For Document’s Fall/Winter 2020 issue, he reunites with photographer Hedi Slimane six years after their first shoot and joins Document in conversation about our complicated present
Elio sighs and looks off into the distance, dispassionately turning the peach in his hand until, with a furtive glance, he pushes a finger through its ripe center, causing juice to run down his bare torso. His unfocused gaze makes it clear that his mind is elsewhere as he continues to pry it open, and, sliding the fruit against his skin, slowly guides it into his pants—and fucks it. Elio’s lust turns to shame when his lover Oliver, having found him asleep with the battered peach by his bedside, discovers what he has done. “I’m sick, aren’t I?” Elio asks, desperate and embarrassed by the heights of his desire. Oliver observes Elio with amusement, grinning deviously before he takes the peach into his hand, plunges his own finger into the hole, and brings it to his lips to taste what has been left behind.
This was the world’s introduction to Timothée Chalamet, whose breakout role as Elio in Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name skyrocketed him into the spotlight, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The awkward sensuality of the scene—Elio’s misplaced longing, his sudden arousal and clandestine exploration—could have been merely shocking in less capable hands, yet Chalamet’s performance renders the moment one of poignant erotic angst, charged with all the raw vulnerability and absurdity of adolescent desire.
When Chalamet first stepped in front of Hedi Slimane’s lens in 2014, he was all but unknown—the lanky, 17-year-old blueprint of the star he was to become. Today, Chalamet is one of the most recognizable faces in cinema, with projects running the gamut from period dramas to sci-fi epics. In David Michôd’s The King, he was the reluctant heir to the English throne; in Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, he breathed life into the boyish, lovesick Laurie, while her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, saw him assume the ostentatiously suave posture of the dirtbag boyfriend; and in Felix Van Groeningen’s biographical drama Beautiful Boy, he depicted the emotional turbulence of a teenage meth and heroin addict’s painful path towards recovery—one that feels all the more heart-wrenching in the midst of America’s opioid crisis.
In the years since his rapid ascent, Chalamet has made a point to establish himself as an artist first and foremost, taking on unconventional roles in independent projects. But when he and Slimane reunited in Saint-Tropez, Chalamet had just emerged from shooting his first major studio film, Denis Villeneuve’s reboot of the sci-fi epic Dune, a story that has renewed relevance in our political moment. “The battle of tribes and cultures [in Dune] is unfortunately extremely pertinent to the world today,” Chalamet tells Document. “I think there are many contemporary parallels with the world we live in.”
It’s not his only upcoming film with modern-day resonance. He was also tapped to play Zeffirelli, a young revolutionary in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, out in 2021. Inspired by Mavis Gallant’s two-part article “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” one plotline in the film depicts the May ’68 riots, which began as a student-led occupation and escalated after a brutal crackdown from the police, spurring a period of social upheaval in France and galvanizing other protest movements worldwide. This period of unrest, now considered a moral turning point in the history of the country, finds its echo in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, with protestors—Chalamet included among them—taking to the streets to condemn racism and police brutality. Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, Timothée Chalamet joined Document’s editor-in-chief, Nick Vogelson, to discuss sci-fi as a form of cultural critique, the role of the artist, and what it means to go against the grain today.
Nick Vogelson: The French Dispatch has been described as a sort of love letter to The New Yorker and other magazines that feature long-form journalism, reportage, and fiction. And Dune was first published as a serial in Analog magazine. It feels rare that magazines like these are read cover to cover, as they were when most media was print-based. Are there any journals or magazines that you read regularly and what do you like about them?
Timothée Chalamet: Absolutely, Doreen St. Félix and Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker are two writers I often enjoy reading. But I agree that magazines, and long-form stories within them, like The French Dispatch or the way that Dostoevsky and Jane Austen would roll out their stories over time in long-form are a thing of the past. I don’t think that necessarily has to be mourned or seen as a loss of focus or intellect on people’s behalf though—it just is. Modes of communication and media are just different now. Many judgments are contextual to the past. The times are a-changin’.
“I think there are many contemporary parallels with the world we live in [in Dune]. Perhaps the most obvious would be the exploitation of our planet for crude financial gain, similar to how the Harkonnen exploit the planet Arrakis for its spice… The battle of tribes and cultures is unfortunately extremely pertinent to the world today.”
Nick: What connections can you draw between your character in The French Dispatch, a student protest leader in 1968, and activism today?
Timothée: Well, anyone drawn to protest has felt a sense of indignation somewhere along the way or presently—and certainly in The French Dispatch, the students feel overwhelmed and stifled by the old-school norms they’re fighting against. Similarly today, many of us young people are trying our best to fight against institutional oppression as well; whether that be racial, economic, or simply the freedom of expression. Sometimes it can feel we are living in a time warp. So many generations still living have experienced and represent such different things. And yet, who can argue with the desire for everyone to be treated equally? Truly equally?
Nick: Science fiction has long been a sphere through which cultural critique could be freely expressed. What drew you to Frank Herbert’s novel? Why is this story—and sci-fi in general—interesting to explore now? Can you identify any parallels between Dune and the world of today?
