Consider Hollywood’s everyman. Jimmy Stewart was once the archetype; an actor whose open face and Pennsylvania drawl suggested a deep humility, morality, Presbyterianism. Jump ahead a generation, and the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino pushed that paradigm in a different direction. They didn’t look like matinee idols, nor did they act much like them; instead, they evoked pure id.
Those guys, plus Sam Rockwell, plus Sean Penn—instinctive actors, their talents nearly uncontrolled—are some of Jeremy Allen White’s favourites: “I like watching something and almost feeling nervous,” he tells me.
White has spoken about watching and rewatching Pacino’s “unstillness” in The Panic in Needle Park as he prepared to play Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, the painfully tense young chef at the centre of FX’s The Bear. A breakout hit last summer, the series’ tautly paced action begins after Carmy, a James Beard Award–winning phenom, returns home to run his family’s flagging sandwich shop, The Original Beef of Chicagoland (known as “The Beef”), in the wake of his brother’s suicide. Dropped into a quagmire of unpaid bills, and a kitchen staff that doesn’t really trust (or like) him, Carmy wants to burn the whole place down only slightly less than he wants to save it.
Critics adored The Bear. Sales of Italian beef sandwiches soared. And Carmy was an online sensation: People took one look at his fitted T-shirts, motley tattoos, and greasy hair, and swiftly cast him as a textbook no-goodnik; the kind of emotionally unavailable jerk that your parents—and therapist—urged you not to try to “fix.”
In reality, White, 32, is friendly, attentive, and unfailingly polite. He is the doting father of two young girls, Ezer, four, and Dolores, two, with actor Addison Timlin, whom he married in 2019 but first met nearly 20 years ago, at their performing arts high school in Manhattan. (The pair recently separated.) Among his greatest pleasures, he reveals with some embarrassment, is riding his fixed-gear bike.
The rift between what he’s like and how he presents recalls that oft-cited line from Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It also made sense for this particular project. “As much as we want to jump into a lot of the toxic and sort of gnarly things that happen in the restaurant industry, being able to couch that in somebody that’s as naturally good and kind as Jeremy was really important,” says Christopher Storer, The Bear’s creator, who has family and close friends in the business. “When you meet him he’s the sweetest kid ever, and he’s got these piercing eyes that you can’t help but be drawn to. But then you see in his performance that he can be equally charming and funny as he can be scary and tense, which is really tricky to do.”
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To this Vogue writer, White looks uncannily like Rudolf Nureyev in an Irving Penn portrait from 1965—the searching gaze, sculptural nose, subtle pout—but in carriage and general sensibility, there is something Adam Driver-y or Oscar Isaac-ish about him. He is obviously talented (“I mean, Jeremy’s a very good actor,” Ebon Moss-Bachrach, one of his costars in The Bear, tells me almost gravely), and gratified that people have responded to his work, but he has sort of backed into this whole leading-man thing. At best, White had aspired for consistency; not to suddenly be inundated with movie scripts. “I always felt like I was a good enough actor to be on a TV show or something,” he reflects. “I think that’s what I sort of expected: I’ll work and always be on a show, and I felt very content with and grateful for even just that. I certainly didn’t expect…this.”
He is also disarmingly curious. At one point during our winding conversation, he asks me if I feel, as an interviewer, like I’m playing a kind of character (I still don’t have a good answer to this), and at the photo shoot for this story, he was thrilled to discover that Norman Jean Roy was not only a photographer, but also the proprietor of Breadfolks, a well-regarded bakery in Hudson, New York. (Having submitted to intensive culinary training in a string of world-class kitchens for The Bear, White pretty much knows what’s worth knowing about good food.) “It’s, like, one of the best bakeries in the country,” he raves. “So, you know, all the photography was going great, but very quickly I realised this about him and we started talking about bread.”
Although he’s primarily based in Laurel Canyon, White still dresses like a Brooklyn boy. (He and his younger sister, Annabelle, grew up in Carroll Gardens.) When we meet on a bright, cold Saturday in March at Avec River North, a Mediterranean-slash-New-American restaurant just minutes east of Mr. Beef, the Chicago mainstay that inspired The Bear, White is wearing a grey knit vest over a T-shirt, and a big navy beanie over his dirty blond curls. His arms and hands are covered in the fake tattoos that he wears for the show, including a large “773” for the local area code; he shows me where a few of his real ones have been covered with makeup. The late winter sunlight catches a thin gold chain around his neck, which plays up the startling blue of his eyes. (Storer is exactly right about them.) He is familiar with the menu here, so he helpfully places our order: chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates and Mexican prawns for him; a kale salad and farfalle with braised mushrooms for me.
