The Arrival of Timothée Chalamet

Wednesday, Feb 14, 2018

Timothée is GQ‘s March cover star! Check out the magazine cover, photoshoot and story below.

The Arrival of Timothée Chalamet

GQ – Every once in the rarest while, a young actor shows up in a movie like an alien—anonymous and yet in possession of such preternatural talent that audiences start thinking about the actor’s future not in years but in decades. Call Me by Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet is just such an alien, and just such a once-in-a-generation talent.

Spring 2016. Somewhere in Northern Italy.
A 20-year-old from New York arrives six weeks before the rest of a movie cast to learn two instruments and a new language for a role as a brainy trilingual teenager swept up in his first love affair. Months on, having worn the character around all season and having fallen deeply, helplessly, in love with the other actors, and the director, the actor is prepped for an extended close-up, without a cut, over which the credits will roll.

It is the third-to-last day of production, and the hurt is real for the young actor and it is settling in—this is like nothing he’s ever experienced before, and he’s twisted up about it, because others who have been around a lot longer than he has are saying the same thing, that this experience is singular. The director, having witnessed “a consistent and constant surprise, and yet not a surprise at all,” as he’d put it later, in the roiling preternatural performance by this no-name New Yorker, films three takes—each four minutes long, matched to the length of the end-credit song that the actor hears in his earpiece, and against which the actor’s face communicates most registers of the hurting side of the heart. This final shot, it goes and goes and goes and goes, and just when people who watch a lot of movies think it’s going to end, it goes a little more. The longing and nostalgia and love are real, and the actor is a conduit. Little does he know that this day, this scene, will serve as the inflection point of his nascent life.

How does a single movie scene transform a life? Here’s how:
The effect of that final shot is that it tunnels one’s vision on this unknown face—rosy-ringed around the eyes, a sweetness in the whites—and articulates, as the actor will later put it, “what the scene is about, and in many ways what this movie is about—time lost, love lost, regret that love wasn’t pursued more fully, more quickly.” The lingering shot keeps audiences soldered to their seats and sears a potent idea in their minds: that this 20-year-old is someone it is thrilling to have just met, out of the blue like this, someone we will no doubt see again—maybe even for the rest of our lives.

It happens first at Sundance, and then in Berlin and Toronto and New York, and eventually in most cities in America as Call Me by Your Name plays to new audiences. The idea is contagious—that this young actor is very good, maybe the best in a long time, maybe even a sort of genius. It just so happens that another film comes out at practically the same time, Lady Bird, in which the actor plays a smaller role for a writer-director who puts her finger on something else about him: “He’s Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio,” Lady Bird‘s Greta Gerwig says. “A heartthrob but with thoroughbred acting chops. Everyone else will be amazed by what he grows into, but I won’t—I’ve always known that he’s a unicorn.” Bale. Day-Lewis. DiCaprio. Out of nowhere, then: A generational performer arrives.

He receives 40-plus-ish nominations for Best Actor and Best Newcomer and Best Etc. during the season of awards, and spends most of the winter ping-ponging back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, expressing exuberant gratitude and pleading with himself again and again to keep it cool—”don’t be awkward, don’t be awkward”—as he falls out of chairs onstage at screenings, and folds open his pay-it-forward acceptance speeches, and rapidly, alchemically, gradually becomes a Known Person before our eyes.

And then, in late January, the transformation of a 20-year-old nobody into a 22-year-old movie star culminates when an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor is granted to Timothée Chalamet, the third-youngest actor ever to be tapped in the category, and the youngest in 80 years.

Just like that. Lucky us.

The only thing weirder than being famous, it seems, is living in that brief space between completing a fame-making thing and that fame-making thing registering fully. In early January, for a week bridging the Golden Globes, I got to spend time with Timothée Chalamet in that awesome window of in-between-ity—when he very much perceived what was happening to him without fully realizing the extent to which his life was being altered. While it was the beginning of something enormous for him, it was also, a little sadly, the end of something else—the very last days of the first part of his life. The more I was around it, the more it reminded me of that skin-prickling sensation that hangs in the air between seeing a flash of lightning and hearing the crack of thunder. That knowledge that no matter how quiet it may still be now, there’s no fighting physics.

