Meet Charles Melton, the Breakout Star of ‘May December’

The ex-“Riverdale” star transformed himself for Todd Haynes’s new drama. As an actor, he’s caught between wanting to be seen and wanting to disappear.

Article by Kyle Buchanan

Charles Melton_1The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. After six years playing a conceited jock on the teen soap “Riverdale,” Melton transformed himself, and found himself as an actor, for his acclaimed role in Todd Haynes’ “May December.” Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.

I’ll admit it took me a while to notice the blood, which was wet and daubed onto his right cheekbone like a birthmark. In my defence, Charles Melton hadn’t noticed it either, even though the blood happened to be his.

It was an unseasonably rainy November day in Los Angeles — a place where any evidence of the seasons is considered unseasonable — and I had gone to Melton’s house with a dual mission. The first was to discuss the new drama “May December,” in which the 32-year-old actor does more than just hold his own opposite Oscar-winning co-stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore: He gives the movie its bruised, beating heart.

And the second mission? Well, that was to make some truly excellent kimchi.

“These, you have to cut really thin,” Melton said, handing me a bulbous radish. We were in the kitchen of his cosy home in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles, preparing to slice and flavour vegetables under the watchful eye of his mother, Sukyong, who was visiting from Kansas. The 32-year-old Melton keeps his fridge so well-stocked with kimchi that he often sends friends home with extra jars of it. “Just remember, kimchi is a probiotic,” he said, feeding me a piece of seasoned cabbage.

Six-foot-one, shaggy-haired and easygoing, Melton has the warm glow of a Himalayan salt lamp. (He also has a Himalayan salt lamp.) Although he spent six years playing a conceited jock on The CW teen soap “Riverdale,” Melton wears his beauty and brawn as lightly as a nice jacket, and while we cut vegetables and discussed “May December,” he tried to encourage me by pointing out his own errors.

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The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.
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The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.

“I’ve already messed up,” he said after one particularly inelegant radish slice. Across the kitchen, his mother turned to us, somehow able to sense the misaligned cut. “If you hear my mom saying things in Korean,” he told me, “just assume that it’s all good things.”

In “May December,” Melton plays Joe, a diffident 36-year-old father married to the much older Gracie (Moore). The two have seemingly managed to fashion a picture-perfect life — three children, two dogs and a beautiful home by the water — although the original sin of their union provides an awfully shaky foundation: They met when Gracie was a married housewife and Joe was just a seventh-grader. Tabloid infamy followed as Gracie was convicted of raping Joe, bore his baby in prison and, after serving a yearslong sentence, married him and had two more children.

Enter Elizabeth (Portman), an ambitious actress poised to play Gracie in a movie that will exhume the scandal this couple has worked so hard to move past. In a bid to have the story told their way, Gracie and Joe agree to let Elizabeth shadow them, but as the actress peppers the couple with invasive questions, poor Joe is finally forced to confront the enormity of what he’s locked away for so long. Robbed of a normal childhood by Gracie, Joe can’t quite articulate his feelings — sentences often get lodged in his throat — but in Melton’s hands, Joe’s wounded attempt to make sense of his situation is shattering.

In May, after the film premiered to raves at the Cannes Film Festival, director Todd Haynes told me that Melton was its linchpin. “It’s a consummate performance by somebody who doesn’t even realise how thorough an actor he is yet,” Haynes said. And as with “Elvis” star Austin Butler, another hunk from The CW turned serious thespian, Melton’s breakthrough role has been drawing plenty of Oscar chatter: He recently earned a nomination for outstanding supporting performance from the Gothams, heady stuff for a man whose most significant laurel until now was a nomination for best kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

As we spoke, Melton met every question with enthusiastic openness; aside from the way he covers his mouth when he giggles, he’s appealingly unguarded for an actor. At 32, he’s been pondering big questions about self and purpose, and our conversation offered such a welcome opportunity to go deep that he often dropped into dreamy reveries.

“I can talk to you for hours,” he said as we took a break from grating radishes to nibble on apple slices and Korean pears in his living room. “I’m looking into your eyes and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

As he met my gaze, I looked at his cheek and noticed the blood. When did that get there? It wasn’t until he absently brushed his hand against his face that I put two and two together and looked down.

“I think you might have cut yourself,” I told him.

“Maybe,” he said, grinning. Then he glanced at his right hand, where a cut halfway up his middle finger had been gushing for who knows how long.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said, surprised. “There’s blood everywhere.”

