Timothée Chalamet says he's bracing himself for the moment this all stops being fun — the press, the promotion, the cameras, the constant peach talk — but it's hard to believe him when he says it so endearingly. After all, Chalamet's youthful exuberance has become his trademark in recent months. That, and the hair. And the rapping. To imagine him as just another self-serious actor seems unnatural.
Though it's not like the ambitious young actor hasn't earned the right to take himself somewhat seriously. His mesmerizing performance as a precocious 17-year-old in the throes of first love in Luca Guadagnino's sumptuous queer drama, Call Me By Your Name, scored him rave reviews, a passionate internet following, and his first Oscar nomination. In fact, at 22, he's the youngest actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 80 years. Then, that same year, he showed up in Greta Gerwig's confident solo directing debut, Lady Bird, as an arrogant teen heartbreaker with long hair and an affinity for Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. With that, a star was born.
But Chalamet isn't just any star, the likes of which can be fleeting. Watching him agonize through the motions of love and self-discovery in Call Me By Your Name is like watching a young actor come into his own, each vulnerability laid bare for the audience to witness. By the end, their emotions are spent, but the excitement of witnessing the birth of something greater lingers long after Elio's tears have dried.
"I'm part of the anxious, cynical generation," Chalamet told MTV News during a press day for the film. "I have my fair-share of cynicism, that's hard to leave me, but I'm having so much fun talking about this movie. I keep waiting to be not feeling this, but I'm loving every second of it."
You can blame the natural cynicism on his New York upbringing. Born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, Chalamet seemed destined for a life in the arts thanks to his Jewish mother's passion for dance and his French father's insistence on piano lessons from a young age. (One of his father's biggest regrets, Chalamet said, was refusing piano lessons as a boy. "That's why I had piano lessons from eight to 12 even though I hated it.") Though, those skills later came in handy while filming Call Me By Your Name in northern Italy, as would his fluent French, perfected by summers spent with his family outside Lyon.
"The French part of my upbringing was always very much the anti-outgoing, 'the adults are having le café in the living room so go play outside' kind of thing, so to see it pay its dividends in a performative space is really confusing but gratifying to me," he said.
Despite some early commercial work — as well as an appearance as a corpse in every New York actor's rite of passage, Law & Order — Chalamet wasn't all that passionate about acting until he got to LaGuardia High School. It was there, within the hallowed halls of the city's famed performing arts school, that Chalamet learned the craft, while trying out for school productions of Cabaret and Sweet Charity alongside classmate Ansel Elgort. It was here too, that rapping Lil Timmy Tim made his debut in the annual Rising Stars talent show.
"When I got to LaGuardia, I saw how seriously it could be taken, not for the sake of self-seriousness but rather out of respect and the lineage of who's been doing this," he said. (Famous LaGuardia alums include Robert De Niro, Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicki Minaj.) "Then there's this idea that, 'The harder I work at this thing, the better I get at it.' That was really satisfying on the set of Call Me By Your Name because we all worked so hard. To see people react to it viscerally, these are really important totems for young artists because it's so encouraging, and it makes you feel like these things aren't random."
"I wouldn't be acting without that school," he added. "I really believe that."
In his senior year, Chalamet landed a prominent role in Homeland's second season as Finn Walden, the vice president's annoying adolescent son who dated Sgt. Nick Brody's daughter, Dana. The decision to join the Emmy-winning Showtime series was a no-brainer for the young actor, even if it meant missing half of his senior year. "There's a little bit of trepidation when I think about it now because it wasn't necessarily beneficial to the conclusion of my education," he said. Still, he graduated LaGuardia on time in 2013.
Chalamet spent that summer filming Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar, in which he starred as Matthew McConaughey's son, before enrolling at Columbia University in the fall. But Chalamet quickly realized that balancing academics with a burgeoning acting career was easier said than done, and after a quick stint at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, he quit school to pursue acting full-time. After a few indies and a dazzling performance in the off-Broadway production of Prodigal Son — his turn in the titular role caught the eye of both Guadagnino and Gerwig — Chalamet spent an idyllic spring in northern Italy. There, he learned Italian and took guitar and piano lessons, in order to prepare for the role of Elio Perlman in Call Me By Your Name, based on André Aciman's intimate coming-of-age novel of the same name.
