What we know about A Complete Unknown

The cast

Chalamet, who has graced the big screen in recent films including Wonka and Dune: Part Two, will be playing the iconic Bob Dylan. But he’s not the only well-known actor who has been cast. 

Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had a romantic relationship – and who inspired him musically – will be portrayed by Monica Barbaro, who starred in films such as Top Gun: Maverick and The Cathedral. 

Alan Lomax, a folk musician of the era, will be played by Nick Offerman, who starred in Parks and Rec, Pam and Tommy, The Last of Us and BBC Two’s Good Omens. Boyd Holbrook, from Netflix’s Narcos and the 2014 film Gone Girl, will recreate the presence of the immortal Johnny Cash, and Edward Norton will portray folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. Elle Fanning is cast as young Dylan’s love interest, Sylvie Russo.

The look – and the criticisms

After photos of Chalamet as the 19-year-old Dylan were published online, the internet began its critique. In the images, Chalamet is seen carrying a guitar in its case, and wearing a worn-down scarf, jacket and a Russian kasket hat. While he’s certainly dressed like a 1960s Bob Dylan, reactions to the images were mixed. 

Some on X (formerly Twitter) commented that he resembled Fievel Mousekewitz from the classic 1990s film, An American Tail. Others felt there was something inauthentic about seeing Chalamet in character as Dylan: “Timothee is not rough looking enough to play Dylan,” wrote a user on X. “Dylan had so much turmoil going on inside that it showed through his persona. Timothee may be a good actor, but he needs to look the part. Where is the makeup department?”

Playing a living musician – particularly one whose aesthetic evolution has been as well-documented as Dylan’s – is a particular challenge, Maggie Flanigan, a theatre costume designer who frequently works on period pieces, tells BBC Culture. That’s because “there is a photographic record to pull from”, she explains. And, often, those iconic images continue to “live in the public psyche”.

Past portrayals of Dylan have seen their share of criticism, too. Memorably, the icon was played by six different actors – Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw – in the nonlinear narrative, I’m Not There. Some of those actors, most notably, Cate Blanchett, received rave reviews for the portrayal. Others weren’t so positively received. One Guardian review asserted that at least four of the portrayals “teetered unwittingly on the brink of parody”.

Nailing the lead’s look is always immensely important, Flanigan says. And not just because of how the audience will interpret them, but also because of how the actor feels wearing the clothes. 

“I have always found that when actors finally get into costumes, it’s when the ‘world building’ finally feels particularly personal,” Flanigan explains. “The texture of historical pieces, the shape of the clothes of an era, how they sit on your body, it helps the actor feel the time.”

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