Bright Young Thing: Let's Talk About Timothée Chalamet
Awards season gets a lot of us wound up. Even the most hardened cynics of Film Twitter can find themselves squirming in fury as their horse in the race stumbles at the last fence or is perpetually beaten down by the grandstanding front-runner. Things can get heated, and spirited discussions verge into rowdy. Nevertheless, generally this is all in good fun and such moments are taken in the spirit they are intended. We’re all used to it, after all. This is our annual tradition. I’ve seen that change this year, with the 2018 Oscar race officially underway. The Golden Globes are over, and Gary Oldman, as most of us predicted, won Best Actor in a Drama. He wasn’t a critics’ favourite or passion choice. It was just the kind of actor and kind of performance that gets awards, even in this new and unpredictable cinematic age. We’d expected him to win, but for a few moments, in the ether of the unknown, it seemed possible that the award would go to Timothée Chalamet for his work in Luca Guadagnino’s celebrated drama, Call Me By Your Name. To date, the 22-year-old American actor has won a slew of critics’ awards for his part, and gained a storm of fans dedicated to seeing him take that victory lap all the way to the Oscars.
He didn’t win, which made sense, and some people weren’t happy. However, it was the way they weren’t happy that fascinated me. I’d seen it before, several times over the past few weeks, whenever various critics groups convened to decide their winners of the year. If Chalamet didn’t win Best Actor in their choices - or if Armie Hammer didn’t make the cut for Best Supporting Actor - then they got mad. Not Film Twitter mad: Tumblr mad. This was a juvenile fury, peach emojis and all, that felt eerily familiar to fan behaviour more commonly associated with social media. When some of the more over-emotional fans apologised for bad behaviour by talking about how they had just wanted Chamalet to win so badly, I thought of similar tweets I’d seen when 13 Reasons Why didn’t get more nominations, or when Justin Bieber lost a Grammy to Esperanza Spalding. Anyone who tweeted about the actor by name could be certain to receive responses from those name-searching him, and boy did they want you to know their feelings. Chalamet’s popularity is one reason that awards season has gone all fandom.
Talking about Chalamet is an interesting prospect. He’s a phenomenally talented young man who represents a lot in this industry as well as the ways we talk about Hollywood: A bright young star receiving the sort of ingenue narrative usually reserved for women; the lead in a queer indie romance whose allure extends to the realm of fangirls; a celebrity straddling the intersections of critical prestige and fandom-style adoration. He is someone talked about with equal enthusiasm from both film critics and fan-fiction writers; he’s just as likely to end up on the cover of Sight and Sound as he is on an Instagram made collage; conversations about him online are equal parts serious discussions of his talents and future and discomfiting confessions of attraction and adoration, accompanied by peach photos. Celebrities mean different things to different people, but their fandoms and the people they’re moulded to appeal to tend to be more clearly defined into specific demographics with little to no crossover. Chalamet, purely by accident, eschews such notions in a thoroughly modern way.
Talking about the career of a 22-year-old in the ways I usually talk about actors is a mean feat. The timeline is obviously much shorter and it’s tougher to discuss the journey their career has taken when they’ve only got a few years of work behind them. Chalamet, a New York actor, has managed to fit in so much into a brief decade, and even that seems so starkly different to what we expect from American child actors. He never did the L.A. audition circuit like so many actors his age, and seems to have avoided much of the strife that frequently accompanies working so young. After some time in TV ads, he attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, whose alumni includes Sarah Paulson, Al Pacino and Ansel Elgort. It was here that Chalamet saw how acting ‘should be treated as a craft’.
While America has some exceptional drama schools, the notion of trained actors and the prestige that surrounds it is so often associated with the British scene. Read any profile of a beloved British actor and see how much it focuses on the Hogwarts fairytale of private or drama school, particularly RADA. While Chalamet’s drama training was limited to high-school level and a year at Columbia - he transferred to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study to give more time to his career - it gives him an air of maturity and professionalism absent from many of his contemporaries. Raw talent is needed, of course, but doing the work of studying your craft has its benefits. By the time Chalamet became a full-time actor, he’d already undergone the rigour of full-time dramatic education, which included starring in school productions of Cabaret and Sweet Charity, on top of the pre-requisite Law & Order stint. He’d even made his off-Broadway debut, receiving some rave reviews for it. He was prepared for the grind without experiencing the burnout.
After appearing in some short horrors and a brief turn on Homeland, Chalamet made his major movie debut with the critically reviled Men, Women and Children, also known as Jason Reitman’s hackneyed polemic on how the internet is bad. Its failure was thankfully overshadowed by the roaring success of the same year’s next release for Chalamet, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, where he played the younger version of Casey Affleck. Up until his major breakthrough in 2017, Chalamet’s career is a fascinating array of indie efforts, peppered with the occasional turn in something more mainstream. There are now technicolour kiddie movies, no Disney Channel appearances, nothing that inspires real cringe or regret. Not every film on his IMDb page was a rousing success or even that good, but his work plays more like that of an established indie character actor than a kid making his way in the movies.
It’s doubtful that Chalamet, as talented as he is, had the foresight and agent representation to pull this illusion off - acting is as much about luck as it is opportunity - but it helps to feed into this image we have of him now as a wise beyond his years icon of skill and potential. He’s not just good; he’s near untouchably so. Even his bad work isn’t that bad. In that sense, he never really seemed to be a young actor in those projects. He’s obviously still an adolescent, but the talent is above his age to such a degree that he never registers as a kid in that regard. There’s nothing cloying or twee about those performances, even when the material isn’t up to scratch. In that sense, he was never really a child actor, plucked from obscurity and cast as the cute kid du jour. Chalamet has had the training and fortitude to consistently push himself as a figure capable of standing in the big leagues from the earliest possible point. Not even some can put a damper on that.
