While Oscar-winning stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore have been the faces put at the forefront of marketing for “May December,” the latest film from director Todd Haynes, it is Charles Melton who plays the character screenwriter Samy Burch describes as the heart of the movie.
The black comedy, which dazzled audiences at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and was acquired by Netflix, stars Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a disgraced woman who became reviled for leaving her husband for a 13-year-old boy. Now decades later, in a stable marriage with the young man Joe (Melton), she finds her scandalous past reopened when Portman’s Elizabeth, an actress looking to break away from her TV procedural, shows up looking to embed herself with the scandalous couple as research for playing Gracie in an independent film she’s producing.
In a recent Consider This panel alongside Haynes and “May December” screenwriter Samy Burch, moderated by IndieWire’s Marcus Jones, Melton recalled being starstruck by even auditioning for names like Haynes and Moore. But the surreal experience resulted in him landing the job.
“I remember standing outside of that door and I heard Todd and Julie talking, and I was just ‘Oh my God, this is it!’” Melton said of his audition. “Then next thing I know I’m walking out of that door thinking ‘What just happened?’”
In Haynes’ recollection of the same day, he’d just found an actor capable of bringing nuances to Joe that he didn’t even know he needed. “Charles brought something really clenched, restrained, almost like preconscious to the character where you felt all of a sudden I saw this guy as a real man with such a complicated history,” said the director. “So the rest was following through on those instincts and seeing what it’d be like to see him and Julianne in the room. And that was an amazing day. The connection between the two of them was so special.”
Haynes, Burch, and Melton worked together to develop Joe as a character, relying on his emotional repression to build the core of the story. It quickly became clear that less was more, and Haynes and Burch opted to shave down his dialogue in order to let Melton’s acting carry the bulk of the narrative weight.
“One of my favorite notes from Todd from that first Zoom was when (he) said ‘Add more fog.’ I wrote it on the notecard above my desk,” said the screenwriter, whose “May December” script made it onto The Black List in 2020. “The work, especially around Joe’s character, was subtraction. It was adding those moments where he isn’t able to exactly articulate how he’s feeling, or things don’t need to be said. I think the audience feels what’s true and what needs to be said.”
Melton added, “The Joe that I read through Samy’s words, for me, represented this pureness, this innocence and of Joe’s family, his kids, his wife, they came before he came in a way. That’s why the arrival of Elizabeth and just this wall breaking down with Joe, of him acknowledging that thing that’s buried so deep down inside of him, it was fun (to play).”
Seeing the film on screen, Burch was most struck by Melton’s physicality while embodying Joe. “There are times when he really physically looks so young, carries himself almost as a middle schooler in this adult body, and then there are times when he appears to be 50—someone that is the age that would be appropriate to have kids in college. There’s this amazing ebb and flow of the two, and where they cross, and everything. It’s amazing,” said the writer.
Haynes agrees, saying “Still, every time I watch it, there’s things that occur on such a subtle, understated micro level in Charles’ choices. There’s comic timing, there’s dramatic poignance, there’s his beginning to see his situation, and (how) he steps toward something that we don’t know.”
“May December” opens in select theaters on Friday, November 17 before streaming on Netflix on December 1. Watch the entire conversation with Haynes, Burch, and Melton above.
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