There are times when it feels like you’re watching an actor grow up before your very eyes. Take Timothée Chalamet, the star of Dune, the epic new science-fiction movie from Denis Villeneuve, adapted from Frank Herbert’s seminal 60s novel.
Chalamet came to prominence in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, winning an Oscar nod for his turn as an adolescent experiencing the pain of first love. He has played the boy-to-man role before in The King, David Michôd’s take on Shakespeare’s Prince Hal before he is elevated to Henry V.
But there is something different about fronting a massive-scale movie such as Dune, in which he plays Paul Atreides, heir to a powerful aristocratic ruler in the far-distant future who comes of age when he visits Arrakis, a desert planet rich in a valuable drug named Spice and populated by terrifying sandworms.
Did Chalamet relate to Paul’s journey? Was this his moment of growth? “It’s a delicate question to answer; I never want to seem like I have delusions of grandeur,” he says, when we speak at the Venice Film Festival, where Dune was unveiled to ecstatic reviews.
“Yet I’ve got to say ‘yes’. Not that I was coming to set as a boy – I was already 23. But I did feel… the ‘Hans Zimmer’ of it all and the fact that I grew up on those kinds of movies, where the theatre shakes.”
Zimmer, the composer who provides the thundering music for Dune and has written many blockbuster scores over the years, is symbolic of Hollywood at its bombastic best. He also scored Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in which Chalamet played the son of Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut.
Conceived with a grandeur that dwarfs most movies, Dune is a mind-blowing movie experience. “The story was as I imagined, but the presentation was on a whole other level,” says Chalamet. “The films I’ve been doing are smaller.”
The key was not getting lost in such a huge production. “Timothée is a very intellectual, very mature young man,” says Villeneuve. “He has an old soul. He has far more wisdom for his age than normal kids. At the same time, he looks very young. He sometimes looks like he’s 14 in front of the camera. So it’s the perfect combination.”
Chalamet, dressed today in a white jacket with brown cuffs and a chain around his neck, laughs when he hears Villeneuve’s thoughts on his appearance. Does it bother him? “The honest answer to that is: a) no, that’s not bothersome.
“And b) I’ll take any insecurity that stems from that kind of thought over the insecurities I had when I wasn’t lucky enough to work as an actor and didn’t know that I was going to have a career and that I’d be fortunate to be sitting with the Zendayas, Denis Villeneuves and Javier Bardems of the world.”
Zendaya and Bardem are part of a stellar cast that also includes Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa. Chalamet seems genuinely taken with his co-stars. “They are all pieces of a bigger puzzle and I did feel there was some sign of growth in me. You learn to trust yourself.”
At 25, Chalamet seems remarkably calm for a young man who, in Venice, faced something like Beatlemania on the red carpet, as adolescent girls (mainly) – aka “Chalamaniacs” – screamed for him.
Still, he will take advice from wherever he can. He is currently reading Matthew McConaughey’s memoir Greenlights, and is enthused by his former co-star’s “outlaw wisdom”, as the book’s subtitle reads. “He says [that]you have to live in paradox and not contradiction. I’ve been leaning into that creatively.”
His youthful aura seems more fitting for the role of Atreides than when Kyle MacLachlan (then only a year older than Chalamet) played the part in David Lynch’s maligned 1984 version. Chalamet watched the film before production and, diplomatically, says he has “huge respect for Kyle’s performance”.
Crucially, Villeneuve adapts only the first half of Herbert’s enormous tome, before Atreides becomes a Messiah-like figure. The plan is to make a sequel. “But it was most important for me to get that first part right – the idea of who Paul is before he’s put on this on this trajectory.”
New York-born Chalamet’s own trajectory might seem preordained. While his French father works for Unicef and was a former New York correspondent for Le Parisien, his American mother (who has Russian and Austrian roots) is a former Broadway dancer. His older sister, Pauline, also acts. His aunt is Amy Lippman, who co-created the popular teen drama Party Of Five, while his uncle, Rodman Flender, wrote films for low-budget indie king Roger Corman.
Despite being steeped in showbiz, Chalamet was more interested in playing football when he was young. He tried out for commercials, but it wasn’t appealing. “It seemed to me that auditioning was, ‘Who can smile the biggest?’ And that was a big turn-off to me. I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
When he attended Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, everything changed. “The first day we had a class, I saw acting was something to be taken seriously, a craft to be worked on.”
In his teens, he spent summers in France, in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, close to St Etienne, with his grandmother. He has already put his French to good use in Call Me By Your Name and The King and now in Wes Anderson’s charming new movie The French Dispatch. It is set around the satellite office of a 60s New Yorker-style magazine in a fictional French town. Chalamet plays Zeffirelli, a virginal student activist who becomes the focus of an article penned by Frances McDormand’s no-nonsense reporter.
“I grew up on his movies,” he says of Anderson, the director of Rushmore and The Grand Budapest Hotel. “Making it… there isn’t the leap to act in his tonality because everything on that set was of Wes’s doing. So that’s thrilling.”
Chalamet has since filmed Bones & All, a romance-horror that reunites him with Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, and Don’t Look Up, a Netflix film with Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep about a comet heading towards the planet.
He is now in London, shooting Wonka, in which he plays a young version of the chocolate-factory owner. Directed by Paul King, the British film-maker behind the Paddington movies, another boy-to-man transition awaits. “I feel the lessons of Dune coming back,” he says. “The size of the crew, the size of the budget, doesn’t preclude its ability to be arthouse.”
It is a noble thought. Just don’t ask him to predict how audiences will receive his work. “I’m not in the control room when I act,” he says. “I’m just doing it.”
Dune is in cinemas from 21 October; The French Dispatch is in cinemas from 22 October