Timothée Chalamet is delivering some of modern cinema’s most compelling coming-of-age performances, dealing with the contradictions and confusion of figuring out your identity.
I first noticed Timothée Chalamet during his explosive mid-film monologue in Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens (2016). His character, Billy, performs a scene from Death of a Salesman as part of a drama competition, and his intensity — the potency of feeling placed on every word — quiets the room. It’s a striking piece of acting: Chalamet looks directly into the camera throughout a single take, so he must keep us hooked solely with the anguish on his face. Hart pulls back slowly from a close-up to a wide, revealing the entirety of Chalamet’s body as his speech becomes more intense and physically agitated. Like Chalamet, Billy is an exceptional young actor showcasing his talents to an audience. Performing the monologue in character as Billy, Chalamet holds himself back at the start of the scene, twinges of Billy’s nerves in his voice, before attacking the monologue full throttle as Billy’s stage fright melts away. The scene proves how mesmerising Chalamet can be with a character’s more emotionally volatile moments — the Oscar showreel scenes, if you like.
It wasn’t until I revisited the film after Chalamet’s recent rise to fame — my attention trained on him from the start this time — that I realised how impressive his performance is beyond this one show-stopping monologue. Billy is a complex character, whom we come to know during quieter moments. When he’s acting, he’s an explosion of difficult emotions that seem so far removed from the teen’s usual withdrawn manner. Those emotions are actually always present, just constricted and suppressed since Billy struggles to express himself.
As a trained theatre actor who uses his entire body to reveal character, Chalamet excels at depicting Billy’s discomfort in his own body as he battles with a conflicting sense of self. Billy is depressed and lonely, more world weary than his peers, though still not as much of an adult as he thinks he is. He tries to seem in control as he seeks connection with his English teacher (Lily Rabe), but Chalamet’s physical awkwardness — slouching, hands in pockets — reveals Billy’s immaturity and insecurity. Whereas many actors treat coming-of-age arcs as smooth curves, here, Chalamet works in rough edges, creating a more realistic character who is stuck uncomfortably between childhood and adulthood, feeling both mature and helpless all at once.
It’s this refusal to reduce a character down to just one thing — one personality trait, one descriptor, one way of being — that makes Chalamet’s portraits of adolescence so vital. He embraces the idea that a person can be many contradictory things at once while they’re figuring themselves out. Watching him act is never boring: his characters shift between different versions of themselves moment to moment — blink and you’ll miss the full picture.
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At just 22, he’s already played almost every type of teenager and yet never reduces his characters down to a ‘type’. The world woke up to this in 2017 when Chalamet earned adoration and acclaim for his astounding lead role in Call Me by Your Name, becoming one of the youngest Best Actor nominees in Oscar history. He’s continuing his hot streak with this year’s Oscar-tipped Beautiful Boy, where he portrays recovering meth addict Nic Sheff. Far from being a recent revelation, these complex portraits of adolescence only build on the fascinating work he’s been doing since the start of his career.
In bit parts, you can see flickers of Chalamet’s potential, his desire to give his characters rich and varied inner lives, even though he isn’t given the screen time to explore these depths. Interstellar (2014) is a father-daughter film in which Chalamet plays the afterthought of a son — he’s not so much underwritten as not written at all, appearing on screen only a handful of times. In just one brief shot, where he says goodbye to his father, possibly for the last time, Chalamet reveals so much about how lost his character feels. He looks physically sick, shuffling from foot to foot, not knowing how to stand, his voice cracking. Chalamet was so committed to giving his character a rich inner life that he even reported crying when he saw the final cut and realised his part wasn’t as important as he’d felt it to be while filming, even though “they didn’t even cut anything.” No matter how small the role, Chalamet never approaches a character as a throwaway.
