Feud’s Chris Chalk on playing Baldwin vs Capote and making it look easy

James Baldwin is, to put it mildly, foundational. Oft-quoted and adapted across media, Baldwin’s work still forms the spine of our modern understanding of racial and sexual liberation, yet — perhaps out of reverence — he’s rarely been portrayed dramatically on-screen. Chris Chalk, in other words, had monumental shoes to fill in portraying the beloved writer, who, as a well-documented orator, many Americans are intimately familiar with. Chalk takes on the challenge with aplomb, giving a scene-stealing turn in this week’s episode of Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.

In the episode, titled “The Secret Inner Lives of Swans,” Chalk’s Baldwin visits Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) to shake the writer out of his near-suicidal malaise following the publication of Capote’s essay exposing the scandals of his socialite friends. The two spend a day roaming New York having a wide-ranging conversation cutting at the core of Feud’s themes: the shallow performances of the wealthy, the thinly veiled racism and bigotry underpinning high society, and the artist’s duty in portraying them.

Sitting down for a Zoom conversation with Polygon, Chalk — an exuberant and loquacious presence — contemplated a lot of the same things, talking about Baldwin’s legacy and imagined tension between both literary giants.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Polygon: I know when the casting was announced you said you’d always wanted to portray Baldwin. He’s someone we haven’t really seen on screen in a professional context much. Did that make your job harder, easier? Is there anything you wanted to accomplish with this little time you have?

Chris Chalk: I don’t think it was harder or easier that no one else has played him. I think that I took in that as the gravity of how important it was. I think that he’s a person that people don’t toy with. One of the things I panicked about — not panic, I’m being hyperbolic — but the thing that was stressing me was, the made-up stress, was like: Nobody touches him and everyone likes him. During his time — he was, you know, an openly gay, effeminate Black man — he couldn’t be the biggest part of the Black Power movement. So he’s off in Paris, but everyone still liked him. And we like him even more and more today as we become a kinder society that’s going, Oh my god, this guy had so many good points. And we weren’t listening even then. He continues to be a teacher.


So, yeah, man; tons of pressure, tons of excitement, tons of, like — it’s not a test, but seeing how, with the time I’m blessed with, how well can I embody this man whom I so adore, without being in such adoration that I make him non-human? You know what I mean? And that was the beauty of this opportunity is, not too much time so that I couldn’t get too in my head. And with great support comes this amazing iteration of this man we all love.

The way that you smoke — was that lifted from him or was that you?

Everything! Everything — I did my very best to do the way that James would do it. So anything that he physically did, I would. I looked through clips — [and] he’s going to be very different with Capote than he’s going to be with Maya Angelou, because there’s a sisterhood almost. With Black women he relaxes in a completely different way. When he’s in white spaces he’s a different way, when he’s in queer spaces — he’s not presenting himself differently, there’s just different freedoms. So I did my very best to find him in every single environment in order to not mimic it but honor it to the best of my abilities.

Image: FX

I do want to talk to you a little bit about working with Tom Hollander, because he does something very difficult for an actor, which is to give a very giving performance, to receive while you come in as Baldwin. You are both playing characters who have been very well documented on camera with very particular mannerisms or well-known mannerisms. How do you calibrate for something like that?

Well, the beauty is we both are theater people. So as far as my training: That’s the gig. The gig is finding myself in any other character, the gig is doing some physicality, the gig is doing some vocal work. And using whatever means necessary to honor the character’s point of view and their drive.

With James, it’s like you’re saying, one, we’ve known him for wide age groups, too. So some of that was working with Jerome to isolate the age, to isolate the tones and the tonality we wanted to do, working with the movement coach, it was isolating the movements, because he definitely got kind of heavier, and a little bit droopy, or as he got older and a little bit more folded forward, as one might typing over a desk long-term.

With that kind of support it’s really easy to walk into any character. But some of the beauty of James is: It’s really specific. So as long as I do the work, put in my two, three hours a day of looking for it in me, at least I will be honoring who he is.

And it’s cool to see him just interact with Capote! The episode to me felt like kind of an argument between the two men about what Capote’s work does. There’s this incredible line where he calls Capote a thesaurus of American nausea, among other things. Do you think the two men agree about what Capote’s doing?

No! No, no, no — I think that’s why James is needed. Because Capote is trapped between the glitter and glamour, and his moral obligation to be the elite storyteller that he is. I think they share a similar point of view. But Capote, you know, he indulges — I mean, James is a drinker and a smoker, too. But he was always heavily focused on what needed to be done, he would isolate, go off [to] this snowy winter place when he’s like, I’m serious, I’m going to write. He goes and he isolates, whereas Truman, you know, is throwing them back and he wants to really be accepted — which is not his job. His job is not to be accepted by the Swans, but to reveal them and to reveal to us this thing that we’re worshipping, showing us the truth about it.

I mean, if they agreed it would be the most boring scene in the world. But because James comes in, and through various tactics — I mean, I think he starts with a rather soft of, like, Oh, this is so cute. Oh, this is nice. And then by the end he’s like, Get up off your ass. And do you a job, I’m so sick of this game, we’ve been playing this game, you weren’t really listening. And now I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to do. And I think that’s kind of the penultimate moment that it takes that much to shake Capote out of this, his being mesmerized by the fear of losing what is not important. I think James is really trying to focus on what is important. And you will be the star you always want it to be as opposed to just being welcomed as their little dog getting the, you know, a little tray of food. But what is that really?

