by Lynn Hirschberg
Photograph by Tim Walker; Styled by Sara Moonves.
In the words of Timothée Chalamet, he auditioned for Beautiful Boy "many, many, many times." The first time was in December of 2016, then just fresh off shooting Call Me By Your Name, but before its theatrical release and Chalamet's subsequent ascent to Hollywood stardom (not to mention a 2018 Academy Award nomination). It was a months-long audition process, during which the now 23-year-old went up against just about every young working actor also vying to land the role of Nic Sheff, a real life figure who struggled with methamphetamine addiction.
So it's no wonder that, having got the job, Chalamet is excited to talk about the film. And when he talks, you want to bend an ear—he can be just as charismatic offscreen as he is compelling on it. Chalamet stars alongside Steve Carrell, who portrays Nic's father, David Sheff, the author of Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (cowritten with Nick), the books upon which the film is based. For Chalamet, navigating Nic's ongoing addiction over years of his young life was a meaty, at times heartbreaking role.
To prepare, Chalamet met with many recovering addicts to learn more about the very real crisis happening in the world today; he also met with Sheff to discuss his own experiences. (Not to mention he also lost 18 pounds leading up to production.) "There was nothing about Nic and meeting him that rubbed me of addiction, or whatever my stereotype would've been of that at the time," Chalamet explains. "And that was the learning grace of this movie for me; addiction doesn't have a face, it has no preferred class, or gender, or race. I think it's almost easier or something to be like, 'Oh, well, that doesn't affect me or my family or my friends. That's another thing. When the reality is, it's every where. And it's one of my favorite things about the movie, too, and I think it's sometimes uncomfortable for audiences where they go, 'Why?' And that's not the point. It just is."
Here, Chalamet goes deep on his performance, what he's learned about addiction in the process, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
How did Beautiful Boy come to you?
Beautiful Boy came to me in an audition two years ago and I was aware of the books. The movies based on two books, Beautiful Boy and Tweak. One's by David Sheff, who's the father in this story, and other is by Nic Sheff, who's the son and was addicted to methamphetamine. I auditioned many, many, many times. I auditioned for the first time in December , and there was a call back process through January and February. Fun fact: I am quite close to Kiernan Shipka, who I did a movie with called One & Two a number of years ago, and her family has always been really, really kind to me. I didn't really know a lot people on the West Coast when I first started coming out here, so they always took me and really made me feel like one of their own. Her mom drove me to that last call back with Steve Carell.
Yeah, the first time I met Steve was at a chemistry read. I shouldn't even say a big The Office fan—I'm the typical The Office fan, which is like a big The Office fan [laughs]. I didn't want to weird him out. Have you ever get it wrong when you meet a famous person you really like? And then it's kinda your learning experience? And you're like, "Okay, I'm not gonna do it like that again." And that's what it was with Steve. I gave him a big hug, and tried to keep it focused to the scenes. The irony is that since we've been promoting the movie, it's come out that [I'm a fan]. Now I can be honest about it and a total weirdo. And there's Amy Ryan, who is also in The Office. They're Michael and Holly.
And now they're your parents.
It's like the weird alternate spin-off. They'll be talking sometimes and I just kinda look at them, because it's just so odd that I'm a part of this experience where Michael and Holly are in tandem. I've had some great movie parents, I've gotta say. A lot of great movie dads, too. Michael Stulhbarg, Steve Carell, Matthew McConaughey.
How did you find out that you got the part?
I got a call from my agent, Brian, and he was being kind of coy about it. Every other project I've been a part of, whether it's Call Me By Your Name or Ladybird, or they're things that I kinda stumbled into. We didn't know what they were gonna be when we made them, and I think the difference with Beautiful Boy, is that it was a script they'd been trying to get made for 10 years. Every guy actor my age had gone in for it, and when you ask how'd I find out about it, that holds a special place in my heart. I've been lucky, but a lot of the bigger things, like Spider-Man, I didn't get. Like I said, I've been really lucky but then that was the moment where I was like, "Oh, wow. That's something I went in for like six times."
