Timothée Chalamet has been on a wilder world tour than most rock stars.
Between shooting “Dune: Part Two” in Budapest and “Wonka” in London and the cannibal romance “Bones and All” in Ohio, he’s hardly had time to sleep in his own bed. “We did the ‘French Dispatch’ premiere in Cannes,” he says about the debut of the Wes Anderson comedy in the south of France two summers ago, where he walked the red carpet in a silver suit. “And then I was immediately doing the vocal and dance training at Leavesden” — to take on the role of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka — “which was wonderful, because I went from playing a disenfranchised cannibal on the outskirts of American society in the ’80s to a gifted young chocolatier and now a space prophet.”
On this afternoon, 26-year-old Chalamet is taking a break from inhabiting the dangerous planet Arrakis in “Dune: Part Two” to attend the London premiere of “Bones and All.” The drama, which premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in early September reteams Chalamet with Luca Guadagnino, the Italian director who turned him into a movie star with 2017’s Sundance darling “Call Me by Your Name.” That gay romance, in which Chalamet plays Elio, an American teenager who falls in love with an older man, not only made Chalamet, then 22, the second-youngest best actor Oscar nominee in history, it gave peach emojis a whole new reason for existing.
If “Bones and All” could be just as culturally relevant, Hollywood would breathe a sigh of relief — because the world of indie cinema could use a jolt. Some 20 years ago, a generation of movie lovers funded art-house theaters by supporting “Boogie Nights,” “Memento” and “The Virgin Suicides.” Now, the 2022 equivalent of storytelling like that is HBO’s “Euphoria.” Post-pandemic box office numbers are sharply down, particularly for smaller movies, which is why United Artists Releasing has given “Bones and All” a Nov. 18 theatrical release: It’s the same window in which almost all installments of the “Twilight” saga dropped, setting multiplexes on fire as teen girls showed up in droves for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.
When I meet Chalamet in a hotel room in London, the young actor offers to pour me a glass of sparkling water as we sit down for a conversation with Guadagnino and Chalamet’s co-star, Taylor Russell. Hollywood has had a deficit of movie stars lately, particularly in the 20-something age bracket. Chalamet’s superstar appeal has always been in his “soft boy” aesthetic (which was famously parodied in a hilarious “Saturday Night Live” skit by Chloe Fineman). His fans like that he’s approachable, but he can also turn it up like royalty on a carpet — as he did at the Venice premiere of “Bones and All” in a red jumpsuit with a bare back that created a commotion on the Lido. Chalamet was showered with more cheers than even Harry Styles, who touched down in Italy at the start of awards season for “Don’t Worry Darling.” (Despite speculation on Twitter, Styles didn’t spit on Chris Pine.)
At Venice, Chalamet made headlines when he proclaimed that it’s “tough to be alive” in the age of social media, adding, “I think societal collapse is in the air.” When asked to elaborate on this assertion in London, he backpedals: “I think what I was saying was really, ‘What would it be like to grow up now?’” he says. “I guess I’m still growing up. Especially in the context of my career, I’m still growing. But I think Taylor and my generation was really the level-one social media — Vine, MySpace. And I think now it’s just more ingrained. But I’m definitely not the authority on the subject. And, equally, it could be a great space to find your people.”
I’d taken my 14-year-old daughter with me to the premiere of “Bones and All,” and we watched the screaming hysteria around Chalamet. When the movie premiered six weeks later in Milan, hundreds of Chalamet’s devotees — his followers are known as the “Chalamaniacs” — swarmed the venue, forcing police to close down the red carpet due to safety concerns. Such fandom harks back to the early days of Leo, Matt, George and Brad.
“Venice — that was fun,” Chalamet says, though “fame,” to people of his generation, is a dirty word, and Chalamet clearly wants to be seen as a regular guy (for instance, he continued to ride the subway in New York after “Call Me by Your Name” premiered). “I enjoy those moments,” he says, “and have a lot of gratitude for them. And I definitely never want to be expectant about it.” Abruptly switching subjects, he adds, “And, I must say, I get very excited about the lens we made this movie through — that there’s a fable and a metaphor at the heart of it, not some massive corporate interest.”
