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‘Get Out,’ ‘The Big Sick’ Stars Champion Diversity in Hollywood at Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch Panel

Big ideas and hot-button social issues fueled conversation between “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya, “The Big Sick” lead Kumail Nanjiani, and other emerging talents during a panel discussion with Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch on Saturday at the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, moderated by Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos and IndieWire deputy editor Eric Kohn. But no matter the social or artistic merit of the topic, all were upstaged by a single question: What’s it like to have sex with a peach?

The answer fell to Timothée Chalamet, star of the new film “Call Me By Your Name,” in which he follows a path blazed by Jason Biggs in “American Pie.” “I’ve been looking for a project to have sex with fruit in for a long time,” Chalamet deadpanned. He plays teenage Elio, who falls for Armie Hammer’s college-age Oliver in director Luca Guadagnino’s film, which has drawn raves from festival crowds. In fantasizing about his older flame, Elio employs the fruit, a technique both the young actor and director experimented with to make sure it could actually be done.

Chalamet almost missed his opportunity to comment on the scene, as he arrived late to East Hampton’s Rowdy Hall due to an unexpected delay. “I apologize — there’s a huge dog festival or something,” Chalamet said. “I’m not making this up, there’s a huge dog parade!”

“You use that excuse every time! It’s always a dog parade,” quipped former stand-up comedian Nanjiani, who also co-stars in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani’s first leading film role, in “The Big Sick,” which he also wrote, was based on a real-life experience. He had been dating a woman for a few months when she fell ill and slipped into a coma. Unsure of what he should do, he wound up spending 10 days with her parents while she recovered.

This had pros and cons for an actor: “It was good because I didn’t have to imagine what it was like, I just had to remember what it was like,” he said. “But was bad because you’re kind of forcing yourself to relive the most traumatic experience of your life.”

The relationship that inspired the film turned out OK in the end: Nanjiani wound up marrying Emily Gordon and she co-wrote “The Big Sick” with him. Gordon was seated in the audience during the talk, prompting another bon mot from Nanjiani: “Actors to watch are up here. Writers to watch are out there.”

Grace Van Patten, daughter of “Sopranos” director Tim Van Patten, said all her time growing up in Hollywood didn’t prepare her for director Noah Baumbach’s audition strategy. When she went to read for a part in the upcoming “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” she was handed 15 pages of sides and given 10 minutes to prepare. “You’ve just got to tell yourself that everybody is in the same position,” she said. “You just gotta breathe.”

It wasn’t until Baumbach told her that she had the part that she learned who her co-stars would be: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, among other luminaries. “He gave me all four names at once,” she said. “I couldn’t handle myself.” Like many of Baumbach’s previous films, “The Meyerowitz Stories” depicts a complicated family relationship that is at turns harrowing and hilarious. It won the Palm D’or at Cannes in May.

Danielle Macdonald, star of “Patti Cake$,” faced two challenges in portraying a budding New Jersey rap star known as Killa P in director Geremy Jasper’s film. First, she’s from Australia, not the Tri-State Area. Second, she claims, “I’m not musical at all. It was a very big challenge for me to be a rapper. I was terrified.” She did pretty well for herself. The film sparked a bidding war at Sundance, where it was picked up by Fox Searchlight for $9.5 million.

The ethnically diverse panel addressed racial tension in both Hollywood and the nation. Hong Chau, who grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in New Orleans, saw progress in director Alexander Payne casting her in a significant role in his sci-fi satire “Downsizing,” about a worldwide movement to counteract overpopulation by actually shrinking people. “You don’t often see a person of color from Vietnam in a lead role opposite Matt Damon,” she explained. “That’s not a very obvious choice.”

Kaluuya saw his starring turn in Jordan Peele’s horror satire “Get Out,” about a young black man’s creepy first visit with his white girlfriend’s parents, inspire major discussions about race in America. “It felt like [the film] really connected to the people, and people got creative with it,” said Kaluuya, referencing “The Get Out Challenge,” in which thousands have posted re-creations of a crucial scene to YouTube. “It resonated because it articulated an experience that hadn’t really been put to film yet. It was poignant and it was fun. There’s joy in ‘Get Out.’”

Daveed Diggs, who has parlayed his Tony Award from Broadway’s “Hamilton” into steady film and television work including Stephen Chbosky’s upcoming “Wonder,” was asked about the night the “Hamilton” cast came out after curtain and directly requested that then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence treat all Americans with equal respect. Diggs had already left the cast at that point, but his girlfriend was touring with the production in Chicago. “What people don’t know is that the crazy backlash of that night happened mostly to the Chicago company,” Diggs said. “The day after that, there was somebody in the audience yelling, ‘Get these ni—— off the stage.’ The country is f—–! It’s crazy right now.”

Nanjiani had an unusual take on how new generations shoulder the challenges of a tumultuous society. “I have a theory,” he said. “I think young people who grow up playing video games are more resilient. Because there’s a goal in the video game — you have to defeat nazis. And now, in real life, you have to defeat nazis.”

Isaac Guzmán is the editor-in- chief of MexFlix.org

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