AP Breakthrough Entertainer: Charles Melton thinks it's good it took years to make it in Hollywood

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Charles Melton poses for a portrait on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Los Angeles. Melton has been named one of The Associated Press' Breakthrough Entertainers of 2023. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

LOS ANGELES – Fame didn’t come overnight for Charles Melton.

The 32-year-old “May December” star, currently reaping praise and racking up awards and nominations for his scene-stealing performance alongside acclaimed Hollywood veterans Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, has dutifully been chipping away at his resume since he moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago.

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“I was walking dogs and working Chinese takeout seven years ago,” Melton recalled of his early days trying to make it as an actor.

But his role in “May December” — which has already snagged him several accolades heading into awards season, including outstanding supporting performance at the Gotham Awards — has notched him a spot as one of The Associated Press’ Breakthrough Entertainers of 2023.

And while his story isn’t one of instant success, he believes the maturity he gained along the way was instrumental in giving him the chops necessary to make his characters believable, particularly in the debatably campy Todd Haynes melodrama.

“I remember hearing this thing a while ago that Bryan Cranston said. And the message I received was that, in order to craft a character, you have to be a craftsman of your own life outside of what you do,” Melton says. “The chipping away, I think — I don’t know, I think it’s good.”

That life experience and refined understanding of the human condition — combined with his foray into campy dramas with his role as (the second) Reggie in the cult teen series “Riverdale” — informed Melton's “May December” character, Joe Yoo.

In the film, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), who years earlier become tabloid fodder for a sexual relationship with a seventh-grade Joe, agrees to let an actor (Portman) spend time with them to research an upcoming film about the decades-old scandal.

Now, Gracie is seemingly happily married to Joe, with kids of their own and a picturesque lifestyle in idyllic coastal Georgia.

“There’s just so much that I looked at as far as repression and just how certain emotions we carry in our body and how that translates into the physicality of how someone moves and talks,” Melton says.

In the movie, Joe, now an emotionally stunted 36-year-old, is finally grappling with the trauma of his relationship's origins and questioning what that means for his marriage and life — a performance Haynes has said gave the director new insights into the character.

That thoughtful approach to crafting a performance has also been augmented by Melton's ever-growing interest in film as an art form.

In addition to being a Haynes enthusiast even before the actor starred in one of his projects — “Safe” and “I’m Not There” are some of his favorites — Melton has also developed an appreciation for auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Paul Thomas Anderson.

But his love of cinema began with more approachable stories. He cited fond memories of going to the theater often with his dad to see action movies and big blockbusters when they lived in South Korea.

“Growing up as an Army brat, there’s not too many arthouse films that are being played, you know, in the military base markets internationally. So that was kind of the world that I lived in,” Melton recalls.

His family eventually returned to the United States and settled down in Kansas, where Melton spent his teenage years. He played football at Kansas State University, but eventually dropped out to move to Los Angeles as he became enamored with the idea of telling stories in front of the camera thanks to his ever-growing love of cinema.

Though his role in “May December” and subsequent recognition for it has felt like a major “I made it” moment, each baby step along the way has also been a dream come true, from his first callback and his “43-second” guest star appearance on “Glee” to landing a lead role in Ry Russo-Young's romantic drama, “The Sun is Also a Star,” alongside Yara Shahidi — a film he is proud of and a director he says he'd like to work with again.

But even as he relishes the critical acclaim he’s garnered and looks forward to the future projects that come as a result, Melton has sought to be present in normal human moments amid the success, like going camping and making kimchi with his mom.

“There’s a couple of things that I’ve been looking at that I’m really excited about, but right now, I’m just trying to breathe,” he says.


For more on AP’s 2023 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, visit https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers

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