From the kitchen, his mother whipped her head around. “Blood?” she said. “I’m coming!”

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The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.

Sure, some interviews benefit from a little spilled blood, but that’s usually meant in the metaphoric sense; Melton was already so willing to be vulnerable that he hardly needed a grating accident to hasten things. He told me that last summer, when he received the audition pages for “May December,” he was similarly ready to go deep.

It was not long after Melton had wrapped the sixth season of “Riverdale,” which found his mind-controlled character stabbing comic-book hero Archie Andrews with one of the ancient Daggers of Megiddo. (This is just what happens on “Riverdale.”)

As he read the lines and character description for Joe, “There was this sense of repression and loneliness that I related to,” he said. Those wouldn’t necessarily be the first two qualities you’d associate with Melton, an outgoing athlete who loves to hold a game night, but Joe’s predicament reminded him of a pep talk he’d gotten when he was 11: His father, on the verge of a yearlong deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, pressed Melton to step up and take care of his mother and younger sisters in the interim, effectively becoming the man of the house.

“As an 11-year-old kid, you’re like, ‘I’ll do it!’” Melton recalled. “I would never change anything I experienced — no one did anything wrong — but in looking at that part of my own experience and then looking at Joe, it’s that similarity of the feeling of stepping into something whether you’re ready for it or not.”

He kept rerecording his “May December” self-tape for six hours until he was satisfied, then sent it over. Although Haynes was unfamiliar with Melton’s work and nearly discounted him because of his model-handsome headshot — “I just didn’t see how he would fit into this world,” the filmmaker told me — once he pressed play, Haynes was intrigued by Melton’s unique take on the character.

“Charles just brought this sense of somebody who was almost preverbal, who was almost prenatal, like you were watching somebody learning how to see and how to speak and how to walk,” Haynes said. “He was extremely restrained and subtle in what he did.”

After another taped audition, Melton was asked to fly to New York for a chemistry read with Moore, with whom he found an unexpected connection: They were both Army brats who had spent formative chunks of their childhood living on a military base in Juneau, Alaska, a link that lent them an easy rapport and helped him secure the role.

“I definitely felt a pressure within myself: ‘Can I go there? Can I do this?’” Melton recalled. “‘I believe I can, but I don’t know what it looks like, so let me do everything underneath the sun to try to figure out what that is.’”

To prepare, Melton threw himself into the role in any way he could think of. He spent hours every day consulting with his acting coach and therapist, trying to figure out Joe’s tricky, tangled internal wiring. He re-watched “Brokeback Mountain,” studying the ways Heath Ledger expressed repression in his physical bearing, and “In the Mood for Love,” observing how Tony Leung conveyed so much inner turmoil without saying a thing. And after conferring with Haynes, Melton decided to gain 40 pounds for the role, smoothing out his sharp jawline and adding a suburban-dad paunch.

“The reward was me discovering my process,” he said. At his dining-room table, Melton demonstrated by conjuring up Joe for me: He curled his lips inward, setting them in a tense horizontal line, then slumped forward, defeated and deflated. “His reality is so distorted by the projections of society, the last thing he wants to do is to show himself,” Melton said, letting the bright light behind his eyes go dim. “He protects himself, even in his body.”

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The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.

The only thing that threatened to undo him was a determination not to disappoint. It all came to a head in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, where Joe and his teenage son, Charlie, share a joint on their roof. Charlie and his twin sister are about to graduate from high school and after their parents become empty-nesters, Joe will have to confront the ugly reality of his marriage to Gracie in a way he has assiduously avoided. Alarmed, Charlie tells him not to worry. “That’s all I do,” Joe replies, teary and close to retching.

After a few takes, Haynes felt they had what they needed, but Melton was unsure: Shouldn’t he take this moment to go bigger, to give more, to prove himself somehow? He kept asking for additional takes, but each iteration felt strained, bringing him further and further from Joe and closer to the pernicious fear that he was a terrible actor. Eventually, he came down from the roof to confer with Haynes and burst into tears.

“I think those came from selfish ideas of wanting to be at a certain place, where I forgot at the moment, ‘Hey, your job is to tell the character’s story, not yours,’” he said. What had gotten in the way of that connection? “Maybe wanting to be seen,” he said, trying to parse what exactly he meant by that. “I want to be seen, but I don’t want to be seen, right? But being seen for what you do is still a part of you being seen.”

