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A star is born: how Timothée Chalamet became the man of the moment

·7-min read
 (Evening Standard comp)
(Evening Standard comp)

From the moment Timothée Chalamet appears on screen in Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch, the message is clear; never underestimate a pretty boy.

Chalamet plays Zeffirelli, a chain-smoking, thoughtful young man who is leading a fired up group of student protesters sending the government into a frenzy. We meet him when Frances McDormand’s character, a journalist, pulls back a shower curtain and finds him having a cigarette in the bath, naked but for an artfully styled towel turban.

It is an impeccably choreographed scene and sure to delight Chalamet’s cabal of fans, taking Chalamania to new heights. They have been in overdrive this week with not one but two new movies starring Chalamet out — as well as The French Dispatch there is Dune, director Denis Villeneuve’s $165 million adaptation of the sci-fi novel (also made into an ill-fated film by David Lynch in 1984) in which Chalamet plays the central character Paul Atreides and submits to so many close-ups of his sweaty upper lip that it may cause some kind of earthquake. If that is not enough, he is here in the UK filming Wonka, the chocolatier’s origin story.

 (Searchlight Pictures)
(Searchlight Pictures)

He started this week at a London Film Festival party with his Dune co-star Zendaya, spectacularly suited in a blue mushroom print Stella McCartney number. Chalamet has form on fashion — he co-chaired this year’s Met Gala and reinvented smart casual, looking elegant dressed as a modern day knight in white satin; a tuxedo jacket, polo neck and Converse.

Chalamet, 25, has been acting professionally since he was a child. But his trajectory hasn’t been smooth — he lost out on the role of Spider-Man to Tom Holland and Dune’s director previously rejected him for a role in Prisoners. So how did Timmy, as his friends call him, become the man of the moment? “He feels authentic and bridges male and female sensibility, which speaks to current culture,” says Jessica Ronane, who cast him in 4,000 Miles at The Old Vic, which the theatre is trying to reschedule due to the pandemic. “He has innate charisma and his appeal is enhanced by the fact he exudes thoughtfulness, with a gentle, open quality, plus an inquisitive eye and that draws us in. His beauty is delicate and he has an easy physical style; the girls admire him!”

Yet after his role in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, he is also an LGBTQ+ icon. For Art, a Chalamet fan who broke the internet when he spotted the actor filming Wonka in Dorset this month, the actor inspires a very particular type of adoration. “He brings an electrical level of energy, shining a light on a different kind of masculinity in a way that feels long overdue; I know it makes me and a lot of others feel like we have a place in the world, and I think that’s why he has such a huge audience of young people, queer people and people who feel like they’re slightly outside. It’s become such a thing to talk about his androgyny as a fashion moment but behind that there’s a lot of people who feel enabled to make bold choices and embrace a less rigid approach to gender expectations, and still be embraced and celebrated for that, because of him.”

But this goes beyond beautiful bone structure. Casting director Jill Trevellick says: “He is an extremely good actor with a great deal of integrity as a performer. He is charismatic and unpredictable; a one-off.” He has also made shrewd choices. Trevellick says the roles he has picked show that he can take on a broad range of parts and make it impossible to predict how his career will go, “which is a good thing”. “Also, when market forces are at play, directors will want stars who have shown they can draw a big crowd.” There is a virtuous circle; Chalamet has more than 14 million Instagram followers, who comment adoringly under his often gnomic captions, and these numbers are attractive to directors.

 (Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)
(Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

The Standard’s film critic, Charlotte O’Sullivan, says: “Not getting Spider-Man gave him the opportunity to take the road less travelled. As demonstrated by Call Me by Your Name. Playing a trilingual teen who falls for an older man sounds niche. Chalamet isn’t scared of niche. He’s chosen his roles carefully, appearing in few generic movies. And even in so-so stuff (Hot Summer Nights or A Rainy Day in New York) he adds his own blazing spin to drab lines. His two best performances (Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird) combine aloofness with open-wound sensitivity.”

Chalamet grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. His mother, Nicole, is half Russian and half Austrian and started out as a dancer on Broadway before going into real estate. His father, Marc, is from Nimes in France, was a journalist and worked at Unicef. He has an older sister called Pauline who is also an actor — she starred in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island — and has a lively Instagram feed, sharing book recommendations about ethical banking as well as clips of her dancing. They are close and Chalamet says he is lucky to have a sister who has taught him about feminism.

They spent their summers in France and Chalamet is bilingual, he “dreams in French”. He went to LaGuardia, a performing arts school, where he briefly went out with Lourdes Leon, Madonna’s daughter. Then he studied cultural anthropology at Columbia, but dropped out after a year because his acting career was taking off. He started out playing people’s sons, first the vice president’s spoilt child Finn in Homeland in 2011 and then Matthew McConaughey’s son in Interstellar in 2014.

Call Me by Your Name was the role that changed everything. He was Bafta and Oscar-nominated for his emotionally intelligent performance, and launched a thousand memes for the scene where he does unspeakable things to a peach. From there came a partnership with Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan — they worked together on Lady Bird and Little Women. It was Lady Bird which made Wes Anderson want to cast Chalamet in The French Dispatch. He told GQ Magazine that he was impressed by how thoughtful he was while filming, “he would pause and find a new angle… and surprise you with something new, completely unexpected and perfect”. Chalamet bonded with Frances McDormand and went for steak with her and her husband Joel Coen, grilling him about film. He seeks out the wisdom of industry elders, going for lunches with Larry David and bonding with Oscar Isaac while making Dune.

Wonka has been his most controversial film yet. He follows in the footsteps of Johnny Depp, who starred in a remake in 2005 (back when Depp was an uncomplicated actor). Chalamet went out with Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose, in 2019 after they were in a film called The King together. He was upset when they were photographed by the press on a boat in Capri and people said their relationship was a PR stunt. Last year, he was linked to the Mexican actress Eiza González, who was in I Care a Lot and Baby Driver, but is believed to be currently single.

What’s next? O’Sullivan says “it’s hard to say if Chalamet is getting better as an actor. He’s been flawless from the beginning. It’s maybe truer to say that a prestige blockbuster like Dune doesn’t blunt what makes him special; that he is (as yet) incapable of appearing ubiquitous.” Dune is already the toast of the box office, making nearly $130 million so far, and there will be a sequel. He’s also filming a project with Succession director Adam McKay, co-starring with Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. But Londoners are looking forward to when 4,000 Miles is rescheduled at the Old Vic. With Chalamet on board, it will be the hottest ticket in town.

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