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For his leading role in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Timothée Chalamet has been charged with ‘saving the film industry’, but he wears the mantle modestly. By Andy Hazel.

Actor Timothée Chalamet

Timothée Chalamet.
Timothée Chalamet.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures /Legendary Pictures

Timothée Chalamet, hands resting on his knees, leans forward to say hello. When he speaks, words come in fits and starts. It’s as if he’s expressing the first thing that comes into his mind, and is studying the ground in front of him while he waits for his thoughts to catch up to his tongue.

“They say there’s three versions of a movie,” he says, repeating comments he made at the previous day’s Venice International Film Festival press conference, part of his promotional duties as star of Denis Villeneuve’s film Dune. “There’s the script you read, the movie you shoot and the movie they edit and release. And Dune is a film where those separations were most clear, because there is so much at play.”

In Dune – out in cinemas this week – Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, who becomes the hope for the dynasty whose leadership he is set to inherit, the House Atreides and, eventually, a messiah named Maud’Dib by the Fremen people who inhabit the titular desert planet. Villeneuve’s film is the first of a multipart adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction juggernaut. It’s been adapted twice before – in David Lynch’s striking 1984 film, which famously starred Kyle MacLachlan as Atreides and Sting as the villainous Feyd-Rautha, and a 2000 television mini-series by John Harrison. Dune is, as its ardent fans and detractors agree, a complex and difficult world to bring to the screen.

Our conversation takes place hours after the film’s world premiere received an eight-minute standing ovation. Chalamet is already in London preparing for Wonka, a new take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which will be directed by Paul King, the director of Paddington and Paddington 2. Days earlier, Chalamet wrapped shooting on Bones & All, his second film with Italian director Luca Guadagnino.

As Dune was filmed across Europe and the Middle East in the first half of 2019, with the film’s release postponed for a year due to the pandemic, there’s a sense that Chalamet has left that world well behind. He sits poised and upright, his elbows occasionally resting on the back of his chair in a way that pushes his narrow chest forward. He wears a pristine white T-shirt and a loose jacket that is somehow even whiter. Judging by footage from the red carpet and post-screening interviews, this is at least his third change
of clothes today.

Villeneuve’s adaptation curtails the arc of Paul Atreides, keeping the film’s focus on the character’s growth and formative relationships rather than fulfilling the hero’s journey that spans Herbert’s novel and its sequels. The film has attracted criticism for its Orientalist treatment of the series’ Islamic and Persian influences, and for using Middle Eastern locations without putting local actors in prominent roles. Despite this backlash, reviews and box office have been strong enough to ensure that the film’s suffix “Part One” – added days before its premiere in a bid to secure the financing of at least one sequel – is accurate. I ask Chalamet if this structure meant developing a version of Atreides that highlighted different parts of his personality.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Denis and I both had that in mind, but I think Denis, in a way that speaks to his mastery, was very focused on... I don’t want to say ‘capturing the youth of this character’, but more making sure that this young man is not yet the Muad’Dib. As far as keeping that on track, we had the second part of Dune and Dune Messiah in mind, but I think it was most important for me to get that first part right. Even though we don’t get much of him, it was important to ask, ‘Who is this young man before he’s put on this trajectory?’ Denis was making sure I was laser focused on that, instead of laying Easter eggs of the Paul Atreides we know he’ll become.”

Chalamet’s aquiline features and youth have remained a focal point of any assessment of his work as an actor, or his qualities as a celebrity. Though he has played monarchs and drug addicts and is soon to play a tycoon in Wonka and the leader of a liberation movement in The French Dispatch, his decisions as an actor are telling. Chalamet seems drawn to young men who find themselves in positions of power and are trying to connect with the less powerful. Even his portrayal of Willy Wonka, rather than running a chocolate factory or imparting moral lessons to children, is set to be an origin story about the discovery and employment of the factory’s workforce, the Oompa–Loompas.

Repeatedly, Chalamet’s characters have shed the vestiges of class and privilege to accept difficult truths and responsibilities. Even Chalamet’s first name, he admits, is a little pretentious and he is happy to be known as Timothy.

“Timothée has many qualities, among them is a deep intelligence in the eyes,” Villeneuve told me earlier. “I have the impression when you talk with Timothée that he lived many lives, and it is something that really touched me. At the same time, he looks so young on camera, so the contrast of having someone who seems to have a lot of experience and at the same time being in the middle of his teenage years… this is Paul Atreides.”

These sentiments are echoed by Australian director David Michôd, who in 2018 was looking for a star for The King, his film based in part on Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. “There is something so soulful, something deeply attractive to me about the training, what I knew of the work that Timmy had to do to realise that character in Call Me By Your Name,” Michôd told Deadline. “I knew that if I was casting a 22-year-old New Yorker to play Henry V, he was going to have to do a lot of work. I had every faith that he would do it. I haven’t had that feeling before. I was just so sure that someone so young would just do it and find
it and make it great.”

