Timothée Chalamet on The King, Dune and fame

Timothée Chalamet, the 23-year-old New Yorker who made a splash with Call Me by Your Name, is very much in demand. We speak to him about his title role as Henry V in The King

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 24 Oct 2019
  • The King

On a small private island in the lagoon of the world’s most beautiful city, the world’s most in-demand young actor, Timothée Chalamet, is surprisingly chill considering that the previous evening he was on the receiving end of the kind of hysterical adulation usually reserved for à la mode boy bands and royal weddings. Every time there's a red carpet screening of a new Chalamet movie, screaming fans – let's call them the Chalamaniacs – assemble en masse to catch a live glimpse of the young actor's porcelain features and the dandyish designer apparel he's draped in.

In this case, it was the Venice Film Festival world premiere of The King, a brooding, deeply satisfying adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV (parts I and II) and Henry V, in which Chalamet plays Prince Hal, the disinclined heir to Henry IV's throne. (The eye-catching outfit he wore on the night, incidentally, was a Bowie-esque silver suit by designer Haider Ackermann.) Hal spends the first half of the picture as a tousled-haired lush, living it up with best friend and fallen knight John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) in Eastcheap. In the second half, after the death of his warmongering father (Ben Mendelsohn), Hal’s rockstar hair is shorn into an indie-boy bowl-cut, as he reluctantly takes up the mantle of king.

This 23-year-old actor must surely identify with Hal’s change in lifestyle. In a few short years, Chalamet has skyrocketed from promising young talent (he had supporting roles in Interstellar and TV show Homeland, and a starring role in the excellent but little-seen indie Miss Stevens) to the leading-man everyone seems to be after. His vibrant, heartbreaking performance in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name was the turning point. In that rapturous coming-of-age romance, he played Elio, a precocious 17-year-old who falls for Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older PhD student who’s come to live and work at his family’s idyllic Italian villa for the summer. Since then, there’s been an Oscar nomination for that role, he's played a cocky douchebag in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and given a soulful performance in the awful Beautiful Boy (a true sign of talent).

It seems that Chalamet is so in demand, in fact, that he hasn’t quite noticed what a big deal he is. “The truth is, for about 22 months I've been working solidly on different projects,” he tells us. “I did the King and I did Little Women [reuniting with Lady Bird’s director, Greta Gerwig, and its star, Saoirse Ronan]. I did a Wes Anderson project after that [The French Dispatch, due out next year]; and then I just did Dune for six months. So in the most grateful way, I've been able to do what I love and I haven't really had time to stop and think about it. And I think that's probably good anyway. In this day and age, there's a lot of pressure to know yourself. I grew up with the beginnings of social media – and that's an easy way to talk about it, so I don't want to put it purely in that context – but, you know, we don't have to know ourselves.” He smiles and shrugs. “I don't know if that answers your question in any way.”

Not really. He can’t have missed the hysteria at last night’s premiere? Surely that forces him to consider his own fame and stardom? “Yes and no,” he says. “I mean, the feeling of something like last night, it's just gratitude that people – and especially young people – care about movie making and a movie making that doesn't function as clickbait, but you know, that's aspirational in some way. And secondarily, a night like last night is rare; it was a lot of fun, but it also isn't something that happens every night.”

Is this young New Yorker being modest, disingenuous or is he simply oblivious to the megastar he’s become in the last couple of years? David Michôd, The King’s director, is under no illusions to his lead's star-power. “Last night it felt like, 'Holy crap! This kid is a full-blown movie star',” says the 46-year-old Australian. “And I haven't seen an American movie star that exciting in quite a while, you know? And I'm like, 'Wow!' I'm here. I'm standing next to him while this is happening. How extraordinary. What happens to the movie is completely out of my control.”

Chalamet clearly feels more comfortable talking about his craft than his fame. He got the itch to act while attending New York’s LaGuardia High School – famed for being the inspiration for Fame. His classmates included Lourdes Leon (Madonna's daughter) and Ansel Elgort. “I had kind of grown up around show business but when I got to that drama high school and it became about plays, and it became about the repetition technique and locking eyes with someone and freeing yourself up as a human, that was particularly formative.” The way that Chalamet talks about acting, it might not just be that he likes performing, it’s more like he needs it. “When I left high school I had an agent and I was still auditioning, but I didn't have that three to four hours curriculum every day. I saw where the therapy had been lost and I missed that outlet for this energy that I have.”

This need to act might explain Chalamet’s work ethic, but it’s not as if he’s taking any old role. Just look at the directors he’s working with on his next few movies. “I guess the lesson I learned early, not even really an experience, but looking at the actors' careers that I like, is that it is up to the director at the end of the day and you want to work with great directors.”

What will be interesting is watching Chalamet transition to bigger projects. He was one of the many young actors who tried out for Spider-Man and missed out to British actor Tom Holland. “I read twice and I left sweating in a total panic,” Chalamet told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “I called my agent and I said, ‘I thought about this a lot and I have to go back and knock on that door and read again’.” Even today, sitting in Venice in the glow of a massive premiere, we sense that same desperation to succeed. “I just want to work on anything good," says Chalamet. "It so happened that David Michôd and this project and the opportunity to work with Joel came along, and just the challenge of this character and the period and the material, it was something I really wanted to do."

The challenges were plenty. For one, Chalamet's slight frame doesn't exactly scream warrior king. "I did put on about 15 pounds," Chalamet notes, perhaps a little perturbed at the suggestion he isn't your typical action hero, before admitting, "but yes, if David wanted the warrior king he could have easily cast 100 other people who would have been more that vibe. I think what I liked and felt closer to a truth in some way was that the act of entering the battle is the challenge for Hal. It's not that he goes in there and he's en garde and, you know, rattles off a lightsaber sequence. In fact, we had fight rehearsals for a month, and when David saw it, he said, 'No, this is no good. This is not supposed to be sharp choreographed movements. I want this to be messy'. So it's less about how Hal kicks ass on the battlefield, and more about how he barely survives."

We'll be seeing Chalamet play royalty again very soon, as the superhuman Paul Atreides, heir of House Atreides, in Denis Villeneuve's hugely anticipated adaptation of sci-fi classic Dune. "I wanted to work with Denis Villeneuve very, very badly and wanted to be in a movie of that size, but one with real merit too," he says. "You know, Frank Herbert's novel, it has a real place in the canon of sci-fi. You could make the argument that almost every sci-fi film and even the video games that we have, they have a lineage to Dune. But like I said, I hope I'm lucky to keep working, and that could be a play Off-Broadway in New York or a musical or a TV show and a mini-series or movies.”

We get the sense this talented young actor will be in demand on the big screen for a while yet.

The King is released in selected cinemas now, and on Netflix on 1 Nov
Dune is due for release in December 2020