Chris Chalk as Baldwin in close-up

Image: FX

And it’s such a great episode because to me it doesn’t seem like Baldwin has a single motivation; there’s a lot of things going through his head in the scene. Part of it is morbid curiosity, right?

Like, what are they doing? Because who knows in this world, this reality that Ryan and John have created? Maybe James is wanting to, like, You told me enough, I’ll do it myself. Maybe part of it is like, You’re my research into this world, because these people will never let me into their world.

So yeah, I think there’s a curiosity. And then as James sees the state that Truman’s in, it’s comparing his state to his ability and being like, Wake up, man, wake up, you are there. You’re in the middle of what could be your greatest contribution to society, and you’re pumping the brakes. Come on, buddy.

And as he says: There’s a commonality between the two men. Where they’re members of a very small club, right? The gay men of letters.

And there’s obligation to that club! We tell these stories. We honor our sexuality, and we don’t hide — we do not hide, sir. And he’s hiding. You know, [Baldwin] kind of mocks him, like: No, sweetie. You’re not gonna scare me. You’re not gonna throw me off my game. I’m here to fix you. Whatever this is, Don’t get it twisted. I’m here to fix you — or guide you, or hope to wake you up.

That’s sort of the fun of the energy Baldwin brings, because he’s always an intense thinker and a powerful speaker; that’s what he’s been known for. But he comes to this episode, from a place of I know what these people really are. And you’re just finding out now. The thing I find compelling about Baldwin coming to this — and also the Capote story within the wider arc of the show, right, because you’re coming midstream here — is how both of these men operate in these rarefied spaces where they will tolerate them as long as they behave. And once they get out of line, you know, the prejudice is big, buddy.

Yeah there’s rules of behavior. I mean, not that it’s different now! To be honest. But like, these two gay dudes are still alive, first off, miraculously. And so to be so bold, it makes sense that Truman’s afraid. Like he’s in the lap of luxury. Like of course, I don’t want to lose that. But these are also people who disappear people. These aren’t nice people that I’m messing with here.

Part of the struggle for me in reviewing the show, writing about it, is convincing people at a time there’s a well-earned exhaustion and disgust at the world of the white and wealthy, episodes like this one are ones where I want to grab you and be like, You see? This is why!

This is why! I do think, what a clever thing to have done, right? It seems as if you’re celebrating these people who were equally great as they were awful. And then they flip it; with this episode they go, It’s white people stuff, right? This is some rich, white, elitism, mean people stuff, and it’s your job to stop trying to be like them. But to expose them. I love the way it’s written. I love that this episode shakes the audience and goes, What are you looking at? What did you come here for? We tricked you. Now you’ve got to deal with: These are just people. These are people with so much power that they can do things that they shouldn’t do.

If there’s a takeaway you want people to have from this show, from this episode, what about it felt vital to portray this man and tell this story now?

I try not to concern myself with what the audience takes away, but this one is slightly different. Because I do think we are in dire need of letting, like, choosing our leaders more wisely, and choosing our spokespeople more wisely. There’s so much noise, and so many people talking — and on such a big scale with the Instagrams, and the TikToks, and the social media — that we have to be a lot more selective about who we’re asking to do what.

If we’re trying to evolve morally and intellectually and spiritually as a society, perhaps we should listen stronger to those voices. We do all of this honorific. Oh, James said this. MLK said this, Gandhi said this — but people are saying it now. But we, for some reason, don’t honor them as much. I’ve often seen them demonized for having the exact same perspective as someone who’s been dead for 50 years. So if we could take away that we’ve got some James Baldwins right now. If we’re willing to do the work of educating ourselves a bit more, and being willing to be vulnerable enough to be corrected, then we could really advance in a much [better] way than it seems like we’re advancing right now.

When Capote and Baldwin move into the bar, that’s where I think their dynamic takes their most compelling turn for me. Because you see kind of a model for intelligent discourse where you can respect each other. But they acknowledge that they’ve called each other’s ideas bullshit. And you don’t really see in the real world — you see it more in art, which is great — but like, two smart people just going at it and just uproariously disagreeing.

Isn’t it something beautiful to still respect someone because they’ve done a lot of work to have that point of view? And so it’s OK that we disagree, and it’s OK that you think I’m bullshit — I think you’re bullshit, in some ways. But the confidence we can learn from this is the confidence to own it. And know that we’re not going to agree on everything. And some of my things that I disagree with you on will hurt your feelings. But I don’t mean no harm. It’s just my life led me to think this, and I’m super open to hearing what you think because I trust that you’re a smart dude. And maybe together, we can come up with some sort of universal thought. I mean, what a set of brave dudes — and imagine when they were doing it! You’re getting executed, you’re getting disappeared very, very easily. And if they can do it, man, what the hell are we waiting for, eh?

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans airs new episodes every Thursday on FX and Hulu.

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