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Pauline Chalamet starts our conversation by leaping into one of the most polarizing controversies of our time: Should everyone at a group dinner pay for what they ordered? Or should the bill be split evenly? She might as well have raised nuclear disarmament or how many exclamation points you can put in a professional email, so intense are the emotions around this topic. She knows exactly where she stands.
“People who have money to spend are always okay with splitting the bill,” she says. “People who don’t can’t think that way—they’ve consciously ordered less.” It’s a situation that Chalamet’s character finds herself in on Mindy Kaling’s new HBO Max show, The Sex Lives of College Girls, out November 18. And it’s something Chalamet experienced herself while eating out with friends in college. There’s nothing wrong with refusing to split the bill evenly, she says. “It’s not being difficult, it’s just—this is what I ordered! I didn’t get the wine because I couldn’t afford it.”
Chalamet was a child dancer. She studied at the School of American Ballet and performed sometimes with the guilded, elite New York City Ballet. She grew up in Manhattan and landed her first TV role on One Life to Live in 1999, a full decade before her younger brother Timothée would make his small-screen debut in Law and Order. They both attended LaGuardia High School, noted for an alumni list studded with Anistons and DeNiros, Pacinos and Minajs. After college she studied at a prestigious acting conservatory in Paris. She makes short films that linger on the beauty of small moments—espresso pouring into a china cup, a woman’s legs churning hypnotically on the elliptical.
In The Sex Lives of College Girls, Chalamet tries on a different background as Kimberly Finkle, one of four roommates starting their first year at an elite college. Kimberly hails from “the whitest town” in Arizona, her dad is the manager of a Walgreens, and she tries to wear her anorak to a frat party. But underneath the anorak, the actor and the character have something in common. Like Kimberly, Chalamet had a quintessentially American experience—she went to college, and she picked up student loan debt.
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“I came from a very middle-class family and had to take out loans to go to college,” Chalamet says. “I was really shocked when I arrived at school at the difference between those who had money and those who didn’t. And most people had money.” It’s not that Chalamet isn’t aware of her many forms of privilege. It’s just that private college can cost more than a downpayment, and obscene wealth is constantly on display. Chalamet dealt with it by working a service job and trying to stick to side salads at group dinners. For Kimberly, things go a little differently.
“Shut the fuck up, not everyone one this campus has money!” Chalamet-as-Kimberly bellows in one scene, dressing down a group of preppy rich guys who have been harassing her colleagues at their on-campus café job. “Some of us have to work these jobs because—even if we didn’t know it until we got here—we’re kind of poor,” she shouts. “So yeah, maybe I don’t have the newest iPhone and maybe I don’t know what couscous is, but I’m still a fucking person.” From the cursing to the misplaced emphasis she uses on couscous, Chalamet decimates the monologue. Much more satisfying than a side salad.
Chalamet is the kind of worldly, cultured 20-something who gives the Emily-in-Paris-es of this world identity crises. Kimberly, afraid to get changed in front of her new roommate, dresses in a closet. But both character and actor come off as genuine and unpretentious. Chalamet speaks with the swift earnestness of the very young, or very caffeinated. Her extremely recognizable bone structure contorts in enthusiasm. She’s fun. She’s smart. And she’s about to be a major TV star. She sat down with Glamour to tell us how she got here, and where she’ll go next.
Glamour: You went to Bard College, a prestigious liberal arts school in New York—how did Sex Lives do at capturing life on a fancy college campus?
Pauline Chalamet: I think it did an incredible job of exploring the elite institution vibe! I really related to my character on the socioeconomic level. I really felt that difference, and I think Kimberly really feels that difference too. Her storyline shows the struggle of wanting to fit in and what you have to do. And how you can be paired with roommates, but you could have major life differences. So many other popular college-based shows or movies show these elite institutions as being very easy to be at. I think that the money side of it really makes it difficult.
How was “the college experience” for you?
I had a full college experience. I kind of learned how to be a good student at Bard. I had never really cared about academics, but in college I learned the power of—I don’t want to say the power of knowledge, but the power of curiosity. I remember being overwhelmed my freshman year. There was so much reading. I loved it, but it was really hard for me because most kids had already read these books. I was like, “I do not understand these words!” I remember being in the library and thinking, “I can’t do this!” I had to develop a technique of skimming, like, “This is how you read in college for your classwork.” With reading, the more you do it, the easier it gets. I was also working off campus at a farm-to-table market and restaurant and that I loved because I liked being with people from the area. College was a little bit of a struggle, financially.