Hostiles (2017) was released after Chalamet shot to fame, but filmed beforehand; I watched it aware of how brilliant he is and was therefore frustrated that he has precious few lines and is mostly seen in the background. Chalamet plays his young soldier character as soft-spoken and unsure of himself, a stark contrast to an ensemble full of boring, hyper-masculine cowboy archetypes. His character’s main purpose is to be the first to die, setting the stakes for the film, yet he’s the most interesting person on screen because he’s the most real. Chalamet’s awkward, anxious body language hints that there’s a whole other, more interesting story to be told about his character — one that’s nowhere to be found in a script that promptly kills him off. In fact, his flustered manner is disjointedly used for comic relief that is ultimately ineffective since Chalamet’s performance is far too vulnerable and intriguing to be laughed at.
Even when playing comic relief or antagonists, Chalamet still takes seriously their teenage angst and identity confusion, thus deepening and enhancing his projects. He’s so funny as the dopey, stroppy teenage son in Love the Coopers (2015) because his ridiculous melodramatic behaviour is completely in earnest, without a wink at the audience. Playing a small part in a large ensemble, you can watch his heightened, angsty reactions to everything and roar with laughter, even in wides where he’s at the edge of the frame.
His antagonistic Homeland (2012) character, Finn Walden, could have simply been a selfish rich kid: he dates central character Dana, accidentally kills a woman in a hit-and-run with Dana in the car, and then insists they don’t tell the police. Finn is selfish and pathetic, and Chalamet shows us why by playing Finn as a lonely, lovesick boy, neglected by his cold parents and excited that, in Dana, he might finally have someone to talk to. He waits at the front of school every morning for her to arrive, searching the crowd intently, leaping up to greet her, and hanging onto her every word. He may not be a good person, but we understand from his needy gaze that it’s a desperate craving to be understood that drives his selfishness.
Chalamet’s gifts as an actor have flourished in a recent spate of more prominent roles, working with writers and directors who are as interested as he is in exploring the dichotomies within young people. After Miss Stevens came the high school-aged lead, Jim, in the play Prodigal Son (2016), for which Chalamet won a Lucille Lortel award for Best Actor in an Off-Broadway Play. Playwright John Patrick Shanley cast Chalamet precisely for his ability to hold two polar sides within one cohesive character: “What I needed was somebody who[m] you would believe could write a poem — and would hit you. I could find guys who [looked like they] could write a poem or hit you; to find both was harder.” In Prodigal Son, we get to see the full range of how ugly and how beautiful Jim’s emotions can be: from screaming and stomping in a temper tantrum, to a gentle, open, intelligent boy with a curious gaze and a hunger for conversation. Each mood feels borne from the same sensitivity. For Jim, growing up means navigating the two violently opposed sides of his personality until he finds a middle ground.
Chalamet’s two breakout roles were teenage boys who couldn’t be more different: sensitive, sophisticated Elio in Call Me by Your Name and sullen, vapid Kyle in Lady Bird. Watching both films days apart was revelatory. Chalamet barely alters his appearance, yet both boys are so utterly opposed that it’s hard to believe they share a body. It made me realise that Chalamet is not just drawing from his own complexities as a young person to play his characters; he is also a deeply empathetic performer, interested in the psyches of those who share very little with him.
Kyle seems like a ‘type’ on the surface: Chalamet pinpoints the mannerisms of a pretentious Californian douchebag with amusing, deadpan accuracy, a cliche that is worlds away from Chalamet’s own awkward and highly expressive public persona (just watch any of his interviews). Chalamet doesn’t fall into simply making fun of this character who is so foreign to him. He subtly hints at another, hidden side to Kyle. Kyle speaks mostly in an ultra-earnest monotone, holding intense eye contact with Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) because he thinks everything he says is incredibly important. He takes himself way too seriously and hilariously lacks self-awareness.
