BRITISH VOGUE – At 26, Timothée Chalamet is already a consummate, cool-as-they-come movie star. As he gets set to become the actor of his generation, Giles Hattersley goes in search of the real boy wonder. Photographs by Steven Meisel. Styling by Edward Enninful.
By Giles Hattersley
He arrives, a princeling in jeans and a rock-metal T-shirt, bounding sprite-like from one of those blacked-out Cadillac tanks preferred by the famous (reluctant or otherwise). It’s June in New York and Timothée Chalamet’s hometown is gently sweltering. But, for once, the paps are nowhere to be seen and so his body language is a joy to behold, as he bounces into Champs, a vegan diner in Brooklyn, somehow channelling both a street-style star and Buster Keaton.
We’re shooting a Vogue video. He enters with curls un-frizzed, a smile that reaches all the way to his eyes and a head to shoulder ratio rarely glimpsed outside of children’s drawings. In a swift half-decade, this publicity-averse, sensitive, ambitious, inscrutable dreamer has become both art-house stalwart (Call Me by Your Name) and box-office king (Dune). Then something odder (certainly rarer) occurred. A baton was placed in his hand, passed down the decades by dint of James Dean and River Phoenix, David Cassidy and Leonardo DiCaprio: Chalamet became boyfriend to an entire generation. In fact, it was DiCaprio (in a moment of near-literal baton passing when they first met in 2018) who bequeathed Timmy his career rule: “No hard drugs and no superhero movies.” So far, so good. Give or take. Oh, to be 26 and Hollywood’s most wanted.
And wow do they want him. “I…” he says, laughing, unsure what to do with that information. It should be noted that Chalamet’s default setting is uncertainty. Thoughtful, courteous, smart? Absolutely. Able to articulate a definite opinion about anything? Absolutely not. Never mind. The charm is very real: “We met before,” he says, recalling some 3am dance floor-adjacent small talk we had a few years ago. Far from the navel-gazing “f**k boy” the internet occasionally likes to paint him as, he’s checked my Instagram and read some past interviews. Immediately he wants to talk about Lady Gaga, who he doesn’t know but finds “fascinating!” He is a rare interviewee – albeit a classic deflector – in that he much prefers to ask the questions: “Where are you staying?” “What did you think of [the London production of] Cabaret?” “How are you feeling?” Of course, once the recorder is running, the fidgeting begins in earnest. “But for Luca, anything,” he says of Luca Guadagnino, auteur supreme, in whose Bones & All Chalamet stars this autumn as cannibal drifter Lee. Part road movie, part addiction allegory, he plays opposite Taylor Russell on a bloodied, nomadic flee through America. It is a performance so pristinely heartbreaking, so tenderly horrific, so violent and vulnerable, it feels – as his work so often does – like he’s carved out a new genre of man.
Call it the Timothée effect. It’s everywhere, bewitching fans, directors, fellow actors, fashion houses and now British Vogue, for whom the half-French, half-American, fourth-generation New Yorker becomes the first man to appear solo on the print cover. We meet again the following day in SoHo. He keeps a rental apartment in the city, and his parents only live uptown, but he prefers staying in hotels, so we head up to the pool deck of The Dominick, his current bolthole, where the hostess leads us to some lounge chairs, her eyes bugging silently at the celebrity angel who has touched down to earth in the middle of her shift.
Eyes bug a lot with Timmy. In return, you occasionally spot a flash of kindly exhaustion in his. His manners are almost comically superb and an antenna attuned to the energy of absolutely everyone around him at all times is a terrific resource for an actor – enervating for a human, though. “I hate talking about this kind of stuff, but like the pressure of, you know, being in the public eye, whatever the f**k that means,” he says, annoyed by the concept even. He finds the world too desperate for answers to questions he doesn’t have answers for. “It’s always like, ‘Who are you?’ ‘Do you know who you are?’” It’s possible he does not. To be honest, after a while in his company you start to wonder if you know who you are either. His small talk has this habit of pulling at the fabric of time and space. “You’re the captain of your fate,” he says excitedly at one point. “Master of your fate and captain of your soul. Like those things where you can, like, draw with both knobs.” An Etch A Sketch? “Exactly. You shake it up and then it’s all gone. You can’t just keep building on the same Etch A Sketch.”
This analogy ends up haunting me for days. Not that there aren’t flashes of more earthly self-reflection: “I had a delusional dream in my early teenage years to have, in my late teenage years, an acting career,” he says. “And in my late teenage years, working on Homeland and starting to do theatre in New York, I felt like I reduced my goal to something more realistic, which was to work in theatre and hopefully make enough money doing either a TV show or something I could sustain myself [with]. And then it felt like every dream came true, exponentially. And then life is moving at six million miles per hour.”
