Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell on playing father and son in real-life addiction drama Beautiful Boy

Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff and Steve Carell as David Scheff in Beautiful Boy
Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff and Steve Carell as David Scheff in Beautiful Boy
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Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell talk to Alistair Harkness about Beautiful Boy, a true story about how a family is torn apart by addiction

It’s October 2018 and Timothée Chalamet is pondering the craziness of the last 12 months. “I’m just eternally grateful,” he begins, not quite sure how to sum up a year a year in which his heart-breaking turn as a gay teenager in Call Me By Your Name turned him into an Oscar-nominated, headline-generating movie star – one with his own devoted fanbase (the self-styled “Chalamaniacs”) pouring over his every move, and with style mags like i-D analysing why his androgynous demeanour makes him the “perfect heartthrob” for a generation uninterested in conforming to heteronormative ideals.

On the strength of his appeal, for instance, Call Me By Your Name could yet become a years-spanning franchise in its own right (“I’m 100 percent in,” says Chalamet of any potential sequels). Meanwhile, at the previous evening’s London Film Festival premiere of his new addiction-themed drama Beautiful Boy, it was Chalamet – decked out in a floral-print Alexander McQueen suit – who found himself besieged by fans and the paparazzi; co-star Steve Carell barely got a look in. Not that Carell seems unduly bothered. Perched on a sofa alongside his younger co-star, he listens with a sort of quiet parental pride as the 22-year-old tries to explain why all the attention is heartening.

“I was starting to get this anxiety and this fear that I was entering into a medium, like opera or something, that was going to be less and less viably understood by people,” he says, referring to a play about youth culture he did when he was 19 that no young people saw. “But what’s amazing after last year, and what I experienced at the premiere last night, was seeing people my age care about these projects. These aren’t commercial properties; these are stories about real people going through real things and, in this case, addiction, which is a crisis in America right now. So, yeah, a lot of gratitude.”

Beautiful Boy certainly isn’t an easy watch. Based on the memoirs of the same name by acclaimed US journalist David Sheff, and Tweak, by his crystal-meth addicted son Nic Sheff, the film offers a frank take on the destructive impact addiction has on a family in which there are no easy explanations for why it takes root.

“The books are different,” says Carell, who plays David. “Nic’s book tells his story in a very immediate way and David’s is more of a rumination on his son and his experience with his family. But it is interesting to have two different sides and it’s also interesting that I later found out that Nic and David wrote these memoirs independently of one another. They didn’t collaborate in any way and when they sent their manuscripts to each other to read, I think it was a revelation for them both to discover what the other was going through.”

Carell thinks the books are a gift to anyone going through these issues. Chalamet agrees, but found the immediacy of Tweak especially useful for playing Nic. “It’s all in the present tense,” he elaborates. “There was little thought to what came before or after. And I only illuminate that because when it came time to shoot it, it became imperative to lose the viewpoints of the other family members. As Steve would say, someone who’s in a drama doesn’t know they’re in a drama. It would have been false to know what David was going through. And I think the nature of those substances is to really intensely put you in a first-person state of mind that takes empathy out of the equation.”

As much as there’s no single cause for Nic’s addiction, though, one of the interesting things the film attempts is an interrogation of the romanticised way in which addiction and creativity are often perceived to overlap. As a magazine journalist, Sheff has interviewed the likes of John Lennon, Frank Zappa and Keith Haring and is thus part of a cultural machine that has mythologised the link between drugs and creativity as much as it has legitimately explored it. “I think David was very honest with himself in the book,” says Carell. “I hope the film portrays that as well. He examines his own faults and examines the flaws in his parenting.”

The film traces this development in Nic too. As a 12-year-old he was obsessed with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and the film uses the band’s furious, punky paranoia anthem Territorial Pissings to soundtrack a flashback bonding moment between father and son that ends with Chalamet’s Nic in the present day, throwing up in an alleyway. It’s a powerful sequence, and as Nic, Chalamet looks a little like Cobain himself, frequently dressed in an oversized mohair cardigan that hangs off his increasingly strung-out body (Chalamet lost 18lbs from his already slender frame to play the part). Given that Cobain killed himself before Chalamet was even born, I’m curious if he has the same kind of cultural resonance he had for someone like Nic, who’s now in his late 30s.

“My guest to the premiere of Beautiful Boy was Kid Cudi, who’s my favourite artist and the man who inspired me to act, and his biggest inspiration was Kurt Cobain,” says Chalamet by way of explanation. “So I think it will be relatable for a long time.”

“I had to learn the song,” chips in Carell, referring to the screamed rendition of Territorial Pissings he had to do alongside Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays 12-year-old Nic. “We shot that scene all day. Just the two of us. And of course they only use a little bit of it. But we were screaming it.”

Did he lose his voice?

“Oh, yeah.”

For both actors the film represents another opportunity to broaden their range, with Carell continuing to plough the dramatic furrow he’s favoured since scoring an Oscar-nomination for Foxcatcher and Chalamet showing what he can do in a more transformative role.

As we’re coming up to awards season – Chalamet has already been in the running for a Golden Globe and may score another Oscar nod later this month; Carell may yet be in the running for this or the forthcoming Vice (he plays Donald Rumsfeld opposite Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney) – do they now have strategies for approaching what’s become an industry in itself?

“I don’t approach it,” says Carell. “I walk the other way. Obviously it’s lovely when people recognise things. But I tend to not put a lot of stock in it.”

“I took my cue from Armie Hammer last year,” says Chalamet. “Don’t shy away from enjoying it, but know what the important things are in your life.” ■

Beautiful Boy is in Cinemas from Friday. Vice is released on 25 January.