Timothée (pronounced “Timothy,” not “Tee-mo-tay”: “I don’t want to be totally unrelatable”) has an antic energy, a rubber-ball bounciness. He has the body of a kid raised in New York, stovepiped like a Stroke, the sort of frame that’s forged in high schools without football teams. He’s taller than he comes off in Call Me by Your Name (at six feet, he’s dwarfed on-screen by co-star Armie Hammer’s five extra inches) and has an angular face that looks to require shaving once or twice a year. (“They’re gonna revive Tiger Beat just for him,” Gerwig has put it.)

His is a brimming exuberance that’s reined in by a sober conscientiousness. Often there seem to be two competing forces pulling at either arm: the desire to let everything in, to not take any of this good fortune for granted, while also contending with a constant low-level fear of losing the thing he’s only just grabbed hold of. “Fuck yeah, while it’s going on, I’m going to enjoy every second of this—it sounds cheesy, but I think of myself as an actor third, an artist second, and a fan first,” he said. “But I have genuine fear of having the inability to replicate this moment again.”

He’s self-critical and cautious. He’s skeptical of “the artificial maturity that can accompany young actors.” He repeats often “that the male brain doesn’t fully develop until 25.” He’s wary of the pitfalls of early success and thinks constantly about fucking it up. It’s imperative to him that he not be “a flash in the pan, or do anything to encourage the idea that this is a moment, and a flavor of the month.… I look at the road map for young male actors, for young actors, and it’s not particularly healthy.” One way to protect himself, he knows, is to show up and make it clear how entirely appreciative he is of everything that’s happened this fall and winter, but then to disappear as quickly as possible back into a new project, back into the work.

Also: to stick as close as possible to home.

Which is why, in early January, a few days after the Globes, we found ourselves in the lobby of the apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen where he grew up. The security guard at the desk said everybody knew Timothée. He’d spent his whole life in the building, with his mom and dad and sister, five floors above his grandmother. We stopped by Grandma’s apartment to say hello, and she was, at 91, pretty grandmotherly about the whole thing. She screamed sweetly—”It’s you!”—when she came to the door, and then continued as though she’d been expecting us all along. “The building is buzzing!” she said. “I think I’m experiencing a little of what you are.… You must be exhausted—oh my God!

As we followed her to the living room, we passed books and Broadway playbills and copies of magazines from this summer with her grandson on the cover. “I was thrilled to see you on the Golden Globes! Oh my God, what an accomplishment! Sit down!”

“No no, we’ve only got a minute,” Timothée said, smiling and hugging her.

She said he looked very nice on TV, “but your sister”—Timothée’s date—”your sister looked gorgeous! I told your mother, more beautiful than all those movie stars! And I wouldn’t say it, because you know if I don’t think something…,” she said. “There’s something else I want to tell you—come here.”

“Absolutely,” Timothée said, leaning close.

“One of these people asked you how come you took such a part in this movie, if it was a risk. And you said: ‘I’m a serious actor, and I like parts that challenge me, and nobody knows me, nobody knows my name, I have nothing to lose.’ I was hysterical! Oh, I love this boy!… And just today I was thinking…won’t be that way anymore! I mean, here you are going to be on Jimmy Fallon tonight—I told my friend Marilyn!”

Grandma was a Broadway dancer. Mom was a Broadway dancer and actress. Timothée’s sister is an actress and ballet dancer living in Paris. The performance strain, and the Jewishness, runs down the matrilineal side, then. Dad was born in France and oversaw French publications at UNICEF. He’s responsible for the last name and the fluent French and the summers outside Lyon that gave Timothée a nice counterweight to the city life growing up. “I like to think that the need to act and be seen came from my mom’s side,” he said, “but the ability to listen came from my dad’s side.”

