"Sex Lives" star Pauline Chalamet on civic duty: "We have to pay attention to our democracy"

The "Sex Lives of College Girls" actor discusses playing an awkward Gen Z co-ed, working polls and public schools

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 1, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Pauline Chalamet (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Pauline Chalamet (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The girls of the fictional Essex College are still freshmen, but the acclaimed HBO Max series "The Sex Lives of College Girls" is already deep into a strong sophomore season.

"There's a realness to it," says Pauline Chalamet of the appeal of the ensemble comedy, and her fish-out-of-water character Kimberly. "There were very many ways I could relate to Kimberly's college experience."

The actor, director and newly registered California voter joined me on "Salon Talks" to talk about becoming part of "the Mindy Kaling universe," why she worked as a poll worker this past election, and how her own millennial college experience was different from Kimberly's extremely Gen Z one. Watch our conversation here or read it below.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about where we're going to see Kimberly go this season — how she's figuring things out moving forward, and who she's evolving into.

Kimberly was left at the end of Season 1 with a huge predicament, a predicament that is so expensive, for lack of a better word. She's faced with an issue that many people will have to reckon with later on in life. Most people have to reckon with paying for something that's more than they can afford or wanting to do something that just is so exorbitantly expensive — buying a house or a car, taking out loans, all these adult money things. Kimberly's thrust into that at the age of 18. So when we pick up with Kimberly, we see her start to address this issue. 

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play a character who can be awkward and is figuring out who she is."

What I love about this season is that we really see Kimberly forced to reckon with this problem, an emphasis on the word "reckon" with it. It's not just like, "OK we have a solution and it's done," she goes somewhere over Thanksgiving and then she comes back like, "Gosh, my parents have all this money now. We're fine." It's not a solution like that. It's a character-building experience for Kimberly to have to face the fact that she doesn't have the money to continue at school. 

We get to also see Kimberly start to feel like she fits in a little more at school. What does she do with that power? Because that's a really empowering moment where all of a sudden you start to feel like, "OK I was an outsider, but now I'm starting to know the lay of the land." What does that do to someone? And how do you develop in good ways, and how do you develop in maybe questionable ways?

People love Kimberly. When you talk to people about this show, there is such deep affection for this character. What do you think that is about her that makes that connection with people?

Kimberly grounds the show in a way. Every character has their moments of bringing reality to this 30-minute comedy. Leighton has another big one of coming out and what the coming-out journey is like. All the characters do. But Kimberly's life story, her 18-year-old life story, has made for very real predicaments to be addressed in a comedic fashion. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play a character who can be awkward and is figuring out who she is and how she fits in and all the normal things of college and the ways in which that can be very funny. But on top of that, there's a realness to it.

There are dire predicaments that she has to come to terms with and predicaments that she can't even envision beyond the scholarship even as it relates to friends and friendship. What is it like coming from a small town where you did so well and were salutatorian, and you then enter this elite institution where you're going to be surrounded by other people who come from small towns, but you're also going to be surrounded by people who already grew up in these cities where they're light years ahead of your age?

You learn some of the rules about the world when you grow up in some of these cosmopolitan cities, or you learn them when you're in college for people who maybe didn't grow up in these places. I think that Kimberly brings that to the show. You learn very quickly. She's starting to fit in, and what does that do to her? And I think that's a very relatable experience.

You are one of those people who grew up in a city. You grew up in an environment where you were surrounded by artists and performers and people who were in that world of culture. What was it about this character then that attracted you, that you wanted to play someone who doesn't have that skill set that New York City kids practically have from the time they're born? 

What attracted me was that this is the majority experience. Growing up in a New York or in LA or in Chicago or Boston, that's not the majority experience. The majority experience is living in the suburb of sorts and coming from routines that you understand and are quite structured and are less influenced by the place itself. They're much more influenced by the way you grew up or the school you went to. That's what really interested me.

There were very many ways I could relate to Kimberly's college experience. Having to work in school, being in a new environment, being around new people, the whole roommate thing, that I could really understand. But what is it like to come from a world that is so different than my own? Not so different from Essex per se, but just so different from where, but end up in such a similar situation. 

You mentioned you're playing this girl who is 18, who is at this moment in her life where everything is new. You are not 18. As a millennial, do you notice a generational difference when you're in this world of Essex? Do you notice something about the world of 18-year-olds now that seems different than when you were a college student?

Phones play an even bigger role. I was already on my phone a lot, but I think I had a Blackberry when I got to college. It was all about BBM-ing. The connectedness to phones and definitely the apps. The prevalence of apps in the social scene, DM-ing.

"I've started to learn that it's very important to be connected to your community, to know where it is you're living and how things work there."

Otherwise, things seem pretty similar, I think, because we're staying within the structure of a university, so it doesn't feel that foreign to me. But I definitely will say, behind the scenes, there's so much to be learned from Alyah [Chanelle Scott] and Reneé [Rapp] who are these TikTok queens and showing me all the dances and stuff that are so fun to do. But there are so many apps. That's the big thing, all of the apps, there are just too many.

I've read that one of the hardest challenges for you playing this role was speaking French with a bad French accent. I want to know how you prepared for that, being that you've lived in Paris, you grew up in a French-American household. How did you learn to speak French badly, and what did your dad think of that?

