King: Interview with Oscar-Winner Timothee Chalamet

David Michod’s King world premieres at the 2019 Venice Film Fest.

Casting a New Generation

Michôd wanted to make a film with a young cast: “Not only does it bring a certain energy to a movie, but it’s also historically authentic. The dirt and disease of the time period meant that people died much younger than they do today. I liked the idea of creating a world in which younger people were forced to grow up very quickly and to take on very adult responsibilities early in life. That younger age range also opened up a whole world of actors.”

For the lead role of wayward Prince Hal, there was no better fit than Oscar Award nominee Timothée Chalamet. Gardner and Kleiner had worked with Chalamet on 2018’s Beautiful Boy, for which the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination, and immediately thought of him for the titular role. “There is just no one like him,” Gardner says. “He’s singular. Aside from his vast talent, which we’ve all seen, he’s also preternaturally mature. And yet he is still only 23 years old. I talked to him about the role, and
he was looking to do something different — and this is different than anything he’s ever done. That’s
exciting for an artist.”

Kleiner says, “There was a version of the film that would have a character who was a bit older in age,
but by casting Timothée — who’s not just this incredibly gifted actor but also younger — you really see
the story’s coming-of-age theme; you feel Hal’s loss of innocence and idealism. Timothée inhabits
those themes and communicates that shift without a lot of dialogue.”

Michôd quickly agreed on the casting choice. “I needed a young man whose open soulfulness was
completely visible,” the director says, “and Timmy’s exactly that. There’s something so beautifully
commanding and yet soulful about him. He has a soulfulness that I haven’t seen in a young actor for
quite a while.”

Chalamet was eager to join a project that would ultimately redefine his idea of Hollywood movies. He
explains, “In my naiveté, it used to seem that filmmaking always fell between the poles of gritty truth
and Hollywood blockbusters. But with David Michôd on this project, we’ve gotten to do both. This is
the biggest movie I’ve been a part of, it’s an epic story, but David hasn’t sacrificed his commitment to
truthful storytelling for the sake of scale.”

The actor was also excited to explore a new stretch of the emotional spectrum with the role of Hal. “I
savoured the opportunity to play someone who had to be very guarded,” Chalamet says. “I often find
myself in projects where the characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, and this was not the case
at all. To be a politician, to be a leader, there’s an element of performance to it — but you also have to
have a poker face and an ability to guard yourself.”

Like the producers, Chalamet immediately felt the story’s modern resonance. He explains, “We’re
seeing this horrible global trend right now where people would rather assert themselves over the truth.
Hal’s fighting against the machinations of power and at the same time trying to find himself as a man.
Most political leaders assume power with the most moral of intentions, but there are forces at play that
make it difficult to rule with a good hand. If you’re not careful, power can corrode your sense of self,
and you can lose your purpose. At first, Hal uses his pacifist instincts in an attempt to differentiate
himself from his father and every toxically masculine leader in this time period. In some ways, the
movie’s about his inability, even with his strong ethical compass, to overcome that.”

Sir John Falstaff, Hal’s best friend, mentor, and one of the few people who will speak to him honestly
even after he becomes king, was one of the script’s key characters from the beginning. Michôd says,
“John Falstaff is one of the great Shakespearian characters, and an entirely Shakespearian conceit. We
knew that if we were going to build a film around the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, we were
never going to be able to leave Shakespeare behind completely. But we also knew that we wanted to
invent a story and character of our own.”

The role had to be adapted for the new narrative. Falstaff appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and
Part 2, but is wholly absent in Henry V when his off-stage death is only mentioned. “We knew that for
us to mash this thing into the big beautiful movie we wanted to make that we needed to keep that
character alive,” Michôd says. “What Joel and I have hopefully created is an interpretation of Falstaff
that is our own. We wanted to engineer a Falstaff who was different, because we wanted to engineer a
different relationship between him and Hal. Our Falstaff represents vanity and insecurity, but also fun
and freedom. For us, he also needed to be a man who could hold himself on a battlefield.”

