These first-time actors didn’t learn lines or hit marks. Now they’re going to the Oscars

\(Top-Bottom) Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele and Lukas Dhont
“Close” director Lukas Dhont with his actors, Gustav De Waele, center, and Eden Dambrine. The teens are excited about going to the Oscars. “I was falling on the ground, jumping up in the air,” Dambrine says of learning their movie had been nominated in the international film category.
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

It’s hard to imagine two Belgian teenagers experiencing anything during the last 12 months like Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele have. The pair walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival last May. They have gone from complete anonymity to being recognized on trains and walking through airports. Still, the impact of the success of their feature film debut, “Close,” didn’t fully sink in until it landed an Oscar nomination as Belgium’s submission in the international film category in January.

De Waele, who turns 15 next month, set an alarm to remind himself of the announcement during a dance lesson. Dambrine was also in school but wasn’t going to miss out on watching it live. He recalls, “I was in Dutch class. I was watching on YouTube, and when I heard ‘Close,’ I was like to my friends, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God.’ I started crying, I’m like, ‘Can I go to the toilet, please?’ I was falling on the ground, jumping up in the air. All the emotion came into my body, which was kind of scary, but it was great.”


And if you’re curious how Dambrine’s teacher wasn’t aware he was looking at his phone, the 16-year-old snaps, “I’m a pro. I do this every day.”

Directed and co-written by Lukas Dhont, “Close” follows two young teenagers, Léo (Dambrine) and Rémi (De Waele), who have formed a friendship that is emotionally resonant. A friendship you rarely see with boys their age. When the pair return to school after a blissful summer break hanging out together, peer pressure begins to affect the relationship in dramatic fashion. The drama was awarded the Grand Prix , effectively second place, at Cannes and has driven audiences to tears in theaters across the globe.

Dhont says he and his team spent months visiting Belgian schools searching for the right actors to play Léo and Rémi.

Two young teen boys lie on the grass with one's mother in a scene from "Close."
Eden Dambrine, Émilie Dequenne and Gustav De Waele in a scene from “Close.”

“We just spoke to a lot of young people and invited them to do a casting if they wanted to. And we met many, many great people just like that,” Dhont says. “I mean, Gustav I know because Oliver [Roels], who did these castings with me, had worked once with Gustav during one of those workshops. And he remembered Gustav as someone really, really remarkable, someone really with a lot of talent.”


Dambrine, on the other hand, was a true Hollywood discovery. The filmmaker was on a train to Ghent when he caught Dambrine in the car interacting with his friends. The youngster admits he was a little suspicious after Dhont approached him but was intrigued by the offer to audition for the movie. He recalls, “When he was gone, I called my mother directly. I was like, ‘OK. So, there was a man on the train and now he’s asking me to go casting for his new movie.’ She was like, ‘Who is he? Run out of the train. Go out. Run. I’m going to get …’ I was like, ‘No, no, it’s OK.’ So, my mom gave me permission to do the casting, but she had to meet Lukas first.”

The casting process featured 20 or so prospective actors participating in small improvisational exercises, lessons that would benefit them even if they didn’t get the role. And whether paired together or not, Dambrine and De Waele instinctively gravitated toward each other. After landing the roles it was important to Dhont that the boys developed a true friendship before filming began in the summer of 2021.

“Lukas didn’t want us to learn lines; he wanted us to write the words in our heads while playing,” De Waele says. “He wanted the words to come out of our personalities so the words we were saying were words that in real life we would use also. So, at the rehearsals, we met a lot of people [working on the movie]. Lukas wanted us to create bonds with those people before shooting. And also, when he was casting my mother in the movie, he asked me to be there. And, it sounds silly, but he asked us to bake a cake together.”

Lukas Dhont.
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Dambrine spends half his day in dance classes, and De Waele had some theater training, but Dhont was laser-focused on making sure they never became too self-conscious about their characters or the moviemaking process.


“I never want them to feel the technique. I never wanted to see the lights. That’s why we always take the lights outside of the [acting] space,” Dhont says. “I never want them to feel worried about the [dolly] tracks or the things on set. I never created like the mark on the floor and say, ‘You need to stand here.’ We didn’t do anything like that. I have a great team of people around me. They all know that what we want to prioritize is the energy of the actors.”

“Close” has already had a successful theatrical run in Europe, and the Oscars are, effectively, the end of the journey for the two teens. But they are both understandably excited about attending the ceremony. Dambrine hopes that Timothée Chalamet attends and would be happy to run into Austin Butler again after a brief exchange at Cannes. De Waele has a cinematic legend he’d like to meet, even though he knows, “well, yeah, but he’s dead.”

“I am excited to see everyone, of course. I would really like to meet Billy Wilder. I already met him a bit because I went to Sunset Boulevard,” De Waele says. “Maybe I would love to see Steven Spielberg. I really love all his movies. And Tom Hanks.”

(L-R) Lukas Dhont, Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele.
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)