Sony Pictures Classics
Call Me By Your Name arrived at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as a pleasant surprise few knew very much about, other than it was directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) and was based on a novel by André Aciman. It left Sundance as one of the favorites of everyone who had a chance to see it.
It stars newcomer Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman, a teenager living in Northern Italy with his parents, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) being a scholar and historian who takes on Armie Hammer’s Oliver as a student. At first, Elio hates Oliver for the attention he’s getting from his father, but eventually Elio and Oliver start to bond and begin exploring mutual feelings of attraction and more.
It’s a beautiful film — Tracking Board’s Chief Film Critic Drew McWeeny was a fan – and Chalamet is an amazing young actor to carry so much of the weight of such an emotion-filled film on his shoulders. Stuhlbarg is a veteran actor who has transitioned from stage to screen with his leading role in the Coens Brothers’ A Serious Man in 2009 before taking on roles in Men in Black 3, Spielberg’s Lincoln, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs.
After making Call Me By Your Name, Stuhlbarg went on to work with Guillermo del Toro on his new fantasy-drama The Shape of Water, playing a scientist with a secret, while Chalamet scored a role in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Both those movies have been receiving almost as much acclaim as Guadagnino’s film. They also each have smaller roles in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles for Chalamet and Steven Spielberg’s The Post for Stuhlbarg.
That’s a lot of movies coming out in the last couple months of the year, and at least Chalamet looks like he’ll be very busy in the upcoming awards season, and hopefully Stuhlbarg will be, too.
The Tracking Board had a chance to get on the phone with both of these amazing actors earlier this week (in separate interviews) to talk about Call Me By Your Name, but also some of the other movies they’ve been doing that will be arriving in theaters this month.
First up, my interview with Michael Stuhlbarg…
I assume this movie and part came to you in a normal way with a script that came to you from Luca? Had you met Luca before that?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I had never met Luca before, but I had seen his film I Am Love, and I guess he had expressed to my agent the desire to see if I might be interested in working together on this piece. She sent it to me, and I read it, and I loved everything about it. I admired him as a filmmaker, I loved the idea of getting to travel to the North of Italy to make this, and the character I play is full of challenges and surprises and great fun, as well as being a script written by James Ivory, which had never happened to me before. Everything about this job was a wonderful opportunity.
Did you get a chance to meet James Ivory during the process?
I never did, but he was in constant contact I think with Luca. But no, I never got a chance to meet James. Luca had been brought on I think 10 years earlier as a producer and a consultant on the film, because of his proximity to the story, being Italian and knowing certainly where the parts of the film took place, knowing them well. I think over the course of time after James had I think initially been planning on directing the film, they came around to think that maybe it was better to have Luca do it. I’m not exactly sure of that particular exchange or decision, but I think James initially was supposed to direct the film.
When you read a script like this, what draws you to a part like Mr. Perlman? He’s a very understanding father, and you have an amazing scene with Timothée at the end. Was it an immediate thing as you were reading it that you thought “Okay, I can do this”? What’s your first reaction like?
Well, I got very caught up in the story itself. I also felt, “Well, here’s a guy who’s a Latin and Greek scholar, he has great love for archeology and for art history. He’s obviously very well-educated, but he has acute sense of humor. He has obviously a great sense of love and generosity towards his son.” I think there were so many things that were interesting to me as well as being fluent in Italian, so I got to take lessons in that. There was just a lot to know in the time that I had to work on it.
Sony Pictures Classics
As an actor you must end up learning a lot of things that you might not ever even think about beforehand. In this case, learning Italian.
Very much so.
Did you feel like you had to read up on history and know the history, just to make sure it was convincing when you’re talking about that stuff?
Well, I start with what’s given to me, and I sort of work backwards. I think to myself, “What must this man know about these things? What is useful in terms of telling this particular story?”
I didn’t dive full-heartedly into the things he was a master of, yet at the same time, I spoke to a classics scholar about what it was like to be called onto the carpet by his Latin and Greek professors. I spoke to a professor in Milan about how he teaches and how that teaching might be manifested specifically for certain scenes, things like that, that might inform what it was I was going to do.
