July 16, 2024

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Charles Melton’s ‘May December’ man-child wants to be good man

5 min read

“I can only imagine how scared Joe was,” actor Charles Melton says of his “May December” character, who began an affair with a grown woman and ended up marrying her and raising a family.

(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Charles Melton’s father Phil is his hero. “I love him,” the actor says simply. He still remembers being 11 years old, living in Germany, and his dad sitting him down. “He was in the Army for 26-plus years,” Melton recalls. “Four of those years, my dad was serving in the Gulf War [including] in Desert Storm.” And now Phil was telling Charles, his oldest child, that he was leaving.

“He talked about family, responsibility,” says Melton, who has two younger sisters. “He [described] what a good man was, how a good man would love his family. He said many beautiful things — he was asking me to take care of my sisters and my mom while he’s away. I remember looking at my dad, kind of emotional, but I’m not going to [cry]. I felt, in that moment, that I had to be strong and show my father that I can do this. If I’m crying and begging him to stay, it’s not going to change the fact that he is going to go away for a year. Who knows what could have happened?”

It’s mid-November as Melton, who turns 33 in January, sits in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, telling this story about a pivotal moment from his childhood that taught him about stepping up during difficult times. The anecdote emerges as Melton discusses his work in the enigmatic character study “May December,” in which he plays a very different dad named Joe who, in grade school, began a sexual relationship with a woman in her 30s, Gracie (Julianne Moore) — an illicit affair that sent her to prison, pregnant, igniting a tabloid frenzy. Now 20 years later, Joe and Gracie, who are married and raising three children, are visited by Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an ambitious actor set to portray Gracie in a movie. Joe may be an adult, but he remains uncomfortably tethered to the boy he once was.

The former “Riverdale” star gravitated to Joe — not because of his scandalous romance but, rather, because he connected with Joe’s desire to be a good man.

“I can only imagine how scared Joe was,” he says. “There’s something beautiful about [his] strength, because we can imagine, being so young and having a kid, the fear that involves with that. You can see people just act like, ‘I got this, I’m not afraid’ — they’re in denial, convincing themselves of something because it’s ‘strong.’”

Once director Todd Haynes cast him after a six-week audition process, Melton decided the character needed to speak in a clenched voice, Joe far less animated than the actor is in person, his hands constantly in motion. “He represents purity and innocence,” Melton says of Joe, “but there’s this layer where he’s hiding.” To that end, Melton wanted to add flab, shedding his chiseled “Riverdale” physique to become an ordinary dude with a dad-bod.

An older woman leans her head on the shoulder of a younger man in "May December."

Julianne Moore stars as the much older wife to Charles Melton as Joe Yoo in the Netflix film “May December.”

(Netflix)

“I was living in the physicality of Joe,” Melton says. “Todd and I had conversations of what Joe would feel like — not look like, but feel like. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, gain 40 pounds for this’ — it was, ‘He’s a suburban dad, has three kids. He’s a provider, a loving husband. Where does he have time to go to the gym?’ The internal understanding of this person — the emotional makeup of Joe — just transformed naturally into me putting on the weight.”

As Joe tends to Gracie’s neediness while feeling a magnetic pull toward Portman’s seductive outsider, Melton walks a tightrope, depicting a man-child struggling to fulfill his role as the head of the household while still processing the spiritual fallout from this unusual romantic relationship. There’s a softness to Joe, both in terms of his sweetness and his doughy body, almost as if he didn’t fully develop into a grown-up — no doubt because of what happened to him so young.

The acclaim that’s come Melton’s way thanks to “May December,” including a Gotham Awards supporting performance win — full disclosure, this writer was part of the nominating committee — has elevated his profile. But for Melton, it’s part of a larger personal narrative, one in which this self-proclaimed Army brat moved from place to place, reshaping himself at each stop.

Charles Melton

(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

“It starts with clothing, a form of expression, just constantly discovering who I was,” he recalls. “Every chapter of my life [was] a different hairstyle. I always had this excitement of starting fresh — of seeing something ahead of me. ‘Maybe there’ll be something greater than what’s great right now.’ It’s like this pursuit of something.”

He never felt he was projecting a false image of himself to his new classmates. “I wasn’t so much changing who I was,” he says. “My ideas of myself were just getting bigger.” To illustrate his point, he mentions that his family left Germany for the States when he was in high school. “I had a messy room when we were living in Germany, and I remember moving to Kansas and [saying], ‘Mom, I’m going to start cleaning my room — I’m going to be clean and neat. This is a new place, a new thing, a new start.’”

Melton still can’t quite grasp what his rationale was. “It’s weird — maybe it’s pretending to be something that I am.”

He sees a parallel between that boyish hunger for evolution and his journey to discover Joe. “It wasn’t like one day I was like, ‘This is who he is,’” Melton says. “I was figuring out my process in real time with Todd — and, simultaneously outside of the work, that’s what I’m doing with myself. The moving and the adapting and assimilating — the constant imagining who I am, maybe a better version of who I am — led me here.”

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