From its announcement, how could you not get excited about Todd Haynes making a new film starring his longtime muse Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. But once you sit down and settle into May December, your attention is taken away from the two Oscar winning actresses and your focus turns to their co-star, Charles Melton. As Joe, Melton gives an awe-inspiring performance as a father of three living in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife Gracie (Moore), where he is an x-ray technician by day and a monarch butterfly enthusiast in his spare time. But his marriage to Gracie is built on a controversial, tabloid riddled past, as he was only 13 years old when he started having an affair with a then 36-year-old Gracie. Picking up twenty years since their scandalous events, Joe’s routine based world is turned upside down when Elizabeth (Portman), an actress looking to shadow Gracie to play her in an upcoming film, comes to visit them. In our review out of the Cannes Film Festival from earlier this year, our own Ali Benzekri wrote that Melton was an “arresting discovery” for the role of Joe, and matches Moore and Portman “beat for beat” throughout the film. I’d like to take those points a step forward and say that in delivering this profound, heartbreaking turn as Joe, Charles Melton has delivered the performance of the year, one that deserves every accolade we could give him.
Born in Juneau, Alaska, Melton was the oldest child in his family, moving around a lot because of his father’s position in the Army. His family settled down in Manhattan, Kansas, where he not only graduated high school but also went to college at Kansas St. University. He went on a scholarship as a football player, where he played defensive back for the Wildcats back in the 2010-2011 season, but his career was cut short by multiple injuries. “I wasn’t a star player or anything,” he said to me post interview, being extremely modest about his time on the team. We spoke briefly about football because some of my family lives in the Manhattan area and are massive Kansas St fans, which he loved. Though there was a bit of an eye roll followed by a quick smirk when I revealed that I was a Texas Longhorn fan, an innocent, common reaction I’ve experienced before, but was a perfect way to showcase the small history of two teams that have played in the same conference within college football for most of our lives. I asked him if he still kept up with his team, which drew a giant smile on his face as he said “Absolutely,” which led to a brief talk about the crazy overtime game from early this year between the Longhorns and Wildcats. While it was an enthusiastic conversation, he was also extremely kind and knowledgeable, even talking to me about the quarterback situation at Texas going into next season, alongside bringing up which game the third string QB for the Longhorns played in this season. It’s that level of detail that he brings from his life in his work, something small that not many people see, discuss, or remember, and is why Melton is a star on the rise; separating himself from his peers as one of the most intriguing talents of his generation.
After he hung up the cleats, he left college in 2012 to pursue acting, where he landed modeling jobs and guest appearances on shows like Glee and American Horror Story, before landing a recurring role on the CW series, Riverdale. During his time on the show, Melton was able to star in a few films, most notably The Sun Is Also a Star, where he became the first Korean-American and Asian-American actor to lead a teen romance film made by a major studio. But with May December, he delivers his best work to date, a layered, complex character study that has earned multiple nominations and wins by critic’s groups, and as of yesterday, his first Golden Globe nomination. I sat down with Melton a couple of hours after the announcement, where he talked about how grateful he was for this experience, his relationship with Todd Haynes, his acting influences, Joe’s physical transformation as well as his emotional journey, working with Moore and Portman, and what he hopes to do going forward with his future projects. I have a hunch that as more and more big projects come his way, and he’s able to do more stellar work like he’s done in May December, Charles Melton will still be the genuine guy that he is. He’ll talk about football to you, make his grandmother’s Kimchi and hand out jars to critics during junkets, remember your name after a premiere when you run across him again, or just stand on a red carpet and not be able to control that gigantic smile from coming out, fully embracing the moment he is in. That’s who he is, and in being that, you can’t help but root for him.
Ryan McQuade: Thank you so much again for speaking with me today. I want to start off by congratulating you on your Golden Globe nomination this morning, going alongside with your Gotham Award win and the New York Film Critics Circle win. What does it mean to you to receive these honors so far for your work in May December?
Charles Melton: So much gratitude. I have so much gratitude. I just keep on going back to those 23 days of filming in Savannah, Georgia and the relationships I formed with Todd, Julie and Natalie, and just that whole experience and everybody on the crew. I just have so much gratitude, Ryan, so much, man. And I’m so excited to see my family here in a couple of weeks for the holidays. I’m happy my sister’s here. And just so grateful, really. What an honor.
RM: Absolutely. You’ve talked about your acting influences to prepare to play Joe, and even talked about some of your favorite films recently at the LA premiere of the film, and they were great films like The Matrix, In the Mood for Love, Brokeback Mountain and Persona. Can you talk about possibly the first film or performance you saw, big screen or small, that made you say “I want to do that someday?” The one that made you want to be an actor.
CM: Great question. There’s so many performances. It’s hard to think about the first performance that I saw where… That’s a really great question. There’s so many performances that I think about. Heath Ledger. I remember watching A Knight’s Tale. So moved by that storyline and the contemporary rock and roll music that played along, and just what Heath did with the storyline of wanting to change his stars and to be a knight. I felt so entwined with that story and just the love of filming, of movies, with my father. And just wanting to be a part of the in-between, of the audience in that screen. Like, “How do I do that?”