An arty New York City kid at heart, Chalamet chooses his own looks, including the black leather Celine jacket he wears at our photo shoot. As for his thoughts on cinema, he has a soft spot for indie films. “Those are the kind of projects that I grew up loving,” he says. “Even just on the music side, those are the kind of artists that inspire me — not because there’s a beat per minute that places well in the Top 40, but because they’re just putting their artistic ethos on something.”
Chalamet knows a little something about music. At the famed LaGuardia High School, he had the rap moniker Lil Timmy Tim. An uncovered video of him rapping about statistics class while wearing a backward baseball cap has been watched 10 million times on YouTube. Soon, he’ll be returning to those roots (sort of) by channeling a young Bob Dylan in “Going Electric,” a biopic directed by James Mangold.
Although there have been starts and stops with “Going Electric” since it was first announced two years ago, Chalamet confirms that he’s still attached. “I haven’t stopped preparing, which has been one of the greatest gifts for me,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful experience getting to dive into that world, whether we get to make it or not. But without giving anything away — because I don’t want to beat anyone to the punch, and obviously things have to come together officially — the winds that are blowing are blowing in a very positive direction.”
Before that, fans will get a taste of Chalamet’s musical gifts in “Wonka,” which is set to open in theaters around Christmas 2023. Chalamet trained hard for the movie’s seven musical numbers. “That was something I was very excited to jump into right away,” he says. Director Paul King “built a literal dance studio in one of the lots at Leavesden in London at Warner Bros.,” he adds.
The actor’s career blossomed after “Call Me by Your Name,” with two dramas directed by Greta Gerwig — “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” And then he landed the lead as Paul Atreides in the “Dune” franchise, his biggest hit to date.
“Dune: Part Two,” which he’s filming now, reunites him with “Little Women” co-star Florence Pugh. “We were joking on set that we keep doing these movies, and we end up together even though we should be ending up with different people,” he says. “Florence is really special. She’s an incredible actor. She was incredible in ‘Dune’ — seriously incredible. She brought a gravitas to the role. And I can’t believe my good fortune at this young age … between Taylor Russell in ‘Bones and All’ and Zendaya in ‘Dune.’ And Austin Butler’s in that movie too.”
Zendaya will have a larger role in the second “Dune,” reprising her part as the warrior Chani. “She hasn’t wrapped yet,” he says, “and it’s amazing. She’s bringing exactly what she brought to the first one — which was incredible — but in greater abundance. And she’s really become a sister. I’m so grateful to count her as a partner and a sister and a friend” — he looks over at Guadagnino — “and also to share stories about how amazing it is to work with Luca, because we worked with him back to back on wildly different projects.” He’s referencing the fact that Zendaya collaborated with Guadagnino on “Challengers,” a romantic comedy set in the tennis world, which is in postproduction.
“He saw the movie,” Guadagnino teases, goading Chalamet to comment.
Chalamet hesitates, not wanting to give away anything about the film. “Loved it,” he finally says. His smile lights up the room.
If we’re being honest, this Oscar season has been a bit boring. Between the period pieces and the dramas made from memoirs, most directors aren’t cutting too deep. So perhaps we shouldn’t count out a love story about two cannibals who eat their way through the back roads of America.
The conventional wisdom is that blood and guts is too much for most Academy voters, but Guadagnino is here to tell you that’s not always the case. “In the history of the Oscars, cannibalism has been a gigantic plus,” he says. He then lists the five Academy Awards handed to the greatest flesh-eating masterpiece of all time, “The Silence of the Lambs.” “There’s a very tough novel, the talented script and Sir Anthony Hopkins as the unforgettable cannibal.” He cites the film’s director, Jonathan Demme, as a strong influence on his own career.
