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Theodore Pellerin: ‘I Wanted to Become Somebody Else’

Theodore Pellerin: ‘I Wanted to Become Somebody Else’

This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the fall of 2018.

Interview and photography by Mark Benjamin. Styling by John Tan. Grooming: Jessica Ortiz at Forward Artists using Triumph & Disaster.

Awarded the Revelation of the Year award at this year’s Gala Québec Cinéma for his work in the film Chie de garde (Watchdog), Théodore Pellerin is enjoying a career that is truly flourishing. In 2016, he played the younger self of Vincent Cassel’s character in It’s Only the End of the World, a film by the award-winning filmmaker and director Xavier Dolan. And this fall, Pellerin appears with Dolan in Boy Erased, an important film adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. Set in small- town America, the story follows the 19-year-old son (played by Lucas Hedges) of a Baptist preacher as he is pressured by his family to undergo a gay-conversion program; Pellerin plays a boy to whom Hedges’s character is attracted. The film debuted at Telluride Film Festival and had its international premiere at Toronto International Film Festival.

In conversation with RAIN’s editor, Mark Benjamin, Pellerin speaks openly about his journey as an actor into film, his experience working alongside Hedges, and growing up in the heart of Quebec’s blossoming film scene.

Mark Benjamin: How are you? So much is happening for you right now. You’ve just had the Boy Erased premiere, right?

Théodore Pellerin: Two days ago. It’s such a beautiful film. It’s a very beautiful, important film.

MB: That was the first time you saw it.

TP: Yeah, It was the first time.

MB: I’m sure it’s always like you walk into it not really knowing what to expect.

TP: Yeah, but the people who did the film, and after reading the script, and reading the memoir… I knew it couldn’t be horrible, but it surpassed my expectations. It’s really a beautiful film.

MB: I was watching some of your past films, trying to see as many as I could. I ended up watching It’s Only the End of the World. I think I’ve seen maybe half of Xavier Dolan’s films, maybe more. But this one brought me to tears, it was so good.

TP: Yeah, It’s Only the End of the World is a beautiful film, too.

MB: When I was reading the reviews later, I realized that when it was released, some people were split about it. How could they be? I don’t understand it. Those are always my favorite films, when you go to the critics and half of them like it, half of them hate it.

TP: Yeah.

MB: With Boy Erased, how was it working with Lucas Hedges and the all-star cast?

TP: All my scenes were with only Lucas, and it was a very brief shoot for me. They were there for two months in Atlanta, I think. I was there for a week, but I shot only, I think, three days. It was very fast. Lucas is a great actor. I’m just impressed by him. There aren’t many great actors like him in the world, so it’s nice to work with him. He’s so open and funny.

The set was fun, and when I was there, I was there on the last day of shooting. It’s always weird because, for me, the first few days of shooting a film are always… it’s like exploring. It takes four days, in any of my films, to really get comfortable and know the crew and be able to be freer, and I didn’t even have four days for Boy Erased. I was always in a state of, “It’s not my set,” which is completely normal and natural, but it was their last day, so they were so welcoming and loving because they had been through a whole shoot together, so there was a great energy on set.

Joel [Edgerton, the director] was great. It was fun. I just felt like I was part of a film that had something to say and a film that I hope, maybe, will help some people, or help change some mentalities, or help to make some people evolve on certain subjects. If it could change laws, that would be amazing. I’m conscious that it’s just a film, though, that we’re only telling a story, but it did feel like it was an important one.

MB: Yeah, totally. I think films definitely have that power to change.
I don’t know why, but when you were saying that, the first one that popped into my head was Supersize Me. That’s very literal, but I guess it did. You were saying how it takes you a couple of days to get into the set. What are some of the things you do to get into a role, what is your process?

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TP: It changes for every project. I think that one of the most important things is to really understand the director of the film. To really understand their language and what they want to tell. Of course, it’s important at first to understand the script and what the author wants to tell, but most of the films I’ve done, the author was also the director, so it was kind of the same thing.

For me, to develop a conversation with the director is key, and so when we have that already—when we have rehearsed before, when I know the other actors, which I’ve been lucky has often been the case—I don’t feel like I need a few days when we get on set. But it changes every single time, and I don’t really know. My process will change depending on what the director wants and what he or she is demanding of me or the materials they’re giving me. It’s going to depend on them, and on the character, and on the story.

So, that’s a very broad answer, I’m sorry about that, but it’s like…I just need time. I love to have time to read the script and follow my instincts on what books I should read, or what films I should watch, or where I should go, or who I should talk to. It’s just to be able to live in preparation for the film, and have time, and not be in front of other things. It has to be an intimate time. I need intimacy with the script, with the story, with the character. That might go in so many different ways in that moment.

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MB: So one of the movies… I really wish I could find it in the full length, and I’m going to find it because I really want to watch it, was Chien de garde–Watchdog, right? From what I’ve seen—I’ve watched the trailer repeatedly—and from what I’ve read, your performance is amazing.

TP: Thank you.