Melton paused. “I don’t even know what I’m saying right now,” he admitted, laughing. “I’m just making kimchi.”

Later, with the task at hand finished and his mother retired to the couch to watch Korean dramas on her phone, Melton gave me a tour of his house. Downstairs, in a low-lit room he nicknamed the “Pavilion of Dreams,” Melton put Radiohead’s “Kid A” on the record player, slid open the glass door to his rain-lashed backyard deck, and lit a cigarette. He wanted to talk more about the idea that had tripped him up earlier, the tension between wanting to be seen and, at other times, striving to disappear.

“Sometimes I feel this push and pull of, am I white enough, am I American enough, am I Asian enough?” Melton said. Growing up in military bases all over the world with a white father and Korean mother, he felt a constant need to assimilate that often left him feeling unmoored: “I remember having a dream around that time, like if you cut two cars in half and put the front ends together and one is Korean and the other one is American. Which driver’s seat do you want to sit in?”

After five years stationed in Korea when he was a young boy, Melton’s family moved to Texas, where his dyed-blond K-pop bangs and affinity for taekwondo went over less well. He soon adopted the uniform there — Vans, cargo shorts and oversized Hawaiian shirts — and even when his family packed up again and moved to a military base in Ansbach, Germany, Melton couldn’t quite let go of the American boy he’d worked so hard to become, continuing to wear a puka-shell necklace and Hollister shirts shipped overseas.

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The actor Charles Melton, in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2023. Photograph by Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times.

For his last three years of high school, Melton’s family moved to Manhattan, Kansas. “Being an Asian American kid and that not being a commonality, especially in Kansas, what was my bridge to assimilate?” he said. He found it in football: Though he began disastrously, finishing dead-last in every practice sprint and vomiting in front of teammates, he applied himself and worked his way up, eventually becoming an all-star and earning a slot as a defensive back at Kansas State University, where he was nicknamed “Kamikaze” for hitting harder than anyone else on the team.

“I’m checking all the boxes, right? ‘American,’” he said. “But a big thing to process for me was, what is my identity outside of this?”

Around that time, on the way to football practice, he heard a radio advertisement for a talent showcase that asked, “Do you want to be a star?” Melton had always dreamed of becoming an actor, but when he was a child, his father warned him that the only Asians who succeeded in Hollywood were martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Still, he drove 45 minutes to the open call in Salina, Kansas, where he was asked to read ad copy for Twizzlers, model for talent scouts and perform Ben Stiller’s airplane freakout scene from “Meet the Parents” onstage.

He came out of the showcase with 20 callbacks and a brand-new lease on life. “It was so exhilarating to be seen in a way that wasn’t me being seen, but what I was choosing to do,” he said. “It seemed like there were no boundaries.” Although he was used to toggling between different identities, acting offered something way beyond assimilation — it felt, if anything, more like expansion.

The entirety of what he wanted out of life shifted very suddenly, and Melton dropped out of college, moved to Los Angeles, and spent the next few years modelling, walking dogs, delivering Chinese takeout and auditioning for anything he could. Eventually, he secured “Riverdale,” which led to roles in films like “The Sun Is Also a Star” and “Bad Boys for Life,” as well as a featured spot in Ariana Grande’s presciently titled music video, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”

After levelling up as an actor with “May December,” Melton could be at a career crossroads: Will Marvel come calling, ready to poach a hot new name with superhero looks, or will Melton throw in with the likes of Butler and Jacob Elordi, who are using their heat to help finance auteur-driven projects? “All one hopes for with an actor like Charles is that he gets roles offered to him and projects coming to him that excite and continue to stretch him,” Haynes said.

The monthslong awards gantlet will surely raise his profile even more, and Melton is excited to embark on all it has to offer, although he’s lately tried to ground himself in simpler pleasures, like family visits, camping trips and accepting licks to the face from his Siberian husky, Neya. “I have good people in my life, Kyle, really good people who know me and love me,” he said. “I don’t need any more love, but if I get it, it’s awesome.”

At the very least, Melton is about be seen in a whole new way, and he’ll have to wrestle with all that entails. But as we parted ways — me, with several jars of take-home kimchi and him, with a bandaged middle finger — he promised that no matter what happens over the next few months, he’ll be ready for it.

“I’ll still be me,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just have nicer shoes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.