Pauline Chalamet on Wisdom, Wit, and Wardrobe Changes
No matter how you define it, Pauline Chalamet is far from home. The 30-year-old actress and star of HBO’s The Sex Lives of College Girls joins our Zoom session from a friend’s place in Los Angeles casually clad in jeans and a black hoodie with her show’s title embroidered in a neon thread—a wrap gift, no doubt. It’s almost as if this born-and-bred New Yorker is logging on from her character Kimberly’s college dorm room. But Chalamet is a grown, independent woman, and when not on set, she can most often be found living in her Paris apartment, which has been her primary residence since she graduated from Bard College in 2014.
Before I ask Chalamet for her insight on all things Parisienne chic (her father is French, and she grew up speaking the language), we start with the basics and head back to school with Kimberly and the rest of the Essex crew. Season two of College Girls, which premiered on HBO in mid-November, wastes no time rehashing the messiness of freshman year with the story picking up shortly after season one’s finale. Though, returning to picturesque upstate New York from her small hometown in Arizona may have been less jarring for Chalamet’s character than it was for the actress herself. With a full calendar year passing between the premieres of seasons one and two, plus nearly as much time between filming, Chalamet was concerned about reentering Kimberly’s very particular and well-developed headspace after so much time away. Unlike her character’s continued woes about finances, frat bros, and the female reproductive system, the season premiere makes it clear that Chalamet hasn’t missed a beat. Kimberly is back and, if I may say so, even better than last season.
“When we started filming again, I had a moment of panic where I was like, ‘I did this. … What if I can’t redo it?’” confessed Chalamet. “I never thought I would do comedy. But it’s about timing. Timing is so important, and I was like, ‘What if I don’t have the timing? What if I can’t hear it anymore?’” Once Chalamet was on set, however, the lovably naïve Kimberly quickly reappeared thanks in part to a relatable character arc that takes place over season two’s 10 episodes. Chalamet was particularly proud of the narrative that creators Mindy Kaling and Justin Nobel wrote for Kimberly about finding the means to pay her tuition. “When you’re 18 years old and you decide to get money, you find a way to get money. She finds a solution that leaves the door open, but the consequences may come back later on in your life,” she says. Needless to say, there’s ample humor injected into an otherwise nerve-racking predicament, which provides several opportunities for Chalamet to shine.
Given the awkwardness of her character, I was delighted to discover that Chalamet is anything but. She comes across as well versed in her areas of expertise (Chalamet is known to be a voracious reader and talented film writer) without a hint of pretentiousness and has an obvious passion that has appropriate moments of intensity. Her years of study at the School of American Ballet make total sense. Chalamet has the focus and drive to succeed but the self-awareness to know if it’s worth the effort. Still, it often takes more than a push to change paths. Ironically, Chalamet’s pursuits began to shift from dance to drama shortly before she crashed into a taxi cab while bicycling between SAB and LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Down and out for months with a broken collarbone (she pulled down her sweatshirt to point out the still-visible scar), Chalamet realized that she could better express herself through words rather than movement and focused fully on theater performance during her junior and senior years.
Chalamet notes that the highlights of her life include playing Val in LaGuardia’s production of A Chorus Line and performing Dangerous Liaisons in the spring drama festival. “These are memories and moments I’ll cherish forever, but I wasn’t like, ‘This is my career.’ I just loved doing it, and I like being onstage. I love being onstage, and I like talking,” she says, gracefully segueing into a discussion about her work as a writer. While it’s obvious that she has an ear for language (she worked with a dialect coach to transform her native eloquence into Kimberly’s mediocre French accent in season one of College Girls), Chalamet is still working on her fluency when it comes to comedy. “I am a grammar stickler. So sometimes, I’ll be like, ‘No, it’s not feeling nauseous. It’s feeling nauseated,’” she instructs playfully. “But I, more than anything, want to understand. So if there’s a joke or there’s a moment or there’s a choice that I don’t understand or I don’t have it, I ask the writers to explain why. That’s all I’m looking for: a why.” Whether in front of or behind the camera, she is still eager to be a student of the craft.
But let’s go back to Paris—the place Chalamet calls home and where she has honed her style. Although she readily dispels the myth of “French-girl chic,” Chalamet also admits that there is a certain je ne sais quoi about the way she dresses there. “When I’m in Paris, I think I innately dress differently with a little more style,” she muses. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s like I feel compelled. It’s not an effort. It’s just how I dress.” Traveling across time zones seems to prompt an aesthetic transformation, which manifests as a more “exotic and whimsical” vibe in New York or the laid-back look Chalamet is currently wearing in L.A.
While her personal style is strongly influenced by her locale, Chalamet has also been working with stylist Chloe Hartstein for press and red carpet appearances. Capital F fashion is a more recent area of interest, and Chalamet is eager to learn, giving ample credit to Hartstein for her guidance. She describes Hartstein as “so real and grounded” and finds comfort in their shared values (Chalamet is a fan of rewearing pieces to mitigate waste) beyond the fashion industry. “Chloe meets me where I am and is also a teacher. I’m so grateful to her. I’ll wear whatever—that is just how I roll—and it’s great to find someone who wants to roll with me that way,” she says.
As we wrap up our conversation, I ask Chalamet what’s the best advice she’s ever been given or perhaps what advice she would give her character Kimberly. She pauses for a few moments before responding with sage wisdom: “To thine own self be true.” I do a quick search to confirm that, yes, it is indeed a quote from act one, scene three of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Chalamet is obviously more familiar with the Bard of Avon than yours truly) and realize that this perpetual student will soon become a teacher to us all.
The Sex Lives of College Girls is now streaming on HBO Max.
Photographer: Jonny Marlow
Stylist: Chloe Hartstein
Hairstylist: Graham Nation
Makeup Artist: Adam Breuchaud