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Sex Lives of College Girls’ Pauline Chalamet Defends Kimberly’s Choice

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Max Mara

Whitney is taking a difficult chemistry course, and might be attracted to the guy who thinks she’s not smart enough for it. Bela is trying to start a comedy career, made complicated by her boyfriend’s position at the rival comedy magazine. Leighton is flirting with a girl who looks like her. And Kimberly? Well, Kimberly is dealing with the systemic class barriers conspiring to keep her out of college.

After cheating on a test and losing her scholarship following a season of stressing over her classes (as well as some sexual relations distracting from those classes), Kimberly spends the second season of The Sex Lives of College Girls largely trying to stay in college. Contrasted with her peers’ more age-appropriate problems, watching Kimberly inject hormones so she can sell her eggs to fund her continued education can make for a jarring viewing experience. “It’s actually a blessing,” Chalamet counters. “We’re able to address serious issues with the undertone of comedy.”

When Vulture talked to Reneé Rapp last season, she said COVID protocols kept the cast from hanging out with each other outside of set. Now that restrictions are more lax, has that affected your performances?
In season one, the characters were getting to know each other, so the fact that we couldn’t really talk off-set behooved the acting. For the second season, we’re supposed to be closer now, so us being able to communicate freely behooved the acting. For season three we’ll be ready for the giant orgies.

You’ll be having those on- and off-set, right?
Exactly. The rules are out the window now!

Time on your show moves significantly slower than in real life.
Well, it did for season one, but not for two.

How do you conceptualize time on the show?
I have no idea. I remember we did a table read for a Christmas episode, then two episodes later we were outside. I was like, “Wait, isn’t it cold out still?” And they were like, “No, now it’s the springtime.” It’s all in the script. If it says it’s snowing in the episode you’re reading, then you know it’s cold, and later, if you’re in a tank top, you know time has progressed.

Does the way that time passes alter how Kimberly grows over the season?
Yes and no. Growth happens in the moments you’re not doing much. You amass all this life experience, but it’s when you go home over break or you have an internship or a job that all those experiences build into your character. If we have a season three, you’ll really see a difference in the characters. When we end season two, Kimberly is a different person and in a different place than the beginning of season one. Season one had Kimberly losing her scholarship, which made her say, Fuck, real life is here. In season two, you see her move past that.

I want to talk about the scholarship plot, because it’s one of the most serious storylines the show has taken on. How do you feel about balancing the tone on this show, which tends to be light-hearted, with a situation like that?
I appreciate the journey Justin and Mindy are bringing Kimberly on. Her need to make such an adult decision at a young age, while feeling like there are no repercussions or that it’s easy to do, is very smart. There’s nothing dramatic that needs to be played: She needs the solution, she finds it, her friends are there to support her, and she does it. She feels, I’m a freaking adult and I managed to solve my problem on my own. But it leaves the door open for a Kimberly who wants to have kids down the line to reckon with the idea that she gave up eggs once, and maybe there are children out there who are biologically related to her. How does that play psychologically? That could be a less comedic story.

It’s kind of brilliant to have a serious question Kimberly has to ask herself, and a serious procedure she goes through, at 18. When we’re 18, we’re allowed to start making decisions as adults without fully understanding the ramifications.

Do you worry about the plot feeling flippant?
Yes. I take everything very seriously. I know we’re doing a comedy, but it doesn’t matter what the tone of the show is. This is what she’s living and this is what is happening to her. I tell myself that all the moments we’re not filming exist as well: the anxiety, and the nights Kimberly has to go to sleep leading up to the procedure and thinking about it.

Is there an impulse to explore dramatic tension with her?
I don’t want The Sex Lives of College Girls to be something it’s not. As a person and an actor, would I want to explore storylines that are more dramatic? Absolutely. But I don’t feel that need with Kimberly, because that’s not the show. I’m not a writer on it. I’m not a producer. I’m showing up and trusting the writers and Justin and Mindy with how they’re evolving the stories.

