Call Me by Your Name, which opens in theaters in November, is a film about first love: specifically, an affair between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old doctoral student working for the boy’s father, a professor of Greco-Roman culture.
Based on the novel by André Aciman, the film, which was directed by Luca Guadagnino, is set in the 1980s, in a villa in a bucolic small town in Italy, but its sense of youthful desire is timeless and universal. “You don’t really see a lot of tender love stories between men,” Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver, the older of the two, told me. “There’s always one person who says, ‘Oh, we can’t do this’ or ‘My family wouldn’t approve.’ You don’t get that in this movie. Instead, you have two men who are trying to figure out the feelings they have for each other.”
When Call Me by Your Name premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Guadagnino and his cast were surprised by the overwhelming response. Sony Pictures Classics bought the film for more than $6 million, and Timothée Chalamet, who plays Elio, the young boy, was immediately hailed as the first Oscar contender of 2017. Chalamet has acted since he was a child—“But,” he said, “I’m sure no one really wants to think of themselves as a child actor.”
In the TV show Homeland, Chalamet stole practically every scene he was in, and in Call Me by Your Name he is electrifying. His mix of raw awkwardness and puppy-like enthusiasm should be recognizable to anyone who has felt a deep longing that they didn’t totally understand.
“I first met with Luca when I was 17,” Chalamet, who is now 21, told me at the photo shoot for W. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. “We had lunch, and Call Me by Your Name seemed far away from being real. It seemed unlikely that I would be the lead of the movie, or that the movie would happen at all. What I did know is that if the movie did manage to happen, Luca would have his fingerprints on every shot of the film. His superpower is his sensuality—his ability to make everything feel romantic.”
Guadagnino, who also directed I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as a rich Milanese wife who has a life-changing affair with a chef, as well as A Bigger Splash, in which Swinton plays a sort of Bowie-esque rock star whose bohemian idyll on a Mediterranean island is interrupted by the arrival of her producer (and former lover) and his daughter, was very involved in the casting for Call Me by Your Name.
“I loved I Am Love,” said Hammer, who also met with the director long before the film went into production. “I thought it was an incredibly gorgeous movie.” Hammer, who became famous after he played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, had no idea why Guadagnino wanted to meet with him. “We talked about life. And traveling. And food. And then we said goodbye. Years later, I got the script. I read it, and at first it kind of scared me. I was like, ‘There’s a lot of stuff here that I’ve never done on film before. But there’s no way I can’t do this, mostly because it scares me so much.’ ”
Chalamet and Hammer met for the first time in the ancient town of Crema, where Guadagnino lives in a lavish but elegantly dilapidated palazzo. (Basically, the film could have been set in his house.) Luckily, the two actors clicked immediately: Their characters’ love affair is complicated by their age difference, gender, and the times in which they live. “We both realized that the story was simultaneously important, fresh, relevant, artistic, and out there,” explained Chalamet, who has youthful exuberance but comes across as an old soul.
That restlessness mixed with intelligence is evident in his kinetic performance. “It did take a lot out of me,” Chalamet said. “I had to take a monthlong detox after we finished shooting.”
The final—and crucial—component of Call Me by Your Name is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the all-seeing, all-accepting father. A graduate of Juilliard and an acting chameleon (in 2015, he played a tech geek in Steve Jobs and Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo, yet you could have sworn different actors had played those parts).
Stuhlbarg delivers a speech—heartbreaking in the novel—about tolerance and love that changes the entire scope and resonance of the movie. “It was the very last scene that I shot,” Stuhlbarg explained, hinting that he took the part purely so he could deliver those lines. “I always saw it as a kind of culmination of the spirit of what we were trying to say with the film.”
Call Me by Your Name represents one of those summers in everyone’s life experience, one can only hope, when wonderful and forever-altering events transpire. “Like this film,” Stuhlbarg continued, “that time can have a great buoyancy and lightness. But it can also be profound. It can change the course of your life.”
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