Rising star Théodore Pellerin (Genèse, Never Rarely Sometimes Always) has the charisma of a leading man and the energy of a scene-stealing character actor. He discusses his career so far.
Read Justine Smith’s previous essay on Théodore Pellerin’s work in The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook.
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In 2018, Canada sent an underdog to compete at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language film category. Chien de Garde was Sophie Dupuis’s feature debut, and she was working with less-established actors. The film was the classic story of two brothers torn between a good life and an easy one. Intimate details and neighbourhood specifics bolstered the familiar story, and it became something fresh and new. Central to its success were the performances, in particular the young Théodore Pellerin, who played the restless and gangly Vincent, a teen body thrust into a cruel and violent adult world. The untethered spontaneity of his performance channelled the truthfulness of early Montgomery Clift and latter-day John Cassavetes.
As Vincent, Pellerin gives a performance that defies easy categorization and speaks to his malleability as a performer. He has the charisma of a leading man and the energy of a scene-stealing character actor. The film industry in Quebec, English-speaking Canada, and the US took notice.
Born on June 17, 1997, in Quebec, Pellerin did not always dream of being an actor. His parents encouraged him to audition for École Robert-Gravel,1 a performing arts high school, and he immediately fell in love. The school itself was not about learning a craft, but rather an opportunity to play and explore. At just fifteen years old, Pellerin auditioned for a popular Quebec TV show called 30 Vies (2014) and was cast as Sammy, a Muslim teen struggling with his sexuality. The role was critically acclaimed, and the rigorous shooting schedule meant that Pellerin got a crash course in film and TV acting. He began working in other Quebec TV shows in one-off and recurring roles.
Less than a decade after his screen debut, he has expanded his range, working with prominent auteurs in Canada and abroad. He’s learned and improved his English to such an extent that he’s often cast as an American. In 2019, he had already made such a splash that I wrote a deep dive on his career in our ebook The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook. Since that article, he’s had some of his most high-profile roles to date, including in On Becoming a God in Central Florida (2019), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), and My Salinger Year (2020).
Pellerin doesn’t fit easily in the star model. He has wide eyes and a sculpted nose. Nearing his mid-twenties, he has yet to cast off his adolescent gait, informed by his long arms and legs. More Adam Driver than Brad Pitt, he nonetheless navigates roles that demand both awkwardness and elegance. Aware of his unusual attributes, he takes full advantage of his potential, navigating charm and menace easily — often within the same role, and sometimes, within the same scene.
His best roles, like Vincent in Chien de Garde, rely on his malleability. A study in contrasts, his performance balances kineticism and stillness. If he’s frozen in fear, his eyes seem to vibrate; he doesn’t have to speak for us to understand his mind is racing and he’s trying to control his urge to move and gesticulate. In one of his first roles, in Les démons, we see the first sign of this potential. In that film, he plays a supporting role as a teen who has to be the centre of attention. In almost perpetual motion, he fluctuates from class clown to Don Juan charmer, all within the safety of his friends group. But when confronted with girls his own age, he freezes and shuts down completely.
More recently, as Jasper in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, he’s more composed and quieter than his groundbreaking performance in Chien de Garde and Genèse, though the work is no less complex. He’s first introduced as Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) are headed to New York City on a bus. He taps Skylar on the shoulder, and his touch lingers. Eliza Hittman’s direction of his character’s willingness to invade their personal space indicates that the charming young man might have ulterior motives. His movements are slow and deliberate, while his speech is affected and calculated. Jasper thinks before he acts, considering the best way to get what he needs out of a scenario. He creates awkward tensions, through delayed responses and insinuations, which allow him to steer conversations in directions that best suit him. There’s a menacing undercurrent to his behaviour, that Alex Heeney articulates perfectly: “Pellerin’s Jasper is someone adept at reading social cues, but entitled enough to willfully ignore them when they don’t suit.” Jasper’s passive menace toes a difficult line for an actor. He’s not an active villain; he’s a casual and common threat.
Just seven years into his career, Pellerin has already played an enviable roster of roles and projects. His leading roles in Chien de Garde and Genèse have led to multiple awards in Canada and abroad (we even named his performance in Genèse one of the best of the 2010s). For now, he continues to work in Quebec and abroad, expanding his repertoire of skills and options.
