Collage by Douglas Greenwood

Timothée Chalamet has the hottest superpower: emotional intelligence

From Dune to Little Women to The French Dispatch, the actor has contorted his godly jawline into every shape imaginable.

by Carrie Wittmer
22 October 2021, 9:00am

Collage by Douglas Greenwood

When you think about Timothée Chalamet, you’re probably picturing him in that mushroom patterned three-piece Stella McCartney suit, in white joggers and Chuck Taylor high-tops at the Met Gala, or perhaps looking like the best kind of early 00s fuckboy in his Gorillaz T-shirt. Personally, when I think about him, I am picturing the printer on his floor, which I think about every single day. However, I think we are now both getting a little riled up thinking about his impossibly sharp jawline, which could probably cut through brick like a piece of warm cheese; his dark mop of tousled, voluminous hair that always seems to hang exactly the right away.

In 2021 – just four short years after his enrapturing, twinky break-out role in Call Me By Your Name – Timothée Chalamet is an enterprise and spectacle; the kind of celebrity who goes viral for changing his hair or simply going outside. He’s expressive, transparent and at the same, an enigma, which makes him even more magnetic. Timmy C is so famous now that the reason why he is so famous has, generally, gotten lost in the discourse. Also, potentially, in his green, crystalline eyes. But let’s stay on message: Timothée Chalamet is famous because he is an incredible actor, with the unique skill of being able to capture an impossibly wide range of feelings in the near-limitless spectrum of human emotion. Chalamet is a remarkably generous actor in this regard. He doesn’t keep it all bottled up, saving an explosion of emotion for a pivotal scene; he wears it all over his body at all times. Although Chalamet had been acting for years before, it was only in 2017 that his roles began to allow him adequate room for expression.

Chalamet’s range and ability to portray a whirlwind of feeling — the kind with many footnotes — is arguably most evident in his performance in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Chalamet builds up to protagonist Paul Atriedes’s subtle but gutting sensitivity quietly and gradually. As Paul, the reluctant, confused Messiah and sad sand boy, Chalamet speaks in a deep but soft voice. It’s scared, unsure and almost every word feels strained, as if it’s causing him physical pain to speak. Of course, this is where his body language comes in. While Chalamet is far from Adam Driver-sized (read: large), his presence is so large that he has a comparable impact. 

In an early scene in Dune, Chalamet’s Paul walks across a sandy plain in a long, sleek coat that (it must be said) really complements his sculptural cheekbones. You can feel the uncertainty and fear in every intentional, heavy step. As i-D contributor Jack King writes, “he has, quite literally, the weight of the entire universe on his shoulders and it shows, percolating through his wistful eyes.” Chalamet’s body language and expressions as Paul are stiff, restrained, the character’s inner turmoil as an heir-apparent absolutely apparent in his stalk-like body. In this way, Chalamet’s casting as Paul Atredies is essential to Dune: Paul’s back may be sore from the pressures of space-age geopolitics, but Chalamet’s spine must be equally aching from carrying this two and a half hour film epic. The actor takes advantage of being in almost every scene, using Paul as a tiny emotional guide to a sprawling world with complex, often treacherous diplomacy. For all the sci-fi heads loudly protesting now, these are the facts: Chalamet’s presence is the main factor in keeping the casual moviegoer invested in an intriguing but mostly quite weird story about a war between planets with sandworms, a floating Stellan Skaarsgård, and a person named Duncan Idaho. There’s also Zendaya intermittently being Zendaya, but we are mostly bereft of her presence in Part One. So there.

Chalamet’s performance in Dune is a perfect foil to his (admittedly more minor) turn in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. His character, Zeffirelli, is a student revolutionary and yet another sad boy, but with a more vibrant personality and more confidence. He may even be a little too sure of himself, the polar opposite of reticent, repressed Paul. He walks with purpose, and he feels with purpose: nothing about Zeffirelli is quiet except his faint voice and his tiny little moustache. His tenderness — for his manifesto and Lucinda (Frances McDormand) — is as big as his wildly coiffed hair.

But it’s Chalamet’s underrated take on Theordore “Laurie” Laurence in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women that just may be one of the best film performances of the century, possibly of all time (I might be biased but I am prepared to stand by this take until I am but a small mote of dust). In the — now heavily-memed — proposal scene in which Chalamet’s character Laurie gets rejected by his childhood love, Jo March (Saorise Ronan), the actor exudes anxiety with a nervous but purposeful walk, moving with excruciating hesitation. Before he even pops the question, he’s on the verge of tears, as if he already knows how this is going to end, but he has to try just in case.

Laurie begins his unconventional proposal with a little sigh and a shake of his head, his hair and the sleeves of his white blouse billowing in the wind against a backdrop of warm fall foliage. When Jo declines and starts to walk away, Chalamet unleashes his full power: he screams about how much he loves Jo, using his entire needle body. At this moment, he is the only man in the world having the most important crisis anyone has ever come to face. There’s almost anger, but not quite. Chalamet just gets Laurie, knowing that he loves and understands Jo too much to be angry or risk hurting her.

Call Me By Your Name, of course, has Chalamet work through a jumble of complex emotions (the primary ones being “yearning” and “horny”, as in a number of LGBTQ+ cinematic greats) as well as, perhaps most notably, weeping in front of a fireplace for nearly four full minutes. His character, Elio, just found out that Oliver, the man he fell in love with over the summer, is engaged. Throughout the close up, Chalamet barely moves anything except his eyes when they blink, and his mouth in order to hold back the pained wails that are threatening to come out. Occasionally, he reaches for his face with his hands while he rocks back and forth gently and breathes heavily.

Chalamet’s performances are deceptively physical. While this commitment to physicality is not always obvious, it is always there. As I have perhaps mentioned, Chalamet’s stature is rather diminutive. Not only is he at-risk-of-being-blown-away-by-a-weighty-breeze skinny, he stands, according to Pop Buzz, at a respectable 5 ft 10. It’s difficult for an actor with such a small frame to command a room or change their body language in immediately noticeable ways, but Chalamet characters always feel like different people: they’re all definitively Timothée, but you never feel like you’re watching Timothée Chalamet in the same way that you always feel like you’re watching Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck, both talented actors but so famous it’s difficult for them to disappear into roles no matter how hard they try. When you’re watching Chalamet, you’re watching Paul, Zeffirelli, Laurie or Elio. One day soon, we will watch an anachronistically Young and Hot Willy Wonka.

Chalamet’s most recent roles in Dune and The French Dispatch don’t include scenes of him weeping in front of the woman he loves against a New England landscape or bawling in front of a crackling fire, but they do carry a similar emotional weight. Representing centuries of male repression by playing moody young men perpetually on the verge of tears is simply what Timothée Chalamet does. He’s an actor who defines his generation by rejecting toxic masculinity and embracing vulnerability. And he does it very well, all while having a jawline sculpted by Donatello. Now that’s true talent.

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Timothée Chalamet