On the Verge » Actor Timothée Chalamet Is Young and Wise
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Actor Timothée Chalamet Is Young and Wise

The 20-year old rising star dishes wisdom over matzo ball soup.

When Timothée Chalamet talks about his challenging upbringing in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, or the behavioral issues that plagued him as a teenager, or his struggles with how to approach this whole acting thing, he would like you to understand that he is not doing so from inside a bubble. He knows that there are people out there with far worse problems, so please don’t judge him, okay?

“These are first-world problems to the max. Seriously, I don’t want anyone reading this to think, ‘Woe is me,’” says the excitable 20-year old actor. Over 45 minutes in a booth at the Cozy Soup ‘N’ Burg, in Soho, he repeated multiple variations on this phrase. “In these kind of interviews—and this isn’t a woe-is-me kind of thing, these are just observations—for whatever reason that I’m supposed to be wide-eyed, very thankful, excited. You hear that word a lot, excited—exciting, fresh-faced kid. And that part of me really exists… but, well, there are other shades of me.”

Okay, perhaps we start over. So Timothée Chalamet, an attractive 20 year-old actor who would never want to be pigeonholed as wide-eyed, is seated in the corner booth of a Soho diner, stealthily decimating a bowl of matzo ball soup. He is here to talk about his role in Prodigal Son, a new play written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, which opens in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center—Stage 1 on Tuesday, February 9th.

Set in the late ’60s in a New Hampshire private school, the work centers on Jim (Chalamet) a troubled but hyper-intelligent and poetry-obsessed 17 year-old from the Bronx who, despite being a troublemaker at his previous school, gains admission to this elite institution through a teacher’s (Robert Sean Leonard) recommendation. Once there, his erratic, wild antics have faculty members questioning whether he is a struggling prodigy or simply a problem child they should dismiss.

Prodigal Son is, according to the Playbill, a particularly autobiographical piece for Shanley, based on the playwright’s own youth. Aside from the period and setting, it may as well also be the story of Chalamet’s own adolescence. “Eighty-five percent of this play is shit I would do,” says Chalamet. “It’s things I have done—conversations I have had with teachers, the other kids, it’s just who I am. There’s, like, a 15% variable, let’s say, where I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s something I wouldn’t necessarily do.” Within that margin, he includes Jim’s violent streak. “I naturally have a me-against-the-world mentality and I’ve been fighting it since I was 13. It’s felt like it’s only gotten me in lonely, angry places. And here is an opportunity to exorcise these demons in the healthiest context available, through the guidance of someone who had the same mentality has made it to the other side a really joyous, noble guy.”

Chalamet won’t go into specifics about the nature of his childhood trouble, but his academic life matches up with Jim’s in some eerie ways if you swap out his character’s talent for poetry with acting. He did some commercial work as a young kid—“Not real acting, smile-as-big-as-you-can acting”—and followed his older sister and dancer mother to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Except Chalamet didn’t get in at first because of his behavior in middle school; a teacher had to step in on his behalf. Once he got there, though, he thrived, landing a recurring role on Showtime’s Homeland and a part in 2014′s Interstellar.

“In the play, one of the lines is: ‘He’s using poetry as some kind of ladder to climb out of a hole.’ And I’ve been using acting as a ladder. It’s the one thing I’m good at. It’s the one thing that fulfills me,” says Chalamet. He adds, “I don’t think enough people admit that there’s just something fun about being in front of people. And that’s not a self-centered, egotistical thing.”

Next up, Chalamet will appear in Miss Stevens, a dramedy starring Lily Rabe premiering next month at the SXSW Film Festival this year, and the forthcoming Hot Summer Nights, in which Chalamet plays a goofy, virginal loner coming of age in Cape Cod. Beyond that, well, suffice it to say that Chalamet has some strong opinions on the industry.

“The worst thing would be going on IMDb to see who’s in what. I’ve done that and you don’t need to do that. Everyone who’s working is lucky. And you need to be happy for everyone who wants to be doing this and actually gets to be doing it,” he says. “It’s easy to feel like everything sucks. It’s harder to feel like, no, this shit is great! We’re only here for so long. Be happy, man. You could get hit by a truck tomorrow.”

He almost sounds excited, doesn’t he?

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