Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet dig deep into painful family truths in Beautiful Boy, the real story of a father dealing with his son’s meth addiction. Total Film meets the actors and their IRL counterparts to discover why this is a love story above al
Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet on their heartbreaking addiction drama.
Wbehinde just naturally became friends,” muses Steve Carell, his eyes narrowing
his thick specs. “There weren’t any exercises that we needed to go through in order to generate that affection… I think we had it almost instantly.”
“Yeah, I feel the same way,” chimes Timothée Chalamet. “I felt very… just taken in. I felt a strong warmth from Steve, and from Felix [Van Groeningen], our director, and then the scenes with Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney as well. I felt a very paternal quality coming from them.” It’s September 2018, and Carell and Chalamet are at the Toronto International Film Festival with Beautiful Boy, a heart-wrenching addiction drama that premiered to strong reviews and widespread weeping the night before Total Film meets the pair at the swish Omni King Edward Hotel. They’re talking about their crucial chemistry in the film, which casts them as real-life father and son David and Nic Sheff, the former a San Francisco-based journalist who would later chronicle his son’s downward spiral into methamphetamine addiction, and his own reaction to it.
Ryan and Tierney play Nic’s mother and stepmother respectively, but the father-son relationship is the crux of the film, and it’s essential that the actors have a believable connection, to ground the film through its more tumultuous scenes. “We had a… I guess you’d call it a chemistry test?” continues Carell, looking smart in a dark brown blazer.
“They weren’t testing Steve,” offers 22-year-old Chalamet, sporting a crisp white shirt with floral shoulder decoration, his wildly curly hair starting to grow out of the bowl cut demanded for his upcoming role in Netflix’s The King. “They were figuring out whether I would play the role, or somebody else. But Steve was already attached and a major attraction for me.”
It must help that Carell naturally exudes a loveable dad quality, too? “I totally agree,” grins Chalamet. “And I’m grateful in real life and in the movie to have experienced that quality of Steve’s character. It’s a beautiful thing. He would be warm and kind as a human being, but then, in a business like this one where we’re all familiar with the negative tropes, it’s kind of amazing to have gotten this experience with Steve.”
In the next room, director Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) talks TF through the casting. “Well, for David, it had to be a very caring dad, obviously, and very relatable,” he explains of how he came upon Carell. “There was something very cerebral, also, about his character, because of his job and the way he starts investigating how he can help his son.” As filming started in early 2017, Chalamet hadn’t by that point exploded with the release of Call Me By Your Name and the ensuing awards (including Oscar) noms. “For the role of Nic, we did auditions and saw a lot of tapes coming in,” continues Van Groeningen. “And at some point, we saw an audition of a young actor, not very well-known – Timothée Chalamet.” He bursts into a chuckle. “You know, he blew us away with his bold and fearless energy, and how he could switch between a person completely strung out on drugs, and also be this very intriguing teenager trying to find a bond with his dad. So at some point, we put them in the room together to do a chemistry read, and I just felt it – they connected.”
Love is the drug
For the real Sheffs, the fruition of their family story becoming a film has been a wild ride. David channelled his experiences of trying to save his son into first a New York Times Magazine article in 2005 (‘My Addicted Son’), then into Beautiful Boy, the 2008 memoir that became a celebrated bestseller. Like the film, it’s a frequently upsetting and frustrating read, as David’s efforts are confounded by Nic’s relapses, and the seemingly insurmountable grip of his meth addiction. The book will ring poignantly true for parents fearful of losing control of their children to such an uncompromising disease, and Nic also wrote his own memoir, Tweak, published in 2009.
When we later meet David and Nic in London, David explains that – due to his struggles to even finish the book because of Nic’s further relapses – “there was not even an
inkling that some day, this could be a movie with these amazing actors and this cool director”. In person, David has a softly spoken authority, and Nic is bright-eyed and smiling. “It’s sort of embarrassing to look back on [my book], because it is so raw and unformed, but I think that’s also why it’s this amazing time capsule from that time period,” adds Nic. “So yeah, the fact that it could go from that to being in theatres right now… I still can’t wrap my head around it completely.”