Pellerin spoke to us by phone, where he discussed his career so far and his hopes for the future.
Seventh Row (7R): What initially attracted you to acting?
Théodore Pellerin: I’m trying to think of the honest answer. When I was twelve, I went to a secondary school that was theatre-oriented. It was a very small public school, but we had to audition to go there. I didn’t really want to go, but I went and did the audition anyway for my parents; they wanted me to just try. I loved doing the audition. [At the school,] we were doing theatre every day. I loved my teacher. I loved the class. It felt like a revelation.
I felt I very much belonged to that group, that I was good at it, and that people liked me for it. I felt accepted and validated, and I enjoyed myself. We weren’t really learning how to act; we were exploring. I had a really good time, and I liked making people laugh.
Then, I became more interested in actors. A lot of kids are very impressed by the theatre when they go for the first time, or by the cinema. But for me, it was very much about the actors; seeing some performances, whether it was on television or from Quebec or American film. It was mostly performances that made me feel, “This is real, this is true.” The desire to do that was the idea for me.
7R: Can you think of any actors in particular who initially inspired you?
Théodore Pellerin: Celine Bonnier and Rémy Girard for Quebec actors. For American actors, it’s Meryl Streep, obviously, and Daniel Day-Lewis. I wasn’t really into auteur cinema. I was more drawn to big names and big movies, and then slowly, I started to develop my taste. Not that Meryl Streep movies are bad! But it’s just what was available to a wide audience.
7R: Can you talk a bit about 30 vies? For Quebec audiences, it was the introduction to you as an actor.
Théodore Pellerin: It was literally the first time that I acted. It was terrifying because for a few years I only had this idea, “I can do this. I can act.” I was reenacting scenes in my living room. When I had to go in front of a camera and act, it was like, “Wow, this is the moment where I’m gonna know if I’m actually terrible.” A lot of people probably think they’re good and then they try to do it and suck. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen. I was ready for it. I was so terrified that I almost did nothing in front of the camera, and that paid off. It seemed natural.
I learned a lot because I had the chance to work with experienced actors, like Rémy Girard. It was like a school for me, working every week for a few months with different actors and different circumstances. Also, learning how to work with the crew watching you; letting go of the nerves of that and creating your own space and getting comfortable on set. It was just a lot of new information coming in that I had to deal with, but it was very interesting to me. It was very formative.
7R: Is there a difference between working in Quebec and in America? And also, working in either French or English?
Théodore Pellerin: Maybe I don’t have enough experience to really be able to see the differences, but every set in itself is already so different, even within Quebec or the United States. A set depends so much on the people forming it and working on it. I’d say, most of the time, [the difference] is just the budget. If you’re shooting a $10 million film in Quebec compared to $1 million, the differences are basically going to be the same. It’s just more time and more money.
Less so now, but when I started [making films in] English, it felt a lot more like work. I had to reach for the text and do this extra work to incarnate the language and make it mine, even though it’s not yet. But in French, it feels more like I’m living it. I’m getting more comfortable in English, and I like acting in English because of the rhythm of the language; often the dialogue is stronger because the language is clearer. In Quebec, we’re always sort of in the middle between France-French and our French. [You have to ask yourself,] where do I stand? Where is my character in that equation?
The United States is more money-oriented. In Quebec, we know we don’t have money, so everybody is doing everything on set. The crew is multitasking and doing everything they can. In the States, mostly because the budget is different, every single person has one thing that we have to do and be perfect at.
7R: How do you choose your roles?
Théodore Pellerin: I don’t really choose them. A few years ago, I was just going with what I had and what I responded to in a decent way. Often, the roles that were best for me or had the most impact were projects that I didn’t really want to do at first because I wasn’t that drawn to them. Then doing them, I was like, “Oh, this is actually good, and this person is actually talented.”
I was a pretty bad reader for a while. It used to take me a lot of time and a lot of readings to be able to see in the script what was good and what was meant to be. Now, it [usually] takes me one or two reads before I can do that. When I was just auditioning for stuff, everything seemed bad to me because I was too tough on everything. Getting there and actually doing it, [I’d think,] “Oh, I’m actually drawn to this.”
