I think if you get into this industry and your priorities are totally caught up in the way something is received or what the final product will be, there’s not a lot of longevity in that. You’re not gonna keep coming back for it.
“My movies are so fucking intimate and close to my skin that when people hate them, it’s like they hate me,” Xavier Dolan confessed to Anthem a fistful of years ago. “Did you laugh? Did you cry? No? Goodbye.” The Québécois wunderkind is never short on confidence, and he has something to show for it. The child actor-turned-auteur is one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. Seven of his eight features have been invited to the Cannes Film Festival—an unprecedented achievement before he turned 30. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan’s seventh feature, which was accepted to Cannes and then pulled by its own director, world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival instead to wildly mixed reviews. It’s arguably a divisiveness that comes at the price of Dolan’s powerlessness to be anything but himself. Donovan is peak summation of his proclivities: stories about gay or sexually fluid men locked in permanent psychic warfares with domineering mothers—it wouldn’t be his movie without them screaming at each other—set to evocative ‘90s pop anthems. This is Dolan dialed up to 11.
Donovan is three stories in one. The film opens on 2006 with 11-year-old child actor, Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), learning that the titular, closeted celebrity and the object of his adoration (Kit Harington), has suddenly passed on from an implied drug overdose at age 29. In his home life, Rupert is deeply resentful of his failed-actress single mother, Sam (Natalie Portman), for disrupting his career by relocating them both from New York to London to start her life over. Bullied at his new school, the precocious outsider struggles to find where he fits in, as a result fixating on John as a connection to the life he so yearns to live. More specifically, that sense of comfort is tethered to his clandestine, five-year epistolary friendship with John, whose parallel story shows him combative with his own mother (Susan Sarandon), all the while struggling to hide his sexuality in an industry that isn’t yet ready to embrace a gay star. Present day Prague frames this shared past. We’re introduced to Audrey (Thandie Newton), a journalist used to covering wars in Pakistan and Syria, who grudgingly agrees to an interview assignment that she feels is beneath her. Her subject? Grown-up Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), now an established actor in his own right, who has penned a memoir, a heretofore unpublished collection of John’s handwritten letters to him as a child.
What Dolan has fashioned is another thinly veiled autobiography. He himself described Donovan as a homage to his youthful fanboy instincts and a message of hope to a younger self seeking reassurance about his identity and sexuality. In that aforementioned Anthem interview, Dolan further divulged this to us: “My first movie crush was Titanic. I even wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.” At the Toronto premiere, Dolan shared the letter he wrote DiCaprio when he was 8 years old. It is “fucking intimate” for Dolan. It is so close to his skin. And it was a long, bumpy ride to get here. This is a film that spent nearly two years in editing. It was rumored to have sprung from a nearly 300-page script, once involving a villainous subplot for Jessica Chastain, who has been seamlessly cut from the picture. It originally had a running time of four hours. In the end, despite Donovan’s flaws, it’s impossible to deny its maker’s honest intent. Even at his worst impulses, there’s proof of his wild ambition. Nicolas Winding Refn once told Anthem that “art requires self-indulgence.” Dolan went full throttle here, and now we don’t have to imagine it.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan hits theaters, on Digital, and On Demand on December 13.
Unlike Audrey, who didn’t read the book, I saw your movie. That’s to put you at ease, Ben.
[laughs] Thank you very much! That’s a good little insight. I dig it.
I’m a huge Xavier Dolan fan, so I was already on his side. It’s like blind following at this point. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan experienced some major shake-ups in its evolution. Adele was once rumored to be making her acting debut in this.
How and at what point did you get involved?
