Three Great Things: Pauline Chalamet

The star and producer of the new film What Doesn't Float, which is out now in theaters, shares some of the essential elements of her life.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the September 22 release in theaters of the new anthology film What Doesn’t Float, starring Pauline Chalamet, Larry Fessenden, Keith Poulson and others, Chalamet – who also produced the film through her company Gummy Films, shared some of things that she loves most in life. — N.D.

Watching the Background of Movies
Whenever I’m watching a movie, I love to look at what’s going on in the background. At one point in Amelie, Audrey Tatou says, “I love looking at the little fly that’s on the screen,” and that resonates with me more than anything that’s ever been said. I’m obsessed with looking at background actors, the way sets are decorated, the way plates are placed, and what is really going on in scenes. In Hollywood movies, background actors are professionals, so if their character is eating lasagna, they are literally eating lasagna. But then in the Eric Rohmer film L’Ami de Mon Amie, which I saw recently, you can see that so many of those shots were stolen, because in all the close-ups, the people in the background are just looking down the barrel of the lens as they walk by, wondering, “What’s going on?” Another good example is in Barbara Loden’s Wanda, which starts really wide and zooms in; it’s in a coal mine and you see her, what is happening around her and other people walking away.

My love of watching the background of movies is similar to the love I have of looking at old photos, whether it’s of my family or other people’s families or old postcards and photos in old second-hand bookshops or thrift stores. I think it scratches the same itch. I like to know what’s going on.

I know exactly when I first started paying attention to the background of movies. When I was maybe 11 or 12, I was watching Friends at a friend’s house with her older brother and his friends. At one point, one of his friends said, “Oh my God, the boom, the boom!” Because there was a shot where the boom entered the frame. I think it woke up a sense in me that said, “Oh wow, all these other things are going on around the film.” So that was the moment that my taste for what’s happening outside of what we’re supposed to be looking at was awakened.

My Morning Reading Routine
I have a very specific morning reading routine which started during the pandemic and over the past few years has become very precise. When I wake up, my phone is never in my room, so my radio alarm is set to the local classical music station. First, I’ll finish the chapter of whatever fiction book I fell asleep reading the night before; if I can’t put the book down, I’ll let myself read one more chapter. But otherwise, I go to my non-fiction reading, which is always The New Yorker; I read The New Yorker cover to cover every week. After I have read an article in The New Yorker, I’ll read a chapter or two of my current nonfiction book.

I essentially start my day with about an hour-and-a-half to two hours of reading, but nothing connected to the 24-hour news cycle, which I’ll look at in the afternoon. The morning is my time for letting my brain swell. When I’m waking up and having my morning cup of tea, I feel like the information seeps in differently. Keeping to my routine is crucial to me. I get very, very grumpy if I’m interrupted or asked to do something else. If I have a 10 a.m. call time and I didn’t set my alarm properly, I’m out of it. Some people have coffee; I have this two-hour ritual.

When I’m on set and don’t have an opportunity to read first thing in the morning, I’ll take my books with me and sit in my trailer and get in as much reading as I can. If I have 5:45 call time, I’m lucky if I get to read a single chapter that day, as it’s just too early. But even if I can just read one chapter, it feels like all’s right with the world.

Decoding” Chopin
Something that I do which is very meditative is “decoding” Chopin pieces for the piano, as I can read sheet music very, very slowly. What this means is, I’ll go through a page or two and then play it a few times. Time just goes by in a different way and it feels like I’m not doing this for any purpose (in a good way). I’m doing it because it’s letting the efficient, obsessed part of my brain relax. I want to do something without feeling the pressure of doing something, and I like doing that.

I started taking piano lessons when I was maybe six or seven and continued until the end of high school. I always took for granted that I could down sit at a piano and play a few things, but it wasn’t until I took a break from piano in college that, in my early 20s, I realized that I found it fun to have a piano, to put the sheet music in front of me and just decode it.

Playing music is really like speaking another language. Something that’s very intriguing to me is that I can choose, say, Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, which is a little easier than the others, and play it all the way through. After years of just working a little bit. But when I’m playing, I don’t realize I’m reading the music. If you took the sheet music away from me, though, I couldn’t play it anymore. The sheet music somehow activates a completely different part of my brain.

Pauline Chalamet is an actress, writer and director who currently is starring in the anthology film What Doesn’t Float, which she also produced. Shed is currently shooting and producing Steve Pink’s independent feature Chimera, starring opposite Jermaine Fowler, Edy Modica and James Morosini. Pauline stars in Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls for HBO Max, which has been picked up for a third season. In 2019, she co-founded GUMMY Films with Luca Balser and Rachel Walden, after developing, producing and acting in What Doesn’t Float. Previous film credits include Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island and the independent feature Black & White & Red All Over. A graduate of the Studio Théâtre d’Asnières in Paris, Pauline is fluent in English & French. She floats between Paris, New York and Los Angeles. (Photo by Alice Plati.)