Xavier Dolan: 'If I didn't make movies, I would be a very angry man'

Child star. Model. Directing prodigy. The wildly talented Xavier Dolan opens up about drugs, fame, film and family

Québécois actor and film-maker Xavier Dolan is loved, and maybe even a little bit resented, as the young-adult prodigy of world cinema. Just 27 years old, he has directed no fewer than six highly successful feature films beginning with I Killed My Mother, made when he was 19. His naughty-cherub good looks have earned him a modelling contract with Louis Vuitton, and he also has a highly lucrative secret connection with Hollywood … of which more in a moment.

His films include 2014’s explosive Mommy – a staggering account of an emotional meltdown between mother and son – which had the critics sobbing with praise, and for which he shared the Jury prize at the Cannes film festival with Jean-Luc Godard. Now comes his latest film, the brilliantly histrionic, black-comic It’s Only the End of the World, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce about a gay dramatist who returns home to tell his family he is dying. The all-star cast includes Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, but the critics received it icily.

Dolan is candid about how wounded he was by its reception, and how he felt about having to attend the premiere after the reviews came out: “When I look at the video of me on the red carpet, I see that I was dead inside. I just wasn’t there.” His own family is completely calm and normal, he says, not a bit like the dysfunctional nightmares of Mommy and It’s Only the End of the World. Yet, as he begins to tell me about them, it’s clear that it is a complicated subject.

Director Xavier Dolan: ‘Cannes is sinking into a culture of hatred’

His father, Manuel, is a Cairo-born singer, songwriter and actor whose heyday was in the 1980s; his mother, Genevieve, is a civil servant, whose Irish forebears came to Québec after the famine of the 1840s. He was brought up in suburban Montreal, “in one of these new developments – pink-brick buildings”. If he identifies with anyone in his film, he says, it is the furious Antoine, played by Cassel: “If I hadn’t found a way to channel anger and express resentment through movies, I would be a very, very angry man, like Antoine.”

He got into acting at the age of four, through his aunt Julie, a production manager who alerted his mother to a TV drama audition. Precocious Xavier was already doing lots of role play with his cousins. Does he have siblings, I ask? “I have a half-brother,” he says quietly, and there is a long pause. “My father would prefer me to say brother. It is from his earlier relationship with another woman. He’s 40 now, I think. I feel a bit embarrassed not to know him better. I would see him a lot when I was younger. I lost touch. Um …” There is another pause. “He is mentally challenged. My father would like me to have more frequent contact with him. But it’s difficult. My work is time-consuming.”

Xavier’s child acting work lasted until he was eight years old, when he went to boarding school. It was largely a series of 21 commercials for a drugstore chain in Québec, which made him a child star in Montreal: “People would recognise me and pinch my cheeks. Can’t say I hated it.”

At school, he joined no drama troupes, because of his fear of acting on stage in public. But he started trying out for TV acting jobs again as a stroppy, rebellious teen. It was his long-suffering mother who had to get him to auditions: “Nothing ever worked. There was a terrible, terrible, terrible audition I hadn’t prepared for, and hadn’t showed up. My mom called me and was like: ‘Where are you? We’re all waiting for you!’ I was completely, completely high. Like really high. As a kite. So she picked me up and brought me to the audition and they could all tell that I was baked. But what else is there to do but get high when you are 15? I guess I could have studied. But that wasn’t really my style.”

Eventually, he found work dubbing Hollywood movies into French. He was, and is, really good at it. For French-speaking audiences, Dolan was the voice of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. “That was a great experience. I was also Taylor Lautner in the Twilight franchise and all his other films. I also do Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Eddie Redmayne, Dylan O’Brien and Nicholas Hoult.” Even now, Dolan takes two days off a week during shooting to do dubbing work – to the dismay of his producers – and he defends the technique and skills it requires. “I don’t like people demeaning it. You are translating emotion into another language.”

Dolan dropped out of college in Montreal after a week, and began hanging out with film critics, going to screenings, writing a blog – and telling his fellow reviewers he would be at Cannes one day. In August 2008, he withdrew all the money he’d saved, C$150,000 (£75,000). (“It was right before the financial crash. My father lost C$35 or 40,000.”) To this he added another C$25,000, raised via acting friends: a kind of pre-web crowdfunding. Thus he made I Killed My Mother, which got him to the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and was the beginning of his staggeringly productive career.

When I ask him to look ahead, he is cautious: “I began as an actor and I will end as one. I’m not going to direct movies my whole life. It’s just too much.” He longs to revive his other career: “I want to write myself parts as generous as Anne Dorval’s, or the kid in Mommy or Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World! I’ve benched myself for so long. But I can’t seem to give myself these roles. People would call me ‘narcissistic’ again. That’s their favourite word for me. But I want to do that in the future. Acting is a passion for me, in all its possible forms. It’s a passion, really a passion!”

It’s Only the End of the World is in cinemas and on VOD from 24 February


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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