In recent months, it’s been almost impossible to escape stories of Call Me by Your Name’s heartbreaking final speech, its Sufjan Stevens soundtrack, Armie Hammer’s terrible 1980s dancing, Armie Hammer’s digitally removed testicles, and the now-infamous “peach scene.”
Most inescapable of all, though? Timothée Chalamet, the film’s probable Oscar contender. Catch him courtside with Ansel Elgort, or being self-deprecating on Instagram, or epitomizing the early 2000s high school hipster crush in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Or greeting me on the phone with this bizarre but ultra-endearing salutation: “Top of the day to you.”
He’s only 22, but Chalamet has been garnering studio buzz since 2014’s Christopher Nolan space epic Interstellar. He made three films last year, two of which are already ripping up awards season.
“It feels like a moment to just take a breath and appreciate,” Chalamet says, when I ask him how it feels to have played roles in two Academy Award contenders at once.
“It’d be naïve not to know that every actor’s career is filled with many peaks and valleys—probably more valleys than peaks—so it takes a moment like this to really try to appreciate and not try to worry too much.”
You can thank his upbringing for that sense of perspective. Chalamet attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts—literally the high school on which the film Fame is based.
Chalamet mentions frequently how fortunate he is to be acting at such a young age, like he’s making penance for his good luck. He says he never presumed that Call Me by Your Name would garner the reception that it did, but that telling a queer love story is a “great responsibility” that he takes seriously while trying not to be presumptuous early about what public response to the film would be.
For such a young actor, he’s already incredibly aware, even wary, of his industry. Does he read reviews?
“I try not to, no. Just because if you believe all the good stuff, you have to believe all the bad stuff too, so it’s kind of a dangerous proposition.”
I have to wonder whether the cool and collected Chalamet relates to Elio at all—a moody and confused (even bratty) seventeen-year-old with a hopeless, heartbreaking crush on an older graduate student who is staying with his family for one sublime Italian summer. Over the phone, I can hear Chalamet smiling as he forms his response.
“I'm 22, and Elio’s 17, which is more of an age where you’re still kind of shopping for your personality, and trying different skins on. That’s why I really like—no spoilers—but Elio, simply by way of the brilliant costume design by Giulia Piersanti. Elio is clearly trying on a new skin. Maybe one that’ll last… maybe one that’s a fake.”
Chalamet may not be Elio, but he gets Elio and nails the sense of displacement and yearning we all felt at 17, whether or not we spent summers ensconced in romance in Italian villas buried deep in peach orchards. Much of the effectiveness of Chalamet’s performance comes from his physicality. A willingness to clamber in and out of swimming pools and bedrooms—and all over Armie Hammer’s sturdy frame.
“The requisite of the script and the requisite of the part was a sense of physical awakening,” Chalamet explains. “So any use of the body as an instrument felt appropriate, particularly as we were shooting a lot of wide shots, not a lot of close-ups where to overphysicalize would be death.”
Armie Hammer is the quiet and solid performer against whom Chalamet bounces his extraordinary energy, and when it comes down to it, most of Call Me by Your Name melts away to leave viewers hooked on Elio and Oliver alone. To create a sense of intimacy, Chalamet and Hammer spent a heap of time together before and during filming.
“I think in any sort of moment where we’re on the stage or in a reading or doing a film, you go up with another actor or a performer, and there’s a sort of strong bond that exists there naturally. And then with a lot of the physical intimacy, it’s just the emotional honesty that’s required for these roles. But lastly, we just really kind of hit it off as human beings. We just really got lucky.”
When he accepted his Rising Actor Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Chalamet thanked Armie Hammer’s wife, Elizabeth Chambers, “who let me crawl all over your husband for two months. Thank you for that.”
Whether splashing water on one of Hollywood’s most certifiable hunks or moping around cobbled streets alone, Chalamet was granted the freedom to experiment by Luca Guadagnino, and his respect for the director is endearing. (“I never felt in doubt with Luca. I really didn’t.”)
Did he feel the same way about working with Woody Allen last year? A contractual clause, existent or no, made it difficult to talk about. But not long after our interview, Chalamet makes a decision: to donate his talent fee from A Rainy Day in New York.
“I am learning that a good role isn’t the only criteria for accepting a job—that has become much clearer to me in the past few months, having witnessed the birth of a powerful movement intent on ending injustice, inequality, and above all, silence,” Chalamet said in a statement he posted to Instagram last week. Chalamet was the first high-profile male star to disavow working with Allen.
My favorite part of Call Me by Your Name is the bit where Elio watches Hammer dancing in the street with some young Italians, while the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” is pumping out of a tiny car stereo. Or maybe the moment where Elio smells Oliver’s shorts alone in the bedroom.
Chalamet has a more highbrow pick. “There’s one particular sequence where Elio’s waiting for Oliver to return and Sufjan Stevens’s song ‘Futile Devices’ is playing, and the film that was shot that day was sent to the lab in Milan and came back damaged—and Luca just decided to use it. I always just get a kick out if it because it’s similar to a lot of people’s philosophy toward acting, you know? It seems like taking a gift and running with it. Like something falling off the stage in the middle of a scene and not trying to avoid it but rather treating it like a gift so… it’s one of my favorite bits.”
It’s a great answer, of course. Humble, thoughtful, and totally focused on his art, Chalamet, in my opinion, really has no bad answers to questions like that.
For a young actor on the knife’s edge of immense stardom, the Woody Allen thing was brave. But you get the feeling Chalamet’s burgeoning career will be just fine if he retains even a tenth of his passion for his work.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.