Between on-screen sex scenes and stripping down for a naked party, Pauline Chalamet’s first big acting role was no walk in the park. Surprisingly, though, her biggest challenge lay elsewhere. “The hardest part,” the actress laughs, “Was pretending I can’t speak French.”
In The Sex Lives of College Girls, which premieres November 18 on HBO Max, Chalamet plays the naïve and kind-hearted Arizona native Kimberly, one of the show’s lead characters. Created by Mindy Kaling, the series follows four freshmen students at Essex College, played by Chalamet, Amrit Kaur, Renée Rapp, and Alyah Chanelle Scott, while they grapple with social status, student jobs, illicit affairs, and—you guessed it—their burgeoning sex lives. Expect raunchy frat parties, skimpy outfits, and iconic catchphrases (a personal favorite: “seize the dick”).
Yet the 29-year-old insists dulling down her perfect French accent was definitely her biggest struggle. “I was a bit cocky,” admits Chalamet, who was born in New York to a French father and American mother and is fully fluent in French, like her brother Timothée. “I figured it’d be easy for me: I just had to copy my mother’s strong American accent!”
The on-set language coach, hired to help the other non-fluent actors, seemed to think otherwise. “She kept correcting me and being like, that’s too French!” Chalamet wails. “I was so embarrassed! It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought.”
In a way, her struggle is somewhat easy to believe. Chalamet, who has been living in Paris for the past seven years, seems like the embodiment of the modern-day French girl: neat bobbed hair, vintage clothes, a French feminist essay peeking out of her tote bag, and a perfect no-nonsense attitude with prying Parisian waiters.
“I definitely feel like Paris is my home,” she says. “Although that doesn’t stop me from wanting to do touristy stuff: sometimes I’ll text my friends to ask them to come with me and retrace Ernest Hemingway’s journey through the Left Bank or have a 15-euro slice of fruit tart at the Café de Flore, and they’ll be like ‘Why?!’”
Chalamet’s neighborhood, Château Rouge, is in the eclectic 18th arrondissement in the North of Paris: a stone’s throw from the postcard-perfect charm of Montmartre, the area is known for its number of African stores and restaurants, and is popular with Parisian hipsters for its food markets, cheap bars and busy nightlife.
One of its most well-known landmarks won’t be in your typical tourist guidebooks: our first stop in Chalamet’s guided tour of “the real Paris” is Le Louxor, an impressive Art Deco theater. “This is my all-time favorite cinema—then again, I guess everyone’s favorite cinema is the one that is the closest to their home,” she laughs. “But this one is truly spectacular: the main room is gorgeous, it has a huge balcony. Around four years ago I came to see David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive here, which I’d never seen before—I was so glad I waited to see it on the big screen.”
Among the directors she dreams of working with, she cites fellow French-American Julie Delpy—“I always thought it’d be interesting to work with somebody who could understand my two countries”—and Zola director Janicza Bravo. “After watching all her short films on the Criterion Channel, I came across one of her interviews,” Chalamet remembers. “I don’t usually like to watch interviews of directors, but I loved how engaging she was and how she spoke about working with her actors. Filming with her sounds like it’d be a really fun adventure.”
One of the highlights of shooting The Sex Lives of College Girls was getting to work with Kaling, who also co-wrote the first and sixth episodes of the series with Justin Noble. “The thing that I loved was that when she was on set, it was very clear who was the boss,” Chalamet recalls. “Mindy is amazing: she is so open and engaged, and really listens to her actors. We worked hard, but also laughed a lot.”
The show was filmed during the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning the set was rife with restrictions that made it hard for cast members to connect. “None of us four [lead actors] were from Los Angeles, where most of the scenes were filmed, so we all arrived at this hotel together, but weren’t allowed to see each other outside the set,” the actress says. “We got tested every day and had to wear a mask at all times. Some days felt longer than others.”
This somehow ended up working in the show’s favor. When Chalamet’s character is introduced to her college roommates in the series’s first episode, it also marks the first time the four actresses meet each other IRL, lending a particular authenticity to the encounter. “We managed to create a good vibe between us despite the difficult context,” Chalamet says. “The only moments we could relax and chat without masks were actually while on camera!”
One thing that drew her to the series was the realization that her character’s journey resonated with her own experience of college life: “American universities are so expensive. My family couldn’t afford to send me, so I took out student loans and had to pay my own way.” Like Kimberly, Chalamet worked throughout her four years at Bard, the liberal arts school she attended in upstate New York. She held a job at the school library and spent her weekends helping out on a farm for extra cash. “I didn’t party in college,” she shrugs. “I really, really worked.”
While reminiscing on her college days, we passed Chalamet’s favorite local restaurant (Le Myrha, a vegan café) and bar (No Problemo, a trendy dive) and reached our second stop: a French bookstore named Les Pieds sur Terre. The actress gestures to her shoulder: she’s carrying the store tote bag. “I’m here all the time, and I rarely come out empty-handed,” she says. “I love the fact that they put hand-written recommendations from the staff in their window.”
Chalamet became an avid reader in college; these days, she reads one book a week on average. When asked about her recent literary discoveries, she whips out a list on the Notes app of her iPhone: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and director Ingmar Bergman’s biography, The Magic Lantern. “I read both in French and English and often a couple of books at once, mixing fiction and non-fiction,” she explains, adding that she is also part of a book club with some of her close friends. One of her latest literary crushes is a graphic novel retracing the life of Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman to direct a film—and one of Chalamet’s dream roles.
On our way to our last stop, the conversation veers towards her younger brother, to whom she is super close. Isn’t it weird witnessing his transformation from baby brother to teenage heartthrob? Chalamet shrugs. “Timothée is a hard worker. When I see him on the big screen, for me that’s just the result of his job” she says. “As for the rest, I don’t really experience the frenzy around him. I guess it's kind of crazy, but it doesn't affect my life at all.”
Trotting around the hills of Montmartre is thirsty business. Chalamet’s neighborhood stroll ends at La Halte, a quintessentially Parisian café sitting at the bottom of a cinematic flight of steps that lead up to the Sacré-Cœur church. Over a pot of verbena tea, the actress chats about her upcoming projects (a zombie flick directed by Antonin Peretjatko), the next exhibition she’s planning to visit (Georgia O’Keeffe at the Centre Pompidou museum) and her favorite clothing brand (Rouje).
Chalamet gazes fondly at the bistro chairs and old-school chalkboard menus around us. “I love Parisian cafés. This is my regular, I’ve been coming here for years,” she says. What’s her standard order? “It depends on the time of the day: black tea in the morning, an herbal infusion after lunch, and a half pint if I come here for evening drinks with friends—although to be honest, I’m more into wine than beer.” Spoken like a true Parisian.
Pauline Chalamet photographed by Hayley Louisa Brown and styled by Chloe Harstein, with on-set styling by Tamara Prince, for W magazine. Hair by Ben Talbott and makeup by Yumi Endo.