 

Chalamet was born and raised in New York City to a French father and American mother and grew up in a publicly subsidised apartment building called Manhattan Plaza. As befits a star who rose in the past decade, YouTube is full of videos of a young Chalamet. The curious fan can watch his audition for Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts – the setting of the film and television series Fame – his star turn as Oscar in the school’s production of Sweet Charity, and the moment the shiny-faced teenager graciously accepted the 2013 Award for Drama to a wildly enthusiastic reception from his peers.

By this point Chalamet had already completed an eight-episode arc in Homeland, been murdered in the opening 10 minutes of an episode of Law & Order and was soon to be cast in Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film yet, Interstellar. “Your teachers describe you as ‘the real deal’,” said the school official when granting him the award. “Unique. Able to act in a wide spectrum from comedy to drama.”

Five years later, Chalamet had become the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominee in nearly 80 years for his role as Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. Later that year his role in Lady Bird ensured his status as one of the world’s most acclaimed young actors, with critics noting his ability to elevate an ensemble, such as in Little Women, The King and Wes Anderson’s forthcoming film The French Dispatch, or to carry a film, as he did in Beautiful Boy and the one he is irreverently promoting today – yet another portrayal of a waifish angst-ridden teenager facing man-sized trials of character in a handsomely mounted coming-of-age story.

Given that he seems fated to play teenagers, I ask whether he is frustrated by cinema’s obsession with coming-of-age stories, and if he feels there is a downside to his youthful appearance.

“Absolutely. This Benjamin Button serum cost a lot of money, so I had to put it to good use,” he says. “I get a shot here in the morning, a shot there at night, and I’m good to go.” He laughs immoderately, nearly falling out of his chair. “No, here’s the thing. The honest answer to that is: (a) no, that’s not bothersome, and (b) I’ll take any insecurity that stems from that kind of thought over the insecurities I had when I wasn’t lucky enough to work as an actor and didn’t know that I was going to have a career.”

Chalamet says that the complexity of a character and the chance to work with directors he admires drives his choice of roles. When he heard that Villeneuve was directing Dune, he set up a Google Alert to ensure he didn’t miss any developments, hurriedly read Herbert’s book on a flight from London – where he was shooting The King – to the Cannes Film Festival, where he cornered Villeneuve and made his case to play the starring role.

“What a gift to be able to play a character like Paul in a movie of this size,” he says. “Not to play an archetype or some sort of pastiche of a character but rather play someone who is in deep conflict about the things that every teenager goes through. With Denis’s sensibilities, I feel just looking at his other films, he’s as invested – if not more invested – in character development and behaviour as he is in all these things that are above my pay grade: the scope of the film, the sets, the sound design, music, all that stuff.
I think it all bled into each other.”

He said they felt the pressure of previous adaptations while shooting Dune. “And more pressure from the amalgamation of the projections of Paul from fans of the book,” he says. “But also, this is the first time ever, perhaps, that the technology was available to do an adaptation like this. Ultimately, I think the art takes place in the heads of the audience.”

Chalamet acknowledges the parallels between his ascent from independent film regular to shouldering a blockbuster charged by some industry experts with “saving cinema”, and the journey of his character from sheltered teenager to reluctant hero.

“It’s a delicate question to answer because I don’t want to seem like I have delusions of grandeur, and yet I’ve got to say yes, I did feel like that,” he says, with slight bashfulness. “Not that I was coming to set as a boy, because I guess I was already 23, but I grew up on this kind of movie, movies that make the theatre shake. I’ve fallen in love with indie movies and making them, but this is a whole new circumstance.

“So often when I act, or in any expression of the arts, you... you learn to trust yourself,” he says. “And that’s not obvious, or it can feel not obvious when the circumstances are different. The size of the set or how much crew there is on it and these other things, it feels new. I’m in London right now, getting ready to work on another big movie [Wonka], and I feel the lessons of Dune coming back.”

One of the themes of the film, and one of its most famous scenes, concerns overcoming fear. His co-star Zendaya comments that fear is a natural thing. “But I think in our line of work,” she says, “you have to have a level of fearlessness to be able to step into whoever’s shoes you’re stepping into.”

“I’m reading Matthew McConaughey’s book,” Chalamet says, referring to Greenlights, a memoir The New York Times describes as “filled with homespun wisdom”. “Matthew says something in it ... to live in paradox and not contradiction. And I really have been leaning into that ...

“I think love is the opposite of fear, at least for me. To be open-hearted and to live like Frank Herbert says: I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” He pauses, allowing a quiet sigh to fill the room. “It’s so beautifully written. I wish I could have a tattoo of it here,” he points to his inner arm, “so I could refer to it always.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Film messiah".

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Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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