How to Come of Age Onscreen? Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet Know


Like Ms. Ronan, Mr. Chalamet was born in New York. He graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in 2013. Along with roles on the television series “Homeland” and in the films “Men, Women & Children” and “Interstellar,” he starred in the Off Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Prodigal Son,” for which he won the Lucille Lortel Award for lead actor in a play.

Over lunch this month, two days after the Golden Globes ceremony and two weeks before the Academy Award nominations were announced, at Il Cantinori restaurant in Greenwich Village (shrimp scampi for Ms. Ronan and roast salmon for Mr. Chalamet), the pair discussed the eternal lure of coming-of-age films, the nostalgia (and worries) of young people, #MeToo on the red carpet and needing a break.

PHILIP GALANES Favorite coming-of-age films. Go!

SAOIRSE RONAN “Dirty Dancing.” Is that coming-of-age?

PG Why not? Baby becomes an adult.

SR I love the way the women support each other. And “Rebel Without a Cause.” There’s a romance there, but it feels more platonic. I didn’t realize, until “Lady Bird” came along, how starved we are for female coming-of-age stories that don’t revolve around a girl being validated by romance.

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET The one that took hold of me was a book, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which was made into a movie later. It’s written in a way that only a young person could speak. And the unabashed lostness of the protagonist …

SR Exactly. I love them because you can see elements of yourself in them.

PG When I was a kid, coming-of-age films — like “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club” — normalized the march to adulthood. They made it safe. And I was a worrier.

SR So are we. We’ve talked about that before.

PG What do you worry about?

TC When you get to act in things as good as “Lady Bird” or “Call Me by Your Name,” you’ve got a huge responsibility to do them truthfully. So that young people watching can say, “I see myself on that screen!” What if I can’t do it?

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In addition to his starring role in “Call Me by Your Name,” Mr. Chalamet also appears with Ms. Ronan in “Lady Bird,” playing the title character’s more worldly boyfriend.

Credit
A24

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In Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age film “Call Me by Your Name,” Mr. Chalamet plays a teenage boy who has a summer romance with an older graduate student, played by Armie Hammer, left background.

Credit
Sony Pictures Classics

SR Every time I act, I worry: Can I do it again?

TC That’s always at the forefront of my brain.

SR And every time I finish a job, I feel like, “Oh God, I got away with that one.” Plus, I’m a people-pleaser. I don’t like upsetting anyone. But I’ve gotten to a point in my work where I need to stand firmly with decisions I’ve made or feel free to go in another direction — even if everyone around me is telling me to do the opposite. It’s hard.

PG Let me ask about acting. You both have incredibly expressive faces, transmitting complex feelings in a nonverbal way. Do you know how you do it? Is it innate or craft?

SR Well, there’s definitely a practice. The more you do it, the more open you are to accessing feelings. But you know, sometimes you see little kids onscreen, and it’s just amazing how open and uninhibited they are.

PG I’m thinking of you — and your eyes — in “Atonement.”

SR And I hadn’t had any training or even life experience at that stage.

PG Are you better on the 13th take, Timothée?

TC As Armie [Hammer, Mr. Chalamet’s co-star in “Call Me by Your Name”] says, “I wear my heart on my sleeve.” That argues for innateness, I guess. But the greatest lesson for me in drama school was failing, time after time. In my sophomore year, I struggled with this one scene. I never did it right. It was always bad.

PG What was it?

TC It was from “The Graduate.”

PG You were playing Dustin Hoffman?

TC I was playing Benjamin. But as bad as I was, there was a release that came with the failure. It let me stretch a little more, try something else. It didn’t make me any better necessarily, but it gave me more freedom in my head.

SR Some stage actors have difficulty when they come back to film. The camera can paralyze them. But I love knowing that the camera is watching me and what it needs to see. That’s when craft develops. But I still come back to that childlike sensibility when I act — to be completely in it and give myself up to it.

TC One of my favorite scenes in “Call Me by Your Name” is the morning after Elio and Oliver have made love for the first time, and there’s this weird tension that develops. There was some dialogue, and we tried it a few times. Then we tried it without the lines. And it works so much better that way because it’s unclear. It invites the viewer to figure out what the characters are going through.

SR My favorite, favorite thing is not to speak.

PG Walking home, after your films, I started humming “Sugar Mountain,” this old Neil Young song about a boy who can’t go to his favorite club anymore because it’s just for teenagers, and he’s turned 20. Your films let you feel nostalgic for childhood.

TC You know what’s weird? My favorite moment in my film is one I shouldn’t be able to relate to: when Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays my father, says, “As for our bodies, there comes a time when no one wants to come near them.” That moment shatters me.

SR What these films have in common — even that scene — is that each moment is so big for the young person experiencing it that they don’t have time to process it properly before it’s gone. That’s the heartbreaking thing about childhood. It’s only at the end you go, “Oh, I wasn’t ready for this to be over yet.”

PG There are two uncannily parallel scenes in your movies: Your characters are on emotional overload — Elio has just said goodbye to his lover, Lady Bird has lost her virginity to Timmy’s character — and they both fall apart, in cars, with their mothers.

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