“When Covid hit, it required me to take a step back and be humbled to the idea that the greatest rock star…” panic suddenly crinkles his features. “No, I don’t want to use that word, sorry, sorry. Scratch rock star. But [everyone has to] deal with, like, taxes and the dentist and real adulting, you know? I should have been trying to get my adult feet under myself a little bit earlier than I did,” he says. “I found myself having to really, you know, be honest with myself that where I’ve been able to get myself to in life was balls to the wall, like throwing everything at [it] at a young age that, by some miracle, got me to where I am. But to then transition to an adulting mindset…” Taxes and the dentist? He laughs. “I’ve always paid my taxes, I always went to the dentist, but I’m suddenly very aware of that.” It’s classic quarter-life stuff, lived at hyper-speed. “So the ways I feel older than 26 I have always felt,” he says, relaxing. “It’s not like I feel like I’ve had some mental breakthrough that has given me perspective. The perspective that feels ‘old man’, I feel like I was born with it.” Such as? “The empath thing, the thinking for everyone in the room, the sort of misplaced idea, this sort of illusion, of control based on trying to feel for everyone.” In Bones & All, reunited with Guadagnino, who directed him to an Oscar nomination for Call Me by Your Name, he wove elements of himself into the character. “With Lee, the illusion of control is based on feeling for no one and not even interacting with anyone.” That Lee’s affliction is cannibalism, not being very famous, perhaps gives some insight into the extreme head-f**k of the latter. “And I guess that’s where I’m at.”
Does the institutionalisation of a film set suit you? “Yeah. But then no, because I want experiences to be unique.” He likes the immediacy, the rough and readiness, of some social media, he says. “There’s a benefit to the TikTok generation that I feel like I’m a part of too: selfies and stuff, and the comfort with the camera.” Are you talking about the two selfies you post a year, I tease? “Oh, man,” he says, chuckling. “You know, you know.” He is of his generation and yet no two-dimensional exemplar. Confessional Instagram Live rambler Timothée is not. Manifestly shy, self-conscious, perhaps a little scared of what people think of him, he does not find a balm for his issues in forging digital intimacy with millions of followers. To be honest, he doesn’t really like to talk about what he had for breakfast.
Or, heaven forbid, his romantic life. Do you ever imagine yourself as a father one day? As a husband? There follows an almighty pause. “You know what, I’m going to get back to you on that.”
Mostly his love life has been revealed in the grainy pixels of paparazzi long lenses. The twin pillars of young celebrity – dating and deals – have not been cashed in on. Is it true he’s never shot a fashion campaign? “Yeah, I haven’t done any.” Surely you’ve been offered everything? He blinks, politely. “When [success] came my way, I felt very particular that I didn’t want people and I really didn’t want to see myself cashing in,” he says. He adores fashion, is close friends with several designers and has worn floral Alexander McQueen and glittering Louis Vuitton on red carpets to internet-breaking effect. Even today, in perfect denim shorts, a simple tee and a smattering of jewellery, he looks spot on. As for his feelings on being British Vogue’s first solo man cover star? “The nature of the world now, you know… It felt right to not make it too statement-y,” he says. He didn’t want to overthink it or overstep. He just wanted to play some characters, to live the fashion. He loved the shooting process, loved incorporating womenswear into the styling and likens working with Steven Meisel to Denis Villeneuve.
For much of the past year, he’s been living in London, filming the upcoming movie musical Wonka, an origin tale of the early life of the Roald Dahl anti-hero. Directed by Paul King, of Paddington fame (be still my beating heart), he leads a cast of Brits including Olivia Colman, Paterson Joseph and Rowan Atkinson. When a first glimpse of him in costume surfaced online – in crimson velvet, smouldering under a top hat – the internet lost its mind. “In this one, Wonka f**ks” read one memorable tweet. Chalamet starts cracking up. “You know what’s really funny about that is it’s so misleading. This movie is so sincere, it’s so joyous.” How many musical numbers do you have? “Seven!” Making it provided a perfect situation for him: escape. “I hate to say it, but the dream as an artist is to throw whatever the f**k you want at the wall, you know? And I guess what I’m realising is that one’s personal life, one’s adult life, can be quite boring and the artist’s life can still be extraordinary.”
With that he pulls his cap down and puts his defences up, ready to weave through the busying bar area and up to his room. In a few weeks he’ll travel to Budapest to film the second instalment of Dune, then to Venice to launch Bones & All, and then ever onwards, up and up and up. But he worries a key point has been missed. “I’m grateful,” he says. He gives me a hug and asks me to be kind. A man caught in the stasis of life’s first quarter, always looking for the answers.
The October 2022 issue of British Vogue is on newsstands on Tuesday 20 September.