Timothée started acting early. Commercials and plays and eventually television and films. He had a recurring role on Homeland. He played young versions of Casey Affleck and James Franco in Interstellar and The Adderall Diaries. He spent his first reasonable paycheck—from a Disney commercial—on nosebleed Knicks season tickets the summer of The Decision, when he was sure LeBron was coming to New York. (After LeBron signed with Miami, Timmy spent many afternoons sprinting down to the Garden after school to scalp his tickets.) He followed in his mom’s and sister’s footsteps—as well as in the footsteps of Al Pacino, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicki Minaj—and went to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He dressed as Broadway Spider-Man on Crutches one Halloween. He dated Madonna’s daughter Lourdes for almost a year. He got good grades and took acting seriously, but his first few years he couldn’t crack the lead role in school musicals because that coveted spot belonged to an older big man on campus: Ansel Elgort.

After visiting his apartment, we planned to head up to school. But I’d noticed that there was a Knicks game that night and asked if he wanted to swing by Madison Square Garden to catch part of warm-ups. He inhaled sharply and rubbed his hands together: “The guy who desires giving you the most full landscape of my life at LaGuardia is battling with the fan who wants to go to MSG.…”

As we walked around an empty MSG several hours before tip-off, he demonstrated an exhaustive knowledge of recent Knicks history. He darted into the pressroom and asked for permission to stand at the podium. He racked his brain for “famous press conferences” and asked me to take a picture of him pretending to answer questions. (When he saw the photos later on my phone—”Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”—he asked to send them to himself via e-mail: “Can I do actual size??”)

We walked onto the court as a swarm of drones were practicing a light show. He described a recent game, when he was seated next to Elgort on the floor, Timothée’s first time as a guest of the Knicks: “They said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna throw you on the big screen.’ And I said, ‘Please don’t—you’re gonna realize that nobody knows me, and you’ll never have me back.’ ”

Sitting on the baseline, maybe in owner Jimmy Dolan’s seats, we started to get into some post-high-school happenings when a Knicks City Dancer waved sweetly and said hey. Turned out she was a LaGuardia friend, too.

“It’s so weird,” she said. “All these people are texting me: Wait, you know him?”

“Brooke was, like, the best dancer in the school.”

“Timmy was, like, the best person in the school.”

They hugged, and Timmy hollered in disbelief: “You made it to the Kniiicks!

And though high school was still obviously very much in the 22-year-old’s life, we graduated to college.

He thought about acting full-time, but his agent—and especially his mom—pushed him to enroll at Columbia. But by the end of his freshman year, he was at the point where he couldn’t rationalize staying in school, training for some backup career, when there was only one thing he could imagine doing with his life. His mom begged him to stay put, but he moved out, to the Bronx, where his family had been a couple generations before, and where the rent was affordable for an actor at the bottom. He waited for Interstellar to premiere, thinking his role might be a little bigger, that it might serve as a sort of breakout. When it didn’t, he was broke and struggling in ways he hadn’t expected.

He auditioned and auditioned and collected perfunctory Nos. But with all that time on his hands, he couldn’t even bear to go to the theater to watch movies. He described melting into an anxious puddle on the floor of the Village East Cinema, attempting to sit through films he’d auditioned for. He couldn’t even read scripts or watch movies he hadn’t auditioned for if they had great roles for actors his age. “I wasn’t one of these graceful people who could just go see movies with contemporaries, or movies in general, and love it—I want to be in them,” he said.

At a critical juncture when the walls were closing in, Timothée spent a couple hours with one of his personal gods, Kid Cudi. Backstage at a show in Montreal, Cudi described his own lows and the single-minded determination that forced him to double down on his efforts to perform his way out of trouble. Timothée excused himself to run home so he could write down everything he’d heard. He keeps the notes on his phone. The takeaway was: Are you, Timothée, the sort of person who can’t possibly live any other way? “Fuck yeah.”

Which is around when he met director Luca Guadagnino, who was working to produce a film adaptation of a graceful, beloved 2007 novel by André Aciman. “When I had lunch with Timothée for the first time,” Guadagnino said, “I immediately saw in his physicality the kind of feverish, nervous angularity that André described in the book. But most important, in conversation with Timothée, I learned that the young man was not only a veteran actor, having acted for many years already in TV, theater, and even cinema, but he had the most intoxicating ambition to be a great actor.”