It really inspired me in just so many performances that I think about. So many, it’s hard to just pick one, but I think of the greats that we all know. I think of Korean cinema, I think of Tony Leung, I think of Lee Jung-Jae, I think of so many actors that I’m just so inspired by. And then really I think of the John Chos of our world, the Steven Yeuns. It’s just so incredible and inspiring.
RM: To dive right into the film now, what was the first thing that connected you to Joe when you were reading Samy Burch’s incredible screenplay?
CM: Yeah, yeah. There’s a sense of repression that I feel in some sort of capacity, humanity, whether we ask ourselves these personal questions or not, that we can kind of carry that, or think about it. We can carry it whether we choose to think about it or not, which really influenced and informed my decisions with Joe, and how he carried this internal tragedy that’s affected him his whole life in his body, and how that manifested. I mean, at such a young age, having the responsibility of being a father at 13, how would that then influence his capacity to really navigate his own life?
And so I feel that he created this adaptive adult child in order to survive, aside from finding. His identity was a mixture of all these roles that he had to assimilate to, being a father, being a caretaker, being a rock. Almost this sense of putting everything before himself. And never really looking at himself, which goes to the scene where Joe, before he acknowledges the question we as the audience are asking of, “What if I was too young?” he looks at himself in the mirror for the first time. And it’s Joe seeing himself for the first time, which is so heartbreaking, but it’s like finally Joe is looking at himself.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. It is completely heartbreaking. And I think also what makes your performance so special is the physicality that you’re showing for Joe. It’s really fascinating just the way in which he walks, the cadence to his responses, just the physical transformation you made to create this 36-year-old man. So can you talk about the decision-making process in creating who Joe is?
CM: Yeah. I feel like in some facet of our humanity, in the pursuit of genuine authenticity, at times we can put on different versions of ourselves, different layers, different masks of ourselves. Joe, in between these two very strong characters in Gracie and Elizabeth who have their own motives and their own pictures of themselves that they’re putting on. That’s why the scene with Julie and Natalie in the bathroom when Gracie is putting on her face essentially onto Elizabeth’s face is fascinating.
Elizabeth’s motive as an actress is to pursue the truth despite how it may affect the world around her. Gracie, she’s living in this very fairy-tale kind of world where she’s this princess and Joe is her prince, and just living that narrative. And Joe, he’s not putting on, he’s just existing in his body. His body tells that story, the way he moves, the way he talks, his cadence, all that tell his story. With the storytelling, there’s so many different layers, and that really came to diving into the emotional complexity, the makeup of who Joe is. Aside from doing therapy for myself, I would do therapy with Joe. There were so many decisions that helped inform me to craft this, and then to put it in the hands of Todd Haynes. And for him to just completely guide and just tell me.
Because Todd has this singular language that he has with any individual he meets in life, and with everybody that just enlivens everything. He brings everyone up. I couldn’t have done it without Todd. I was able to exist aligned to my character, and show up with hyper-focus and hyper-focused concentration for those 23 days, and felt invigorated and empowered and supported by Natalie and Julie and everyone on set to tell this story.
RM: At the core of May December lies Joe and Gracie’s marriage. Throughout the film, we see that while there is an imbalance in terms of power, where Joe can be there for Gracie but she ignores him when he reaches out for help. Can you talk about their relationship dynamic as a married couple, and how you see Joe’s role in it? Do you feel as if he’s at times trapped in that role?
CM: Outside looking in, you can say there’s this arrested development with Joe. He doesn’t know what it is. He’s preverbal, but his body knows what it is, but maybe he hasn’t quite articulated or given him the mental space to evaluate. Hence your background (points to my virtual zoom background image of Melton and Portman at the hospital) with Joe and Elizabeth, where he feels some sort of discomfort and he awkwardly says, “Okay, it’s lunchtime now.”
But also diving into the fact of his job. He’s an X-ray technician. An X-ray’s technician’s job is to take a photo and to send it to the doctor. They don’t diagnose. They don’t look or evaluate or anything, it’s their job to just take the picture. It’s a very delicate job. That’s Joe’s role. And that’s also symbolic of Joe. Joe doesn’t look at himself, evaluate himself or diagnose himself. He’s constantly doing his job, assimilating to these roles that he has as a rock in this marriage, as a rock to his kids. It’s very selfless, but also very codependent. Joe is, I think I said this before, he’ll eat third, fourth, fifth, sixth serving of the Thanksgiving plate just to make you feel better about whatever you did, completely disregarding himself, which I feel we all can on some human level relate to.
RM: Yeah. You’re talking about how everything is really meticulous in what he has to say. There’s moments where he says a word, where he says “you,” and he switches it back to “us.” And it feels with Gracie, like he’s walking on eggshells through his life almost at times, right?
CM: Yeah. Yeah, he’s definitely walking on eggshells. But he’s also caretaking too. The scene is so heartbreaking when he confronts Gracie after he looks at himself, down the barrel in the mirror. He’s being gaslit, manipulated, disregarded. And that’s really sad. That’s really heartbreaking.
RM: In the film, his father and Elizabeth bring up the idea of being able to start anew once the kids have left. Do you think this is possible for someone like Joe or once they are gone, and Elizabeth has left, he will end up back where he is at with Gracie? Do you feel there is hope for him in terms of starting anew?
CM: Absolutely, absolutely. I think about my experience as an Army brat, moving from place to place all over the world as a third culture kid, an American kid moving from one place to the next. There’s kind of not so much a restart, but maybe like a refresh button.
Identity isn’t changed, but ever so evolving from the next chapter to the next. I feel we all experience many metamorphoses in our life, whether we graduate or we get engaged or we get a promotion or our kids graduate or we win our fantasy football league. (laughs) The trials, the tribulations and just the experiences we carry in all of that. So there is hope for change.
RM: I think the key relationships in the film actually aren’t with even Gracie or Elizabeth, rather are with his children. We see that obviously culminate in the rooftop scene where he’s trying to make that connection, but trying to also have a good memory there. What do you think about Joe wanting a better life for his kids? Because it seems pretty much like a normal thing a parent would want, but also it means something totally different in the film, and those kids are very aware of that as well.
CM: I think it’s interesting when we see Joe and his kids, because there’s kind of this emotional maturity you can see with the kids that are a little bit ahead of Joe in the certain sense of experience. Joe in many ways didn’t get to live his adolescence because of the immense responsibility he had at such a young age. Not only that, but with tabloid culture probing into his life and saying all these things about him, and him not being able to express himself, right?
RM: Yes, for sure.
CM: The scene on the roof with Joe and his son, Gabriel Chung, who’s so, so, so talented. We see barriers come down. That’s Joe’s smoking pot and we see Joe kind of open up. But he’s afraid to open up, and he’s more afraid of making a bad memory or a bad experience for his kid in speaking his truth. And that is so heartbreaking and so tragically beautiful, where he just cares so much. And I think any parent… I think about my parents, they want to give me and my sisters everything. That’s how they thought. Knowing my parents’ experience to give us the life they weren’t quite afforded, I think is maybe a universal concept that any parent can relate to in giving a better life to your kids.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. As the viewer, we are watching it feeling massively sympathetic for Joe, especially with moments like that. How much did you carry Joe with you during and since the shoot?
CM: I think we all carry some sort of unknown tragedy inside of us, but joy doesn’t quite exist without some sort of form of suffering, no matter what level it is, right? I felt so grounded when I was filming, I was able to separate myself from the character I was playing. There was a technicality to my approach, and a focus, and also a constant drive to maintain the sense of self, of myself throughout this process, so I could really then let go and tell this character’s story without any sort of suffering of my own.
RM: From the audition process to making the film, everything after, in between, could you describe what the collaboration and bond you’ve created with director Tom Haynes and what has that meant to you?
CM: Todd Haynes is forever my family, changed my life as a human being, as an actor, as an artist. He is a genius. There’s really no words to express who this man is as a human, and just his genius and his craft and his mastery of just being this leader, this visionary on and off set that really is awe-inspiring to me.
RM: In working with two icons within acting, what was something you learned from both Natalie and Julianne that you will carry on to future projects?
CM: I mean this, but we had so much fun working together, filming together. I felt so just invigorated and supported by them. I mean, just to let go and just trust. We just had Todd that we could trust and really I just learned that everyone has their own process. And similarly just watching how they work and constantly discovering my process. Because I’m sure it’s going to change from every project, but I was really able to keep the character separate from myself, to align, to not sort of become, but to align and hold. You know?
RM: I know what you mean. Based on this performance, Charles, I think you’re going to be getting a lot of opportunities to craft beautiful performances like the one that you had in May December. So for you, Charles Melton, what are you looking for in selecting future projects for yourself?
CM: Right now I’m just taking everything one day at a time. There’s a lot of gratitude. (takes a pause) You’re a great journalist, by the way. I feel like if we had more than 30 minutes, I’d probably tell you a little too much. (laughs)
RM: (laughs) Thank you. And you don’t have to. You don’t have to.
CM: No, no, no, no, okay. Yeah, I just want to work, man, I just want to have the opportunity to work with great filmmakers, great actors, directors, writers. I just have so much gratitude right now. I can’t wait for whatever that next thing is, and I just know I’m going to pour my heart and soul into it.
RM: Do you have a dream director or somebody on a vision board that you would love to work with? Let’s put it out there in the universe.
CM: I have many. I have many. Todd Haynes again, obviously, absolutely. I love the Safdie Brothers, Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, everyone. Bradley Cooper, he’s a huge Eagles fan. I would love to work with him. There’s just so many, yeah.
RM: Awesome. Well, Charles, I think you’re absolutely fantastic in this film. Thank you so much for your time.
CM: Thank you.
May December is currently available to stream on Netflix.