There were some scripts that I read the first time, and it was obvious to me, like [Philippe] Lesage’s [who wrote and directed Les démons and Genèse]; I understood it instantly. I loved how it was written. It felt like reading a book or a poem.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, also, is just one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Eliza Hittman is a master. Everything is there: that silence and that weight we feel in the film, I felt it at first in the script. It was amazing to me that she was able to write this feeling without ever underlining it. When you read such good scripts, it makes you think, “This is why I’m doing it; everything is just clear,” and I have to reach higher.
7R: What would your ideal prep look like, for research and rehearsal?
Théodore Pellerin: It depends. There was a movie that I was supposed to do two years ago that never got made, but the process for that was very interesting. I went to the director’s place in New York for a few days just to talk and get into it. It was a movie about addiction and rehabilitation, and my character was a heroin user. I spent time back in Montreal in a rehab centre working with people struggling with addiction. I didn’t know when the movie was going to get made, and I wasn’t working, so I just had all my time to live in the script and explore it.
Time is really important to me. Maybe some people work best under pressure, but I’m slow. I need time. That’s the process that I enjoy. Maybe that’s more similar to theatre than traditional cinema or television. I love sitting at a table reading together and talking, changing scenes, trying things, and then doing research, and a month later, coming back.
We’re working on a play now that’s happening in September, hopefully, if COVID gets better. We already had two readings, six months apart, working on new versions of the play. It’s so rich, because you are part of the process. You get so much from it. You also don’t have the feeling of coming into something and having to perform right away. You have the feeling of easing into it and getting to read it and sleep with it. That’s always what I need, but you don’t always get that.
7R: How important is costume in creating your characters?
Théodore Pellerin: It’s very important, but to me, it feels more important when I’m in a process where I actually had time to live with the character and the story. Then, I know what the clothes have to be. If I just book something, and then I have to go in two weeks, do the fitting, and a week later, shoot, I don’t know what he should be wearing yet, honestly. Maybe sometimes, but most of the time, I very much have to rely on the director and the costume designer.
Often, I hate what I’m wearing, when it’s for smaller parts and you would seem like a complete asshole to get there and say, “No, I’m not wearing that.” You just go along with it because you don’t want to be that person. But often, it’s just really bad. The clothes look terrible on me, and then I don’t understand what this guy’s supposed to be. You just work with it and try to figure something out.
When it works, it feels a lot better, but it just doesn’t always happen for me. I’m always so disappointed. But I’m still learning. I’m not a costume designer, and it’s a whole art form in itself. Sometimes, they know better than me and [they think of] something interesting that I didn’t think of.
7R: Could you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Phillipe Lesage across Les démons and Genèse?
Théodore Pellerin: Les démons was the second film I made. I was sixteen or seventeen. It was so new to me, shooting on Les démons, because I had [only] made one other film, Endorphine with André Turpin. 30 Vies was so fast: we shot about twenty-five pages a day. Then I got Les démons, and I had a very small part, but we were shooting something like two pages a day. It was worlds apart, and it was a revelation. You can do a scene forty times in one shot and just keep going. I enjoyed that.
I don’t always understand what [Lesage is] looking for and what he needs or what he’s asking for, but I don’t mind. I like people who are artists; people who know what they want. Or he knows what he doesn’t want. I respect that, and I love that. I want to enter the world of the director and the movie and try to be in that world.
I’d rather have someone who’s a bit difficult and knows what they want — if I’m able to give it, because [otherwise] it would be torture — than someone who’s like, “Everything is cool, we’re having a good time, and it doesn’t matter. You were great.” I need to be told that I’m doing good because I’m terribly insecure, but also, I like people who are artists and are a bit strange and difficult.
[Lesage is] very special. I thought he hated what I was doing on Genèse for a really long time, until one night, after shooting, we went to get drinks or something. He was like, “It’s so great what you’re doing.” He was so enthusiastic and happy. I was like, “Oh, wow, it’s been twenty-five days, and I thought I was ruining the film, but he’s actually very happy.” I wasn’t sure. I was very insecure. I felt that he really appreciates the people around him. He does love the people that he brings onto his film very much.
7R: Could you explain your preparation process to play Guillaume in Genèse?