When I spoke to Luca, he mentioned being interested in doing a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, showing the characters years later. Is your character, Mr. Perlman, one you’d want to explore more with, or do you feel like it’s a nice done-in-one, the way the movie ended where it did?
Well, I think the novel has an extra 50 pages on the end, where you get a sense of what happens to the characters several years later. I think Luca loves these characters, and I think he feels that there’s so much more to explore. I think he’s serious about it, and I think he really wants to maybe pick things up a few years later and maybe see what has happened amongst them all, and maybe try create something with them all again, because he seems to be very fond of all the characters.
You mentioned having read the book, so was that something you did for your own edification or something Luca suggested?
In a wonderful way, it sort of seals in all those spaces that are left when you’re making a film. The language of cinema is different than that of a novel. There are many more things you can do in a novel, in describing perhaps or articulating someone’s inner turmoil that they might be going through. Whereas in a film you just have to do it or play it. I read it during the course of the making of this film, and whenever I could find something that I might be able to work into the screenplay, I would bring it up to Luca and he was always amenable to new ideas.
What was it like working with a relatively new actor like Timothée?
I felt a sort of instant affinity with Timothée in a way. I’d actually seen him in a John Patrick Shanley play called Prodigal Son at Manhattan Theater Club here in New York, not knowing at the time that we were going to be cast together in the film. When I found out he was cast, I thought it was a wonderful choice. He just seems to have a great amount of talent, and he’s unpredictable and he’s smart and really generous. We shared a passion for acting together, so we kind of hit it off right away, just as I think he and Armie did.
I also want to ask about Guillermo’s movie, because at one point, I thought you were playing two different characters. (Note: Minor spoilers for his response.)
He was just the one character, but I guess he has dual allegiances. He was born and raised in Russia, and then brought to the United States or Canada, depending upon who you speak to, and he learned to sort of function on both sides, to do what he’s being asked to do. You find out that his main love is mainly to do with the creature itself and the science. It was a great challenge trying to do those scenes in Russian, and I also enjoyed collaborating with Guillermo on that character as well. It was the first time actually that a director ever created a biography for my character. Usually it’s something that’s left up to us to do, but Guillermo loved the characters so much that he just kept writing for us, and he would give us pages of thoughts and ideas about where they came from, what they loved, what books they read, how they got where they got, and all those kinds of minutia, which are really helpful when trying to tell somebody’s story. I had a great time working with him.
Then besides those two movies, you were also in the most recent season of Fargo, and I was surprised to see you show up, almost as a cameo, in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. How did you end up balancing all these projects over the past year or so?
In this case, Call Me by Your Name was shot first, and then The Shape of Water was shot after that, maybe a couple of months after that. Then I was making a television show for the Hulu Network called The Looming Tower, which will be airing most likely in February, which is based on the novel of the same title, about the rise of Al-Qaeda, and the bureaucracy between the CIA and the FBI that led to 9/11 happening.
It was in the middle of that that Mr. Spielberg called and asked if I was amenable to jumping in and joining them to tell their story, and I was thrilled at the opportunity. Sometimes these things happen on top of each other, and you make the best of it. I mean it’s kind of funny because we shot that this past year. That one came out very, very quickly. I think he just knew exactly what he wanted. He got a cast together very quickly and made it happen, and I was really grateful to be asked to be part of it.
What do you generally look for in a script or a role? I’m not sure if you’ve done as much comedy, but I think you have a penchant for comedy. Do you look for specific types of movies? What is your guide?
I’m kind of wide open. I love to mix things up and choose projects that are different from each other as possible. Sometimes pieces resonate more with me than others. I’m a sucker for smart things and for funny things. If it can make me laugh or make me think or move me in one way or another, I love to be challenged. I look for the best opportunity as possible to spend my time helping to tell a story.
The characters you play are generally likable and nice. Have you ever wanted to play a role like Michael Shannon’s character in The Shape of Water, like an outright villain or bad person? Is that something you ever strive to do?
I would love an opportunity to, if somebody thinks I could do it, and they send something my way. I would love an opportunity to try something like that. Yeah, I guess it’s not one of those things that necessarily comes my way that often, but sometimes I’ve gotten to play some nasty critters and I’ve enjoyed that very much.