I have a lot of gratitude to Felix [Van Groeningen, the film's director], to Steve Carell, to Plan B, who made the movie, to Nic and David Sheff. It is a really serious subject and a lot of people in the world, in America, and a lot of people my age are going through this with opiates. [But] there's still a taboo.
My 15 year-old-niece and all her friends are taking it as a cautionary tale, which is a really great thing. It is really scary for them, because they love you so much.
You use the word 'scary,' so I don't want to indicate a positive overture out of that, but that's kinda how I feel. It's been really interesting, the more we talk about the movie, the more I'm aware of what it is to the world and I realize, "Oh man, we made like an anti-glorification of drugs."
You can really feel your character's agony.
Thank you for saying that. That became the most important thing for me in prepping for this role. Meryl Streep says,"When you finally understand that part of your character you didn't get or didn't like, then you've got it." I think it's something like that, the quote. For me, especially going up for this role so many times, I thought, "Oh man, what's this bridge I'm going to have to cross?" What's the thing that can legitimize me to an audience without falling into a masochistic trap of a young actor of throwing myself against the wall every night like, "Good, I'm in pain, so I must be doing well."
Did you meet Nic before you started shooting?
I met him a week before we started shooting. We got lunch together with Daisy, who's his little sister, who's not a little person anymore. She's like a grown adult which was very weird because in the books she's very young. I realized, "Okay, wait a second." There was nothing about Nic and meeting him that rubbed me of addiction, or whatever my stereotype would've been of that at the time. And that was the learning grace of this movie for me; addiction doesn't have a face, it has no preferred class, or gender, or race. I think it's almost easier or something to be like, "Oh, well, that doesn't affect me or my family or my friends. That's another thing." When the reality is, it's everywhere. And it's one of my favorite things about the movie, too, and I think it's sometimes uncomfortable for audiences where they go, "Why?" And that's not the point. It just is. And how do you get by it? You know there's no rehabilitation center regulation in America. Anyone can open a rehab, basically. And for these really intense substances, you don't want to be swinging your shot.
There was that scene in the bathroom that killed me where you're scraping off the black tar, essentially. And I was really worried for you, because it felt like a death wish.
I think that's what that scenes about. People will ask me sometimes if that scene is a death wish or if its addiction run rampant. I think it's both, and I'm always careful when I talk about it. The experience of doing it is obviously nothing of what Nic and David went through, actually living it. And yet sometimes when you act, your mind knows you're acting, but your body doesn't... It's another tension for the audience, because you think, "Okay, either this movie's gonna flourish up in a celebratory, very redemptive fashion, or it's gonna end really tragically." And I think the reality is, it's a day at a time. You never really beat it. You know, Philip Seymour Hoffman was sober 22 years or something.
There were 13, I think. We did a Q&A with David Sheff, the father. One of the seminal parts of the movie and a big function of Al-Anon meetings, is that a parent can only acquiesce so much before it starts to affect their life or their other children's lives, and you're kind of taught to say "no" at a certain point. David was saying in this Q&A that he feels like in his experience now that is not the right thing, because we don't want tough love, we want love. David was telling these stories were you'll have family members reach out, or parents that say, "You know, I shut the door on my kid and the next thing I knew they weren't around anymore." David really got lucky with Nic. And Nic says it, as well, that it's a bit of a miracle that on two occasions he survived really close calls. Again, I don't want to be too dramatic or statistic-y about it because if David and Nic were here, they're really hopeful about it and they feel there's a lot of redemption in this story.
You were obviously very slender in this role. Did your mom ever get worried?
