Meet Timothée’s High-School Drama Teacher

Friday, Jan 19, 2018

Meet Timothée Chalamet and Ansel Elgort’s High-School Drama Teacher, Mr. Shifman

VANITY FAIR – A chat about high-school musical auditions, awards-season madness, and why Chalamet almost didn’t get into the prestigious LaGuardia High.

Timothée Chalamet and Ansel Elgort, 22 and 23, respectively, are both having what their generational cohort might refer to as “#blessed” starts to their careers. Both native New Yorkers, the two actors were each nominated for a best-actor Golden Globe award this year, Chalamet for his turn as a lovesick teenager in Call Me by Your Name, and Elgort for his performance as the titular “Baby” in last summer’s Baby Driver. Chalamet is also widely predicted to get an Oscar nomination for his performance when the nods are announced January 23.

The two both attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, located near Lincoln Center—a school known as something of an incubator for standout artists in a variety of fields. (Jennifer Aniston, Nicki Minaj, and Sarah Paulson are among the notable alums.) In December, Elgort—a passionate New York Knicks fan—posted an Instagram from Madison Square Garden featuring himself and Chalamet courtside, with this caption: “Laguardia high school pride. It’s really crazy, Timmy and I played on the same basketball team, we had the same drama teacher Mr. Shifman, we had the same science teacher Mr.Singh, and then in the same year, both of us are nominated for a f$&king Golden Globe!!! Living the dream sitting courtside at the Knicks game together. Life is crazy.” (MTV recently asked both actors which of the two was more popular in high school, and they each answered with the other’s name.)

“Mr. Shifman” (first name: Harry) has been teaching drama at LaGuardia for 26 years. He refers to himself as a “generalist,” but explains that “mostly, [he is] a director”; he oversees the school-wide musical each year, for which anywhere from 350 to 500 students audition, with about 35 to 45 getting cast. (Elgort got his first role in the musical his freshman year.) Vanity Fair gave Shifman a call to discuss what Elgort and Chalamet were like as high-school students, why Chalamet almost didn’t get into the high school in the first place, and who he remembers as the most popular.

Was Timmy in your musicals as well?
Well, Timmy—he auditioned for Hairspray and Guys and Dolls, and I didn’t cast him, but I did cast him as one of the male leads in Sweet Charity. He played Oscar. There’s a very famous scene where he’s trapped in an elevator [with Charity], and I guess he’s kind of claustrophobic. I have to tell you something: in my entire life, and I’m in my mid-sixties, I have never seen a more brilliant comic performance [than] Timmy gave in that scene. I think pretty much anybody who saw it would say so. People will eventually know he’s an extraordinarily gifted comic actor as well.

In Call Me by Your Name, there’s that incredible naturalism to his acting. Is that something you always noticed about him?
I think that’s really what we worked to get to. I auditioned Timmy to get into this school. He just happened to come to my room for the callback audition, and I remember his audition because I gave him the highest score I’ve ever given a kid auditioning. He was really that good, and he must have been, I don’t know, 13 at the time. It was riveting. He did two monologues, and then I think we had him read his scene. It was already clear that this kid was so interesting and gifted and compelling, and he didn’t get accepted [into the school], which surprised me. His sister was in my class, and she told me, “He didn’t get in.” I was like, “What? How did that happen?” I went to the principal [of the school at the time] . . . For some reason, who knows, maybe it was something on his middle-school record, lateness, or I don’t know what—[he had been] rejected in the interview. Thank goodness the principal was responsive to me, because I was very incensed that Timmy didn’t get in. To her credit—this was the last principal before the current one—she admitted him. In fact, thank god she did, because, I don’t know, he’d probably be in medical school now.

What was your reaction when you saw Call Me by Your Name for the first time?
I thought, my god, that’s pure Timmy. He brought himself to that role, and revealed all the many sides of himself. It was very courageous that he could do that. I was gloriously delighted. I was moved. I was just sobbing in that last shot.

That last shot . . .
Yeah. You could see how active his mind is. He really goes to those places, even when he doesn’t express exactly where he is, because he has a marvelous ability to play opposite to what he’s experiencing. So you see this inner dynamic pull between what he’s feeling and what he’s willing to reveal that he’s feeling, which, of course, just provokes that emotion in the audience. That’s very sophisticated.

Is there anything about him or Ansel that you feel audiences haven’t seen from them yet, or are there kinds of roles you’d love to see them play?
I think there are many sides of both of these fellows that you haven’t seen yet. For one thing, Ansel—he’s a triple threat musical-theater performer. He’s doing [music] videos, and he’s composing. He’s got a couple of great tunes out there already. He’s actually a musical-theater performer. As Hugh Jackman can do a variety of skills, Ansel can as well. Timmy, his range . . . I think Greta Gerwig, her description of Timmy I read, I think is really apt. It is something along the lines of—what did she say? “He’s a young Christian Bale crossed with a young Daniel Day-Lewis with a little bit of Leonardo [DiCaprio] thrown in and a Mensa I.Q.” I couldn’t put it any better than she did. To be as compelling, connected, and dimensional in their early twenties—I mean, where will they be when they’re 40?

Do you ever give them advice on roles to take or auditions, or anything in that vein?
Neither guy has, after their first auditions, needed [that]. They don’t really need me. I have the philosophy that a good teacher, like a good therapist, makes himself obsolete.

I don’t know if you saw this, but someone interviewed both of them at the Golden Globes about who was more popular in high school.
I read that. Yeah.

Would you want to weigh in on that? It sounds like they were both quite popular.
They were both quite popular and very different. They’re very different guys. I believe Ansel is a year ahead. But no, they were both popular. They were both like rock stars in a way, in a school full of rock stars. Everybody recognized them as being particularly gifted.

Obviously Timothée is in good standing for an Academy Award nomination. What do you make of the madness of awards season?
I’d be happy for Timmy to get a nomination and an award, or Ansel also, for no other reason than it helps their marketability and increases their income. I, personally, don’t really care much for awards. I know they’re a great marketing tool, and I totally get the reason for them. I feel like you’re in this cooperative art form, and yet you’re in this competition at the same time. It seems a bit odd to me. And how do you compare these performances? It’s just like, well, that’s green and that’s yellow, and you can’t say that green is better than yellow.

All of these performances, and some that aren’t nominated, there’s some brilliant work happening. I think the field of acting, especially acting on film, has advanced so much in the last couple of decades. There’s so many very talented, skillful, compelling actors out there. I think that’s great. I think the art form is really producing great talents.