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Film The genesis of Théodore Pellerin, Canadian film’s next great export

Actor Théodore Pellerin.

Maude Chauvin/Handout

Star power is, to put it in crude terms, like pornography: you know it when you see it. So anyone who has been fortunate enough to watch a recent wave of Canadian films knows that Théodore Pellerin is already, at the age of 21, in possession and supreme command of that X factor. This preternatural talent can be glimpsed in performances small (Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World) and large (Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still) over the past few years. But Pellerin’s full-force magnetism has the strongest pull in two of last year’s best films, both Québécois productions and both of which completely bypassed English Canada: Sophie Dupuis’s Family First (Chien de garde) and Philippe Lesage’s Genesis (Genèse).

In the former, Pellerin plays a low-level debt collector in the gritty Montreal borough of Verdun, a man whose emotional wires are crossed so badly that he cannot separate violence and love, fury and intimacy. It is a high-wire act of a performance that feels all the more remarkable contrasted against his gentle and quiet work in Lesage’s drama, which follows a pair of Montreal step-siblings (Noée Abita plays Pellerin’s sister) warily navigating first loves and crushing disappointments. In both films, Pellerin offers endlessly inquisitive, intensely felt performances, each sparking with a unique electricity all their own. He can be as unnerving and terrifying as he can tender and brooding.

Ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Screen Awards, where Family First and Genesis are competing for the best motion picture award – and where Pellerin is up for best actor for Dupuis’s crime drama – the young actor spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about his journey toward having that most un-Canadian of things: a moment.

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Growing up in an artistic family [Pellerin’s parents are choreographer Marie Chouinard and painter Denis Pellerin], did you feel you were fated to work in the arts?

No, because when I was younger, I always loved order. As a child, I liked when things were in their place, and I was interested in having a schedule. I would say my mom was like that, too, growing up. But, then I went to a high school that specialized in theatre, and it was the first time when I felt like I belonged to a group, that I found my place. I had friends growing up, but I was always a little isolated or alone. There, I felt for the first time that I was joining people and being part of something larger. That’s when it all changed for me.

What was it like navigating the Quebec arts world as a young performer? You’ve been working at a quick pace since you were a teenager.

It was all warm and welcoming. There is a real sense of community here, and older actors are very generous in sharing their approaches, talking through scenes or showing how a set works. I guess what my job is, or what I’m interested in saying ... well, it would take days to explain the whole process. But I’m focused on characters, getting to really know them, and there’s a certain desire that comes with that. There’s a true attraction to the energy of a person, of a story. And that’s what I hope to keep exploring.

Your first film role was in Lesage’s The Demons (Les demons), and you’ve partnered with him again for Genesis. Is it your hope to maintain long-term collaborations with certain filmmakers?

With Philippe, it’s been a growing relationship and an evolving one. I was young when I did Les demons, I think 17, but it felt easy from the beginning with Philippe because I understood and enjoyed his cinematic language and the way he works. He likes to have only one set-up for a scene and do it over and over and over again. There’s a particular rhythm to that, and you develop a capacity to do it over and over again. You completely stop thinking, and there’s an exhaustion that can be interesting.

What do you think it says about Quebec’s cinema landscape that both Genesis and Family First are up for best picture at the Canadian Screen Awards?

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It’s difficult because I don’t live outside the province, so I’m not sure how it’s received out there. And I’m just 21, so I’ve only been around the industry for the past few years and don’t have much to compare it to. But I do think it’s a special situation because in Quebec – we make our own movies and it’s not in the same language as the rest of Canada or America and there’s not the same accent or even the same culture as France. When we make our films, it’s for here and they tend to stay here, or go to festivals. Our creators, too, they don’t exile themselves. They stay here and create here. Sometimes, when Canadians have a certain success, they automatically go to America because there’s more opportunity. But we have such a specific, unique cinema because we have our own culture, which encourages exploring and creating.

You have a few American projects, too: last year’s Boy Erased, the new season of Netflix’s The OA, and you just finished filming the YouTube Premium series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, with Kirsten Dunst. Do you intend to stay in Quebec?

The goal is to not belong anywhere. I want to keep doing the projects I’m attracted to – I want to be the spoiled kid and do whatever I want [laughs]. Today, we have the chance to send [audition tapes] over the Atlantic in a second, to go anywhere. I don’t want to belong to one industry. For me, it’s not about building a career somewhere, but just working on the projects I want to, and enjoying it along the way.

The 2019 Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs live March 31 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC-TV

This interview has been condensed and edited

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