Newcomer Charles Melton delivers a deeply emotive performance as Joe in Todd Haynes’s May December, taking the character and his career to the next level.
When May December director Todd Haynes first saw Charles Melton’s audition tape, he was stunned. “I kept watching it over and over again,” Haynes says. “There was such restraint in it. There was a sense of being locked up and unable to speak.” Unfamiliar with Melton’s work on high school drama series Riverdale or in films like The Sun Is Also a Star, Haynes found himself immediately taken with the 32-year-old actor’s performance. Soon enough, he and his casting director Laura Rosenthal were sure they’d found the man they needed to bring a crucial part of May December to life. “[There was] something that Charles understood about this character that was ahead of me,” Haynes says.
Although Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore dominate May December, Melton is the film’s beating heart as Joe, a subdued husband whose relationship with his older coworker Gracie (Moore) was the center of a firestorm of national controversy two decades prior. When actor Elizabeth (Portman) arrives in town to observe Gracie for a role in a new project about the couple’s story, she begins to unearth the past and turn Joe’s carefully constructed world upside down.
Alongside Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch, Melton helped fill out the character’s backstory — and his future. “He already knew so much about Joe that I didn’t — through his instincts, his own experiences, his own way of seeing the world, and his own skills as an actor,” Haynes says. “So the whole thing was just this fortuitous circumstance.”
Here, Melton shares his experience stepping into the role with Queue.
MEET JOE YOO
When I first read the script, I was absolutely blown away. I felt this intuitive connection to Joe’s character. I was really attracted to this idea of loneliness, emotional repression, and the layered experience that Joe had throughout the film. I really wanted to portray Joe from a place of empathy.
The audition process was really intense and took place over the course of about six to eight weeks — it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had as an actor in pursuit of a role. In those six weeks of understanding Joe and doing the internal work, I could almost feel my external world changing around me at the same time and being influenced by my preparation.
NATALIE & JULIANNE & TODD
It was an absolute gift to work with two legends and masters of their craft. I learned so much from being around them and felt so elevated and supported throughout the whole process. The level of excellence they brought with them inspired me to pour my heart and soul into the role.
Everyone’s process is different. But the common denominator with everyone was their openness to collaborate.
I also learned pretty early on during filming, as an actor, you have a sense of how a scene will play out. But with Natalie and Julianne, you have to be open and receptive to wherever the scene is or where Todd may take you. I felt so safe with Todd. His process throughout the film was so open, collaborative, and encouraging. Todd always trusted me to lean into my instincts.
That motif of the monarch butterfly, I think, was incredibly useful to draw a parallel to Joe’s story in terms of the caterpillar stage to adolescence and adulthood. And thinking in terms of the metamorphosis of Joe, along with all these transitions into new chapters that are happening in his life, he is forced to question where he is now, but also, where was he 20 years prior to the first page of the script? What was his childhood like? In a way, you can say he skipped a chapter of his own adolescence, and how did that affect him?
CATCHING THE LIGHT
In regards to the scene [when Joe and Gracie’s twins are graduating from high school], we shot a couple takes and we were fighting against the light. It was such a technical shot as it was me moving through the bleachers with people walking in and out of frame. I felt pretty good after that last take, and then out of nowhere I heard, “We got one more!” So, I rushed back over there. They put the jacket on me. I do the scene. I’m thinking, Are we gonna get this? I can’t overthink it. Let me just think about my kids. And then at that moment, everything just flooded through me. And that was the take. Todd didn’t call cut for a long time. It was beautiful.