MB: I was just going to say it’s like… In Xavier’s film It’s Only the End of the World, these characters’ portrayals are almost so extreme, it’s like they’re not real, but in fact I find that to be the most accurate. The French actor Vincent Cassel—I thought his performance was extreme and then your performance was extreme, but it’s like those are how the characters are in real life. I’ve run into people like that, where you don’t really understand them. What are the sort of things you did to prepare for that role?

TP: As you say, sometimes we think that realism is often just simplicity, or neutrality, or quiet, but a lot of people out there are not, it’s their true self. People are crazy sometimes. There are a lot of characters, people who are bigger than life and who take up a lot of space. Yes, sometimes, not everybody’s the same and it’s nice to explore very different things. It might be extreme sometimes, but people really do exist like that. Some are bigger and more crazy than that.

First of all, the process… you know we were talking about the set, and shooting, and developing a conversation with the director, and this film—Chien de garde—was very special to me, and I think for everybody that was a part of it. It was a very small-budget, French- Canadian film. It was the director Sophie [Dupuis]’s first feature film. Although they didn’t have a lot of money they wanted to put money into rehearsals, which happens sometimes, but on this one we had five weeks of rehearsal, which I have never heard of or definitely not done before.

It was so interesting to rehearse because her script was so well written, but then we had a month to explore the characters and work together, and have fun together, improvise and rewrite scenes and talk about it and go back and then run it, and then come back and talk about it again. The mother in the film, Maude Guérin, is a great, great actress. She comes from theater, and to have her presence, such a known presence, on the subject of rehearsing and being together, it was such a plus for us. We developed a family vibe, and then when we got on set it was just natural for us. We did feel like a family, and today, still, we go and have dinner, the four of us, like the family. We love each other and we really developed a bond over this film.

But the character, for me, it was… I don’t know. I kind of based him on some kids I knew in elementary school who were so annoying that I kind of… They were annoying to me then because I was eight years old, but today, as an almost-adult, I realize that they maybe had ADHD or they were just kids. But I based it on two kids in particular, because for me, the character in this film, although he’s 19, he’s very much a child. He’s just, like… What do you call it? He had arrested development, but developed in very wrong ways. There was no structure for him from anybody—a structure wasn’t put there to help him, and so you kind of just develop yourself as an adult while still being a child and there’s so much violence in him. But it’s also a game for him because he does it with his brother. So he can’t control his strength, he can’t control his emotions, and he’s kind of a ticking bomb, but there’s also a lot of love in him, a tenderness, but it’s just like a storm.

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MB: Incredible. You won Revelation of the Year at the Gala Québec Cinéma for that role. What was that like?

TP: When your work is recognized and appreciated, it’s just a big plus and it’s just nice.

“I love bringing a character to life… I love understanding a character so deeply that you can just breathe through them. And when that happens, the feeling is greater than anything”

MB: Are there any actors you find yourself looking to or revisiting or admiring? You mentioned some directors.

TP: Actors, yeah. Well, you know, it’s a classic but I do think that Meryl Streep… I don’t want to say too much because I feel like everybody’s saying it. But for me, what she does is beyond acting. It’s just like life and that’s what I’m interested in, and there are a lot of actors but Meryl Streep is probably the one who I do revisit. I do watch her films sometimes when I feel lost with my acting or when I’m not interested and I’m like, “I don’t think I like acting anymore, I just want to do something else.” And I watch a great performance and I get like,

“Oh, that’s why I want to act.” I love bringing a character to life and just… that’s what I love, to understand a character so deeply that you can just breathe through them. And when that happens, the feeling is greater than anything.

MB: Yeah. I think of Christian Bale and Jared Leto as method actors, right?

TP: Yeah, but I think the term “method acting” has become… the term has lost its true meaning, because there are many different methods. But when we say, when the media says, “method actor,” [they mean] that he was basically—it’s always a he—that he was basically rude on set or that he wanted to be called by his character’s name and that he wouldn’t leave his chair for the entire shoot, and I don’t think that that’s method acting. I think method acting is evolving as kind of a system to understand a character. You know, I think that Stella Adler is method acting. Lee Strasberg… It’s all methods, it’s all different methods, and there are more. And I don’t really care about methods as long as you… You don’t really need a method if you can understand the character enough to live through them.

I also admire Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s incredible, and I think there are so many actors I respect, but I’m not attracted to the term “method actor.” I think that the method for me, whatever the “method” is, it might change every single time.

MB: As long as you get there. Makes sense.

TP: Yeah, yeah.

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MB: So your family, your parents, both come from a creative background, is that right? An artist and a choreographer?

TP: Yeah, my father’s a painter and my mom is a choreographer.

MB: What was it like growing up with creativity all around? Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

TP: No, not at all. I started doing improv for fun in elementary school, after school and stuff, and I had a lot of fun doing that. And when I was trying to find a high school… Because here in Quebec, when we go from elementary school to high school, it’s kind of different. So when it was time to find a high school, my parents were like, go give an audition for this small theater school—a 300-student school, not too far away from my house. They were just like, “Go do the audition. If you hate it, you don’t have to go, but we think that you might like it, so just go and try.”