“I’m not comparing myself or us to that masterpiece,” he says. (OK, maybe he is, just a little.) “But that was a love story like ‘Bones and All.’ It was a fun, twisted love story between a cannibal psychoanalyst and a very stern woman who wants to save herself by saving this other girl from the lair of a serial killer.”
If you’re raising your eyebrows at someone describing “Silence of the Lambs” as “fun,” you haven’t met Guadagnino. The tall, chatty Italian director has spent his entire life obsessing over Dario Argento’s horror classic “Suspiria.” Following “Call Me by Your Name,” Guadagnino directed an elegant remake, in which flesh is ripped and heads explode.
Now, he’s reunited with Chalamet on “Bones and All, which is not quite the next “Silence of the Lambs” but more along the lines of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” or Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” In “Bones,” Chalamet and Russell play Lee and Maren, teenage misfits in the 1980s, who find each other in a roadside convenience store as they’re both drifting across the Midwest. As they travel together, they feed on strangers they meet along the way.
But just don’t compare cannibals to vampires with this crew. “I love the ‘Twilight’ movies so much,” says Russell, who broke out in 2019 with a heart-wrenching performance in Trey Edward Shults’ family drama “Waves” and now could have a shot at some awards-season gold playing Maren. “But this is different. They both deal with blood and people who are not normal, but ‘Twilight’ has vampires and this movie has cannibals.”
For many years, Guadagnino — the director of “The Protagonists,” “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” (all starring his muse, Tilda Swinton) — was either detested or ignored within Italy’s insular film milieu, and the feeling was mutual. So it’s not surprising that the first time I met him, in 2009, he told me his goal was to become “a Hollywood insider.” Surely, “Call Me by Your Name” brought him a step closer to that dream. And now his association with Chalamet has potentially clinched the deal.
When asked how “Bones and All” made it to the big screen, Guadagnino says, “The honest, direct and completely unapologetic answer is Timothée.”
Chalamet was in Rome doing reshoots for the first “Dune,” stuck in Europe during the pandemic, when Guadagnino sent him the “Bones and All” screenplay. They talked at length, and the actor realized that this could be the first project in which he might have a hand in shaping his character.
“It excited me, because it felt like it was very different than the first project we had done together,” Chalamet says. “It excited me, too, because I felt the bones of Lee — no pun intended — were there, but there was a lack of direction.” Guadagnino encouraged Chalamet to fill out the character by working with the screenwriter, David Kajganich, an experience he’d never had before.
“When Luca said I should get on the phone with David, and that process started, I was seriously warming to the idea that — without sounding pretentious — we would be going to the middle of America with Luca to shoot his first American film.” He adds, “And because a couple projects I’d done were of such a size, I felt like I really wanted the challenge of going back in a more ‘indie environment.’” He uses his fingers as quotation marks.
Kajganich, with whom Guadagnino collaborated on “Suspiria,” had originally adapted the YA novel “Bones & All” by Camille DeAngelis for “The Devil All the Time” director Antonio Campos. When Campos backed out, the writer asked Guadagnino to read it.
“When Lee shows up on the page,” says Guadagnino, “I found Timmy.”
Despite having a big star attached, the cannibal romancer was not an easy sell to investors. Guadagnino and Chalamet, both producers on the film, didn’t want a studio on board, so they sought out Italian financiers. The fact that they and all the other actors were willing to defer their fees “really helped with investors,” says producer Francesco Melzi d’Eril.
Once the $20 million film was completed, it was immediately snapped up, sight unseen, by MGM.
Taylor Russell could see her character clearly when she first read the script for “Bones and All.” “What struck me about her initially is that she’s this kind of creature who feels like there’s something off with her, like a picture frame that’s slanted,” Russell says. “And I wanted to work through that exercise of ‘If there is something inherently wrong with me, is there a way to break through that?’”
Guadagnino told Russell and Chalamet that they had to sink their teeth into the role of real cannibals. “The intention was always that we were hopefully doing justice to the reality of these people’s lives,” says Russell.