"The book was such a window into a young person's experience in a way that those reads rarely are," Chalamet said, adding how it reminded him of one of his favorite books, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. "Anytime that you can play a non-surface young person, you have to leap at that opportunity."
And so he leapt at the chance to play a disaffected youth in Lady Bird. "You can tell it was someone contemporaneous who was telling the story and the fact that it was Greta, who made everything so specific to the degree that I could be playing a character who has to be antagonistic to some degree and yet has lines and a characterization that's so specific that you feel like he's a real human and not just a two-bit villain," he said. In describing Chalamet, Gerwig told GQ: "Imagine a young Christian Bale crossed with a young Daniel Day-Lewis, with a sprinkle of young Leonardo DiCaprio. Then raise them speaking French in Manhattan and give them a Mensa-level IQ and a love of hip-hop." ("I don't have a Mensa-level IQ," Chalamet smiled.)
Lady Bird also gave him the opportunity to work with his friend, and "neighbor of sorts," Lucas Hedges, a fellow actor known for playing complex, earnest young men. Having watched Hedges go through his own breakout year in 2016 with the release of Manchester By the Sea — in which the younger Hedges scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for a role that Chalamet also auditioned for — Chalamet's crazy year has only brought them closer.
"Lucas and I have a very specific and loving friendship ... We spent about five to six years walking into casting offices together, giving each other dirty looks," he said. "I was in the library at NYU last fall and I'd be YouTubing all of this stuff of his, all of the press interviews, and I guess he was already my friend at that point but nonetheless you kind of yearn for the opportunity yourself. And now it's not like I'm just watching my buddy do it anymore, so he's been someone that I've been reaching out to and leaning on."
But don't call them the next generation of Hollywood stars — yet. "It feels a little premature because Trump's the president, and who knows if any of us will be around."
In talking to Chalamet, one thing becomes clear: He's still learning. Every role presents a new challenge, a new opportunity for growth. Chalamet's next film, Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy, finds the actor battling drug addiction opposite Steve Carell, who plays his father in the family drama. "The Broken Circle Breakdown is just so heartbreaking and perfect," he said of Van Groeningen's previous film, "that the idea of not working with him when the opportunity presents itself is crazy." Later this year he'll start filming The King, helmed by David Michôd for Netflix, in which he'll play a young Henry V.
While his approach to director readings has changed since the release of Call Me By Your Name — "I used to have meetings with directors where I'd embarrassingly pitch myself the entire time," he said — what he's looking for in projects remains the same: "It's director first, story second, role third."
"As you get to 25 or 26 and you age up and age out as a guy, I have three or four years left to play these younger — whatever that means — roles, and yet I really don't feel any pressure now to rush," he said. "There's a world where maybe I don't do anything for a while."
He's also still learning to navigate the heavy feeling that sets in after you say goodbye to a character. For Chalamet, letting go of Elio and his emotional turmoil, as well as the brotherly rapport he built with co-star Armie Hammer during those three months they spent bicycling around Crema and listening to Frank Ocean off set, left him feeling a bit empty.
"I don't like that period where it's over. You get good at being honest on camera on the days you don't even want to," he said. "And then you've got to face yourself when the movie ends and put yourself back together as a human being. There's something especially weird, too, because I'm forming myself as a human still."
It's this level of vulnerability and depth that could easily make Chalamet the DiCaprio of his generation. Not that he's thinking like that. To Timmy and his friends, he's just a kid from New York who loves rap music and watching movies and has approximately zero chill at all times.
"This movie's getting a certain type of acclaim that I feel like at a young age is rare and that leaves me with a sense of pressure in my head that I have to come off with a British accent or be very serious or thespian-like," he said. "I went to LaGuardia. I'm passionate about The Master the way I'm passionate about The Night of the Hunter the way I'm passionate about Army of Shadows the way I'm passionate about Y Tu Mamá También.
"But that [kid who raps] is me, the way falling out of a chair at New York Film Festival is me, too."
Maybe he's not such a cynic after all.