For Edgerton, the role offered a new avenue into an iconic character. “Falstaff is usually depicted as a
very old, jolly, fat, and cowardly — yet realistic — person,” the actor explains. “Our challenge was to
take that classic character and, with all respect and delicacy, mold him into something very different.
Our Falstaff is younger and not in opposition to war because he’s cowardly or silly, but because he’s a
battle-weary man who’s seen bad things and has decided he doesn’t want to go back. Yet, because of
his friendship with Hal, he’s somewhat unwillingly drawn back in.”

The complex friendship between Hal and Falstaff plays a pivotal role in the film, both in the bar and on
the battlefield. “It’s a challenging relationship,” Edgerton says. “After Hal becomes king, he soon finds
himself surrounded by his father’s old inner circle. The one person he knows will speak to him openly
and honestly is Falstaff; he represents an honest voice, someone who only speaks when necessary.”
Chalamet appreciated his character’s layered on-screen dynamic with Edgerton’s Falstaff. “Hal values
Falstaff’s honest approach to life,” says Chalamet. “He speaks plainly and honestly with him. He’s also
boisterous and free-spirited. Falstaff is the provider in some ways; he’s the supplier of the good time
and knows how to do it because he’s of that world, he’s not a royal like Hal.”

Chalamet and Edgerton both felt privileged to share screen time together. “Timothée is such a fresh,
sturdy young man, and very intelligent,” says Edgerton. Chalamet echoes, “Joel brings such life to this
character. If you read the script you would think that Hal is the role you would want, but a wiser reader
would go a layer below that and read the script and go, ‘Oh, wow, Falstaff is the role you want to do,
this is fun.’”

Inside the palace walls, the newly crowned king finds a new chief advisor in William Gascoigne, a
member of his late father’s coterie, played by Sean Harris. Complicated and cunning, William is the
most mysterious player in palace politics. “I want him to creep up on you,” Michôd says of the
character. “I loved watching Sean Harris bring William into scenes I had written. He would make these
words that made complete sense to me sound so mysterious. The way he held himself and the way
words came out of his mouth felt so gloriously unique and strange.”

To establish his character, Harris delved into the high-stakes reality of court life. “You’re in a world
where you can be killed for looking at the king in the wrong way. You have to box clever and be very
alive to the world that you’re in,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about surviving.”

Harris also developed a close bond with Chalamet on set. “Timothée has a courage that is way, way
ahead of his years. He isn’t frightened of not getting it right, not seeming cool,” Harris says. “He’s done me a lot of good, so I’m lucky to work with him. I probably got more from working with him than I have
with any other actor in my career.”

Chalamet believes William is the richest role in the script. “The wisest reader would go a layer below
Hal and a layer below Falstaff, read the part of William, and go, ‘Oh, this has all the room to play,’”
Chalamet says. “Sean Harris has done a really brilliant job playing the role. What Sean does in this film
is really a testament to the power of what goes unseen, or is seen in the background but just out of
focus.”

For the vital role of King Henry IV, Hal’s father, Michôd turned to actor Ben Mendelsohn, who he had
previously worked with on 2010’s Animal Kingdom. “I knew very quickly that I wanted Ben Mendelsohn
to play that role,” the director says. “Because that character dies, I knew I wanted someone who could
just set the screen on fire in that holy, beautiful, dangerous, unpredictable way that Ben can.”

Mendelsohn completed his scenes in three days of filming, and was thrilled to work with Michôd again
while exploring a divisive character. “David has a great deal of patience with his performers,”
Mendelsohn says. “King Henry IV is quite a capable king, if you like old school, iron fist ruling. But the
kingdom’s in a bad way, and he’s dying. And he’s afraid because young Hal is showing every sign that
he’s going to be a disaster of a ruler.”