It’s interesting you talk about the heat that was generated around it for so long. I was aware of it before I ever got involved in it. I’d been a fan of Xavier for a while as well. I remember reading about the project being in the works at one point and just looking forward to seeing it when it came out. I remember being excited that Xavier is making his English-language debut. I was doing a film in Canada when this came to me. We were shooting in a very remote location in the Arctic and I didn’t really have a good cellphone reception. I had to go to L.A. for two days in the middle of that shoot to do some press for something and when we made our way south from the North Pole, I got all these backlogged emails. There was an email from my agent. It didn’t say anything other than, “Xavier Dolan wants to Skype with you.” I just said, “Let’s do it. Where and when? I’ll be there.” I really didn’t know what the Skype was in reference to. I didn’t know if it was just in general or what the deal was. I’m sure you’ve had the chance to chat with him. I mean, he’s the man. He’s great. I love Xavier. So we got on the ole Skype and just started chatting and it was soon very clear that he wanted to talk about Donovan. He was very forthcoming. It’s really interesting because—I don’t know if you know this—Xavier does a lot of voiceover work. He did a lot of work dubbing English-language films into French for the French-Canadian audience. He was familiar with my work because he’s my voice in Quebec.
I know, right? He dubbed me in the first movie I did called The Book Thief and one or two others. So that’s how he became familiar with my work. And if I’m not mistaken, I think he’s dubbed Kit [Harington] as well. I think he got to know a lot of the people he works with first by doing their voices in French. He told me, “I dub you, so I kind of feel like we’ve played the same roles.” That was a trip for me to hear. When he asked me to do Donovan, I tried to play it cool: “Yeah, well, send over the script and I’ll have a look at it.” But really, I was like, “Dude, yeah, I’m in.” It’s one thing to see someone’s work, but when you get to step inside an actor’s head a little bit as Xavier has done in dubbing me, I think it’s a very singular way to get to know performances.
Is it safe to assume that Rupert is Xavier, at least in a semi-autobiographical sense?
It wasn’t discussed too explicitly during our preparation, but he made that very clear early on. Obviously, there are huge creative liberties taken and Rupert is a fictional character, but I think there’s a great deal of inspiration that Xavier drew from his own life. I think that’s a safe thing to say. It was very touching when I first read the script for a number of reasons. There’s a real beauty and vulnerability that Xavier brings to the screenplay and to the voice of Rupert, particularly as a child. Jacob [Tremblay] is just wonderful in the film and he’s such an extraordinary performer. He’s an impressive actor. I can’t wait to see what he does in the future. I mean, he’s got a pretty good resume already. [laughs] There was such sensitivity and nuance and specificity given to the voice of Rupert as a boy. I found that very moving to read and also to watch when I saw the film.
Was there opportunity or a desire to explore the character together with Jacob at any point?
We really didn’t get a chance to. We kind of exchanged secondary messages a little bit, but the film was shot in three different parts. There was the Montreal unit, which was Kit and Kathy Bates and John’s side of everything. They shot that for quite a while. Then Thandie [Newton] and my stuff was on one location and we only shot for like a week. It was a really fun, kick-ass week in Prague. After that, they moved to London to shoot the stuff with Jacob and Natalie [Portman]. So there wasn’t much crossover. For me, it was a lot of time with Thandie. We drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes in that scene. [laughs] This process felt appropriate, you know? It felt right. I think both Jacob and I trusted each other’s stewardship of the role. I rewatched Room before I did the movie, but it’s tough because Jacob was so much younger in that movie than he is in this one. I also wanted us to be really different. Sometimes you see movies where they’ll track a character growing up through the years and they’ll have two or three different actors playing the same character and they all have the same haircut. It’s a signal for the audience, but I always found that really weird. I don’t know anybody who’s had the same haircut their entire life. So there was a part of it where I wanted to convey the feeling that Rupert was trying to get away from who he was as a boy. I think he made peace with a lot of things by the time he wrote the book and in writing the book. I think there was a big effort on his part in his teenage years to get away from who he was. Xavier and I also spent a lot of time chatting about the accent and wanting to get something that was specific to an American kid who lived in England for half of his life.
The mixture of American and English made sense to me.
I’m glad that reads. Early on, I remember chatting with Xavier, telling him, “I don’t really know how it’ll play.” He was like, “Trust me. This is how it sounds—the way it’s written.” He was right.
This role has obvious meta qualities to it: you’re an actor playing an actor in a movie that explores core themes orbiting around celebrity, privacy, and perception. How closely did you identify with Rupert’s frustrations?
