“Want to know what I call him?” Saoirse Ronan asked, pointing at Timothée Chalamet, who had just joined us at the table and was shrugging off his coat. “Pony,” the actress said, “Because he’ll come up to Greta and me and nuzzle us.”
“Greta” is the screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig, making it a high-class stable: All three are nominated for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. And as if on cue, Mr. Chalamet lowered his head like a baby foal and nestled it gently beneath Ms. Ronan’s jaw. “It’s quite disarming,” she said with a laugh. “My Pretty Pony!”
Born to Irish parents in the Bronx but raised in Ireland, Ms. Ronan, 23, began acting professionally at 7. Her breakthrough came in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” when she was 13. Critics were awed by her performance, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress, making her one of the youngest nominees in history. In 2015, her portrayal of a homesick Irish girl in the period drama “Brooklyn” won her a second nomination, this time in the best actress category. She made her Broadway debut the following year in Ivo van Hove’s production of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.
This month, Ms. Ronan won a Golden Globe and was nominated for her third Academy Award, for best actress, in “Lady Bird,” Ms. Gerwig’s bittersweet coming-of-age film, in which Ms. Ronan plays a compellingly eccentric senior at a Catholic girls’ school. The film received five Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director for Ms. Gerwig.
Mr. Chalamet, 22, also appears in “Lady Bird,” as a very bad boyfriend of Ms. Ronan’s character. But it is for his heartbreaking turn in Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age film “Call Me by Your Name,” about a summer romance between two young men, that Mr. Chalamet has won raves, as well numerous nods on the awards circuit, including an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
Like Ms. Ronan, Mr. Chalamet was born in New York. He graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in 2013. Along with roles on the television series “Homeland” and in the films “Men, Women & Children” and “Interstellar,” he starred in the Off Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Prodigal Son,” for which he won the Lucille Lortel Award for lead actor in a play.
Over lunch this month, two days after the Golden Globes ceremony and two weeks before the Academy Award nominations were announced, at Il Cantinori restaurant in Greenwich Village (shrimp scampi for Ms. Ronan and roast salmon for Mr. Chalamet), the pair discussed the eternal lure of coming-of-age films, the nostalgia (and worries) of young people, #MeToo on the red carpet and needing a break.
PHILIP GALANES Favorite coming-of-age films. Go!
SAOIRSE RONAN “Dirty Dancing.” Is that coming-of-age?
PG Why not? Baby becomes an adult.
SR I love the way the women support each other. And “Rebel Without a Cause.” There’s a romance there, but it feels more platonic. I didn’t realize, until “Lady Bird” came along, how starved we are for female coming-of-age stories that don’t revolve around a girl being validated by romance.
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET The one that took hold of me was a book, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which was made into a movie later. It’s written in a way that only a young person could speak. And the unabashed lostness of the protagonist …
SR Exactly. I love them because you can see elements of yourself in them.
PG When I was a kid, coming-of-age films — like “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club” — normalized the march to adulthood. They made it safe. And I was a worrier.
SR So are we. We’ve talked about that before.
PG What do you worry about?
TC When you get to act in things as good as “Lady Bird” or “Call Me by Your Name,” you’ve got a huge responsibility to do them truthfully. So that young people watching can say, “I see myself on that screen!” What if I can’t do it?
SR Every time I act, I worry: Can I do it again?
TC That’s always at the forefront of my brain.
SR And every time I finish a job, I feel like, “Oh God, I got away with that one.” Plus, I’m a people-pleaser. I don’t like upsetting anyone. But I’ve gotten to a point in my work where I need to stand firmly with decisions I’ve made or feel free to go in another direction — even if everyone around me is telling me to do the opposite. It’s hard.
PG Let me ask about acting. You both have incredibly expressive faces, transmitting complex feelings in a nonverbal way. Do you know how you do it? Is it innate or craft?
SR Well, there’s definitely a practice. The more you do it, the more open you are to accessing feelings. But you know, sometimes you see little kids onscreen, and it’s just amazing how open and uninhibited they are.
PG I’m thinking of you — and your eyes — in “Atonement.”
SR And I hadn’t had any training or even life experience at that stage.
PG Are you better on the 13th take, Timothée?
TC As Armie [Hammer, Mr. Chalamet’s co-star in “Call Me by Your Name”] says, “I wear my heart on my sleeve.” That argues for innateness, I guess. But the greatest lesson for me in drama school was failing, time after time. In my sophomore year, I struggled with this one scene. I never did it right. It was always bad.