I’m pretty outspoken, and Justin and Mindy are aware of things I’m super gung ho about. I will not hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, I just do not understand this. Can you explain this to me?” And then it’s explained or sometimes it’s changed. But I appreciate being in this acting position, where I can do my part of the work and try to bring others’ vision to life.

Can you give an example of a time you asked them to explain, or something you changed?
I’m a grammar freak. My friends hate me for it. I was that person in high school and college who would say, “You’re saying ‘Greg and I,’ but it’s supposed to be ‘Greg and me,’ and you’d be better off saying ‘me and Greg’ because ‘Greg and I’ sounds like you want to be smart, but it’s not the proper usage.” Savage, horrible.

Anyway, one time there was an incorrect grammatical usage of a word and I was like, “It actually would be like this.” Then instantly, I was like, “Pauline, you twat. You’re a twat!” Then Justin looked it up on his phone and said “Okay, you’re right, you can say it your way.” Sometimes I’ll write ideas to Mindy and Justin, then I’ll be like, “Oh my God, they have a secret chat saying, ‘Oh, Pauline sent an email again!’” But no, they’re very encouraging.

You said you feel you’re perceived as serious, yet you’re performing in a comedy. Has that feeling about yourself evolved over the course of the show?
I’m still a little confused as to what I’m doing on a comedy. I was never the funny one. At dinner tables I was never the storyteller or the “laugh maker.” I was always the emotional person with deep feelings. Catch me on the dance floor on the one night a year I go out, then I’m not serious. I take my work very seriously. It’s more for me than just memorizing lines, even on a comedy.

You’ve said of Kimberly that, “She comes into herself with a certain maturity I think a lot of scholarship students feel. It bleeds into her life outside of money. Things get messy in her interpersonal relationships.” The show hasn’t gotten to any inter-group messiness yet. How do you think Kimberly being the only scholarship student affects her relationship with her roommates?
Kimberly comes in, she has this vision of what it’s going to be like, and then things get hard. Classes are hard for her. A lot of kids, when you get to these elite, private establishments, come from private school. When I was a freshman in college, had I even heard of Plato? I don’t know. I certainly hadn’t heard of Milton. No, I had heard of Plato because I guess I read the one thing in high school.

Allegory of the Cave?
Yeah. That was the only thing I’d read. Not like Milton or Dante’s Inferno. And not only was I ordering these books that cost a fortune, but I was opening them and thinking I don’t understand what I’m reading. I would go to class and people would be like, “Actually when I read this my sophomore year of high school …” When you come from the public school system, sometimes you haven’t been afforded the luxuries private school buys you, like smaller classes or more intense education.

Season two, she’s found her groove in the classes she’s taking. And Leighton is so generous with her when she pays for the car service for the egg removal. But it could be something she’s forced to confront later on. Like when people start to move off campus. When I was in college people said, “My parents say it’s cheaper to live off campus.” I remember saying to my parents, “It’s cheaper!” But the scholarship I was on was like, “This is for your time on campus.” Those things could potentially be problems.

Are you looking forward to possibly playing those issues?
Yeah, because that’s a real thing. Friends argue! Especially when you’re growing into yourself. The people you room with in college sometimes become your family, and sometimes they end up being people you just wave to in class junior year.

Do you think there’s space on this show for the girls to grow apart?  
I’m not sure. Mindy and Justin are capable of anything. When Kimberly had to come up with the money, I wrote them a long email saying, “This is what a friend of mine did in college, and this is something I did in college …” Then they came in with something much smarter than anything I suggested. If that’s a storyline they wanted to explore, they would find a nuanced way of bringing it to life.

College is a time for growth. What’s one thing that you hope Kimberly keeps throughout her time at Essex?
I hope Kimberly keeps her drive. She’s already confronted so many obstacles. I don’t want her to become jaded.

Pauline Chalamet Defends Kimberly’s Sex Lives Choice