Though King Henry IV only appears in a few key scenes, Michôd knew he was crucial in highlighting
Hal’s core motivations. “I wanted to highlight the great contrast between Henry IV and Henry V,” says
the director. “Henry V vows to be a different kind of king, to not be the tyrant that his father was, and
then you slowly discover over the course of the movie that tyranny might be unavoidable.”

The film opens with the last scene shot during production: Sir Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur,
roams a smouldering battlefield, his army victorious over the rebel Scots. An English noble as famous
for his temper as his fighting skills, Hotspur is Hal’s foil in every way.

Michôd explains, “Hotspur is the embodiment of an entire country’s dissatisfaction with the rule of King
Henry IV. All of that chaos and strife that has come as a consequence of Henry IV’s maniacal and
completely dysfunctional rule is encapsulated in this fiery young man who, at the beginning of the
movie, represents everything that Hal is not. He has conviction, stature, and a great sense of bravery
and selflessness. And Hal, by contrast, is seemingly lost, ineffectual, and selfish.”

Tom Glynn-Carney won the role by sending in a taped audition. “Tom’s tape was bold,” Michôd
recalls. “More than anything, I could just see that fire in him that we needed to burn bright at the
opening of this movie. He was instantly powerful.”

Glynn-Carney was attracted to Hotspur’s unpredictable nature. “He constantly feels like he’s at a
boiling point,” the actor says. “Those characters are always fun to play because the stakes are always
higher; everything is on the brink of an eruption. He’s feral, explosive, and loyal.”

When Hal inherits the throne from his father, he also inherits a long list of his father’s rivalries, including
a contentious relationship with France’s King Charles (Thibault de Montalembert) and his son and heir
the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson). Hal ignores the Dauphin’s rude coronation gift — a single tennis ball
with no note — and is only swayed to take action and invade France when an assassin arrives at the
palace claiming to have been given orders from King Charles himself to kill the King of England.

“The Dauphin is an arch villain and a dandy psychopath,” says Michôd. “He manages to get under Hal’s
skin and wreak havoc. This movie is about an English king invading France for multiple complex
reasons, but it was always important to me that one of those reasons be Hal’s anger about being
taunted by a jerk.”

Michôd had previously worked with Pattinson on 2014’s The Rover and knew his inventive, playful
nature would lend itself well to the role. “I just knew that he would have fun with this character, and I
knew it would be very different from anything he had done before,” says Michôd. “This cast is so young, and as young as Rob is, he’s part of an older generation in the movie. I liked the idea of him and Timmy having such an antagonistic relationship and seeing how that might play out.”

Pattinson agreed that the role offered him new artistic territory. “It’s definitely something different,” he
says. “The Dauphin is a bit of a mischievous antagonist. It’s fun to play a slightly unhinged character,
especially one so flamboyant and fearless. He’s quite a dispassionate person; he’s not thinking about
how to be a good leader like Hal, he just wants to be rich and live life as a vain lush.”

Both Chalamet and Pattinson found their characters’ dynamic fascinating. Chalamet says, “The more interesting sublayer to their relationship is that Hal feels a real brotherhood with the Dauphin. He sees
him as the son of a royal who’s also dealing with power in self-destructive ways.”

Pattinson adds, “Timothée is one of the best young actors around. It’s fun to play two people who are in
such different mindsets. The Dauphin doesn’t really realize the level of Hal’s determination. He got the
impetuous genes and his sister Catherine got the sensible genes.”

Catherine de Valois, the Dauphin’s sister, proves a pivotal character in the story. After King Henry V’s
victory at the Battle of Agincourt, King Charles offers his daughter Catherine up as a bride for the King
of England. During her few crucial scenes, Catherine proves to be intelligent, observant, and one of the
few people who’s unafraid to tell Hal the truth.

Michôd says of the character, “In the Shakespeare play, Henry V just has a series of deeply unsatisfying
flirtations with Catherine and then the story is over. We knew that we wanted her to serve a much more
potent function than that. This world is so completely dominated by vain men that women get squeezed out. But then they are able to look at the world from the outside with a clarity that the men in the middle of it don’t have. And that’s what Catherine offers in this story.”