It sounded innocuous—who doesn’t want to be great?—but I understood exactly why the emphasis was where it was. There is talent, there is desire, there is passion. But there is a different kind of talent, desire, and passion in those who know themselves to be destined to serve a lifetime as a vessel for varied consciousnesses. “Less a transformation of character,” Timothée said, attempting to describe what he looks for in an opportunity, “and more capturing a feeling…a synchronization, a flow. Of being able to communicate by thought.” Communicating by thought. The idea put me in mind of the end-credits sequence. And also the novel. The book is a first-person retrospective, almost a confessional, and it’s on the actor to express those pages and pages of internal equivocating without words of his own, with a face and a body only. It was quite the challenge for a young actor who hadn’t carried a film before.

Timothée arrived in Italy a month and a half early. He came speaking fluent French, but he had to train at the Italian and piano and guitar (his instructor was the frontman of an Italian metal band). The French, interestingly, wasn’t always part of the role, and isn’t in Aciman’s novel. But Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory re-shaped the main character, Elio Perlman, around what they were getting with Timothée Chalamet. “I will never forget what the great Bernardo Bertolucci said: When you shoot a movie, you must leave a door open to reality,” Guadagnino said. “Timmy is half American and half French, and we implemented this part of his essence. We made sure we could really use his Frenchness, the multilingual personality, and also his personality.”

In those weeks before the other actors arrived, “he became a Crema guy,” Guadagnino said, referring to the town in Lombardy where Guadagnino lives and where much of the movie was filmed. Timothée often spent evenings with Guadagnino: “He was coming to my place. He was sharing our table, watching movies. I tend to create a familial feeling.”

By the time co-star Armie Hammer arrived, Timothée was settled in.

“Timmy had research to do,” Armie said. “For me, it was mostly: Do you know how to ride a bike? The day I got there, I barged in on a piano lesson and was, like, ‘As soon as you’re done, we’re hanging out.’ From that moment on, we were together all the time.”

They got close quickly, an easy intimacy. Armie is oversize, 110 percent scale. The disparity in height visually articulates the gap in maturity—Armie is almost ten years older than Timothée, and his character, Oliver, is seven years older than Elio—that manifested in a playful physicality in the film: Elio climbing Oliver, scraping for a handhold, almost monkeying up his body. (“Those moments of spontaneity, especially as it relates to romance and intimacy,” Timothée said, “that’s exciting as a viewer.”) After spending the summer together, all involved experienced a true sense of loss when it was over. It’s no surprise, then, that during the nearly two years involved with the project, Timothée and Armie have become exceptionally tight. He refers to Armie and his wife as closest family. It’s a big brother he can lean on in a weird world.

The same can be said for Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father in the film. He shares with Timothée perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, an exchange in the wake of Oliver’s having left Italy, in which Mr. Perlman suggests that he knows about the love affair and encourages his son, in a tender speech lifted more or less word for word from the novel, to let in hurt, to embrace loss, to love hard—all while intimating an absolute acceptance of Elio’s homosexuality. It’s a charged scene, and one in which Elio is playing mostly in reaction. Timothée has an encyclopedic recall of takes and choices (“And on the fourth take of that Interstellar scene, Christopher Nolan just said have fun with it this time…”), and it was instructive to experience the playback in action. To hear him answer my question about what in the movie made him think differently about his own life is to understand a little better the way Timothée Chalamet thinks about acting. Here is his response more or less in full:

“I found my first copy of the book recently, and I felt happy that the passage that I’d annotated the most was Mr. Perlman’s speech at the end. The moment that always resonates with me the most is when Mr. Perlman says, ‘Before you know it, your heart is worn out, and as for our bodies, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.’ And that, I had highlighted and underlined it, and even right now it gives me goose bumps, I don’t know why… That idea that if you feel shitty when you’re grieving, whether that’s over a lost romance, or a lost parent, you’re doing it correctly, and you don’t need to add the baggage of beating yourself on top of it. That is a human trait to do that, but it is also of the self-loathing generation, my generation—and that’s something I’ve really tried to carry in my life. When I do scenes, I like to memorize the other person’s dialogue as well, just so I can know the rhythm. But that speech was voluminous, and I decided not to memorize it. I thought: ‘Timmy, just hear it, just hear it.‘ And so we started on him, but the stuff they used of me in the scene in the movie, it always moves me to watch it, seeing him first and then the interaction with me, because I remember listening to it, and thinking: Try to stay in character. Be Elio, be Elio, be Elio. But in some part of my brain, also thinking: Timmy, fucking hear this. Hear this man. Hear these words. Bring this into your life. And I hope this doesn’t come across as cheesy, as I’m having the thought for the first time with you, but it can be really easy and cynically attractive to be jaded about being a young actor, or ‘rising success,’ and the trials and tribulations that come with it, but that is a moment where, like…art helps. That is a moment where art helped me, and has changed me for the better.”

