Charles Melton was on vacation in Europe when he got the script for May December. "When I saw who was attached, my heart just fluttered," he says. Auteur filmmaker Todd Haynes would helm the film, with Oscar-winning actresses Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman starring in it. Melton was so aflutter that he cut his trip short so that he could get home to L.A. and prepare his audition.

He spent six hours recording and recording his self-tape, which wound up being the first of many. Melton spent the next six weeks sending in audition tapes, getting notes back from Haynes, and sending in another tape. Finally, he was asked to travel to New York for a chemistry read with Moore.

"The minute I met him, I was like, 'This is the guy,'" Moore tells A.frame. "It was just so evident to me that he was the only one who could play this part. It was his kindness, and his ability to be present and sort of opaque at the same time. It was really beautiful. He's a wonderful actor and he's such a wonderful person. I think he's at the beginning of a very great career, and I'm really, really, really happy for him."

In May December, Melton plays Joe, whose seemingly picture-perfect relationship to the considerably older Gracie (Moore) began when she was a married housewife in her thirties and he was only in the seventh grade. (The couple is loosely inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.) Two decades removed from the tabloid frenzy that their relationship incited, the couple's life is upended by the arrival of a TV actress, Elizabeth (Portman), who is poised to play Gracie in a movie. Her questions about their past eventually force Joe to ask some of his own.

To hear Haynes tell it, Melton was "profoundly committed" to the role from the moment he was cast. "We had time in Savannah before the women showed up, and we had a lot of long dinners and talks about his childhood and his adolescence and his family, and talking and weaving our discovery of Joe into those discussions." On set, "Charles found such a sense of confidence and home."

Melton did eventually make it back to Europe, when May December premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. In recent weeks, he has won the Gotham Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance and been named Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle. But the actor says the real prize came long ago.

"The audition process was the cake for me. I was like, 'This is the best, most exciting and fulfilling achievement I've had in my career thus far,'" Melton says. "That started me on this journey of discovering my own process as an actor."

Charles Melton, director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore on the set of 'May December.'

A.frame: Going into a chemistry read with Julianne Moore, lovely as she is, one cannot imagine anything more intimidating than that. What was that experience like?

Heavenly. Julie is an icon. She's one of the best to ever do it. I was very nervous but very excited, and I remember I was outside the audition room and I heard Julie and Todd talking about the scene. I was waiting outside of that door, and my heart was just pounding out of my chest. I almost didn't go in. But then I went in, and walked out of that room being like, 'This is incredible.' Julie, she's so incredible, and I felt so lifted and I felt so grounded by being in the same vicinity as her. And then, when you have Todd there, and the history of Todd and Julie working with each other, just guiding us and giving us little things for this read, it was — it's hard to explain in words. I mean, I don't want to take up all our time, because I can fawn on over this whole thing all day. [Laughs]

You said that you felt like you discovered your process as an actor on this movie. What did that look like for you as you found your way into your character Joe?

There's a part of me that's really attracted to these characters that have some sort of fragility that they carry inside of them and how they mask that. With Joe, I was attracted to this repression and loneliness, but my process really was just understanding who this man was, and the psychology of his own conditioning, and this arrested development, and how he created this adaptive adult child, so to speak, to survive in life. That was a part of protecting this thing deep inside of him that was frozen at such a young age. And how that would transform him externally — how he would carry what he has not had the time to acknowledge or articulate. That's why when we see Joe, he's hunched, he's protected, he has this childlikeness in this very adult body.

I really got into the minutia of talking with my therapist and my acting coach and really diving deep. I watched so many films that really were inspiring. I would spend three or four hours a day looking at different source material, doing some character work and research, and then I would just spend the rest of my time eating whatever I wanted, but also watching whatever I wanted. Todd gave us this incredible lookbook that I printed and put all over my office: Images from Persona, The Graduate, Sunday Bloody Sunday. That was exciting for me. All the internal work and the preparation really transformed the external experience I was having as myself, as an actor and caretaker for this character Joe.


Did you get to a point in your prep work where you felt like, 'I'm ready'? Or was it one of those things where the clock ran out and you had to get to set?

I think it's always great to want more time. I mean, when I first did myself tape, I took six hours taping it! I have to completely exhaust myself. In their own ways, I've heard Natalie and Julie say that that there's no such thing as overpreparation. You can't ever be too overprepared as long as you're able to let go. And when you're in Todd's hands, you just let go and trust. And when Julie and Natalie are there and they're so supportive and the incredible humans they are, you feel it. I felt this immense support to really soak in everything and tell Joe's story.

For much of the movie, the story is dominated by these two women and Joe exists in their background. But then the focus shifts, and everything that's been building inside of him erupts. On the most emotionally demanding days, how did you get yourself there?

I learned this really early on with Natalie and Julie, is that whatever idea you have, you have to throw that away and just be open. I think about a very impactful day of filming, which was the rooftop scene when it's Joe and [his son] Charlie and they're smoking weed for the first time. That was a unique day for me. Todd had it in the first few takes, but I kept on asking for another take, and then another take, and another take. As an actor, sometimes I think I can get caught up in trying to be bigger or wanting to feel something, and I get lost in telling my story opposed to Joe's story, and I really learned that day that it's not my job to tell my story but the character's story — if that makes sense.

Because Joe's restrained, and in this scene, the walls are coming down for the first time. He's smoking weed and there's this vulnerability, but he's constrained. And I was like, 'I can feel it! I can feel it in my body, but why can't I cry?' But when we'd cut, I would start crying and I'd go to Todd and I'd just cry in between takes. But whenever the cameras rolled, I couldn't. Because I can cry for Joe. Joe can't cry for himself. Joe can't even ask questions for himself yet! So, it's that interesting dichotomy of my story and the character story and what my job is. But really, just letting go is something that I learned throughout that filming.

Natalie Portman, Charles Melton and Julianne Moore at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.

When you have done as much work as you did and put so much into a character, what did leaving Joe behind look like for you?

I think it was healthy for me. [Laughs] I think I've been pretty healthy about it. Again, I think that's just a matter of putting the trust in Todd's hands. You film for 23 days, you put in all the work you can, you show up, Todd captures whatever he captures, and you just leave it in his hands. I remember that the gift was the process leading up to booking May December and in those 23 days of filming, and it's about cherishing those moments and not leaving it behind, but loving it behind.

Was Cannes your first time seeing May December with an audience?

Oh my gosh, yes! It was incredible. Just being there with everyone. So many people that were part of the crew and the production paid their own way to fly out to Cannes, and to be with them was so incredible. My sister was there, and I'm extremely close with her, so that was incredible. It was just a very surreal experience.

Whose reaction to the film has meant the most to you?

My mother's.

Was she also with you at Cannes, or did she see it later?

She saw it later. Her first time seeing it was at the premiere. It made me emotional seeing how she reacted, because it wasn't so much her reacting to her son. She was reacting to Joe. It was very moving for me. She was in town for two weeks. We made kimchi every day. It was great. [Laughs] My sister was like, 'You need to stop talking about kimchi. You talk about kimchi all the time.' I was like, 'I know, but it's, like, all I do!'

How does May December fit with the career you want to build?

I just keep on thinking about this journey and everyone involved, and there's so much gratitude. It's like a cup that's overflowing. I feel so lucky that I had this opportunity to work with these, just, masters. I want to continue working with amazing filmmakers and actors like Todd, Julie, and Natalie — I mean, I want every movie I do to be with them!

By John Boone


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