My mom was worried. First there was a movie where I was having sex with the peach, and then it was like, "I got another movie!" And she's like, "Great!" And I was like, "Uh..." and I had to tell her what it was about. I lost 18 pounds [for the role]. It was supposed to be 15, but at a certain point you think you can just start eating the same again, but your body is really not ready for it. The first week of scenes we shot out of order, but it was kind of the stuff that would've been his worse physically. Then I had a week off after that where I was conceivably to put on a lot of weight, and look like a healthy Nic. I went to get spaghetti like that first night, and I was like, "This is not happening!" I couldn't get it down.
And you spent time with people in rehab?
I spent a lot of time in inpatients and outpatients. This felt less like a drug movie and more of an addiction movie or recovery movie. I could see the temptation to talk about it like, "Well, how did the drug stuff prep go?" The reality of that is there's a lot of sometimes disturbing videos online that are clear about what the active stages of use would be. To spend time in these rehabs or in meetings, it was fascinating to me, the humanity of it. You go into those meetings, and I think there's a misconception that they're... I don't know. In reality people, are really grateful and thankful to be saving their lives, basically. I feel so lucky that I've been able to, work on things that are eye-opening,
I think what makes your performance so amazing and the movie, in general, is it is like a time bomb. There's sort of a fight internally all the time.
I so appreciate you saying that because I think with how intense these substances are now, any sort of recovery process would be a difficult period. I think it's one of the illuminating factors of the movie though, and the books, especially Tweak, and why I'm really excited that in the following weeks we're going to start doing some Q&As in schools, is that when you're a young person, you're kind of like, shopping for your personality, you know? You try this outfit at school, it doesn't work and you're like, "Okay, I'm not that guy. Maybe I'm this guy." And that's like what it is to become an adult, right? They say the male brain develops when you're 25. Like, I'm not 25 yet, so that's still that process. But then the most accepted methods of recovery, the mainstream ones, are really around the idea of habit-forming. Those realities are totally at tension with each other when you're young. Because on one hand, you want to find yourself, and on the other, you have to find that cycle to ground yourself.
Was Nic on set at all?
Nic came to set when we were shooting at UCLA, the second rehab sequence in the movie. It's a scene where David interrogates Nic, for lack of a better word, about his use. And he basically says, "You've got to come clean about what you've been using, because if we keep putting you in these rehabs, we've got to know what, what you've been up to." And Nick came to set that day, with Daisy. I was grateful we shot my side of the coverage before he got there. And I think it was surreal for him, just down to the costumes and the settings we shot.
How did he feel when he saw the finished product?
I was in England, shooting The King, and I got an email that he was going to see it. So that Friday passed, and I didn't hear anything. And then on like a Sunday or something, I heard he was going to see it again on Tuesday. So I thought, "Okay, that could be good or bad." And then I didn't hear anything, and then I heard on Wednesday, he set up another screening for that following Saturday. And I was like, "Okay, that, I don't think he hates it, because that would be masochistic to keep seeing it." [I got] a text that was like, “Hey, I saw the movie.” I gave him a ring after that, and it was really surreal. I don't know, it's like one of these moments you're like, "Oh wow, this is why you do it." I think any artist, you can accept if people don't like your stuff. that's fair; the art takes place in the head of the audience. But if he didn't like it, or if he didn't like the movie, that would have been such a travesty because it's beyond it being about addiction or drugs. It's his life.
And I've got to tell you, in talking to him, to have somebody confirm back to you on the phone, “Hey, we trusted you with this story and this process, and thank you, because we appreciate it. And we like it. And we feel it is a fair representation of what it was." It's so surreal. We'll do Q & A's with David and Nic sometimes, and it's like, “Why are you asking Steve and I anything? [laughs] Like we, we have no authority on this.” And it's one of the amazing things about the movie too, and I really would encourage people to see it. Even though, it is not the most uplifting thing in the world. But when we get there with David and Nic, and they get on stage, this amazing things happens, where people are ... I think people are grateful for bravery. Like, or I think about the music I love, there's a gratitude. You're like, "Thank you for bearing, thank you for that."