Film interest in the books was immediate. Producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner bagged the movie rights for Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company, and over the past decade names such as Cameron Crowe and Mark Wahlberg had been attached. In the book Beautiful Boy, it’s clear that the Sheffs are both cinema buffs, and frequently bond over movies, so a screen version of their own story must have been a particular thrill. “One of the amazing things about Felix, also, is that before Timothée Chalamet became what he is now, which is like this biggerthan-life movie star, Felix auditioned and looked at the tapes of a few hundred actors, and found him,” marvels David. “Steve Carell is the opposite. He’s somebody I’ve always admired. He’s an amazing comic genius, but also in his dramatic roles: The Big
Short was amazing, and it was heartbreaking to watch him in Little Miss Sunshine. But it was still impossible to imagine he would play me. But God, what an honour to be in that position.”
Having the books – and indeed the authors – as a guide was a different experience for the leads. “It was just a tremendous help to have books to guide us, and descriptions of what the characters internally would have been going through exactly,” says Chalamet. “Because they really take on different perspectives and different tones in many ways.”
For Carell, playing David was more of an interpretation than an impersonation. “I found him to be kind and gentle and generous – all of these things I identify with as a father,” he says. “There’s a certain ego that you have as a parent, and you tend to blame yourself for any perceived faults you see in your children. The last people I would want to blame are my kids, because my wife and I feel completely and utterly responsible for
them. So that was an intriguing part of the story, too, because I feel like David has that self-awareness.”
Nic was impressed with Chalamet during their initial meeting. “We met at a coffee shop in LA, and I was just instantly blown away by him as a human being,” says Nic. “He just had this energy. There was something so charismatic about him. But also, I could tell that he was someone who really, really studies and does his homework. He was asking so many questions about the specifics of what it looks like to be using, and to be detoxing, and the emotions.” After their initial meetings, the Sheffs largely stepped back during filming. They each made one visit to the set, but seeing the scenes being filmed proved too painful. “It was really overwhelming, because it was such a sad scene, an intense scene,” recalls David. Adds Nic, “Especially having to redo the scene over and over and over again – it was just way too emotional.”
The book, and the film, are at times emotionally overwhelming experiences. Presumably, it would be difficult for the actors to shed the weight of these woes during such an emotionally intense shoot? “In some ways, it was like the opposite,” says Chalamet. “I felt like getting home and calling my parents and assuring them and being assured by them. Reading the script, I remember telling myself, ‘Do the scenes to the best of your ability. Commit to this character to the best of your ability.’ And that’s down to the weight loss, and trying to get the physical aspects right. But I really tried not to make illusions to myself about having to be miserable between takes or at night or not taking time off. I actually think your work is better protected when you’re not miserable.”
It’s a story about a family and people who cherish one another’ Steve CAreLL
Addicted to love
On Chalamet’s weight loss (he dropped 20lb from his slender frame for the role), Van Groeningen explains that the scenes in which Nic is strung out and at his lowest points were filmed first, so that Chalamet could return to his normal weight for the happier scenes (loss being a slower process than gain). “It helped him physically feel it, and hit some sort of rock bottom,” says Van Groeningen. “I mean, he was very closely followed, but at some point, we had a feeling he was pushing it further than we wanted, because he was so committed to it. We did have to say at some point: ‘Timmy, stop. It’s great. We don’t want you to go into a dangerous place.’”
For all the heaviness, there was laughter on set. “It wasn’t like a wake,” says Carell, with a smile. “We had fun. Because that’s part of being a family as well. Underpinning all of this is a sense of joy and love.” Because as much as Beautiful Boy is an account of the addict’s experience, and how that filters out into the family, it is even more so a nonromantic love story. “I think that’s what it is, at its heart,” Carell concurs. “A love story between a father and his son. In many ways, so much of
[the talk around the film] obviously is about addiction and recovery. But beyond that, it’s a love story. It’s a story about a family and people who cherish one another, and the beauty in that.” Painful as the viewing experience was, the Sheffs commend the film for its accuracy. “It was devastating to be seeing, from the outside, stuff that I knew had happened,” says David. “I kept saying, ‘This isn’t us. These are actors – Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet.’ But it was us. They got us in so many different ways, and it was a reminder of what happened. I feel it really showed what it’s like to live with this in your family.”
“I felt that way too,” concludes Nic. “I mean, it was super-hard, but I did feel incredibly grateful when it was over. Like my dad said, they did get so many things right.
It did feel so authentic. So it did just make me feel like each and every day I should be so grateful for my life, and for my relationship with my family… and just the fact that we survived it, I guess, is incredible.”
Beautiful Boy opens on 18 January.
If you or someone you know is suffering from drug addiction, you can find support and local treatment centres via talktofrank.com