Timothée Chalamet and I are on the run, chasing down Sixth Avenue on a bright September day in search of a place to talk. The restaurant in Greenwich Village where we had planned to meet ended up getting swarmed by NYU students while I was waiting for him, chattering excitedly to one another—“Timothée Chalamet is here!” “Shut up!” “Yeah, he’s right outside!”—so, trying to avoid a deluge of selfie seekers, I bolt from the table, tapping Chalamet on the shoulder where he stands under the awning, on the phone, and we make our escape. Face covered with a mask and hoodie pulled up over his curly hair, he’s mostly incognito but still cuts a distinct enough figure that we’d better find a new location fast, and standing at a crosswalk with him, I feel briefly protective, like I should be prepared to body-block an onslaught of fans at any moment.
Luckily, we go undetected as we make our way to another diner a few blocks down—a true New York greasy spoon, less crowded and doggedly uncool—and slide into a back booth. He orders black coffee and matzo-ball soup, which he says he has been craving. It’s not an easy thing to come by in London, where he’s been in rehearsals for Wonka, an original movie musical that will serve as a prequel of sorts to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, following the titular chocolatier as a young man. He just spent a weekend recording music for the film at Abbey Road. “I felt out of my league,” he says of working in that legendary space. “Like I was desecrating history!” But working on this project has been good for him. “It’s not mining the darker emotions in life,” he says. “It’s a celebration of being off-center and of being O.K. with the weirder parts of you that don’t quite fit in.”
Get a print of Timothée Chalamet’s TIME Next Generation Leader cover here
If Chalamet—whom most people call, affectionately, Timmy—sees himself as off-center, so far it’s working. He’s back in New York for the Met Gala, which he’s co-chairing alongside Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka and Amanda Gorman. (He walked the red carpet in a Haider Ackermann satin tuxedo jacket and sweatpants.) On Oct. 22, he’ll appear in two films released on the same day. There’s Wes Anderson’s ensemble The French Dispatch, which earned raves out of Cannes, in which Chalamet appears opposite Frances McDormand as a revolutionary spearheading a student liberation movement. He also stars as royal Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s towering sci-fi epic Dune, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 novel, budgeted at a reported $165 million and slated for a massive worldwide release.
This makes it a big moment for Chalamet, who is not just an actor who works often, although he does, and not just a celebrity, although he is one, but a movie star in the old-fashioned sense of the word. (More on this later.) He’s now the rare performer who, at 25, studios are betting can help launch a blockbuster franchise and a festival hit on the same day, with a pandemic still rumbling out of view. With great power, of course, comes great responsibility—including a spotlight on everything from his personal life (he’s been linked to actor Lily-Rose Depp) to his activism (he’s outspoken on climate change) to what he wears, whether on a red carpet or dashing to the bodega. The latter runs the gamut from embroidered joggers to tie-dye overalls to space-age suiting—or, say, a Louis Vuitton hoodie spangled with 3,000 Swarovski crystals. (All this has led GQ to crown him one of the best-dressed men in the world.)
Chalamet belongs to a generation that’s known for oversharing, particularly on social media, but his Instagram is frequently enigmatic; he holds more back than many of his contemporaries. He cites as role models Michael B. Jordan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence—the latter two of whom he’ll appear opposite in Adam McKay’s star-studded Don’t Look Up on Netflix in December—actors who are more likely to talk about craft than to post selfies doing sponsored content. If fame is surreal to him, he also doesn’t make a show of resisting it. “I’m figuring it out,” Chalamet says. “On my worst days, I feel a tension in figuring it out. But on my best days, I feel like I’m growing right on time.”
As we sit and talk, a procession of fans stop by the table to ask for photos—mostly young women, but there’s one sheepish-looking guy, too, who looks to be in his 40s. Chalamet indulges them all gamely, making conversation. “Oh, you go to Columbia?” he says to one girl. “That’s cool! I did too.” He stops himself. “Well, I dropped out.”
If the challenge is staying level amid all this attention, he has a game plan. “One of my heroes—I can’t say who or he’d kick my ass—he put his arm around me the first night we met and gave me some advice,” he says. What was it, I ask?
