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Beautiful Boy movie portrays substance addiction in a very human way, says Steve Carell

Beautiful Boy might be a heartbreaking tale of love and survival in addiction, but stars Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet tell Gemma Dunn it's also truthful and compassionate

Timothee Chalamet
Timothee Chalamet

When Steve Carell was offered a role in Beautiful Boy, he hesitated. While there's no doubt he has the prowess to take on diverse roles - take the gap between his comedic portrayal in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and his serious, Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, for example - this biographical drama has 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," admits the 56-year-old actor.

"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, steered by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, is a deeply moving portrait of a family's unwavering love and commitment in the face of a 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, that can hit any family.

It's this very sentiment that Massachusetts-born 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," says the star, who has two teenage children with his wife, Saturday Night Live alumna Nancy.

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"It's a true story. These are people, you could say, from a place of privilege. A family that's full of love and, it seems, extremely functional. So, the fact that it happened to them is a cautionary tale."

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 Yorker. "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 (with the) opioids.

"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."

Chalamet first came to the filmmakers' 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.

Carell can 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'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 took 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 concerned it would be an awkward encounter. "I didn't want to talk to him as if he was a science project," he says. "I wanted to get a sense of who he was and what he went through.

"Looking at it from the outside, the Sheffs seem to be a family that, if not perfect, were really happy. Everyone is well-intentioned, including Nic."

Chalamet's biggest fear was that 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.

"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' of things. It gets into the 'how to get over' and 'struggles of getting over'."

"There are all sorts of misconceptions about people who are addicted to various substances," Carell adds.

"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, agrees 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.

"That's the thrill of getting to be in something like this at a young age. It doesn't feel like, 'Okay, 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 now

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