When he finished, his face sort of caught, and he chuckled sheepishly, and snapped to. It had felt as though the lights had dimmed down and the frame had irised around his face. But then the arena speakers blasted open, the lights came up, and we were back where we’d been all along: on the floor of the Garden, maybe in Jimmy Dolan’s seats, with the Knicks City Dancers running through their rehearsal to that fake disco song from Vinyl.

He looked around the arena, eyes lit up—fan first, artist second, actor third. He hopped to his feet. “I’m gonna do one jog along the baseline for the experience,” he said, and then got a way better idea and bounded up the steps of Section 7, “like Rocky.”

When you put in a performance of that sort, you climb aboard a many-months conveyor belt that begins around the Toronto International Film Festival and ends at the Oscars. And so, from the beginning of September to the beginning of March, Timothée Chalamet attended—or was invited to—roughly 99,000 screenings, dinners, parties, lunches, late-night appearances, and awards shows to promote Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, and Hostiles (his third movie of the season), to profess his gratitude as a nominated Best, or to occasionally receive an asymmetrical statue.

When you’re in a position like Chalamet’s, you straight-up just have to meet a lot of people who might be voting for things. (The combined electorate of awards season is estimated to be well over 10,000.) You go to events like the L.A. Critics lunch and the National Board of Review dinner and the afternoon tea hosted by BAFTA (the British Oscars—get it?). You geek out with your heroes and spend an inordinate amount of time with your castmates and fellow nominees (in his category, it was often Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Daniel Kaluuya). You get asked to answer for things you didn’t think you’d have to answer for and end up making culture-shaking statements. (He said he’d donate his salary for his forthcoming Woody Allen movie to Time’s Up and other causes.)

You also fly across the country a fuck ton of times—as frequently, during some stretches, like the week I was with him, as every other day, rain or bomb cyclone. And if you’re Timothée Chalamet, despite the miles and miles, you forget to ever plug in your frequent-flier number. It eats him up, in retrospect. He has so much to learn still, so many habits to form. He is 22. He pays for things with a debit card.

It is never exhausting. He never gets sick. It is one of those things, he knows, where it’s his body mind-over-mattering it, not letting him go down for the count, whatever it takes. He gets to meet his gods. He gets to say thank you a thousand times a night and mean it. He gets to shout out his inspirations (Kid Cudi; Cardi B) and pitch himself to directors in the audience (Paul Thomas Anderson; Guillermo del Toro) in weekly, sometimes nightly, acceptance speeches that are drippingly earnest and often unpolished and absolutely positively written by him in a rush of inspiration. He gets to crash with Team Lady Bird when Lady Bird wins and Call Me by Your Name falls short, and vice versa. It’s one of the perks of being in multiple front-running movies in the same special year.

All season, he bounced with four suitcases between the Sunset Tower Hotel in L.A. and the Bowery Hotel in New York, but always stayed at home when he could—with his folks, in his childhood bedroom, just the way he left it, stuffed animals and all.

“I keep getting in trouble for not staying at the hotel,” he said, before showing me a picture his parents had sent him the night before: Mom and Dad eating alone at the restaurant downstairs from the hotel, enjoying the complimentary wine that had been left behind for their son.

“Is that weird that I always stay at home?” he asked me one hot, bright afternoon in L.A. And I told him I always stay at home in my childhood bedroom, too, when I’m in town—in fact, I was staying there now, and driving Mom’s car around.