“No hard drugs,” Chalamet says, “and no superhero movies.”
Chalamet grew up in midtown Manhattan, where his mom was a Broadway performer and his father worked as an editor for UNICEF. He went to the arts high school La Guardia, where he performed onstage. Not long after graduating, he booked a role as Matthew McConaughey’s son in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 space drama Interstellar, which he, along with everyone he knew, expected would catalyze his career. “I remember seeing it and weeping,” he says, “60% because I was so moved by it, and 40% because I’d thought I was in the movie so much more than I am.”
He briefly attended Columbia, then NYU, but didn’t finish college, which he says seems “insane in retrospect.” He remembers the insecurity of those years, which he describes as “the soul-crushing anxiety of feeling like I had a lot to give without any platform.” But he waited for the kinds of jobs he wanted, trying to avoid getting locked into a commitment that might stifle his growth, like a years-long TV contract. “Not that those opportunities were coming at me plenty,” he says, “because they weren’t. But I had a marathon mentality, which is hard when everything is instant gratification.”
That paid off in 2017 with the release of Luca Guadagnino’s gay love story Call Me by Your Name, which earned him an Oscar nomination and catapulted him to fame. (He demurs when asked about co-star Armie Hammer, who has denied a widely publicized accusation of rape. “I totally get why you’re asking that,” he says, “but it’s a question worthy of a larger conversation, and I don’t want to give you a partial response.”) That same year, he featured in Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird. He followed up with the addiction drama Beautiful Boy, then Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, both of which earned him still more critical praise.
If his filmography has made him an art-house darling, Dune feels like the perfect big movie for an actor like Chalamet: despite the booming score and dazzling visual effects, there’s a gravity to it—and an unusual prescience. “Dune was written 60 years ago, but its themes hold up today,” Chalamet says. “A warning against the exploitation of the environment, a warning against colonialism, a warning against technology.”
Dune is also the kind of cinematic event that demands to be seen in theaters, which spelled controversy when Warner Bros. announced that, due to the pandemic, all of their 2021 films would premiere on the streaming service HBO Max concurrent with their theatrical release dates. Chalamet shrugs about it. “It’s so above my pay grade,” he says. “Maybe I’m naive, but I trust the powers that be. I’m just grateful it’s coming out at all.”
A day later, we meet at a bar in Tribeca. As he arrives, he’s wrapping up a call. “Love you too, Grandma,” he says gently into the phone as he’s hanging up.
Male movie stars have long been defined by an old model of masculinity. Chalamet, who rose to fame playing a queer character and whose style is frequently described as androgynous, evinces a kind of masculinity that’s a little different: more sensitive, more emotional, in keeping with his generation’s permissive attitudes about self-expression. “Timothée is a thoughtful, poetic spirit,” says Villeneuve. “I am always impressed by his beautiful vulnerability.” Chalamet doesn’t always reveal much, but what he does is intentional. Ask him what he stands for, and he considers it seriously. “I feel like I’m here to show that to wear your heart on your sleeve is O.K.,” he says.
Yet Chalamet knows better than to obsess about how he’s perceived by the public. “To keep the ball rolling creatively takes a certain ignorance to the way you’re consumed,” he says. He calls it a “mirror vacuum”: the black hole you disappear into studying your own reflection. He wants to use his platform thoughtfully, to spread the right kinds of messages through the world—whether that’s about mental-health awareness, a subject which he wants to see become “less of an Instagram slide share and something more intrinsic,” or climate. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same generation that inherits the overheated planet is the generation saying, ‘Hey, there’s a level of complacency here,’” he says.
All that said, Chalamet doesn’t take himself too seriously. The idea that he’s seen as a movie star—let alone his generation’s most promising—seems to make him squirrelly. “I don’t want to say some vapid, self-effacing thing,” he says. “It’s a combination of luck and getting good advice early in my career not to pigeonhole myself.” The term movie star, to him, is “like death.” All it does is make him think about ’90s-nostalgia Instagram feeds.
“You’re just an actor,” Chalamet says, like a mantra. “You’re just an actor!” Then he looks to me, as if checking to see if he’s convinced me it’s true.
Cover styled by Erin Walsh; grooming by Jamie Taylor
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