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A few years ago, Jeremy Allen White was hanging out at a party in Malibu hosted by Julia Roberts. Sean Penn, one of White’s idols, was also in attendance. The two actors had never met before. But White and Penn were the only two people smoking at the party, so every time the former would head out for a cigarette, the latter would ask to tag along. For most aspiring young stars, this would be a dream come true: one-on-one face time with a legend whose career you want to model your own after. “He’s, like, my hero,” White tells me.
But when it came time to actually make small talk, White…blew it. Just completely froze up. “I couldn’t think of one word,” he admits, curling his fingers to make a zero. There they were “just sitting, smoking in silence.”
Since then, White, 31, has gotten better at taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, which these days is happening with more frequency. This is largely thanks to his starring role over the summer as Carmy, a tortured yet gifted chef, in FX’s The Bear. The show was a sensation, doing for sweaty restaurant kitchens what Mad Men did for Madison Avenue. “When the show came out, the phones started to ring,” says White. Suddenly, the longtime TV actor who spent 11 seasons on the dark Showtime comedy Shameless was one of the hottest things in Hollywood. “It’s definitely shifted,” he says of his career.
Shifted how? Kathryn Bigelow invited him out to lunch just so she could bounce a few ideas for projects off him. Out of nowhere there were “four A24 scripts on my desk,” White says. And he heard from a friend that Dustin Hoffman—another idol of his—loved the show so much that he wanted to send White a handwritten letter. Watching him navigate this interstitial phase of his career is like watching a spark fizz along a fuse toward a cartoonishly large pile of dynamite.
When I met up with White at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, he arrived looking as if he’d put on a Jeremy Allen White Halloween costume: a slate-gray tee with a rough, frayed hem along the neck; a black vest; a droopy gold necklace. Faded blue jeans at least a few sizes too big. He has deep, lake blue eyes, which makes it seem like he could extemporaneously deliver a monologue at any moment. He smells like American Spirits.
White grew up in Brooklyn and moved to LA at 18. Couldn’t even drive yet, so he’d spend all his time here at Canter’s. The first time he came in, just a few days after watching California Split, one of the movie’s stars, the actor Elliott Gould, was posted up in a booth. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, we’re in Hollywood!’ ” says White. He ended up playing Phillip “Lip” Gallagher on Shameless, a beloved show that flew under the radar with a surprisingly rabid following. When we step outside for a smoke break, a group of goth teens swarm him to profess their love not for Carmy, but for Lip. Soon after, a different group of teens come up to tell him the same thing. I almost felt like I was being pranked: Everyone seemed to love White. The middle–aged bartender who asked for a picture. The chef who told us The Bear was so on point he could barely get through it. The cashier behind the bakery counter who packed him a bag of extra cookies.