET: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
McCONAUGHEY: But at the same time, you’re young and you’ve got your health and you’ve got to be attacking stuff, man-going after it and getting better. It’s not like being a professional athlete where your peak years are your late-20s. You’ve got an opportunity to get better and better and better. The work will start to mean more and more and more to you. Are you having fun?
CHALAMET: Well, I’m in San Francisco right now, working on a project called Beautiful Boy, trying to follow in the footsteps of committed performances and performers—I’m playing a heroin and methamphetamine addict. I lost weight to help accurately capture the dark stages of the drug. I’ve been getting to work with Steve Carell and just feel like the luckiest kid in the world. I love being able to see how people sink into the material—like watching you work your way through scenes, trying new things, always keeping it fresh. I got to work with Christian Bale over the summer, on Hostiles. It’s so impressive to see you guys work. I want to attack and to lead my life with vigor, but I’m in the watching stage at the moment. Younger actors feel pressure to bring a pop to every scene, as the roles get bigger, I’m finding you can add layers and do less scene-to-scene.
McCONAUGHEY: You have more notes to put into the song of your performance. How’s your love life?
CHALAMET: The truth is, I’ve just been traveling so much, working on projects …
McCONAUGHEY: You’re in love with work.
CHALAMET: Yeah. But I saw you with your family on set. Steve Carell is also a real great, loving family guy, as is Christian Bale, and I think later in life that’s something I really want to tackle. But, like you said, now that my foot is in the door, I’m locked and loaded. I’m focused.
McCONAUGHEY: Tell me about Call Me By Your Name.
CHALAMET: We got to be in Italy for three months learning Italian and learning the piano and the guitar. I already knew how to speak French because of the-
McCONAUGHEY: Last name?
CHALAMET: Yeah. [laughs] Chalamet. But I picked up the Italian, too. I play the love interest of Armie Hammer. He’s a full-blooded American, which is just perfect for the film, but I’m that, too, so we’d hang out with each other all the time, because we were pretty much the only Americans there, and we were able to defend one another and really get to know one another.
McCONAUGHEY: It great that you’re getting to access such different parts of yourself and really take adventures into new territory. There’s as much rhyme and reason to which parts we attract as there is to which ones we go after. You ought to take some time to think about why that is: “What about me drew this role to me?” Just make sure along the way that you take a little inventory, take a little Timothée time and look inward. You’ll want to keep checking in with Timothée. Whether that means taking a two-week, three-week trip on your own, which I had to do—I just put on a backpack and went to a spot in Africa, chasing some anonymity—because, you know, there’s the acting side and then there’s the celebrity side. The celebrity side turns the world into a bit of a mirror. But, really, what is acting? What are we really there to do? We’re there to expose humanity: “I’m not that guy, but I know that guy.”
CHALAMET: I do find that there’s a fine balance between preparation and seeing what happens naturally.
McCONAUGHEY: Yeah, the preparation, that’s the early work. Then just grab for what’s happening. Drop the plan and trust that the plan is not an intellectual thing anymore. And keep it up, Tim. Keep working hard and having fun and enjoy this time, baby. There’s only one first time for everything.