In the acclaimed new film “Call Me By Your Name,” a 17-year-old student falls in love with his father’s male research assistant at a lush Italian villa during the summer of 1983.
For producer Peter Spears, his summer of 1983 proved quite a bit different.
“I was not living in Italy. I was a waiter at the Prospect of Westport,” Spears says.
“Then I was doing ‘West Side Story’ in the evenings. It was an idyllic Kansas summer, waiting for senior year of high school at (Shawnee Mission South) and to get on with my life.”
Flash forward 35 years, and Spears is enjoying near-universal accolades and relishing scores of awards for the coming-of-age drama he devoted a decade to help bring to the screen.
The actor-turned-producer first became interested in adapting the story in 2007, when he stumbled upon an advance copy of André Aciman’s novel of the same name.
“It struck me on some level because of the internalized experience of Elio,” Spears says of the lead character now portrayed onscreen by Timothée Chalamet. “It all felt very familiar. I felt like I’d been him at that age. I think lots of people feel like him, regardless of sexuality.”
Spears is calling from the road while on his way to speak at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, although he’s battling a bit of laryngitis.
“I normally don’t sound like this,” he growls. “I’m doing my Brenda Vaccaro impression.”
The 52-year-old Kansas City native who was raised in Overland Park says the novel provided the impetus for wanting to explore another side of the entertainment industry.
“After having spent the last 20 years of my career as an actor, writer and director, I wanted more autonomy and a little more ability to be in charge of it — to have a part of all the parts of filmmaking. As an actor, you’re coming in so late in the game. You’re the vehicle for someone else’s creativity,” he says.
In the movie, Chalamet’s Elio Perlman becomes obsessed with the handsome Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 20-something American whose casual demeanor he initially pokes fun at.
But the two find a connection in their shared Jewish heritage, love of music (classical for one and new wave for the other) and concealed sexuality.
Spears’ husband, prominent agent Brian Swardstrom, initially came across Chalamet while on the set of the series “Homeland.”
“Brian said after meeting him, ‘I think I met Elio,’ ” Spears says. “He introduced us. As soon as we talked to him, we met no one else. It was several years before we made the movie, but we knew this was the guy. Timothée has the ability to inhabit every moment of life as an actor and as a person so fully and so brightly.”
The 22-year-old star landed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, as well as earning best actor from the New York Film Critics Circle, Broadcast Film Critics Association and National Board of Review, among many others.
“Chalamet exhibits an open vulnerability that actors often struggle with,” says Eric Melin, president of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, which awarded best actor and best adapted screenplay to “Call Me By Your Name.”
“In this movie, it seems effortless. He’s able to express conflicting feelings in a relatable way, down to the smallest detail. It’s a remarkable performance.”
With “Call Me By Your Name” securing such praise, many pundits are predicting it has a shot at Oscars. And considering how last year’s “Moonlight” — another gay coming-of-age drama — took home best picture, does Spears think his work has a shot at the top award?
“Just to have people seeing the movie and it being warmly embraced, it really feels — as cliché as this sounds — as if we’ve won everything,” he says. “These little movies come and go in the blink of an eye. One weekend in an arthouse theater and then they’re gone. The good news is that with the nominations and attention for awards season, that’s not going to happen. People are going to see the movie and have their own experience with the film.”
Spears intended to study pre-med when he left Kansas to attend Northwestern University. But he got involved in the regional theater scene, eventually acquiring an agent in Chicago who booked him commercial gigs.
“The more I worked, the more my parents got more OK with the idea this was a possible career,” Spears says.
After finishing Northwestern in 1988, he moved to Los Angeles, despite his intention to enroll in graduate school.
“I almost immediately started working as an actor doing commercials and some pilots. I was very fortunate. But I was fortunate because I arrived in town and already had representation,” he says.
Soon, he partnered with Jonathan Craven, son of horror filmmaker Wes Craven, to develop a series called “Nightmare Café” that ultimately aired on NBC. Meanwhile, he stayed busy as an episodic TV actor, logging appearances on “Friends,” “Quantum Leap” and “Matlock.”
He also tried his hand at directing, which resulted in the rather infamous short “Ernest and Bertram.” The 2002 Sundance hit offered a tragic parody of “Sesame Street” puppets Bert and Ernie, detailing what occurs after Variety outs them for being a gay couple.
The effort never found distribution after Sesame Workshop sent Spears a cease-and-desist order.
“I didn’t have the need or the resources to fight those legal fights,” Spears recalls. “It had already done so much. It went to Sundance and got a lot of news coverage. It opened doors and created opportunities.”
In addition to his producer role, Spears returns to acting in “Call Me By Your Name.” He portrays a family friend named Isaac who visits the Perlman villa with his older husband in tow.
“Because of having to change the shooting schedule so often due to weather, the original actors planned for those roles weren’t available. So I jumped in. And the guy who plays my husband in the movie is the author of the book,” he says.
“Call Me By Your Name,” which is directed by Luca Guadagnino and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, opens Friday, Jan. 19, in Kansas City.
“I hope the story, the message and the recognition of commonality of first love would be one that goes over anywhere: Kansas City or Los Angeles or New York,” Spears says. “The message of ‘love is love’ is one that seems pretty relatable. It might be a nice antidote to the challenging times we are all experiencing.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”