For the role, the director cast actor Lily-Rose Depp because of her arresting audition. “It’s a really
challenging role,” says Michôd, “not just because of the subtle movements of the scenes themselves,
but the accent is difficult. Lily-Rose has an American father and a French mother. She speaks fluent
English and she’s capable of speaking with a flawless French accent. We got lucky with her. She had
every skill we needed, and she’s young but world-wise in the same way that Catherine is. They’ve both
seen a lot of the world, and seen it in strange forms.”

Depp was pleasantly surprised by Catherine’s arc when she read the script. “I had never seen, or read,
such a strong female character in a story that takes place in this time period,” she says. “I was really
impressed by her ability to speak all of these truths to King Henry with such confidence and power. She
was a very smart and powerful woman, especially for an era that was full of male domination and male
power.”

In the film’s third act, Hal’s newly betrothed bride plays a vital role in offering the king much-needed
perspective after the brutal and perhaps ill-advised Battle of Agincourt. She calls attention to Hal’s
questionable motives and dangerous dissent into warmongering when others won’t. Chalamet recognized the importance of his scenes with Depp. “I think Catherine represents what’s good, right, and intelligent; what’s well thought-out and not driven by toxic masculine instinct, but rather by perspective,” he says. “Lily-Rose played the role with this almost otherworldly quality, which contrasts with the grimness and violence of war.”

On a broader level, Catherine highlights one of the film’s consistent themes. Michôd explains, “I’m not
unaware of the fact that I’ve gone and made yet another movie that is about, on some level, toxic
masculinity and the dangerous vanities of men. This is a movie that’s full of men. But when I make these
movies that are about narcissistic, if not psychopathic, men who are ruining the world, it’s always
important for me to find the places that women occupy in that world and how they function.”

In addition to Catherine, the film’s other key female characters — King Henry V’s younger sister Queen
Philippa of Denmark (Thomasin McKenzie) and the Eastcheap tavern hostess Hooper (Tara Fitzgerald)
— offer essential perspective. After King Henry V’s coronation feast, Philippa offers her older brother
some hard-won advice about the men who seem so eager to support him now. Court, as she’s learned
in her time as a young queen, is full of men who will always value their own personal kingdoms above
Henry’s.

McKenzie says of her character, “I was attracted to this role because Philippa has wisdom beyond her
years. She was married off very young for the political advantage of England. But she is strong and very
smart and has been able to see through her own experience how the world works. She loves her
brother and is able to advise him on how to beware of the people in his court who are seeking to
manipulate him.”

McKenzie also sees the contemporary themes in her character’s arc. “We are still looking for ways in
which women’s experience can be valued in a man’s world,” she says. “The scenes in which women
appear in The King are all crucial to how we judge the story. We are like a magnifying glass on this
world.”

Hooper, a character who’s always observant and candid, serves as a similar source of truth for Falstaff.
Fitzgerald says, “Hooper is there to remind Falstaff about friendship, and about reality. She matches
him in ingenuity. I was taken by her spirit and relative freedom. She’s a woman who has economic
independence, who is successful in business, and is mistress of her own domain. This isn’t a typical
medieval period film. It seems to have a gimlet eye on the present and to possess something very real
and subversive in its belly.”

Edgerton hopes audiences will recognize the message behind the film’s third act, when Hal recognizes
how vital Catherine is to his success as a ruler. He says, “The moment Hal sits on the throne, the same
pollution that clouded his father starts to consume him. We watch him become a tyrant. This is a film
that’s overloaded with men. Yet, there was some kind of joy and satisfaction knowing that at the end of it all, along comes Catherine. From the beginning, David said that Catherine needed to be the voice of
reason. She needed to be the mirror that’s held up to Hal, and the person who shows him what he’s
become. At the end of it, this incredibly strong woman sees through what he’s done.”

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