I actually haven't asked my dad what he thought of that. That's going to be my first phone call after this interview. My mom speaks perfect French, but with a really thick accent, so I kind of grew up knowing what that accent was like. I just put that on. 

It was funny because we had an accent coach on set to help the good French speakers. Gavin Leatherwood, who was playing Nico, his character is supposed to be really good at French in Season 1, so she was there to help him. During that scene, she was there to help the people who were supposed to speak good French. We had crossed paths before, obviously, and then she came in after a take and was just like, "You're speaking too well. You're just putting on an accent. You wouldn't say the ending of a word like this. You wouldn't say the beginning of a word like this. You're not able to pronounce this." Then I got really self-conscious about the bad accent, which I thought was going to be super easy.

One of the things I love best about this show is the universal appeal of a group of women and friendship. I know you're a big film fan. You were just at the Criterion Collection recently. You're a big reader. When you were looking at this story and looking at this show, were there other touchstones, culturally, that you were thinking about in those dynamics of female friendship?

The obvious ones come to mind. For me at least, "Girls" and "Sex in the City." What really drew me into this more than the female friendship part, which is a big backbone of the show, but it was more the Mindy Kaling universe, the quick-witted jokes and the situations that the characters were finding themselves in. I remember the first time I read the pilot, there was at least one scene of every character where I was like, "Oh, I want to play that scene. I want to play that scene." Definitely [with] Kimberly, I was like, "OK, this is who I want to play, absolutely." But I remember reading scenes between Whitney and Dalton and being like, "That's a really cool, sexy romance thing that would be really fun to play." And Leighton, the appeal of playing the bitchy New Yorker, so make my "Gossip Girl" dreams come true. 

I know you're a big "O.C." fan too. 

Huge "O.C." fan. Huge "O.C." fan. Had all of Mrs. Atwood attire when I was younger and notebooks and all that. 

Much like for people going off to college for the first time, you started this show not really knowing your castmates because of COVID. You were just thrown in basically as strangers. Returning to the show, what's different this season now that you have worked as an ensemble together? 

We know each other better. We were all moving to LA for the show. It was pre-vaccines, so the protocols were super strict, and people were really afraid. It's interesting to look back on that peak COVID time now and be like, "My God, that was crazy. What we were doing?" All we needed to do was wear masks, but we could hug. We could do this. And if you were tested and you were negative, then you could hang out. But it was like that wasn't quite how people were thinking. I think it created barriers, but it made it for interesting first scenes together because we were really discovering each other. 

"I just value what public school outside of the education, which was great, I value what it gave me as a human."

Season 2, the protocols were much more lax. You were required to be vaccinated, which was great because it allowed for the protocols to be more relaxed. We just understood each other better, knew how we worked, and so our characters were able to meet at that level too.

Now that you are a Californian, one of the first things you did was register to vote and work as a poll worker. I want to know how that came about, why you wanted to do that and participate in the recent election like that.

California's new to me. I've always lived in places like New York or Paris, where I already had community. It's interesting as an adult moving to a city and having to create community. The world I work in, especially when I'm shooting the show, revolves around the show. It's driving to the Warner Bros. lot every day. It's seeing the same people. It's being in this industry. I'm very grateful for that. I also really value things that are outside of it. I've started to learn that it's very important to be connected to your community, to know where it is you're living and how things work there.

When I got my California driver's license, you could check to do automatic registration. I was like, "You know what? Now that I'm splitting my time more between California and France, it's important to be in the place where you are." So for me, I was like, "I think working the polls would be a great experience because I'll meet people who have nothing to do with where I work, and I'll get to talk to them and just see it." 

"Having to work in school, being in a new environment, being around new people, the whole roommate thing, that I could really understand."

I wanted to know how California voting worked, and I wanted to help the voting process because I do think that we have to pay attention to the state of our democracy. I'm so lucky to drive and go to work, but because we live in a country where we're able to do so. I think it's also just, I'm a human being and I'm living in this country, I'm living in this state, and I felt like it was my responsibility. We had a civic duty to do so. I was happy to fulfill it. I had such a great time. I met some of the loveliest people. I learned a lot. Many of the people who worked for the county in all different departments — public health, social services. Someone worked for the district attorney.

California has crazy ballots, and I just learned there were 50 things to vote for. I was like, "What is this? New York is not like that." Also, New York has a really outdated voting system. California was so modern. So I learned how to vote, and I had really interesting discussions with people who worked for the county. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about how this city functions, this weird city that has other cities in it.

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Even though millennials and Gen Z really turned the tide in this recent election, and it was the highest engagement of people 18 to 29 ever, it was also still only 30% of eligible voters in that age group. What you were talking about is a great example that we need to be engaged, not just on election day.

Right. Just know who's on the school board. I'm such a public school advocate, and I've been told, "Well, you don't have kids. You don't know." It's true. You're put in situations when you're a parent that I don't know because I'm not a parent, and there are other things to factor in. But the thing that public school gave me is, you're a part of your community. You're a part of where you're living. I did three years in private school. Private school felt like you were going somewhere.

I value what public school, outside of the education, gave me as a human. Meeting the friends I met and the relationships I still have to this day, which are the most important in my life, what that was like being a child in that environment. That also comes down to volunteering to work at the polls, where everybody has a job. You should never have a job that excludes you from being a part of society. That's just something I think about a lot, about the power that money has, especially in this country and especially in this state, to kind of make you able to look at society as opposed to live in it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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