“Nudges and Hints”: Timothée Chalamet on the Pure Celebration of Love in Call Me By Your Name

Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s latest Call Me By Your Name examines the mystery of love as it enraptures 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) over a summer in 1983. His multilingual household in the Italian countryside welcomes an effortlessly magnetic American student in his 20s, Oliver (Armie Hammer), who doesn’t only help Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) uncover new findings about ancient civilizations. Oliver’s nonchalant attitude becomes a seductive hook that pushes Elio into a bittersweet romance.

That’s the luscious setup Chalamet inhabits in Guadagnino’s exuberant new feature, based on the novel by André Aciman where subtle eroticism creates a summery and ethereal portrayal of young passion.

Chalamet’s exquisite performance has been well documented since the initial raves it drew at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and though this is unequivocally the best role of his short career, this year offered us other shades of his abilities in films like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. Nearing his 22nd birthday already tipped for major awards recognition, he is on the brink of even greater exposure.

Hearing the actor talk about Call Me By Your Name confirms why everyone has been lured by the story of Elio and Oliver: it’s pure and unabashed love. He is a great ambassador for the film. Chalamet told MovieMaker about Guadagnino’s cinema without boundaries, the behavioral approach to his character, vulnerability, and the now-famous peach becoming a symbol for young viewers.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Luca has said that he didn’t want this movie to be hyper-intellectual, but more sensitive. Is that the way that he approached directing you?

Timothée Chalamet (TC): Yes, to the idea that he didn’t want it to be too intellectual—literally by way of the dialogue. He also didn’t want it to be stiff in its blocking, and how the relationship plays out behaviorally. It becomes specific by way of the spontaneity of behavior takes in real life—from moment to moment and in reaction to somebody touching you in a certain way, or saying a certain thing—when it’s not in a rehearsal room. It’s more difficult when you set it in a rehearsal room. Luca directs with nudges and hints, and not with a hammer.

MM: Is rehearsing a big part of the process that Luca follows with actors?

TC: We had a lot of discussions, and we did a table read in Luca’s apartment with the entire cast of actors, so everybody knew what the story was supposed to be and what the tone was supposed to be. But Luca had the idea—which Armie and I also had—that you’re almost scared of getting it right in rehearsal, because if you get it right in rehearsal, god forbid on the day you can’t bring it out. That’s terrifying.

MM: You have dialogue in several languages in this film. Do you speak them all?

TC: I speak English and French. Thankfully I speak French because my dad is French, and I spent a lot of time in France growing up, but the Italian I had to learn. That’s why I was out there a month and a half. I did an hour and a half of Italian lessons every day. The grammatical structure and the syntax of the language is similar to French because they’re both Romance languages, but there are substantial differences. By the end, it was “molto bene.”

MM: Was it tricky to get into that headspace of switching languages as you were performing?

TC: Not particularly, because what naturally happens in conversations between my father and I is he speaks to me in French, and I’ll speak to him in English.

Elio (Chalamet) and Oliver (Hammer) agree to a truce.

MM: What makes Luca’s directing different from other directors you’ve worked with?

TC: I think it’s the boundaryless form his movies take, and that it’s not action sequence followed by intimate sequence followed by wide shot; everything bleeds into each other. I love the old school fades and the disintegrating shots in this movie. The quintessential shot for me is Tilda Swinton in I Am Love, when she’s making love in the field: the way the flies are buzzing, the way the grass bleeds into the human characters, the way the lovemaking bleeds into the sky. The way, in Call Me by your Name, the house is a character, the way the food is a character, and the way the humans are sometimes subservient to the beauty of the water. That’s why I love how the sexuality of this film plays out; it doesn’t oblige you with any sort of boundary—It just is. It’s just a pure celebration of love.

MM: It’s definitely a film about summer, like most of Luca’s films. Is that something that you had in mind going into it: his previous work and the summery vibe in the look of them?

TC: Yeah, definitely. There’s almost a relief as a performer when watching I Am Love or A Bigger Splash, that those movies are so beautiful visually, that there’s never any anxiety that you’re going to be in material that’s treated salaciously or exploitatively—or that you’re going to be in a sexual scene that’s shot to be gross and sinister and creep out the audience. I love the scene with the fish in the movie, where Antonio brings over the fish, and I make the face for them. It’s so unabashed and not cynical. I just saw another film that I actually really love, but there’s a shot of a fish getting sliced open, and I was like, “Wow, what a contrast.” Call Me by your Name is just love.

MM: Since the source material is there, how much room was there for improvisation in terms of dialogue and performance?

TC: Certainly within the dialogue, you have to be faithful to what James Ivory put down, but then the book itself sometimes took pages at a time to describe, like when he puts his hand on Elio’s shoulder at the volleyball scene. These things play out in a physical dialogue, and as André would say, “it becomes less about getting it specifically to what the book describes, and more to what the idea of the scene in the book describes”—the boys’ relationship is flourishing, or Oliver is putting on a mask and Elio is repelled or attracted by it. Or Elio tries to get Oliver’s attention by doing a weird thing; or they’re about to make love and Elio slowly brings his foot over to Oliver and puts his foot on his in an act of brotherhood and fraternity.

MM: You’ve done this for several years now. Is there still any fear or vulnerability?

TC: No, I had the great gift of being in drama school from [ages] 13 to 17. I was very lucky, you were taught that yourself is the best version of yourself, and good acting is honest acting, and to open yourself and to make yourself vulnerable, and to show the parts of yourself that you’re scared to show. To get that engrained at a young age makes it easier than at 18 or 19 making a choice to be more unabashed.

MM: Do you find yourself more attracted to independent projects? I remember a film you were in called Miss Stevens, which is a small but poignant work.

TC: I love that movie. Yes. The space that is most interesting is good projects, and that can mean theatre; that can mean film; that can mean TV; that can mean musicals on TV or film. It’s simply if there’s a good story and a good director involved. That’s the only ethos that’s been guiding my career, and that’s why it’s Luca Guadagnino, and Scott Cooper, and Greta Gerwig, and Christopher Nolan, and John Patrick Shanley who did the play I did in New York.

I’m finding now that a lot of producers produce good material. A great producer will produce a number of great things, so sometimes that will be an attractive part of the project. There’s not an aversion towards the bigger things, because there are awesome huge movies, like Arrival or Dunkirk, but that’s just not what’s presenting itself right now.

MM: Were there any scenes that played out differently on the set is comparison to what you had envisioned? Were there any surprises in the execution? 

TC: Maybe the peach scene, just in the idea that I thought that was the kind of scene where we might have to do six, seven, or eight takes. We did two, and we felt like it was there. That was kind of shocking to me, because it was always the biggest scene in the book. I thought—leading up to it—that it was going to be a big scary thing. I got so lucky with Luca, because he doesn’t treat any scenes with ceremony or pretension. Those sequences where Armie and I are just biking—Luca tackled those scenes the same way he did the more physically vulnerable ones.

MM: Are you aware of how social media has embraced the peach in a symbolic and hilarious way?

TC: I love it. I’m more aware by the day, as I do these press things, how it is so important for me that younger people see it. The story is just so relatable and is told in such a new and refreshing way—similar to how I love Lady Bird so much. I feel like a lot of young people love that movie because it’s told by a young, female filmmaker, and it feels real. I really hope that younger folks do see these movies, because we are the ones that are going to be making them [laughs]. MM

Call Me by your Name opened in theaters on November, 24 2017, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic.

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