You know him, you love him, or you know someone who loves him. Timothée Chalamet’s rise will one day be written about as a flashpoint for stan-culture because of his specific brand of cultish Twitter following, one-part boyband mania, and one-part cinephilic appreciation. There are literally hundreds of fan-run accounts to provide Chalamet content, and his status as internet-boyfriend du jour has been so thoroughly documented that it’s almost strange to think of him as a serious actor. The gap between teen idol-dom and Academy Award nomination is not often bridged, but Chalamet’s ascension is not a coincidence. His internet appeal is the by-product of his acting talent, not vice-versa.
Acting styles come in and out of fashion like clothing. It’s very clear when looking at the difference between silent film stars and their counterparts even 15 years later, in the 1930s and 1940s. While over-exaggerated facial expressions and slapstick movement was the way in the silent 1910s, the quick-talking sureness of the sound era brought a somewhat naturalistic approach. Acting became less exaggerated, more evocative of actual human behavior. The turn to naturalism became particularly pronounced after the demise of the major Hollywood studios in the 1960s. Actors began playing to the audience more than to the camera. This developed into what we have now, which generally aims for naturalism but at its worst is simply muting human action and expression.
There are obviously exceptions to this statement, but when I say muted I’m speaking of the net average of the performances out of Hollywood films today. Performances tend to lack personality, it’s rarer to see actors making distinct characterization decisions on the level of facial expression or physicality in a way that sticks with us once we’re out of our seats. The type of acting that we get in franchise superhero films or blatant Oscar-fodder can be flattened or even boring, with little movement or intentionality. But it only makes the standout performances that much more standout, which is where Timmy comes in.
Chalamet gives the impression that he cannot be flattened. He’s so delightfully tactile and physical that any attempt to do so would be in vain, or at the very least it would tonally combust the movie altogether. In watching Timmy, audiences see a much more accurate representation of the way we actually move in the world, flailing about, chewing on our lips, tripping and whatnot. His style of acting is both instinctual and incredibly intelligent. It’s not accidental. Chalamet clearly makes decisions based on characterization and uses his body to enact these decisions. The way his body moves in space makes us subconsciously think about our own, and it brings a different physiological dimension to viewing experiences.
The physicality he brings to his characters is also what makes his chemistry with other actors palpable. In Call Me by Your Name, Chalamet and Armie Hammer have a visceral connection that is so tangible it seems to weigh on the audience, even when they’re on opposite sides of a room. So much of that film revolves around the way their bodies move through space and around each other, and Chalamet’s inability to sit still is imperative for the romance to work formally and thematically.
Another film that benefits from Chalamet’s physical unrest is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women. Timmy and Greta have developed quite the artistic partnership since Lady Bird, and it’s easy to see why when you break it down at the level of performance. Gerwig’s directorial style makes room for and follows Chalamet’s physicality, lending her films materiality and immediacy that causes them to hit the zeitgeist like an atom bomb. Whereas many historical adaptations (including past efforts at Little Women) lean into the statuesque and stilted modern idea of what life was like in the 1800s, Gerwig’s approach is to collapse the difference between us and them, to illustrate just how real these people are by making their actions recognizable to us at a physiological level.
Little Women is scored with moments of physicality that builds up the relationships and characters. Certainly, the clearest example is the relationship between Chalamet’s Laurie and protagonist Jo (played superbly by Saoirse Ronan). They bond by flailing and nudging and chasing each other, always desperate and savage. There are so few moments of them speaking at length, and even then, they’re tumbling down a hill and shouting at each other instantly. Laurie and Jo unlock each other in an intensely intimate way that’s addictive to watch. As the plot progresses and the relationship frays, a kind of grief sets in over the loss of this tactility, which underscores the decisions their characters will eventually make.
In the final act of the film, Laurie connects with Jo’s sister Amy (Florence Pugh), in a performance that spectacular doesn’t even begin to cover. Chalamet is equally remarkable here in a vastly different way. The contrast between this relationship and the one with Jo is drawn along physical lines. Laurie and Amy having a certain type of distance that emphasizes their vulnerability. There’s no real statement on which relationship is better, but the nearly violent pitch of Laurie’s relationship to Jo is made plain in his quieter depth of feeling with Amy. This turn in the film works based on the strength of Chalamet’s acting and is truly the stamp of Gerwig’s influence on the source material.
Timothée Chalamet plasters himself to the viewer so consistently that it is kind of overwhelming. His unrelenting qualities should feel more grating then they do, but it’s a credit to him that he generally picks good filmmakers to work with who are able to wrangle his hyperactivity into truly effective and impactful resonance. It’s a type of acting that is so wonderful to watch and absorb, and it feels particularly revolutionary because so few people are doing it. The fandom surrounding him is no surprise then, our collective excitement over something so bright and sparkly is not misplaced. It’s just that Timmy has the intelligence and depth to back it up.