And I was like, I don’t want to go, I want to go to a real school… I wanted to go to a private school and to have homework, and I loved the idea of a big school with a lot of people, and I wanted that. But then I went and did the audition, and I just loved the day. It was so fun—it wasn’t like you prepare a scene and you go there. It was like a whole day with different things with all the other people doing the auditions, and then you were meeting the professors, so it was fun, and then I got in, and I loved it. And I started loving theater there. But it was not about characters or really telling stories, it was more about having fun and being together.

I was 12, so it was more about the group part of it, and being together and doing things, and I felt appreciated there. And I felt like I belonged there, and I loved my teacher and I wanted to learn, and I think that that’s where it started. But then growing up… when I was maybe 14 or 15, I started really becoming interested in actors, in great actors, and watching their performances. And I didn’t care much about movies or plays, I cared about actors. What I loved was seeing an actor live, when I couldn’t tell they were acting, when I felt like they were just beings in front of me going through something. And that was what what interested me, and I wanted to understand what they understood, to be able to become somebody else.

So that’s how it really started. As in, [becoming] interested in acting more than just having fun together, which is also fun, but it has to be both. And then it developed into texts and plays and movies and different forms of… I became more interested in theater as well… And it’s kind of never-ending, that’s what’s interesting about it—you keep learning through every single project, every single person you meet, every single character that you get to know. And I think that’s one of the things that I love most about it.

MB: And so Broadway isn’t out of the question in the future?

TP: No, I love theater, whether it’s on Broadway or anywhere else. If the play is interesting and if the people are interesting, yeah.

MB: And I also wanted to ask about the Quebec film scene. Did you just fall into that? Was it something that was always around? Because as an outsider, I discovered it like I discovered the French scene, or like Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, and it’s all very interesting… I guess because in the US we don’t really have a film scene, it’s just Hollywood.

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TP: Right, right. Well, I grew up pretty much surrounded by it. I grew up not so much with movies, it’s television here, French-Canadian television. Television is very important here, that’s the popular thing— our series, our shows. There’s a big audience for them. Like, we’re at 7 million or something [in Quebec], and the biggest shows sometimes have a 2.5 million audience, so that’s almost half of the whole population watching television at the same time.

But, we have our own theater, television, cinema, and that has always been part of my education. And I didn’t really speak English before I was eight. We had English classes at school, but I didn’t really speak English. And frankly not a lot of people do. It’s like we’re really French Canadian, so we had a very specific accent that’s very different from French. And so, culturally, we’re very different from France, and we’re extremely different from English Canada, and very different from America. So we’ve tried to become our own country and there’s a whole thing here. And so Quebec has its own culture, its own scene, music, theater, artists, politics. It’s very much a country, kind of… I don’t mean to say that because it’s going to start debates and stuff—

MB: You’ll get a phone call from Justin Trudeau—

TP: Yeah. But, so I grew up very much a French Canadian in French- Canadian theater. And that means television, film, theater, music, books, and the mentality. And because my parents are also artists who are not part of the film scene, but my mom is a very well-known choreographer, and my father is a painter, and so I was kind of part
of the French-Canadian arts events and stuff. So I knew artists, and I recognized them, and I always loved… I loved parties when I was nine. I just loved to talk to adults. I had friends, but the most fun I had was talking with adults, and spending time with my mom’s dancers, and going on tour with them, and being in the theaters backstage and watching them stretch and perform. I loved our artists and was always impressed by artists here and elsewhere.

MB: There are these French films that were made in the early 2000s—a huge amount of them—on small budgets, but they’re really good, and I’m finding the same is true for the Quebec film scene. There’s a treasure trove with subtitles or in English.

TP: Definitely. To be honest, I think most of the time, these are the most interesting films. They’re the most honest and true stories you can find. Norwegian films, and Spanish and Italian films. You have to really dig to find treasure sometimes.

MB: Yeah, I know what you mean. The movie theaters are crowded with, I don’t know, Transformers and La La Land

TP: And that’s great, but if you really want to keep cinema, then you have to look for them.

MB: Right. If you don’t want to see transforming cars.

TP: Yeah.

MB: The Academy recently announced they were going to have this new “most popular” film award, and then they went against it, so I guess it’s in limbo now. And it’s interesting, because I think a lot of things have democratized in a way—thanks to the internet, on-demand services, Netflix, Amazon, and so on—and it seems like Hollywood’s putting up a fight. I was curious what your thoughts are on the trend of things democratizing. Fashion has gone through it, I guess.

TP: I think it represents our time very well, and I’m not surprised at all, but I’m not worried. We have that here in Quebec at our awards, the most popular film caused the most controversy. So I’m kind of used to it. I don’t really care, though—if they want to do it, they want to do it. I’m going to go see the films I want to see.

MB: You also have another film out later this year—At First Light. Are you excited?

TP: Yes, I am excited for it—and Genesis, too. But that already had its world premiere at Locarno.

MB: And then you have a YouTube series with Kirsten Dunst coming up.

TP: Yeah, I’m really excited about that. I feel lucky because I really do love these projects, and the show is very well written. And I’m excited to go and shoot it. I’m excited for this adventure.

Boy Erased opens in the US on November 2

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