As a kid, I started to like doing theater because I did it as a child. I didn’t go and see theater and think, “Oh I want to do that.” I did school plays and stuff and that’s what made me want to do it, whereas I fell in love with cinema by watching. I was an audience member first. Unless you’re a child actor from a very early age, a lot of us who get involved with film are first hooked as audience members. There’s a major transition that happens when you go from being in the audience to being on screen. Just because I like to drive cars, it doesn’t mean I want to be a mechanic. Just because I like to eat pizza, it doesn’t mean I want to be a chef. This film is so much about the audience member in Rupert as a young boy and that’s one of the things that spoke to me most. That really fanged me. Of course, celebrity culture is a very fraught topic and there’s a lot that can be said about it, particularly around the time in which the film takes place. It would be really interesting if this film got made in ten years’ time so that everything that happened between John and Rupert got exposed in the age of major social media. I think it would be handled very differently—and not necessarily any better. Again, I think the first thing that really fanged me on a personal level was Rupert’s childhood and that mirroring all my years growing up with movie and cartoon characters. That sense of idolatry and the sense of belonging and solace you can find in watching a story on screen was captured and distilled really well in this narrative by Xavier.
You and Xavier both grew up in and around the stage and screen. Both of your parents are actors. Xavier’s father is an actor. In speaking about his upbringing, Xavier told me how unique that atmosphere can be. It’s easy to understand how that might nurture possible interest in a young person to follow a similar path, but he also remembered getting a “fast education” being more around grown-ups. He said that by age 10, he felt like he was 16 or 17. What are the things you remember?
My parents were so hands off and of this school of thought: as long as you work hard, just do whatever you want. In no way did they push me into the profession. They saw that I was drawn to it by my own volition, and it was really nice having parents who were understanding because it’s a very singular experience. There’s a lot of weird demands placed on you that, if you’re unfamiliar with it, can sound really strange. But I think more than that, when your parents are actors, it just seems normal. I grew up thinking that it was a job like any other, so there were not at all doubts about the stability or this or that. It’s just what life was. It didn’t seem like I was making some unimaginable leap. It seemed pretty normal.
With Xavier, we have a filmmaker who has such an uncompromising sense of self and a vision to match. There’s always a mystique about him and his process. What stuck out to you in your collaboration with him that you feel is quite distinctive?
It’s interesting you ask that. Working with Xavier felt like what I had imagined making movies would be like before I ever made one. I remember my first day on set. It was my first time ever shooting on film, on 65 and 70mm. As you know, most stuff is shot digitally now. A great deal of Xavier’s crew is French-Canadian. So I rock up and there are these guys carrying film canisters. The whole crew is speaking French. We’re in this smokey cafe in Prague. I was just like, “Holy shit.” When I was a kid, this is what I thought making movies was gonna be like. I’m sitting down across from an extraordinary actress in Thandie Newton, who I cannot say enough good things about. She’s a ridiculously generous performer and person. I loved playing with her. She’s amazing. As for Xavier, there are no inverted quotes on this: he really is an auteur. I feel lucky to have worked with him. When we showed up in Prague, the three of us got together in Xavier’s hotel room and ordered room service and went through the script and rehearsed and talked. He’s about the work and has a vision he sets out to realize. It was an extraordinary, inspiring experience.
You’ve previously described acting as a “process-orientated art,” that you value the experience of making movies and the final product is something you don’t have much control over. In other words, as they say, the journey is the destination. Did you always see acting in that light or is it a realization you arrived at through the years?
I think it’s something I arrived at through the years by working and also through studying. It’s what keeps me coming back. I think if you get into this industry and your priorities are totally caught up in the way something is received or what the final product will be, there’s not a lot of longevity in that. You’re not gonna keep coming back for it. If you sign up because you love telling stories and getting to work with extraordinarily generous and gifted people and really just enjoy the ride, that’s the way to get a great deal more fulfillment. I think about some of the movies I did that Xavier ended up dubbing me in that ended up with me getting this job. You just never know how one thing will lead to the next. You never know how things will cross over into something else. It’s all very random. It’s fun. I think if you just enjoy the process of it, that’ll keep you coming back. That’s what has kept me coming back, for sure.