This was in Westwood, the day after the Critics’ Choice Awards—another Thom Browne suit; another red carpet in the dusky white L.A. light of East Coast prime time. It was the second show in a row where he’d “lost” to Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour. I asked him why he wanted to meet in Westwood. I knew he was suspicious of L.A. He’d toyed with the idea of moving out here the past two years but always found himself sucked back home, where he felt more grounded. “I get nervous,” he said. “I worry, after all this, about moving to L.A., which is very appealing and a little dangerous. I just can’t imagine meeting 26-year-old me that’s been living in L.A. and thinking, ‘Oh, he was challenged as a human being and he made intellectual strides.’ I feel like he would have a Hawaiian necklace on and baggy shorts.”

Westwood he felt okay about, though. He had family around. He loved UCLA’s campus, in particular. “I missed the deadline here,” he said, referring to his out-of-state application to UCLA. “That might’ve changed everything.” As we crested the Janss Steps and got a look at the quad near Royce Hall packed with students, he marveled, “Whoa, it’s a real day, huh? This is very much the college experience I never had.”

At one point on campus, he rapped a lengthy Kid Cudi verse that mentions GQ. Then he described doing an event the night before with Christian Bale to promote Hostiles. “I’ll make no illusions of having multiple conversations with him on set, and when I did, I grilled him about American Psycho and The Dark Knight,” he said. But he was particularly excited, and almost relieved, to see Bale at this particular moment, when he had a new set of questions he couldn’t have dreamed of having a year ago, while they were filming. Timothée admired the way Bale worked while keeping so much of his life a mystery. Bale asked Timothée how he was holding up, and while everything was great, Timmy said, he was curious and a little anxious about what it was going to be like to act again with some sort of “legitimacy.” Whether deserved or not, Timothée said, people would be expecting something now.

“I’ve never acted with any sort of public image in mind,” he’d told me a few days earlier, “with anybody expecting anything, and it freaks me out a little.… If I had known people would be seeing Call Me by Your Name, I don’t know if it would’ve come out the same way.” Bale quickly took the piss out of him. ” ‘Be oblivious to it,’ he said. And I said, ‘That’s perfectly right.’ Of course that’s what the prescription should be.”

He seemed comfortable out here, more comfortable than I’d expected when he’d been describing his fears of an L.A. life while in New York. He looked especially comfortable on campus, soaking up some of the college life he’d forfeited. It made sense, just sorta being around kids his own age for a brief respite from the always kind, always advice-giving, but always hungry movie people who craved a piece of him at all times.

In New York, he’d been so preoccupied with the future, with this idea of his life at 26 (the male brain develops till 25!), with looking back on the time between now and then and being disappointed with himself, with his choices as a young Hollywood Actor, as a young Known Person. Here, though, he was moving around weightless. It was as though he’d convinced himself he might blend right in with the other students. It was important to experience that while he still could.

That week in January, it was kind of amazing that that was still possible: During the nights he was a Best Actor, during the days he was still fairly anonymous. It was that surreal space between the flash of the lightning and the clap of the thunder, that gap between signal and noise that could be over any moment. What a privilege to meet a person in that space. Morphing so rapidly, so contemporaneously, so overtly and imperceptibly alike, that he probably wouldn’t register the effect until much later down the road, all while knowing deep down that he’ll never, ever be able to fit into the shell he’d worn for the first 22 years. I was fortunate enough to see Call Me by Your Name relatively early, not knowing anything about Timothée Chalamet. And yet by the time his lingering face—communicating by thought—finally vanished from the screen, I left the darkened theater feeling for the first time in my life that I had just been let in on a very cool secret that only a small number of other people knew yet, but that most would soon. That was the flash of lightning. The thunder’s TBD.

All I know for sure is that the week I spent with him in January was the vapors, the very last days, of Part One. He was nervous about what was next, I could tell. But he was thrilled, and steeled for it, too, because it’s the only thing he’s ever wanted—the thing he’s built for. He wonders how it will go when he has to act with people expecting something, with people knowing his name. “Not that they know me now,” he said, strolling the crowded campus, like he’d done all his life.

Which is when we both heard it, high-pitched and hungry, at our backs—and the fantasy was over.


This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue with the title “Timothée Chalamet: Arrival.”