Stars Steve Carell and Timothee Chalomet on harrowing addiction film Beautiful Boy
Beautiful Boy might be a heartbreaking tale of love and survival in the depths of addiction, but it's truthful, and that's what counts, the film's co-leads Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet tell Gemma Dunn
WHEN Steve Carell was offered a role in Beautiful Boy, he hesitated. While there's no doubt he has the talent to take on diverse roles – from comedy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to a serious, Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, for example – this biographical drama had an urgent message, in that it delves into America's addiction crisis.
"My biggest fear about a movie concerning addiction was that it might take a Hollywood approach to the story and not really tell the truth about what happened," the 56-year-old Concord, Massachusetts native says.
"But the script's brutally honest. There are no heroes or villains. It's life as we live it."
Based on two memoirs, one from acclaimed journalist David Sheff (Carell) and one from his son, Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet), the harrowing film – directed by Belgian film-maner Felix van Groeningen – is a deeply moving portrait of a family's unwavering love and commitment in the face of their son's addiction and attempted recovery.
As Nic repeatedly relapses, the Sheffs are faced with the harsh reality that addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and can hit any family.
It's this very sentiment that Carell was so taken by – the lack of prejudice in what's depicted as a very human story.
"That's what drew me to the project in the first place, because I have kids and it's really scary to think of something like this happening with them. Happening within our family," admits the star, who has two teenage children with his wife, Saturday Night Live alumna Nancy.
"It's a true story and these are people, you could say, from a place of privilege. A family that's full of love and, it seems, extremely functional," he muses. "So the fact that it happened to them is a cautionary tale."
His co-star Timothee Chalamet, or Timmy, as Carell affectionately calls him, wholeheartedly agrees.
"There's a comfort in thinking, 'Well, this couldn't happen to my family or my loved ones, because addiction has a face'," begins the New York native, who lost 20 pounds in preparation to play Nic.
"And tragically, especially in America, because the numbers are going up and up, and this is the most devastating disease or killer for people under 50, there is no face."
"Particularly the opioids," he adds. "I was just reading a thing that said that most people who have an opioid addiction start from prescriptions or getting it from family members, so it's not like they're going to some street corner," he maintains.
Chalamet first came to the film-makers' attention when he was treading the boards on Broadway.
Now, thanks to critically acclaimed turns in Call Me By Your Name (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Lady Bird and Interstellar, the 23-year-old is earmarked as one of the leading actors of his generation.
And Carell can certainly see the appeal.
"When Timmy walked out of the room, everybody just looked at each other and nodded," he says, recalling an early read-through for Beautiful Boy.
"I immediately felt a connection with him," he follows. "He's very open and he's such a good guy. That's his character as well; even at his lowest, his most conflicted and addicted, you can see that wonderful kid you've always loved. There was just this light burning within Timmy."
Despite having one another to lean on, however, the co-leads looked to father-and-son duo David and Nic Sheff – and their books, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction; and Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, respectively – to perfect their parts.
Carell was initially concerned it would be an awkward encounter.
"I didn't want to talk to him as if he was a science project," he reasons of his meeting with David. "But I wanted to get a sense of who he was and what he went through. [As] looking at it from the outside, the Sheffs seem to be a family that, if not perfect, was really happy. Everyone is well-intentioned, including Nic."
Chalamet says his biggest fear was the Sheffs would see the movie and question its authenticity. So to combat his concerns, he considered Tweak his "bible" during filming.
"It's heartbreaking – a stinging, first-person, in-the-moment portrait," he says of the book. "Sentence by sentence, moment by moment, it's a very specific description of what Nic was going through and what it was like to be in the throes of drug addiction.
"My understanding of that, is that when you're deep into it, you're not yourself. It's as if there were two versions of Nic."
He adds: "I feel like I realised, in spending time with Nic, and spending time in rehab and with outpatients and inpatients and in meetings, [that] a) This is everywhere, and b) It affects anyone.
"In America we have a real trepidation in talking about it, because it's seen as a moral failing or taboo or something. It's one of the beautiful things about this movie; it doesn't really get into the 'Why?' It gets into the 'How to get over' or 'Struggles of getting over'."
Carell observes: "There are all sorts of misconceptions about people who are addicted to various substances. There are cliches and there's a certain level of disdain and misunderstanding about the addiction and the disease.
"But a movie like this portrays these people in a very human way and a very affectionate way, and it's great that can incite some sort of conversation."
It poses important questions – but in an original way, echoes Chalamet.
"As an audience member you go, 'Wow, I haven't seen that before' or 'That's exciting' and it's tough in any art to do that," he says. "But this movie and Foxcatcher and The Big Short are tonally fresh and new.
"And that's the thrill of getting to be in something like this at a young age," he concludes. "It doesn't feel like, 'OK, now we're going to insert you here'.
"It felt like the more you make yourself vulnerable or accessible, the more this really urgent and really important thing can get out there."
:: Beautiful Boy is in cinemas from Friday, January 18.