It seems like you’ve been working in the arts your whole life. Have you ever had a break?
I took a two-year break in college where I was just studying politics—I did political studies and became obsessed with comparative politics. I studied theater and politics at Bard, I double-majored. It was very different theater than what I had been seeing and performing growing up. I was at the School of American Ballet as a child, so it was very rigorous professional training. I was used to classically structured theater, and then all of a sudden it’s like: A man walks across the stage, and that’s theater. And I’m like, “No, it’s not.” Then little by little I’m like, “Oh, no—it is.” But I didn’t have a lot of success in theater at Bard—I auditioned for all the shows, never got into them.
How did you start directing your own work?
I just wanted things to be getting done, so I was like, “Well, I’ll just make them.” That’s how directing came to me. I just came up with these stories, and then I’d be like, “Let’s get some friends in there, or I’ll do it and have a friend shoot it, and I’ll run back and forth from the monitor.” It really came from this desire to try and be in control, which is ultimately an anxiety thing because you don’t ever have that much control over anything! I was like, “Okay, if I have the story in my head, how do I make it?” That was kind of the work of directing.
I want to learn more about what my vision is as a director. I know the stories I want to tell, but what are my beliefs about directing? Do I believe that there is something such as female storytelling? Or is it just that we need to create more nuance? I don’t know, I don’t have those answers yet.
Was it hard not having control, not being a director, when it came to this show?
When I got to Sex Lives of College Girls, it was nuts! It was such a big boat. A part of me loved it because I was like, “Wow, I can just do this work. I show up, and you guys are going to do the rest.” At the same time that’s kind of scary because I’m really aware of all the work that goes on behind and that means I don’t know what’s going to happen with the work I’m giving you. It was a good exercise in control and having to let go.
We had a bit of a hiatus [after filming] the pilot and I was like, “Oh, my God, what am I doing?” So I called a friend and said, “What do you think of making a short, just in the apartment? I have really cool bathrooms, so we need to find something that features the bathrooms.” She was like, “Let’s do it.” I made another short film on the hiatus! I couldn’t stand not doing anything.
The show is your first major role in a huge project—were you anxious while filming it?
It must have been, but I’ve had a lot of years of working on it. I know why I want to be where I am right now. I think a lot of my anxiety came from being like, “Where am I? And why am I here?” But I’ve worked on those things, and I continue to work on them. What I’ve learned is the more you focus on what the work is, whatever you’re bringing to the table, the more it alleviates your anxiety because you’ll get to know who you are in the process.
Your character Kimberly is extremely endearing. But she’s also what people sometimes call a “white feminist”—she preaches feminism, but when it comes to people of color she can be discriminatory. What did you make of that?
I liked that because she seemed consistent. Something I really love, that I kind of live my life by, is that I don’t really care about people’s intentions. Those close to me know that I can be very tough about this. If you are intending to do something good—the way Kimberly intends to go to her Black colleague and say, “I’ve never met a Black person before”—your intention is good, but the effect it’s having on the person in front of you is not. Actually, the way it’s received is what matters. There are obviously exceptions to all of this. That was something that I enjoyed exploring with Kimberly because I think it’s something that a lot of people are asking themselves today.
What was the vibe like between those of you who played the four roommates—you, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Renée Rapp, and Amrit Kaur?
We had a great work dynamic! The four of us come from such completely different backgrounds. In the beginning you’re meeting three strangers. There was a lot of late nights. We would play a lot of improv games. There was a lot of a cappella singing and singing in rounds. I loved genuinely growing close to these people who I’m growing close to in the show.
What about Mindy Kaling?
I interacted with Mindy the most during the pilot. It was really great to see how someone who’s so smart and witty and funny and a great listener can also be so serious in the work. And that, I love. I love, love, love it. Because I’m all about the work, and sometimes that’s too much, I’m too in my head. So it was so great to be around Mindy who just really embodies what it is to be laid-back and serious at the same time.
There’s this really intense obsession with your family—your brother, but I also see reports about your mom, your grandpa. What is it like to be under this intense scrutiny?
I don’t feel it! So I don’t really have an answer. I’m so grateful to be doing what I’m doing and on the path that I’m on. The only thing that I hope for is being able to continue to do that. I really believe in the power of curiosity, so I think that the more that I’m able to stay curious and keep doing what I want to be doing in the way that I want to be doing it, the better it will be for me and for everyone.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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