Together, Chalamet and director Greta Gerwig ensure that Kyle isn’t just a type. We find out later on that his father is dying, and suddenly, Chalamet’s interpretation of the character — aloof, avoiding any emotion — isn’t just a ridiculous pose. It makes sense as a defence mechanism. We’re still laughing at Kyle (how could we not, he thinks saying “hella tight” is cool), and we have to also reckon with the fact that his two seemingly contradictory sides — the real, vulnerable, damaged side, as well as the ridiculous one — can co-exist within one person.
Still, nothing compares to the multitudes Chalamet contains as Elio in Call Me by Your Name. Elio is a 17-year-old experiencing first love’s torrent of volatile emotions. We’d seen Chalamet tackle dichotomies in many of his characters, as well as a particularly multi-faceted role in Miss Stevens that exhibited the next level of his talents, but here, Chalamet gets to play every emotion. Elio is passionate, selfish, romantic, stroppy, intelligent, caring, lonely, frustrated, scared, angry, elated… Chalamet allows all these things to co-exist within one character, sometimes visibly fluctuating between each in the space of a single shot. Look no further than the film’s final shot, a three-minute close-up of Chalamet’s face as Elio thinks back on the highs and lows of his first love. We see a lifetime of heartbreak, regret, lessons learned, and savoured joy flicker one by one through his mind — his face is so utterly open, it’s as if we can read his thoughts. The shot is a microcosm of the astounding emotional gymnastics he achieves throughout the rest of the film’s 132 minutes, and throughout his career as a whole.
Chalamet is tuned in to how teens who are still figuring themselves out experiment with various versions of themselves, as Elio expresses himself differently depending on his mood or whom he’s with. With his sometimes girlfriend, Marzia, he’s on surer ground: they’ve known each other for years, so the way he moves around her is casual, playful, and uncalculated. When he loses his virginity to her, he’s assured and dominant, his voice — speaking in Marzia’s native French — high and relaxed. With the older Oliver (Armie Hammer), with whom he’s enamoured to the point of obsession, his voice is, at first, deeper, and he often tries to walk with a swagger, mimicking Oliver’s masculine bravado to impress him. When they consummate their relationship, Elio is less certain of how to approach sex with an older man than he was with a girl his own age, so he experiments, excitedly and awkwardly. Chalamet conveys Elio’s clashing eagerness and uncertainty, first wandering around the bedroom to stall for time, then collapsing into Oliver and jumping on him, then lying back on the bed, allowing Oliver to take the lead.
Call Me by Your Name’s huge popularity left Chalamet in a rare and precarious position: he could do anything… so what next? Beautiful Boy has been positioned as his big follow-up, but it feels to me like old news. Chalamet gives an impressive and physically committed performance, communicating the anguish of meth addiction with unflinching realism. After everything we’ve already seen him do, it’s no surprise that he can pull this off. Worse, it’s almost a regression to earlier roles where he was forced to work against weak material that neglected to leave room for psychological insight.
Chalamet embodies the effects of drug addiction with harrowing accuracy, switching wildly between desperation, elation, dissociation, and bargaining charisma — but that’s just the surface, and the film has little interest in Nic’s psychology beyond these horrifying outward effects. We never see how Nic started using: that’s where Chalamet could have shone, portraying the conflicting sense of self of a boy whom everyone thought was doing well, but who was hiding the side of himself that was struggling, that pulled him toward addiction. Frustratingly, the film isn’t interested in exploring his motivations, instead remaining biased toward the perspective of Nic’s father who spends the entire film trying and failing to understand how his son’s mind works.
I’m hungry to see Chalamet stretch himself in ways we can’t already anticipate. He’s shown his range in the coming-of-age genre, yes, but these parts are contained within the same limited box: naturalistic, modern, young. How will he fare when he ages into adult parts? How would he work with a classical text? A mannered period piece? In the surrealist register of Yorgos Lanthimos or the ultra-subdued, observational style of Kelly Reichardt? The limitless amount of options Chalamet has right now scares me: he has complete power to either play it safe (read what we had to say about Tom Hiddleston’s career missteps) or expand his talent in new and thrilling ways. The future of his career is a great unknown.