You also appeared in Marvel’s Doctor Strange last year playing a competing surgeon, but the character you played had a much larger role in one of the Doctor Strange comics, even becoming an outright villain. Did Scott talk to you about developing that aspect of your character in a sequel?
I haven’t heard anything yet about it, but I did really like his backstory when I signed on to be a part of that film. I was thinking that it can be, if they did branch out to tell other stories, it would be a fun arc to learn about him and to see through.
Sony Pictures Classics
Next up is 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who later that night would win an award as “Breakthrough Actor” at the Gotham Awards and then a few days later would receive the New York Film Critic Circles’ Best Actor, as well.
Michael told me he saw you on stage well before he actually started working with you or knew he was going to make a movie with you. Does that mean that you have a background as a stage actor?
Timothée Chalamet: Yeah exactly. I’m very much a theater kid. I went to LaGuardia high school, which is a performing arts high school. My mother works at Actor’s Equity, which gave me the availability to see a lot of plays growing up. Including Michael Stuhlbarg in The Pillowman by Martin Mcdonagh, and John Leguizamo in Ghetto Clown, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman, so I was exposed to a lot of great theater at a young age.
You’re a real New Yorker then. When I first saw the movie, I was assuming you were some French actor Luca found. I had no idea you were a New Yorker.
New Yorker born and bred with a French father.
When I spoke to Luca, he mentioned you were one of the first people he found for the movie, so how did that happen?
Well, my agent Brian Schwartz, represents Tilda Swinton, who is the lead protagonist of A Bigger Splash and I Am Love and The Protagonists. So there was a connection there and then when Brian knew that Luca going to work on this, he suggested my name for it.
Did you have to do auditions of some kind?
No, I never read for it. It was a meeting with Luca initially and then James Ivory, and then I was sort of loosely attached for three years.
Luca mentioned he catered the character of Elio to some of your skills, like him playing piano and guitar and speaking so many different languages. Is that true?
Well, sort of. I don’t play the guitar in real life, so I had to learn that for the film, and my piano playing ability was nothing to the degree it was described in the script or in the book. It felt crucial to get out there about a month and a half in advance and take piano lessons every day with an Italian composer named Roberto Sacchi, and Italian lessons and guitar lessons. So there was about a month and a half pre-production on it.
Obviously, the relationship between Elio and Oliver is crucial to the film. Did you and Armie hang out a lot during the process to develop the chemistry we see as the movie goes along?
It was partially the idea that experience is the greatest teacher and the more time you spend with one another, the closer we would get naturally, but also it was the random luck of the universe. We hit it off as human beings.
I know Luca had you on board and was a big fan of Armie’s work already but how do you know that two actors will click in the way you two click? I guess that’s part of being an actor, to be able to do that.
No, it’s true. There’s a good amount of luck involved, too.
You were there for a month and a half preparing. When did Armie and Michael arrive in Italy?
I think Michael got there about 10 days before and Armie got there two to three weeks before.
Sony Pictures Classics
I was especially wondering about working with Michael to create that father and son relationship.
Well, it was really intimidating, and it was already intimidating working with Armie, particularly in a scene that’s supposed to be very intimate and at an emotional level, and there’s a worry about just communicating that emotional intimacy, truthfully. And with Michael there was intimidation that would not lend itself to the idea of father-son relationship. So we did a rehearsal that left me all the more intimidated, and I went home and I YouTubed “Michael Stuhlbarg EPK.” You can do that with about any actor, it’s very humanizing.
I’ve been hearing that filmmakers do that before casting an actor What was your impression of Elio when you first read the script? Or did you get the book first? What was your entry point into the character?
It was via the book because there was no script available when I met with Luca and James. I went to Columbia’s library where I was in school at the time and tried to check it out. But they didn’t have it. There was a book-sharing program and I got it via another school and I read it and fell in love with it and just knew I had to be a part of it.
What was your impression of Elio as a character? Do you feel that he’s a brat? Or do you just feel he just a teenager discovering the world.