2017 saw Chalamet become an undeniable star of the future. There was his supporting turns in Christian Bale’s Western Hostiles and Greta Gerwig’s celebrated directorial debut, Lady Bird; Hot Summer Nights, an indie drama that played well at South by Southwest; and, the thing that set it all off at the beginning of the year, the Sundance premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The actor had been introduced to the director when he was 17, and had been attached to the role for years before heading to Italy for shooting. A fluent French speaker with proficient piano playing skills, Chalamet learned Italian and basic guitar for the role. To build up his chemistry with co-star Armie Hammer, the pair spent a month together, ‘hang[ing] out with each other all the time,’ Chalamet said, ‘because we were pretty much the only Americans there, and we were able to defend one another and really get to know one another.’ Upon its first screening, the film was an immediate critical hit. It’s rare for films to hold onto that kind of fervent buzz from January to December, but Call Me by Your Name had the legs for it. The standing ovations followed it from festival to festival, and through it all, Chalamet was heralded as the golden boy of the moment. Reading reviews of his performance is to see the kind of star-making narrative that comes along perhaps once in a generation. He’s not just good, according to these write-ups; he’s a phenomenon, he’s a genius, he’s so astounding that he ‘makes the rest look like they’re acting’. So often, this kind of hype for a performance ends in tears because backlash is inevitable and we are fickle creatures, but Chalamet has evaded it through the sheer force of passion for his work. People love his acting, they love him, and they root for him in droves.
I’ve seen people respond with surprise when they discover how loud and excitable the online fan-base is for both Chalamet and Call Me By Your Name. In a year of Hollywood surprises, this is the very antithesis of that for me. Of course he’s got fangirls! Have you seen him? Many have already declared him the 21st century James Dean. For me, he’s partly Dean, but with a healthy dose of James from Twin Peaks if he wasn’t a total drip, with a dash of that Riverdale allure. He’s no bad boy, but he’s got the aesthetics of one, and Call Me By Your Name provides enough of that imagined potent teen angst to give any girl (or guy) palpitations. In interviews, he’s shown himself to be eloquent, witty and up for a laugh. He’s still close to Hammer - and the pair look good together - and his stylist has him dressed to the hilt. Add to that a glorious crown of hair and it’s no wonder he’s the subject of so much Tumblr art.
Perhaps it’s because he’s such a critical darling that so many are stunned by his mainstream babe status. Such things don’t tend to overlap. For men, their cuteness and appeal to women is something that’s usually gotten rid of once they decide they want to be ‘serious actors’. Sometimes, it’s just the stepping stone to legitimacy - like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, you’re the hunk, and then when you age into your face a bit more, gaining the crags of ruggedness, you’re an actor. Chalamet is also currently experiencing something few actors his age do - status as an ingenue. When it comes to awards season, it’s usually actresses who are destined to become the bright young things in this manner. Women have shorter shelf lives as it is, so the time they have to achieve that narrative is briefer. They have to break through, be the thing of the moment, get the Vanity Fair cover and then win an Oscar before 30 or they’re not the bright star. For men (or at least white men), they’re allowed to mature, to work on their craft and put in the time. When they get their Oscar moment, it’s usually a crowning glory after years of hard graft. There are exceptions, obviously, but the rarity of them on this scale is what makes Chalamet’s triumph so striking, and something people can’t help but root for. It’s one of the reasons his fan-base are so fervent: Couple his youth, his talent and charm with his breakthrough coming from a gay love story, and fans are fuelled by the underdog possibilities of it. Critics are happy to join in too: After all, compared to Gary Oldman right now, Chalamet is the underdog.
Maybe it’s this notion of the underdog, and how keenly it applies to Chalamet, that stops us from dealing with the upcoming elephant in the room. Later this year, Chalamet will star in A Rainy Day in New York, directed by Woody Allen. He’ll star alongside Selema Gomez, Elle Fanning and Jude Law, and the film will be distributed by Amazon Studios.
During the past couple of months of post-Weinstein fallout, I’ve seen myriad conversations about Allen, culpability and the actors whose dedication to working with him continues to fuel his ability to get funding and distribution. I’ve watched Kate Winslet desperately support him in her quest for an Oscar; I’ve cringed at Justin Timberlake gushing over the accused rapist; I’ve rolled my eyes at more than a few mealy-mouthed non-replies from actors who appeared in his work. Most of the ire I have seen has been directed at actresses, and not without reason. Yet the golden boy of the moment, one who everyone is rooting to become the youngest Best Actor Oscar winner of all time, is his next leading man and we seem so willing to ignore that. Many of those fervent fans have tried to deal with the quandary in suitably fandom-esque ways, but even the critical conversation has been mostly dire on the subject. This is obviously a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of one 22-year-old guy, but he’s not a child, and he doesn’t need to do a Woody Allen film. No actor needs to work with him, especially now, when it is no longer financially or critically advantageous for them to do so. Is the sheer allure of working with the guy who made Annie Hall so undeniable that Chalamet is happy to risk the inevitably painful conversations his involvement will elicit? How much do we hold this one guy accountable for this, and how does that compare to how we’ll hold his female co-stars to task? His future is bright, but not to the point where it blinds us.
Chalamet is currently second favourite by betting odds to win Best Actor, right behind Oldman, whose narrative more accurately fits old Oscar notions of greying men who play great older men and give glory to history. A win for the guy who’s just old enough to drink in America would signal much for how the industry views youth and masculinity, but for his fans, the rise of Timothée Chalamet is something much more urgent: Stan culture has its prestige idol and they’re not ready to let go.