PG What was it?
TC It was from “The Graduate.”
PG You were playing Dustin Hoffman?
TC I was playing Benjamin. But as bad as I was, there was a release that came with the failure. It let me stretch a little more, try something else. It didn’t make me any better necessarily, but it gave me more freedom in my head.
SR Some stage actors have difficulty when they come back to film. The camera can paralyze them. But I love knowing that the camera is watching me and what it needs to see. That’s when craft develops. But I still come back to that childlike sensibility when I act — to be completely in it and give myself up to it.
TC One of my favorite scenes in “Call Me by Your Name” is the morning after Elio and Oliver have made love for the first time, and there’s this weird tension that develops. There was some dialogue, and we tried it a few times. Then we tried it without the lines. And it works so much better that way because it’s unclear. It invites the viewer to figure out what the characters are going through.
SR My favorite, favorite thing is not to speak.
PG Walking home, after your films, I started humming “Sugar Mountain,” this old Neil Young song about a boy who can’t go to his favorite club anymore because it’s just for teenagers, and he’s turned 20. Your films let you feel nostalgic for childhood.
TC You know what’s weird? My favorite moment in my film is one I shouldn’t be able to relate to: when Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays my father, says, “As for our bodies, there comes a time when no one wants to come near them.” That moment shatters me.
SR What these films have in common — even that scene — is that each moment is so big for the young person experiencing it that they don’t have time to process it properly before it’s gone. That’s the heartbreaking thing about childhood. It’s only at the end you go, “Oh, I wasn’t ready for this to be over yet.”
PG There are two uncannily parallel scenes in your movies: Your characters are on emotional overload — Elio has just said goodbye to his lover, Lady Bird has lost her virginity to Timmy’s character — and they both fall apart, in cars, with their mothers.
SR As a young person, the lovely thing about having scenes between parents and children is that there are still so many times when I want to wallow and fall apart, and you’ve got that person, who’s a few steps ahead of you, there to pick you up.
TC I’m still young enough that moments with my parents have not taken on that sweet tone I understand they take later in life. I’m in that confused state of “You guys are still the guiders, right?”
SR I get nostalgic for being very young, like 7 or 8, when I was still in the countryside, when you’d go to school and have your few friends. I miss the simplicity of that.
PG Are you saying the red carpet is not like a village in Ireland?
SR I don’t know what it’s been like for you, Timmy, going through the award ceremonies for the first time. When I did it with “Brooklyn,” it was wonderful, but also quite overwhelming. And like what I was saying before, it moves on before you have time to grasp it. This time, it feels more relaxing, maybe because we’re doing it together.
TC For me, it’s thrilling just to be in these rooms with these people.
PG Is #MeToo adding a layer of complexity? The red carpets look daunting enough without having to say something intelligent about sexual politics.
SR It’s been the hot topic this year, for sure. And at the Golden Globes the other night, there was more sense of purpose than I’ve ever experienced at an awards show.
PG As kids on film sets, did you have an inkling of the inequality women faced?
SR I’ve always been outspoken, so I’ve felt listened to. But these conversations have sent me looking back at my experiences, professionally and personally, since I was young. I think men’s and women’s perspectives on women are warped.
PG How so?
SR Well, it’s really not an equal playing field. Doing press with Greta, watching her speak about her experiences as a director, it’s made me think: “I’d like to try my hand at that. I’d like to direct a little film at some stage. I’ll be an actor who directs on the side.” But why don’t I think I can be a great director? A lot of women think a job like director, which is so authoritative, is one where a woman can only succeed so much. It’s only watching Greta that’s changed my perspective on what I might achieve. And I’ve always thought of myself as a confident person.
TC I’d act in a movie you directed in three seconds.
SR And I’d love to direct you. But it’s been a real eye-opener.
TC I feel very lucky to have an older sister who always pointed out the dynamics of what it’s like when a woman shares her ideas, how they’re received compared to men’s ideas. And being young, hopefully getting to act for years on end, changing that is our responsibility now — and our good fortune.
SR You know, I was just thinking: It may have taken me a while to see how dynamics on set weren’t fair. But I’ve always known, from the age of 12, that I was being asked different questions by interviewers than men: “Who’s your celebrity crush?” “Are you putting on all the dresses?” All about image and crushes. That always infuriated me.
