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Timothée Chalamet talks sex, his name and savouring fame

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Timothée Chalamet seems omnipresent these days. The young American actor stars in two of the hottest films of the moment, Denis Villeneuve's "Dune: Part Two” and Paul King’s “Wonka.” Not that long ago, however, 2017 to be precise, he was known to discerning filmgoers as a fresh face to watch: He played the sexually awakened teen in Lucas Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" (a role that earned him an Oscar nomination) and the callous lover of Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird." At 21, his head was spinning from his sudden fame, when I caught up with him in December 2017 for a Toronto Star interview. But he was loving all the attention and ready for his close-up:

Considering how particular the characters are that Timothée Chalamet plays in "Call Me by Your Name" and "Lady Bird," you’d think he’d be equally precise regarding the pronunciation of his first name.

Not so fast. The actor acknowledges that it should end with the French “ay” sound, rhyming with his last name, but he’ll also answer to the English “ee” ending, as befits his international heritage: his dad’s French, his mom’s American.

“Oh, whatever works,” the 21-year-old says from hometown New York.

“It’s supposed to be Timo-TAY, but that always seems like . . . too obnoxious.”

Whatever you choose to call Chalamet, you need to add “awards nominee” to any description of this fast-rising talent, whose previous accomplishments include the films "Interstellar" and "Hot Summer Nights" and the TV series "Homeland" and "Royal Pains."

This week he received Best Actor nominations for the upcoming Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, adding to prior kudos for his acclaimed lead performance in Luca Guadagnino’s "Call Me by Your Name," a coming-of-age love story. He’s widely expected to receive an Oscar nod in January.

Chalamet is also winning praise for his small-but-memorable turn as a cynical young musician in Greta Gerwig’s similarly Oscar-bound Lady Bird, playing opposite lead Saoirse Ronan.

“There’s no design to it,” he says of his career, which includes the just-wrapped Woody Allen film for 2018, "A Rainy Day in New York."

“The desire was always just to be working with great directors and good storytellers and good actors. By tremendous luck, I get to be in two films (for 2017) that I’m very proud of and to get to work with Greta and Luca were transformative experiences. I’m just sitting in the moment, trying to savour it.”

But he can also talk a bit while he savours:

You’re in two of the year’s most talked-about sex scenes: the peach encounter in "Call Me by Your Name" and the “unspecial sex” one in "Lady Bird." How do you feel about them?

On the page, those are the scenes that catch the anxiety in your throat. There’s a certain physical requirement to them that’s obviously vulnerable and more than what one usually reveals to another person, let alone in front of a camera to an entire audience. Yet when it comes to the day of doing it, it becomes so about doing it honestly — and when you do it with a scene partner like Saoirse, it’s about establishing very solid boundaries in the doing of the scene. With the peach, conversely, it’s just about focusing purely on the honesty of the moment and you kind of forget about the camera. It can actually be even more freeing than having a ton of expositional lines or a more classical over-the-shoulder shot, two-person dialogue scene.

"Call Me by Your Name" ends with another much-discussed scene, the one where Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the dad to your character Elio, delivers an incredibly compassionate father-to-son monologue. What was your reaction?

It’s a transformative experience watching that scene. And I’ve got to say, just being opposite Michael and doing it, I was able to hear everything he was saying in the scene. It’s about not extinguishing the pain that comes with heartbreak, or the ambiguity a relationship can bring, but rather to nurture that pain, and to treat it like a child and nurture it. And you know, I’m a theatre kid from New York: I grew up going to see plays, and I had seen Michael Stuhlbarg in Martin McDonagh’s "The Pillowman," when I must have been 12 or 13 years old. When I heard he had been cast in "Call Me by Your Name," I was already like a kid in the candy store. When it came time to shoot that scene, I simply thought to myself, “Let the master go to work, and be a fly on the wall.”

Did you have to do much preparation for that scene?

Sometimes, as an actor, you kind of memorize a scene in its entirety, or what your scene partner is doing, if you have a sensitive scene. But with that one, I didn’t even look at the speech beforehand. I wanted to hear it wholly and authentically for the first time on camera. So it’s a real wild experience watching it, because it’s just so profound and touching.

Your character Elio is 17 in "Call Me by Your Name," but Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who plays your lover, is 24 — although in real life, Hammer is actually 10 years older than you. Have you heard any concerns expressed about the age gap between these two lovers?

What I always say to that is, I just encourage people to see the film or read the book, because it’s so clear in watching it how consensual the story is. It’s full of love and care. And, in many ways, with Elio being from the town (in the movie) he’s in his comfort zone, as opposed to the foreigner, Oliver. Elio is the driver of this relationship in many ways.

Has anyone close to you seen "Call Me by Your Name" yet?

Yes, my mother has. She loves it. She really was very moved by it. We spent our summers in France when I was growing up, in small towns with languid and relaxing summers in the heat. So it was a close experience to what we had. And I think there was a sense of relief for her as a mother and as someone with a protective and guardian-like instinct that this project, which maybe in the book could have been a little more salacious, was actually treated very warmly. 🌓

(This interview was originally published in the Toronto Star.)



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