After winning the Best Actor prize with both the New York and Los Angeles critics, and now a nomination in the Golden Globes, Timothée Chalamet has become a strong Oscar contender for Best Actor for his role in Call Me by Your Name. Could he upset the applecart for frontrunner Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) and three-time winner Daniel Day-Lewis in his final role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread?
With small parts in Homeland and Interstellar to his name, Chalamet was largely unknown when he presented Call Me by Your Name at the Sundance and Berlin Festivals alongside his Italian director, Luca Guadagnino, and onscreen love, Hollywood hunk Armie Hammer. Now the 21-year-old – he turns 22 on Boxing Day, the day the film is released in Australia – is on a roll. He's also received plaudits for another Oscar favourite, Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical directing debut, Lady Bird, in which he plays a cool rock’n’roller with whom Saoirse Ronan’s teen rebel loses her virginity.
The American actor, who once had a relationship with Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, also gets romantic with Selena Gomez in Woody Allen’s just completed A Rainy Day in New York and co-stars alongside Steve Carell in Beautiful Boy, based on David Sheff’s 2008 book about his son Nic’s methamphetamine addiction.
Clearly he’s far more worldly than the relatively innocent Elio in Call Me by Your Name, which makes his subtle performance all the more impressive. Set in 1983 in the northern Italian countryside, in Crema, where Guadagnino resides, the gut-wrenching coming-of-age romance is based on a screenplay by Guadagnino, James Ivory and Walter Fasano, which they adapted from André Aciman’s novel that related the events from Elio’s point of view.
It follows Hammer’s 24 year-old Oliver, a bisexual American doctoral student who spends the summer undertaking an annual internship at the holiday home of Michael Stuhlbarg’s archaeology professor. There, Oliver swiftly falls for the professor's 17-year-old son, Elio, as does Elio for him. It’s the kind of once-in-a-lifetime romance that will never come along again. It’s also clear it won’t last forever, which makes it all the more passionate.
The son of a Broadway dancer mother and a French father, Chalamet grew up in New York spending summers in the south of France. While he is fluent in French, he had to learn Italian for the film. He’d already studied piano at stage high school LaGuardia and travelled to Italy early to perfect piano pieces for the film, practising every day for a month-and-a-half with composer Roberto Solci.
Hammer turned up three weeks after Chalamet arrived, and the actors, who were 30 and 20 at the time, hit it off immediately. The heterosexual duo sensed they were part of something special and hung out together, enjoying the Italian summer when they weren’t filming.
“If I wanted to hang out with another American, it was going to be Armie,” Chalamet recalls. “So whether it be Mike Tyson documentaries or espressos in the morning, we were together almost every moment when we weren’t filming. I hope we were able to capture some of the chemistry that was so palpable in André Aciman’s book and put it on screen. We rode bikes around Crema and listened to music, but there were some things in the movie we didn't do.”
You were incredibly adept at building the tension before your characters get together sexually. Usually it seems fake, but you captured all the awkwardness. How did you achieve that?
There are not a lot of cuts in those scenes, and I have theatre training, so there was the gift of getting to play them out and seeing where they would come naturally and what would really happen in the given physical circumstances. There was a good deal of awkwardness. So I like to think that because those takes were long and shot in larger angles, that gave us the freedom to play with the lines better and with the physicality.
How did you approach the intimacy?
Luca’s films A Bigger Splash and I Am Love were like source material or reference points for the characters. It’s always the scene in I Am Love with Tilda Swinton in the grass that really jumps out at me – just the cool intimate closeness to the grass and the insects in the grass. Luca’s the master of sensuality as far as I’m concerned in movies today, so it takes the pressure out of your hands.
How was the atmosphere on set for the intimate scenes?
Luca doesn't treat those scenes with high anxiety. He treats them like any other scene. One would think that would make you more nervous, but it actually makes you really calm. The way Luca does a scene that deals with sensuality or sexuality is the same way he treats a scene at dinner or piano scenes or exteriors. They’re all in service to the story.
When you’re a young actor, it’s so rare to come across roles with real depth that feel like risks, but for the right reasons and not for salacious or gratuitous reasons. This was always going to be tough to communicate truthfully just by way of how passionate these two are for one another.
If your characters met in 2017, would the outcome be different than in 1983?
I think the expression would have been different in that we’re living in an instant gratification age and an instant communication age. Maybe this game of cat and mouse and coyness that Luca captures on screen, and André did a good job capturing in the book, would be different because technology has changed the game so much.
Did you meet with James Ivory, who co-wrote the screenplay?
I met with James four years ago when I met with Luca for the first time. I also stayed with James three times over three years, and he’d have a friend come over and we’d go through the script to make sure we were on the same page. It was incredible to work with such a legend, going through Maurice and how the themes in that film maybe play into the themes in this film. Or just to observe the aesthetics of A Room with a View or get his thoughts on the set design of Howard’s End.
You mentioned theatre. Did you rehearse it like a play?
We had a rehearsal on stage only for a day, but we had a general understanding of what the location was going to look like and the scenes were blocked a few weeks in advance. So on the day, we could get straight into them.
In the last scene, did you have any idea you could cry so well?
Luca came up to me early in the shoot and said, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for how it’s going to end. It’s just going to be a shot on your face for five minutes.” I was like, “Wow, OK.” I didn't think anything of it, and when it came time to do it, I just did it. But watching it now, I think, “Holy s***!” If I had read it before, if I’d known that was going to be part of it two weeks in advance, that would have been daunting.
Watch 'Call Me By Your Name'
Friday 5 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand for 14 days)
Saturday 6 March, 11:30pm on SBS
Italy, France, 2017
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Italian
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg