The actor plays a stifled butterfly hobbyist alongside powerhouses Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s dark comedy, May December.
CHARLES MELTON HOLDS HIS OWN
Charles Melton’s final audition for May December was a spiritual experience. The actor was at the office of producer Christine Vachon’s Killer Films in New York, awaiting a final chemistry read with two cinematic deities — actor Julianne Moore and filmmaker Todd Haynes. “I heard them talking about the first scene, and I was behind the door in my Joe outfit and everything, and I remember my heart beating out of my chest. Yellow light was seeping through the cracks of the door, and I was like, ‘Is this it? Am I about to go to heaven?’” the 33-year-old actor remembers. “I walked through the door and completely blacked out.”
The divine, along with the performer’s innate talent, helped the actor earn the role, and Melton found himself on set with the incomparable Haynes, going toe-to-toe with Moore and Natalie Portman in May December. In the film, he stars as Joe Atherton-Yoo, a premature patriarch and husband who entered into an illegal romantic and sexual relationship with his wife Gracie, played by Moore, when he was just 13 and she was 36. Twenty-three years, three children, and a prison sentence later, Gracie and Joe are on the precipice of the empty-nester period of their lives. It’s then that television actor Elizabeth Berry, played by Portman, arrives in their coastal town of Tybee Island to study the couple as research for a film that will dramatize their illicit courtship.
Elizabeth’s presence prompts Joe to reconsider his own story and question the picturesque narrative Gracie had constructed for their marriage. Three humans collide, and, like in many of Haynes’s films (Far from Heaven, Carol), the result is full of messy complexities, artful melodrama, and dark humor. Melton has already received notices for his captivating work in May December, including a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, a Critics Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award win for Best Supporting Actor. “I feel a lot of gratitude for those 23 days that I filmed in Savannah, Georgia with Todd, Julie, Natalie, everyone on our crew, all the people that I met,” says Melton. “That was the gift.”
Shortly after winning the Gotham Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, Melton reflected on what he calls the “greatest experience in [his] career,” the film’s lightning-fast production, and how he developed his fatherly relationship with his onscreen family.
An edited version of the conversation follows.
Krista Smith: When I saw you in May December, I was like, “Oh, my God, where did Todd Haynes find this guy? He’s so good.” It was such a sense of discovery for me. Can you tell me what your impressions were when you first read the script?
Charles Melton: I was completely blown away. Samy [Burch]’s script provided so much room to just explore. There was so much in between the text for all the characters and even, really, the story of Joe. I felt this innate connection to it immediately. I remember cutting a trip short by three days so I could fly back to L.A. and focus on self-taping. The next thing I knew, I was flying out to New York to do a chemistry read with Todd and Julie. That was a six-week process, so I was on this discovery of my character Joe. I was like, “Wow, this is the way that I want to work. This is incredible.” When I found out I got the [part], all the work I did leading up to filming helped inform everything, and it was completely incredible.
What was the first day of shooting for you? What was the scene that you shot?
CM: The first day we filmed the scene where Elizabeth visits Joe at work. I was so nervous, but I felt so encouraged and taken care of with Todd and Natalie there on my first day.
The chemistry between you and Julianne is unbelievable. How was it building that kind of rapport in such a short amount of time?
CM: I think it’s really a testament to Todd Haynes. We came under the umbrella of Todd and just trusted him, and I think our trust in him allowed us to completely open up and collaborate. And Julie and Natalie — masters at their craft, icons, legends — I felt elevated just by being around them, and they were so encouraging and uplifting.
Todd would host these dinners a few days leading up to filming — me, Todd, Natalie, Julie, and then the crew, just really getting to know each other on a human level and talking a little bit about the script. But when we came to set, I’ve heard Julie say this a few times, [Todd] does all the work for you, so when you come into this world, you can just exist. And when you have scene partners [like] Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, you’re like, “I don’t really have to think about what they’re doing. I just need to focus on what I’m doing and trust in Todd.”
Julianne Moore: she was an army brat, as were you. Did you two talk about that?
CM: When I first met Julie, it was for [that] chemistry read in New York. She’s an absolute angel, just an incredible human. Immediately we started talking. I was born in Juneau, Alaska. She was like, “I lived in Juneau, Alaska.” I was like, “I’m an army brat, and I lived in Germany.” She was like, “I’m an army brat. I lived in Germany.” That immediate connection when we first met was pretty incredible. I think it helped inform everything really.
I find that athletes who turn into artists are exceptional in a lot of ways. They possess a kind of discipline that other actors don’t necessarily possess because of what they’ve come through, the discipline that it takes to be, in your case, a football player in high school and in college, that commitment, that selflessness, time management. Were there also some NFL aspirations?
CM: Oh, for sure. That was my dream for 10 years, to play in the NFL.
And how did it switch?
CM: I was driving to football practice one day, and I heard on the radio, “Do you want to be a star? Do you want to be an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter?” I was like, “Yeah, I think so.” And I called, I auditioned. I went to this convention. I ended up moving out to California six months later. I had $500. My mom packed me 60 packets of ramen, 60 packets of tuna, 60 cans of chicken noodle soup. Then it was just a journey.
Whenever you’re a part of a team, you have to find your role, whether it’s one line or one scene. The coach can be the director, and you have your teammates, your co-stars, your scene partners, and what you bring to the set on “game day” as far as preparation. So when it came to preparing for Joe, I think I was really influenced and informed by my upbringing as an athlete growing up.
But it’s not like this is your first success. You did do six seasons of a giantly successful television show with Riverdale. That must’ve helped prepare you for what you’re doing right now.
CM: Absolutely. I think I filmed close to over 100 episodes of Riverdale, worked with close to maybe 100 directors, and really built personal relationships with everybody on that cast that I’ll have until the end of my days. I learned so much — every take, every second mattered, coming together as a unit, as a team, to tell this story and to bring joy to people whenever they watch it. As an actor, you want to present your character’s story, right? But sometimes I think the representation of what someone receives is bigger than you in a sense. I have a lot of gratitude for playing an all-American jock on Riverdale who happened to be Korean American.
The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is the actors who play your kids. They’re fantastic.
CM: They’re awesome. They’re all half Korean. Piper Curda is half Korean. Lizzie [Elizabeth Yu] is half Korean. Gabriel Chung is half Korean; it’s his first job. His first time ever reading with an actor was our chemistry read on Zoom with me. His first day of filming a scene was with Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, me, and Todd Haynes. He was so incredible.
Did you bond with them outside of shooting? I imagine they looked up to you.
CM: They’re so sweet. When I found out that they were playing my kids, I reached out, congratulated them, and I invited them over. We watched movies. I ordered us pizza and ice cream. I took Gabriel to the movies a couple of times. We painted. I invited them over to do their laundry. I firmly believe I would do all these things if I wasn’t playing their dad in the movie anyhow, but it was cool to allow those things to inform what I did as an actor playing their dad, that friend-dad aspect that Joe had.
They always say it takes 10 years before you really make it. It takes a lot of work. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Obviously, the years on Riverdale and getting this performance have really cracked open a whole new world for you. How are you feeling about that, and what do you want for yourself next?
CM: I remember [thinking] after we wrapped filming May December a little over a year ago, “These are the kinds of projects I want to do.” I just want to dive deep and just stretch. Go to places with a director like Todd Haynes, hopefully Todd Haynes.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not having to work and prep and act and do all that?
CM: I love to go camping. I recently went to Sequoia [National Park]. I have a Siberian Husky. Her name’s Neya. She’s so moody, she’s so feisty, she’s so independent, she’s so needy. I love her. We go camping off the grid. I love doing that.