PG “Call Me by Your Name” opened a month after the Kevin Spacey scandal broke. People complained that Armie was too old to be your co-star, that it looked pervy. Did you worry about that?
TC Not at all. Art takes place in the head of the audience member. So, anybody’s reaction is fair — as long as they’ve seen the art. And I’ve yet to speak with anyone who saw the film as anything other than a consensual story, full of love.
SR And you watch the characters learning from each other. You see that Timmy’s character is getting as much out of it as Armie’s.
PG Does #MeToo put pressure on you to think through the projects you take on, the directors you work with?
SR There needs to be that pressure. I’ve been lucky. I only wanted to play smart, well-rounded characters, and I’ve gotten them. Nothing’s changing for me. And when it comes to filmmakers, you cross that bridge when you come to it.
PG Timmy’s crossed that bridge. Did you struggle with your decision to work with Woody Allen?
SR Have you done a film with Woody?
TC It’s part of our jobs now, as actors, to be more aware of the choices we’re making. And it’s going to be important for me to talk about working with Woody. But “Call Me by Your Name” is my first big film. And I’m not going to let anything chip away at my celebration of that. [As promised, Mr. Chalamet has since released a statement announcing that he is donating his salary from Mr. Allen’s film to charities.]
PG You both come from showbiz families: Saoirse’s dad is an actor; Timothée’s mom was a dancer. Did they worry about you working as children?
SR If you handle it right, there’s a way to hold on to innocence. I know there is because my parents gave it to me. I played at home like a kid, then they brought me to jobs — where they protected me on set, but also let me experience the work fully. Then back to being a kid again at home.
TC I love that my mom is going to read this! So many kids want to pursue acting and are told no by their parents. But mine always said, “If this is something you want, we will fully support it.” And they did. But after I did “Homeland” and “Interstellar,” I was itching to launch my career. But my mom, who had always been so encouraging, said, “No, go to school, have a backup.” I thought, “Oh no, what do I do now?”
PG Is it awkward that you’ve eclipsed their careers at such a young age?
TC Not at all, but that has nothing to do with what I’m doing in my career and everything to do with the wonderful human beings my parents are. The only weird part is when you’re 16 or 17, and your work flips the laws of the jungle: You’re required to have a chaperone on set with you, as you should, but it’s a weird dynamic, having your parents sit there while you work.
SR It’s true, even the fact that you’re making money — regardless of how much it is — when you’re a child.
PG I was still begging my parents for money at your age.
TC I still am.
SR It does add a different element to the relationship. There’s no getting away from that. But if everyone is selfless — and I was lucky there — you can do it.
PG When I was in college, Jodie Foster was a classmate. She was there to recharge from a childhood full of acting. Will you need to refuel soon?
SR I’ve spoken to Jodie about this. We were both lucky to play interesting characters from a very young age. It may sound ironic, but because of the success of “Lady Bird,” I felt like I could take a break — which I did, last year, for six months. After “Brooklyn” and “The Crucible” and “Lady Bird” and [her upcoming film] “On Chesil Beach,” I was exhausted. I had nothing left. It was important for me to take a step back and say, “No more work.” I went traveling, and it was the best thing I could have done. We’re sharing so much of ourselves in our work that it’s important to steel ourselves, to explore other parts of our lives.
TC Right now, I feel like I want to jump into the most intense thing, work-wise. It appeals to me. I don’t know what would happen if I waited six months. It’s like what we were saying about failure creating freedom. After all this positive reception, I feel like I need to get back to failing again.
SR But that’s great. You’ve listened to yourself. You know what you want. And when that changes, you’ll be open to that, too.
PG Last question …
TC I have a feeling I know what it’s going to be.
TC Something about sex with peaches or our sex scene in “Lady Bird.”
PG Wrong! When they go low, we go high. This is my question: Elio would be 51 today, and Lady Bird would be 33. What do you imagine their lives are like now?
TC Well, I’m a little restricted because there’s a chapter at the end of the novel that hints at that. But I think he’s open with himself. His sexuality wasn’t something that he had to grapple with as hard as Oliver did.
SR And I just automatically think Lady Bird is living Greta’s life. She’s a successful writer; she’s found a great man. And I hope she has a nice relationship with her family at home. You know, living in New York, but going home to Sacramento for Christmas.
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