White admits that the company he keeps these days has elevated his look somewhat. “Chris Storer, he’s like a pretty major menswear guy,” he says. “It’s rubbed off on me a little bit. I’m spending probably too much money at Ralph Lauren.” (Storer’s tastes burrowed their way into Carmy, too, who sells off stacks of vintage selvage denim to pay his meat vendor in The Bear’s pilot, and sports pricey tees from Merz b. Schwanen and the Japanese-made label Whitesville under his apron.) Still, White feels rather at home in this denuded little corner of Chicago, a city where he’s been working in fits and starts since booking the Showtime series Shameless as a teenager. (White played Phillip “Lip” Gallagher, the gifted but rebellious eldest son in a sprawling, working-class Chicago family, across the gritty comedy’s 11 seasons.) “It feels like coming home, in a nice way,” he says, naming a few of his favourite spots: “There’s an Italian place, La Scarola, that I really love, and Richard’s Bar, which I found during maybe the sixth season of Shameless—I smelled it. It’s a bar that you can still smoke in.”
Inevitably, returning to The Bear for its sophomore season was slightly scary. (The new episodes air in June.) “I called Joanna Calo, our showrunner, sometime in the summer, when I just realised, Oh, wow, this isn’t going away anytime soon,” White says, spearing a date. “And then I got here, and I was talking to our camera operators, and I was like, ‘It feels so easy that I’m almost cautious of it.’ ”
Both he and Moss-Bachrach describe the atmosphere on set as nimble and alive; all told, White won’t be in town filming for more than about eight weeks. “There’s an energy to the shoot that I think is important for the content of what we’re making,” Moss-Bachrach says. “There’s a messiness and a chaotic-ness to our show.” There is also a lot of laughter. “I think we’re all trying to do the same thing we did last season, which is just work together and have a good time together,” adds writer-comedian Ayo Edebiri, who costars as Carmy’s eager sous-chef, Sydney. “But I think we’re all slightly more tired.”
Though expectations were relatively low for season one—The Bear didn’t have major stars attached, and it was slated to premiere in sleepy late June—White was “a little bit of a nervous wreck for the whole shoot,” he remembers. “I just felt like I had so much to prove, coming off of being on [Shameless] for so long. I felt like I really needed to take advantage of the opportunity.” He channeled some of that insecurity into Carmy, who has all of the credentials to overhaul The Beef, but none of his brother’s easy confidence. Yet by the season one finale, a dramatic change in fortune, and the hard-won respect of his employees, have made him a different man.
Season two promises more change: As The Beef transitions into The Bear, a new restaurant concept overseen by Carmy, Sydney, and Richie (Moss-Bachrach), their loose canon of a manager, “the crew undertakes transformational journeys of their own,” the official logline reads. Practically speaking, White explains, this means “you’re spending so much time with Carmy outside of the kitchen, which feels like a different person, and feels like a person that Carmy is not even really familiar with.” So much of his identity has been tied up in his work “that in everything else, he’s kind of like a baby.”
Some 16 years into his professional career, White, too, is gingerly exploring new territory. This past winter, he was showered with the awards attention that had long eluded Shameless, winning a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance in The Bear. He appreciated it, especially at the SAGs, where his mother was his date. (Both of White’s parents are former theatre actors.) “On the drive over, I [asked her], ‘Is there anybody you could meet that would really just throw you?’ ” White says. Her very sensible response was Cate Blanchett—who would later, to White’s surprise and mild horror, walk right up to them. (He and Blanchett had never met, but she coproduced Fingernails, a romantic sci-fi film that he shot with Riz Ahmed and Jessie Buckley last year.) “I was kind of taking the moment in as she was coming over—and I turned over and my mom was just fully, like, sobbing.”
Beyond The Bear, his wild ride continues: Among White’s forthcoming projects are the spare indie Fremont, in which he has a small but notable role as a lonely mechanic (it will not surprise you to learn that he looks very natural in coveralls); Fingernails, directed and cowritten by Christos Nikou for Apple TV+; and Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw, about the Von Erich wrestling dynasty, with Zac Efron, Harris Dickinson, and Lily James. White enjoyed learning the physical language of the ring from Chavo Guerrero Jr., a professional wrestler who also helped to train the cast of Netflix’s Glow. “Before The Bear, I had never really focused that much on a skill for a job. And it is such an amazing way to understand character,” he says. “It feels like a cheat code or something.” Looking ahead, he’d like to do a war movie one day, and would love to try live theatre.
But first, he has about a month of shooting left on The Bear before returning to Los Angeles. “I wish it was longer this time,” he says, offering a shy half-smile. “But yeah, I don’t know. Everybody got busier.”
This article was first published on Vogue.com.