Timothée: There were three majorly appealing factors about Dune. One was the opportunity to work with Denis Villeneuve. I’m a huge fan of Denis’s films and was especially excited to take my first crack at a big-budget film with someone who is as adept at making indie cinema when you think of Incendies or Polytechnique. Second was the awesome importance of the source material, which is as detailed as the Bible in scope and deeply descriptive of the difficulties and sacrifices it takes to become a true leader. I think there are many contemporary parallels with the world we live in. Perhaps the most obvious would be the exploitation of our planet for crude financial gain, similar to how the Harkonnen exploit the planet Arrakis for its spice. In addition to processes like fracking or whaling, human processes like the creation of methamphetamines are highly destructive to local environments. The battle of tribes and cultures is unfortunately extremely pertinent to the world today. In the United States, 2020 has been a year of cultural and racial awakening, not to mention the tensions felt globally between cultures and nations that can even erupt into bloodshed and war.
I also loved how impactful the book had been on so many of the movies we hold dear to our hearts today—films like Star Wars, Avatar, and probably some video games too, like Halo or Gears of War (although I can’t say for sure). And lastly was the opportunity to play the role of Paul Atreides—a young man who is thrust into a position of power and attention at a very early stage in life, with a terrible burden to bring forth the prophecy of his people, other people, and the whole universe! It’s a lot. So that was a joy to try to wrap my head around.
Nick: Do you find there’s a lot of pressure to take roles that are both challenging the status quo and also left of center?
Timothée: No, the opposite. I feel there is a lot of pressure—not from anyone in particular, but simply from the financial math of it all—to do huge-budget films or big-budget fashion advertising campaigns. Aside from Dune, which had total artistic merit as a project, and Paul Atreides, which was a dream of a role, I have stayed away from those things. Things that are truly outside of the status quo are not knowable. What that would be to you is entirely different from what that would be to me. And I am chasing those roles, not mainstream ones—or worse, roles that are expected to be different, but are actually just the same old shit disguised as pretentious different bullshit.
Nick: You have played characters set in the distant past, the recent past, and now in the distant future. Is there an age or an era that you would prefer to live in, other than the present? Why?
Timothée: No, I am content being alive now, no matter how fucked up our political and societal present is. I think regardless of who you are, when you are tempted by the romanticism of the past, you forget how fucked up so much of it was. Take the worse state of health care as a banal example. Or, far more seriously, how the US was before the civil rights movement—and after it, for that matter, too.
Nick: What does it mean to go against the grain today?
Timothée: Going against the grain is important when you can really identify what in your life or your art is negatively sapping you or if you can identify normative institutional patterns that are actually oppressive and need disruption or destruction. But to simply be a contrarian for the energy of it in a way can be reckless. Look at our last political administration and what a disaster it was, in part, because of the reciprocally admirative relationship between Trump and his supporters around triggering behaviors. In other words, being an asshole. I was thinking about that as Biden won this week. You saw people cry in the streets. How much was this country hurting emotionally because of the other side’s chosen troll avatar? We’ve been living through a cycle of spite.
Nick: Why do ambitious cinematic projects still have cultural value in the landscape of today?
Timothée: Well, because they last longer than 15 seconds. I think any song or film or TV show that is ambitious in meaning and doesn’t play to our attention spans is a good thing; and not the pretentious pursuit of boring someone to death in the name of high art either. Rather, folks like Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, or Luca Guadagnino, who have been able to make art that is relevant and engaging to young generations—that is what inspires me.
“Going against the grain is important when you can really identify what in your life or your art is negatively sapping you or if you can identify normative institutional patterns that are actually oppressive and need disruption or destruction.”
Nick: What words or descriptions from the book version of Little Women informed how you approached that role?
Timothée: I think more than anything what helped me to understand Laurie within Little Women was the idea that he was an idea, in a way; an idyll. That doesn’t mean that the character is not grounded. But it means that, in a story and a film adaptation that is necessarily based in its period setting, its dialects, and the gender normativity of those times, Laurie and his house across the way symbolize a sort of freedom to Jo March—a financial and gendered freedom she simply doesn’t have. I think it’s what contributes to Laurie’s heartbreak in the end. He certainly didn’t feel seen by Jo, in the sense that he was madly in love with her and she was valuing different things in her relationship with him.
Nick: You coordinated the cover shoot with Hedi Slimane personally. You flew from Woodstock to Budapest to film, then spent the weekend together. He first photographed you early in your career and was excited to photograph you again. Can you talk about your experience on this shoot?
Timothée: Hedi did my first photo shoot when I was 17, for Love magazine. I was able to come to LA in the middle of my first year at Columbia University, before I dropped out, and I was sincerely honored to be included in the young Hollywood portfolio he was doing. I obsessively googled who the other participants were [laughs]. So going to his place in Saint-Tropez to shoot some eight years later definitely felt full-circle. Hedi is an inspiring figure to me, he’s a bit of a rock star. I told him this in Saint-Tropez, and he rolled his eyes, but he’s a fuckin’ gunslinger, I mean it.