Pauline Chalamet’s breakout project is Mindy Kaling’s HBO Max series “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which is pretty much about what the title suggests it is — yet the 29-year-old is anything but one of those who preach college as the best four years of your life. Chalamet who, yes, is the older sister of Timothée — has been on a roundabout journey to find her way into acting, having grown up in the arts world in New York, all to abandon it for college before finding herself again as a young adult in Paris. Now that she’s here, she’s destined to be a star.
Growing up, she did ballet at the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet’s school, and performed as a kid in their productions of “The Nutcracker” and “Harlequinade.” When she hit high school, she realized she wanted to be able to use her words as well as physical movement. The Chalamet family are New Yorkers, and her mother took her to the theater a lot as a child, where the seed was planted.
“My way into everything was through the theater. There are so many plays that I saw growing up that just made me realize that I wanted to be on stage doing that. So it was definitely through ballet, and then stage, and then theater and acting. And then I kind of made my way to film,” she says. “But, for instance, when I was in college and I decided to take theater and performance, I only took one film class my entire time in college because I loved seeing movies, but it wasn’t something that interested me more than that.”
A longtime fan of “The Office,” as any good Millennial is, Chalamet was interested in “Sex Lives” as soon as she read the name Mindy Kaling.
“And then I read the pilot and I fell in love with the pilot and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, please. I hope it’s Kimberly they’re asking me to read for,’” she says. “And it was.”
Kimberly, she explains, is not so far off from Chalamet herself in college. Like her character, she had a job while in school — two in fact — and knowing the drive that comes with being a working student was Chalamet’s way into the character.
“Her moral compass was on. I think you see it even in the pilot episode, she is so wide-eyed and curious and wants things to go a certain way and she’s willing to put up with a lot, and then there is the one thing that goes not the way she planned. Then she has a thing where she gets very angry during her work-study job, and I was so admirative of that,” Chalamet says. “Of being able to go back to 18 years old and play someone who, in college, in a very new environment, [is] like, ‘I don’t know these people around me, but I know myself enough to know that you have crossed the line.’ I loved that scene. I loved it.”
Her own college years were at Bard, a liberal arts school in New York state, where she thought she was going to study to become a lawyer or a journalist.
“Then I started interning at an NGO that was an agency that helps the United Nations function. They do a lot of investigative reporting and analysis of different conflicts around the world. I was like, ‘OK, this is the path that I’m on. This is exactly what I want to do.’ Then, my junior year of college, I was like, ‘I need to do something else,’” she says. She wanted to make the most of the money it took to be at a private liberal arts school so decided to double major, in theater and performance.
“I became a good student and I learned to love learning, but socially, it was just not my place,” she says of college. “I felt out of place. I had good friends while I was there, but I didn’t really ever feel comfortable. Part of me thinks like, ‘Well, no one did, Pauline, so you’re not alone.’ But I think that some people did have friend groups or I even think some people meet their best friends in college. That was not my case. I definitely met my people when I was in high school.”
After graduation, she immediately moved to Paris, feeling burnt out from writing two theses and having the urge to get far, far away from it all. She stills lives there today, despite spending a lot of time lately in the U.S., for the show’s press launch.
“I moved to Paris and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I moved in with a friend who had an apartment there and was looking for a roommate. Quickly, I discovered that I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I wanted it to be a little creative,” she says.
She took one odd job after the next, doing some writing with friends on short films in the meantime.
“I was exploring all these different things and little by little, I was like, ‘OK, well, I kind of want to make a film,” she says. She made her first handful of short films, which led her to find a close knit group of people she likes working with, before she was accepted into an acting apprenticeship.
“I had switched careers so many times. I was doing copy editing. I was babysitting. I was bartending. I was doing all these things and I didn’t want to be doing that anymore, but I didn’t yet know what it was I wanted to be doing. Then I got into this apprentice company and it was incredible,” she says. “My first year there was probably one of the best years of my life.”
It brought her back to the feelings she had as a high schooler at LaGuardia, the rush of being around other creative-minded people — something that had been lacking at Bard.
“My flame got dimmed a little bit, being around people who were so in their head all the time [in college] and it was less showy than what I was used to with putting on shows and memorizing lines and going to auditions and doing all that. So doing this apprenticeship really made me fall in love with it again,” she says.
Being part of “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a major show from an A-list creator on a major platform, would signal to most that they have made it into acting as a career, with stardom on the horizon. Chalamet, however, says she still hasn’t had that moment of knowing that she’s on the path meant for her.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way,” she says, “about anything. I was so grateful and I loved it. I loved going to work and I love doing this work. I’m so grateful to be able to say that I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have done this and to be able to bring Kimberly to life, and even to be talking to you today on the phone about Kimberly and the experience. It’s like I’m gushing in gratitude. I think that this is one step, the way it could be so many others, but I’m so appreciative for this because it’s such a gift to be able to hang out with a character for so long, and really get to know her. That’s a huge gift as an actor because I started to understand her better and all of her nuances.”
She’s back to working on short films with her friends, and has a few script ideas floating around in her head, but nothing locked in at the moment.
“Right now, I’m trying to live in the moment of this,” she says. “Letting this show come out and then seeing what else life has to offer, in every domain.”