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TIFF 2018: Xavier Dolan is Canada’s Next Big Deal in Film

Xavier Dolan is a pretty big deal; if you don’t already know his name, you will soon.

He has already won multiple awards at Cannes, directed some of the biggest names in Hollywood, and is no stranger to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – and he’s only 29-years-old (!).

The Canadian director, screenwriter, and actor – who grew up in a suburb of Montreal and began acting as a kid– was in Toronto this week for the TIFF premiere of his film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. The movie marks Dolan’s English-language film debut and tells the story of a lengthy written correspondence between an American film star (played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) and an 11-year-old fan (played by Jacob Tremblay).

“It’s about the legacy of a man who could never live his life as he wanted and should have lived it, with integrity, intent, and being true to himself,” said Dolan on Monday morning at RBC House for the “Coffee with Creators” panel discussion, an initiative co-hosted by RBC and Nespresso to shine the spotlight on the creators who are driving the future of film forward. In addition to exploring what it means to be a gay actor in Hollywood, he said the film was a tribute to films he adored as a kid, like Titanic, Jumanji, and The Secret Garden and admitted that he too would write his favourite TV and film stars (sadly, none wrote back).

Image: Eric Charbonneau

Dolan was joined by cast members Kit Harington, Thandie Newton (Crash), and Canadian stars Sarah Gadon (Alias Grace) and Emily Hampshire (12 Monkeys). The film also stars Hollywood heavy-hitters Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, and Kathy Bates.The common theme among the talent-packed cast was how appreciated it was to work with Dolan; Kit Harington said he had never worked with someone so passionate and the entire cast agreed that Dolan offered so much more than a typical director yelling orders from behind the camera.

“He is an actor first, so he is right there with you behind the camera doing the scene with you,” said Emily Hampshire, comparing working with Dolan to “a jazz dance.” Sarah Gadon – one of Canada’s biggest names in film as of late – agreed. “It is very much like a dance. He also makes you very aware of the apparatus itself – the camera,” says Gadon. “So often you have this disconnect between the actor and the camera. He doesn’t treat you like a stupid performer; he treats you like a very intelligent person aware of this machine right beside you. Often you’re in dialogue with that machine, but he is also there with you so actively engaged in everything that is happening.”

Another thing the cast members agreed on was that there was a refreshing level of equality on set. “It doesn’t feel like a job; there’s no sense of superiority,” said Thandie Newton, noting that there is usually a hierarchy in film where the cast is somewhat subservient to the director. She also revealed that once the cameras stopped rolling, they would hangout in his room, smoking, talking, and sharing ideas.

“You never felt alone,” said Harington. “He was with you acting just the same.” Harington also noted that the crew Dolan had assembled around him was “brilliant.” For Harington, the film was about his character’s private life and who he is when he is left alone, when the friends, fans, and family aren’t around – a place he knows well from his own life as a TV star. For the record, Dolan was not familiar with Harington from Game of Thrones, but had seen his film Pompeii during a flight and knew he wanted to work with him.

Image: Eric Charbonneau

In terms of the other massive names attached to the project, Dolan admitted he was intimidated at first that they wouldn’t want to work with him, but their response was the opposite. That’s not to say that Dolan hasn’t worked with some of the world’s most famous faces before. He has worked with Academy Award-winners like Marion Cotillard and directed Adele’s mega hit “Hello” music video.

Naturally, Dolan is not slowing down any time soon. He admits that when he starts editing the end of a film, he starts wondering what is next. “Knowing what’s next creatively gives me the energy to complete the piece,” says Dolan.

Erin Davis

Erin is a Toronto-based actor, writer and queen of the side hustle. When she’s not writing the day away in a face mask, she’s taking in the city’s vibrant arts scene, doing a red carpet interview or brunching with her leading ladies. Follow me: @erinnicoledavis