I felt like I had never really read a character for a young person that’s so complex and contradictory and truthful to what the mania of what a young person’s mind can be. Aside from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
That’s a great comparison, since that’s a great book that was adapted into a decent film. You’re in three movies coming out this month. Lady Bird‘s already out, but then you have a smaller role in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. Did all of these roles come about through the process of an actor going out auditioning and getting roles? Because they’re very different characters, too.
Well Lady Bird, it was the play that you talked about earlier I was doing, The Prodigal Son in New York that Scott Rudin produced. He was producing Lady Bird, so he said “Come in and read for Greta.” So I read Kyle for her and then became a part of that. I actually taped for Hostiles when I was in Italy doing Call Me by Your Name. I was in my hotel room. It was in the pre-production stage, so it was actually before we would have started shooting Call Me by Your Name, and I taped the audition with a friend there.
You’re 21 now, so having been a teenager in the latter half of the zeros, how was it playing a teenager from different times?
The obvious gift of playing a teenager in the 80’s is there wouldn’t be distraction and intimacy killer of cell phones or any sort of electronic accessories. Then the gift with Lady Bird was it’s so cool to be playing in that time period because it really hasn’t been tackled on film before, epitomized most by the song “Crash” playing in it. That song being in it epitomizes that time period more than anything, and it was thrilling to play in that time period.
When you were working in Italy doing this movie, filming in Luca’s hometown, did you find that there were things for you to do there when you weren’t working?
There’s delicious restaurants to frequent, and I had a favorite espresso place. I had a bike in town that was Luca’s production company’s bike. I would just ride around. There certainly was the ability to waste time and the idea that Europeans know how to waste time much better than Americans do. But there was never a sense of boredom.
What’s it like working with Greta as she directed her first solo movie? She’s done some amazing movies with Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg, but she tended to act in those movies. For Lady Bird, she remained behind the camera.
It was awesome, and like you said, I was just such fan of Greta’s writing prior, I just leapt at the opportunity to get to act for her and be directed by her. But also work with Saoirse who’s one of my favorite actors who’s my age.
A24 / EW
You have great scenes with her as you do with Armie in this movie. How did Luca prepare you and Armie for some of the more intimate scenes between the characters? How did Greta prepare you such scenes with Saoirse?
I think he prepared us by not treating it with preparation or too much delicacy. Certainly, some things have to be blocked out but really was treated equally in that movie and that helped as an actor to not feel like anything was precious.
I guess weirdly, it’s the same rule of thumb for both, which is, when you trust your director to protect you but also to tell a story in a film independent of you, that is also really good, then you feel free. And certainly with Luca, with I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, he’s done steamier sequences before, but they never come off salaciously or exploitatively but rather just in service to the story.
Then you went on to work with Woody Allen, which is amazing for any actor. I’ve spoke to a lot of actors who have been in his movies, and they say he just wants the actor to be prepared and just lets them do their job as an actor. Did you find that as well? What’s he like?
No, I think that’s exactly it. You’re expected to show up prepared like on any set, but I think with the idea that there might be less guidance than on another set. And then the opportunity to tell a New York story being from New York and get to work with Elle Fanning and Selena Gomez, for a new guy like me, it was a surreal experience.
This has been an amazing year for you. Where do you go from here? How do you find a character like Elio in another movie? What are some of your goals for next year?
Patience and just the desire to work with good storytellers and good directors, and not necessarily in a lead capacity, as in the case of Lady Bird or Hostiles. And take any positive reception but with the understanding that the crux of the experience is doing it.
Are there any actors you’ve worked with who you’ve either turned to for advice or who’ve offered advice? What advice have you been given that you can share?
Well, just live for the moment and just to appreciate this period — and this is also from my own experience — because it’s certainly not always like this, and an actor’s career is unnatural if it isn’t filled with many ups and downs. Just live a day at a time almost.
That’s a good way to end things. Listen, have fun at the Gothams tonight. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a good New York awards show.
Exactly. For a New Yorker. Oh my God. I cannot wait.
Call Me By Your Name is currently playing in New York and L.A. but will expand to more theaters. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is now playing in New York and will expand to other cities next week. Lady Bird is currently playing across the country. Finally, Hostiles and Spielberg’s The Post open in New York and L.A. on Dec. 22 with the post expanding nationwide in January.
Look for our interview with Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino next week.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor