The kind of breakthrough performance where it’s immediately apparent that an actor is going to be a star for years to come is a rarity in movies. Think of Emma Stone in “Easy A” or Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life.”
But that kind of thunderbolt moment is striking now for 21-year-old Timothee Chalamet, a New Yorker with the talent to speak multiple languages, play numerous instruments and take the festival circuit by storm with a handful of performances — including one assured of ranking among the finest performances of the year.
The Toronto International Film Festival has been a coming out party for Chalamet, who has three films at the festival. He stars in Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age, coming-out tale “Call Me By Your Name,” he’s a supporting player in Greta Gerwig’s equally lauded coming-of-age tale “Lady Bird,” and he co-stars in the Christian Bale-led Western “Hostiles.” A Cape Cod thriller in which he stars, “Hot Summer Nights,” was also acquired here by A24.
But the headliner is his performance in “Call Me By Your Name,” which Sony Pictures Classics will release Nov. 24. In the film, adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s novel, Chalamet plays Elio, a headstrong 17-year-old living with his parents in 1980s northern Italy. When a handsome academic (Armie Hammer) comes to stay with them, Elio has a self-discovery that mingles love with art, language and natural beauty.
In the film, he plays piano and guitar, speaks fluent French and Italian, and indelibly captures the experience of first love. The film and its cast are considered likely Academy Awards contenders, partly because of Chalamet’s uncommon poise and wide-ranging intelligence in a deeply sensual movie.
“It feels like a real seminal moment,” said Chalamet in an interview. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world that I get to share it with Luca and Armie and Michaels Stuhlbarg. I’m obviously very young and I’ve had a short career, but I’ve never been a part of anything like this.”
“He’s being excessively humble,” Hammer cuts in. “He’s the man of the year here at TIFF and we’re just riding his coattails.”
Though the two are separated by a decade in age and experience, they’ve become close friends, drawn closer by the intimacy of making “Call Me By Your Name” in the meadows, cafes and villas of Crema, Italy, where Guadagnino lives.
“He’s a very difficult dude to hate,” Hammer said.
What Chalamet lacks in vanity, those around him make up for in their praise for him.
“Not to sound pompous, but the guy is kind of a genius,” said Guadagnino, the Italian filmmaker of “I Am Love.” “He has a capacity for understanding human nature instinctively that’s astonishing. It’s also naive in a way, because he’s young, but also very focused. The cinema is at its best when it can present a new personality in the world.”
Chalamet doesn’t come out of nowhere. He’s appeared on stage, earning a Drama League Award nomination for John Patrick Stanley’s “Prodigal Son.” He was a regular on “Homeland” and played smaller roles in films like Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children” — his screen debut.
“I have been working for a number of years,” says Chalamet. “I just graduated from theater high school in New York. I went to LaGuardia so I’m very close to the reality that lot of actors work rarely.”
Chalamet’s mother was a Broadway dancer and his French father works for UNICEF. He credits them for pushing him into piano lessons and taking him on trips to France.
He recently shot a father-son drama, “Beautiful Boy,” in which he plays a methamphetamine-addicted son to Steve Carell. After making “Call Me By Your Name,” he shot his scenes for “Lady Bird,” in which he plays the alluring love interest of Saorsie Ronan’s high-school senior.
“To have those films back-to-back, and they contrast so heavily, it helps you understand filmmaking,” said Chalamet. “There’s the truth to every moment that you have to bring to every scene, but you have to understand the tonality the film before you begin, which isn’t something that’s instinctual to me.”
Chalamet will have plenty of practice to get accustom to that adjustment. He’s also to star in Woody Allen’s next, untitled film. But whatever lies ahead for Chalamet, making “Call Me By Your Name” will remain an experience he long treasures.
“I miss the sense of belonging somewhere,” he says. “I miss the sense of belonging on a film as much as I did on ‘Call Me By Your Name.”’