Talking peaches and James Ivory sleepover parties with Timotheé Chalamet.
Timotheé Chalamet currently stars in two of the year’s best films, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. His astounding performances have quickly turned him into a bit of a household name, with the actor covering magazines and appearing on hoards of talk shows. Back in January, before the Sundance premiere of Call Me By Your Name, the name Timotheé Chalamet didn’t mean much to most people. Perhaps a select few remembered him from his short, recurring role on one of the more detested storylines on Homeland, or his performance in the criminally underseen Miss Stevens. As a lover of director Luca Guadagnino’s films, I had anticipated my adoration of Call Me By Your Name in advance and did my best to secure time with talent following the film’s Sundance premiere. I screened the film the morning after the premiere, and immediately following the screening trudged through a snowstorm to sit down with Chalamet, who is now considered an award season frontrunner. The actor stars in a stunning performance as Elio, a young man who falls in love with a visiting student at his family’s Italian villa. Armie Hammer stars opposite Chalamet as Oliver, with the great Michael Stuhlbarg taking on the role of Elio’s father. Read on for my chat with Chalamet, where we discuss his sleepover parties with writer James Ivory, Judaism, and the now infamous “peach scene”.
How did you get cast in this role?
Well I met with Luca over three years ago in New York and then I met with James Ivory afterward. I think they had discussions about me playing Elio. We rehearsed in very short stretches over the course of the next three years but the timing never really worked out for everyone. In that interval I would stay at James Ivory’s house and discuss the film, I went upstate to stay with him twice. Over the last year, it really started to come together and I went out to Italy six weeks early and started to learn Italian. I had a basic understanding of grammatical syntax in European languages because I can speak French, but the vocabulary itself wasn’t there. So I did lessons for six weeks in that and guitar to do justice to the character and his traits in the book. Then we shot with Luca who is one of the most talented directors of our generation.
Can you please tell me about your sleepover parties with James Ivory?
He’s a giant of cinema. Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, A Room with a View, Maurice. There was a night I stayed with him and we watched Maurice together. He kind of dissected the film for me and drew out the similarities between that film and Call Me By Your Name. It would be a treat for any actor, but especially for a young actor to be around such a pioneer of filmmaking with that Merchant/Ivory catalog.
As Elio, you’re really required to carry this film, not only in terms of plot but certainly with the emotions. Did this come through when you first read the screenplay?
Yeah, a script like this is certainly daunting but it’s an indescribable gift for any artist to have a premade blueprint for their work. In my case with Call Me By Your Name, I had a novel, a masterful novel by Andre Aciman that literally moment for moment provided a backstory and an internal composition for the character and the plot. While it was daunting, all the research that I would have needed to do was there in the book.
What was the mood like on this set?
It was an extremely playful set. We shot in Luca’s hometown and the people make up the crew were very playful. There was really a light tone; everyone was making fun of each other. That kind of light ambiance on set really lends itself to a freedom in creativity when you’re dealing with intimate scenes or vulnerable scenes, that we ventured into in this film. It’s also important to note that with Luca, who’s so masterful, is that he wouldn’t treat these scenes with high anxiety. When we shot something that one may describe as “scary on the page”, it was just treated like any other sequence, which helped alleviate the anxiety for both Armie and me, and Esther [Garrel].
There’s such a powerful intensity between Elio and Oliver, certainly, in the scenes of physical intimacy, but also in the moments, the two spend together outside of the home. How did you achieve this?
Well, we had the gift of getting to hang out with one another for three weeks before filming commenced, so we were able to build a strong bond simply through time spent with one another. What was really important for Armie and I was to get this brotherly playfulness down, which I think helped itself to – in these long one-shot takes – to sequence into something more physical. But like you said, it’s more about the intimacy of the moment and the sensuality of the moment, the tangled, wrestling nature of lovemaking that we don’t see very often on screen. That’s what we were going after, and Luca made that clear to us. A good example would be the shot directly following the first time we make love, waking up in the morning. It’s these legs just tangled. You don’t exactly know what it is. It’s complicated. That’s the shot that’s always stuck with me for the intimate portion of the script.
What was your first reaction when you read the scene with the peach?
I hope this doesn’t sound cliché, but I wanted to find the truth in it. Not trying to make it overly sensual or overly comedic and just doing it. That’s maybe the hardest thing because I really try to restrict myself from making choices and just approach something like that – no matter how fantastical it is – honestly. Like with the romantic scenes, this was just treated as another scene we had to shoot. It was almost one take, we had two set-ups. It was about finding out how that would really happen.
There’s an intimacy about the fruits from the very beginning.
Again, I think that’s a testament to Luca as a filmmaker. Foods, and specifically fruits, are always symbolically depicted in his films. He has a certain way of shooting food. Certainly in A Bigger Splash but also in the elaborate dinner sequences in I Am Love. I think he’s inspired by Merchant/Ivory, which is why we were so lucky to have James on board. It’s rare to see in films these days. I think of the shot near the beginning of the film with the fish that has just been caught. Luca can convey so much symbolically by way of representations of nature as he does in his dialogue.
I really appreciated the Jewishness of the film. I think it’s so important that the characters are Jewish, but I haven’t found a way to verbalize it yet. As a fellow Jew, how do you feel about it?
I actually had the exact experience that you had while watching it and doing it. It wasn’t something I could verbalize or understand in a conscious domain, but rather, there’s something inexplicable about it that is a driving force in the film. There’s something tangible in watching it and doing it.
You share a brilliant scene with Michael Stuhlbarg towards the end of the film. As the father, he shares an incredibly moving dialogue with his son. What was it like to perform that with Michael?
It was deep, and beautiful, and moving on the page. Before Michael was even cast, there was an understanding that it would take an incredible actor to pull that off. The sincerity and amount of humanity, it’s difficult when those concepts he’s alluding to are so indescribable. Having loved Michael in A Serious Man, and being a New York theatre kid I’d seen him in a ton of plays, he’s an incredibly talented actor. For that day, I just wanted to be there for him. I didn’t want to interfere. I remember thinking that I should just be a fly on the wall for that scene. Your dad is blindsiding you with this information and just try and honestly take it in. There’s a reverse shot on that…last night was the first time I’d seen the film and it was surreal for me seeing this moment again, where he was going through the monologue. By all estimations, I had a happy and lovely childhood, but nonetheless, there’s something so appealing and endearing and heartbreaking about such a loving and accepting parent. I think a number of people in the audience last night referenced it as being moving because it was reminiscent of how their parents were, but in many cases, they didn’t have that parent. That scene will be important for any sort of culturally marginalized, or mentally marginalized people to feel like, maybe this wasn’t the paternal figure I had in my life, but it is what could have been.
The film ends with a stunning long take of your face, looking just past the camera. Did you know that extent of how long this shot would be featured?
No, this is the gift of surprise and spontaneity on a film set, which can sometimes be infused with this sense of pressure and expectation. I think we were a week into shooting and this idea of the end title sequence came to Luca and mentioned it in passing one day on set. I didn’t have the time – let’s say if I read that three weeks before I would have been freaking out, but being told while I was focusing on other scenes in the midst of the shooting process, it just seemed like another scene to do. Similarly to the peach scene and the romantic scenes with Esther and Armie, it was just treated like any other scene.
Call Me By Your Name is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, and the UK. It will expand globally throughout the winter.