Guadagnino calls “Bones” “a fairy tale.” “It’s about two young people — a girl, in particular — roaming this world of darkness and dealing with the challenges within and without, finding love in the gaze of one another and trying to overcome impossibility.”
Still, the outcast lovers feast on human body parts, a butchery the film does not shy away from. Guadagnino says quickly that he and his editor, Marco Costa, made a point of cutting away from gratuitous gore. He was not interested in shock value but rather an intensity of desire.
Russell and Chalamet, for their part, wanted to explore the emotional relationship more than the cannibalism. But, Russell says, they also “talked about eating somebody, eating anything, using your body, your hands, your mouth — it’s so tactile, so physical, that, in some ways, it’s simple.”
Guadagnino and his team thought about the consequences of a precarious life led roaming through cornfields and along back roads in the 1980s Midwest, “dealing with violence and the unexpected.”
“We came up with a lot of very subtle ideas about wearing the fatigue of being an eater on their faces and bodies — like scars in unpredictable places because of the reactions of the victims, who wounded them.”
One of Chalamet’s first lines in the film is “If you weigh 140 pounds wet, you got to have an attitude — a big attitude.” Asked whether he lost weight for the role, Chalamet answers, “Yeah,” without elaborating on how many pounds he’d dropped. Then he says, “That look that Maren and Lee have, I think it feeds the fablelike quality of the story, and of people that are living in extremes. As opposed to what the reality would be, perhaps: If you were consistently devouring entire human bodies, it would probably leave you with a bigger figure than they have.”
Chalamet worked with costume designer Giulia Piersanti on Lee’s look, riffing off the grunge aesthetic of 1980s punk rock. “Lee would want to express himself through his clothes,” Chalamet says. To help with this mix of big attitude and skinny body, they decided to dye his hair with sun-bleached streaks of pinkish reds, chop off some curls on the sides, and give Lee tattoos on his arms and hand.
Of course, everyone wants to know if Chalamet and Guadagnino are planning a sequel to “Call Me by Your Name.” Guadagnino floated the idea almost as soon as he debuted the original at Sundance, while he was doing press with Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who played Chalamet’s older lover, Oliver. But the project’s chances of making it to the screen have dwindled in the wake of allegations against Hammer in early 2021 for being physically and emotionally abusive to women, including suggesting that he eat their flesh. (Despite speculation in the tabloids, these cannibal exchanges had nothing to do with the inspiration for “Bones and All.”)
“I would love to make a second and third and fourth chapter of all my movies,” Guadagnino says. “Why? Because I truly love the actors I work with, so I want to repeat the joy of doing what we did together.”
However, when it comes to “Call Me by Your Name,” Guadagnino says, “there is no hypothesis, so there is no movie. It’s a wish and a desire, and I have not made up my mind about what would be the story.” When asked if the film could still include Hammer’s character, he says, “Yeah, of course.” Then he presents another potential storyline for a sequel — following Mafalda, the housekeeper, played by Vanda Capriolo, who resides in Elio’s family’s summer home. “Which is divine,” he says. “I would be very interested in seeing what is the life of Mafalda when she’s not around the family.”
After our group conversation, I meet with Guadagnino again in a bare, neon-lit room that seems better suited to a police interrogation than an interview. He is walking on crutches, one leg in a short fracture boot, due to his tripping on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures stage after presenting a Visionary Award to Tilda Swinton in L.A. a few days earlier.
On the red carpet, before the Academy Museum ceremony, Guadagnino teased “Challengers,” his first U.S. studio film, which is being produced for MGM by Amy Pascal. To get Guadagnino on board, Pascal had sent him the “Challengers” script and pushed him to read it that same afternoon. She called him every half hour “until I surrendered and I read it.”
So does Guadagnino finally feel he has become a Hollywood insider?
“No,” he says, “not yet. But I can fall from the stage of the Academy Museum and be helped by many Hollywood insiders.” Among those who came to his aid were Adrien Brody, Alicia Vikander and his longtime agent, Bryan Lourd. “That was a good feeling. A lot of Hollywood insiders love me very much.”