Some interviews kick off like birthday parties. Others play like awkward conversations with barely remembered relatives at family funerals. My conversation with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, stars of the imminent Beautiful Boy, suggests a theological debate with articulate priests from different generations.
Much of that is down to Carell. Now 56, the actor is a thoughtful, intelligent sort, but the ideas don’t exactly burst out volcanically. At least once in the interview, after a period of largely silent reflection, he asks to return to a question I asked earlier.
Respectful, polite, better looking than you or your more handsome brother, Chalamet takes his lead from the elder actor and delivers answers in a voice that would not wake a sleeping baby.
I see how young kids are when they connect with drugs. It's not high school any more. It's before that. Now it's happening with pre-teens
He seems sickeningly together. Over the last few years Timothée (he's answers to both "Tim-o-tay" and its anglicised incarnation), has developed into the most desired actor of his generation. Folk go into theatrical swoons at the mention of his fine performances in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. Not since the New Romantics have fringes flopped so alluringly.
“It’s neither a positive nor a negative thing,” he says of the sudden fame. “I don’t suppose it’s a normal thing. Maybe it’s my theatre background. I spent a lot of my youth on stage. That’s maybe why I am not too daunted by all that. It comes with a lot of gratitude. These movies aren’t commercial properties. These are real films that are affecting real people.”
You won't need to be told that he is "all about the work". Born and raised on the west side of Manhattan, he is the son of Nicole Flender, a real-estate broker, and Marc Chalamet, who worked for UNICEF. Summers were spent in France. He was uneasy in his first schools, before winning a place at Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, where, we presume, he played cello in the street and danced on police cars. Telly, theatre and smaller film roles came quickly. I mean, just look at the guy. Just watch him act.
"I did a play in New York when I was 19 called Prodigal Son, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, " he remembers. "I was very proud of it. I felt like we did a very good job. It was about a young guy spinning out of control. But because of the prices, and where it was, no young people saw it. I was getting this impression I am getting into a medium like opera. Something that is less and less understood. That's what is so thrilling about the premiere last night."
We speak at the London Film Festival where Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy has indeed just enjoyed a noisy premiere attended by legions of Chalamet supporters. Based on David Sheff's memoir Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, the film follows the author's efforts to remain supportive while his teenage child becomes ever-more addicted to crystal meth. Carell is stoical. Chalamet's charm is used to devious ends.
I’m interested in teasing out perspectives from two generations on America’s addiction problem. Carell is a just a year older than me. Chalamet is (do the maths) of an age to be our son.
“It’s one of those things that a lot of people are going through, particularly young people and particularly in America,” Chalamet says. “I am grateful how you framed that. You joked to Steve that in the 1960s maybe it was more about pot and LSD.”
Well, we were little children then. You can’t blame us for that.
“Haha. I am ageing, you guys,” he says, kindly. “But those were drugs that served to amplify your surroundings. This is not a personal thought – I am not sure where I read it – but it’s no coincidence that opiates are the devastator of today. Because they numb you to your surroundings. Regardless of your environment, you will have the same experience internally.”
That’s a chilling thought. Younger drug users today are, perhaps, working harder to escape this beastliness than were their parents’ generation. Maybe, there’s more to escape.
You never know about people, but nothing about Carell – straight of back, neat of hair, clean of chin – points to a past as a drug user. He confirms the impression given. Raised in an ordinary middle-class family, a graduate of Chicago's legendary Second City troupe, he had to wait until middle age to achieve fame with The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But none of those striving years seem to have been spent in drug dens.
“I am not sure I have a handle on what drugs represent to young people,” he says. “This film gives an insight into a young person who is trying to navigate this terrible addiction in this trying time. I don’t see that in my own life – thankfully. It’s not part of my immediate world. I was just not part of the drug culture growing up. It didn’t apply to my world. I thankfully wasn’t involved in that.”
It's important to maintain hope. Among all this confusion and fear, the hope I glean is how galvanised my generation are, how involved they are
My great friend Timothée and I go on to discuss other things in priestly manner. Carell sits statue-still with eyes locked on middle-distance. When I get back to him we chat for a while about his oscillation between comic roles and more sober material such as Beautiful Boy.
“I am just interested in doing things that are good. Whether it’s dramatic or comedic is irrelevant…”
After a bit of this, he pauses, raises a finger and negotiates a gentle reversal.
“Can I just go back to your earlier question?” he asks. “The difference between when I was growing up to now is that I see how young kids are when they connect with drugs. It’s not high school any more. It’s before that. In my day it was late in high school or in college that they experimented. Now it’s happening with pre-teens.”
Shot in gorgeous, damp shades by Ruben Impens, Beautiful Boy deals with a later period in life – Nic Sheff, the author's clever son, was heading towards college – but it gets at the two generations' confusion over post-1960s rearrangements. The older Sheff is seen taking commissions from Rolling Stone. He is not ignorant of the drug culture, but Nic's slide into thievery and deceit comes close to breaking him.
I wonder if Chalamet can expand on this notion that young people are seeking escape. The LSD generation (in the US, anyway) had Vietnam and all sorts of social division. The current generation has a horror show in the White House. The environment is crumbling. But is it really a more frightening world than the one which the flower children inhabited?
“I am not an authority. This is coming from a 22-year-old New Yorker’s point of view,” Timothée says. “You use the words ‘frightening world’. I think it’s more to do with disillusion and confusion. Not even lack of understanding about addiction. I don’t want to overdo the thing about glorification. Somebody who is glorifying that in, say, their music isn’t doing that to influence people in a negative way. It’s their primal cry. That’s an expression. But it starts too young. The pressure is there earlier.”
You can’t fault Chalamet. He understands that he comes from a privileged position and knows to offer that qualification before sounding off about the state of the world. But we will allow him to moan about the state of the world. We’ve left his generation with a lot of effluent to mop up. Not many of them voted for Trump. Relatively few young people voted for Brexit.
"It is the most jarring time in the course of my life. But I talk to my dad and he says the same thing, and he was around for Nixon," he says with a wry smile. "It's important to maintain hope. Not naively. [Professor] Cornel West has a brilliant dissertation on the difference between hope and optimism: there is a need to be real. Among all this confusion and fear – some of which is being sowed – the hope I glean is how galvanised my generation are, how involved they are."
I make an attempt to look apologetic. Carell does the same. Chalamet is still going.
“Without any disrespect to my parents generation, people my age are inheriting a world that we are driven to change.”
Five films about addiction
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Arguably the grimmest film on Billy Wilder's CV, this adaptation of Charles R Jackson's novel – retelling the author's own alcoholism – won Oscars for the director and star Ray Milland.
The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Terrific Otto Preminger drama starring Frank Sinatra as a drummer who struggles with addiction (to heroin, we assume) after leaving prison. Riddled with pathos.
Bigger than Life (1956)
A great favourite of Martin Scorsese, Nicolas Ray's subversive, wide-screen drama features James Mason as a middle-class schoolteacher who gets hooked on cortisone.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Before he gave in to big, dumb, action, Nicolas Cage excelled in this Mike Figgis film about a screenwriter – based on the late John O'Brien – who ploughs through squalor as he drinks himself to death.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Released to many puzzled reviews, Darren Aronofsky's study of four addicts is now praised as a key millennial film. As bold as the boldest of this bold director's work.