Théodore Pellerin: I went to Brébeuf2 for a day or two to see what an all-boy’s school was [like, and to feel] the energy. And then, Lesage wanted me to read Salinger, so I read Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye. Other than that, everything was just in the script, and I responded to it. We had rehearsals, and that was it. It was just as was written. It helped because I [was working] with Philippe for the second time, so I knew his language. I sort of knew what his idea of naturalism or realism is: what’s his tone and what his world is. Knowing what the tone is is also a big part of it.
7R: You had a small role in Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, playing the younger version of Vincent Cassel’s character. Can you talk a bit about that process?
Théodore Pellerin: I wasn’t really directed by [Dolan]. I didn’t have any lines or any scenes. I didn’t really experience working with him that much. But it was a very exciting experience. He wrote to me, asking me to be a part of this. I said, “Yes, of course.” I obviously admire him. I didn’t have access to the whole script. He just told me that I was going to be the younger version of Vincent Cassel.
I asked if I could see some of the reels of [Cassel’s] acting so I could feel it a bit and match that somehow. He sent me three hours of closeups of Vincent Cassel and also Léa Seydoux and Marion Cotillard, of that confrontation scene at the end when Cassel tries to leave the house. It was so interesting. These weren’t edited, of course; it was just the full shots of the actors being directed by Xavier.
It was Xavier talking to them constantly, as they were acting, and them being able to take it and act during the scene with his direction. I’ve never seen something like that before or since. It was just a shot of Marion Cotillard, acting, and him saying, “Put your hand next to your face. Now breathe in, breathe in, and cry.” And then she cried. It was just constant direction during the scene. It seemed crazy, but it really does work. I didn’t experience that; I just saw that in the rushes.
7R: I’d like to talk a bit about Chien de Garde. What was it like creating this performance that was so physical and full of so much untethered energy?
Théodore Pellerin: I’m telling on myself, honestly. With [the character of] Vincent, I felt really free playing him for many reasons. One is because of Sophie [Dupuis, the film’s director]: the environment she creates on set, the trust she has in the actors, and the love she has for them and the process. [We also did] a lot of rehearsal and exploration with her and the other actors. There was a real sense of unity that we had together, like a whole family. This energy meant I could make this big push to exaggerate a part of me.
This energy definitely comes from me, but was just made bigger. I was also thinking about a kid when I was in elementary school who had ADHD. Of course, I didn’t know that then, but it was just this constant energy. He was always jumping and very alert. It was intense. So, it was him, but it was also me. It’s a part of me.
Chien de Garde came after a year of doing projects in which I felt I was in a cage a little bit. I had done Ici et ailleurs in Quebec — I don’t care if they read this, it was a mess, the whole production, just terrible organization. Nothing worked. Then, Never Steady, Never Still, [which] was my first part in English. I was terrified; I couldn’t really speak English then. I went to New York to study a bit, and I was terrified of being alone in New York. I was just eighteen. Then, I did another film in English that really terrified me. Then, I came home, and I did Chien de Garde. It was a real liberation to come home and work in French in this environment with Sophie. To have that spark was so liberating. It was a little break where I was able to enjoy acting again.
7R: You’ve played a lot of “villains” or foils, such as in the short film Incel and in Boost. In general, a lot of your characters have shades of gray. How do you approach a character who’s meant to be the villain or the bully?
Théodore Pellerin: With Boost, I had no idea what I was doing. I think that was actually the first thing I did in English. I just went there, and I had no idea what I was.
I do try to approach characters as if they’re not doing anything wrong. I try to understand what their point of view is and not what the script’s point of view is. It’s about making sense of it for [the character] and justifying their actions, even if I know that what they’re [doing is] wrong.
It’s also just much more exciting to play [these roles]. It’s very boring to be the guy who’s just a normal human being, the sane and balanced person. I’m glad I have a weird face and a long body so I can do these roles.
7R: In general humans, don’t do things they think are wrong. People don’t set out to be the villain.
Théodore Pellerin: Some people might. Why not be the villain, sometimes? It’s fun.
7R: You’ve been in the industry more or less five years? I’m bad at counting.
Théodore Pellerin: Actually, seven. I began when I was sixteen, and I’m [now] twenty-three.
7R: Wow, that’s almost a third of your life. How much do you feel you’ve changed as a person or as an actor over that period of time?
Théodore Pellerin: Just to tell you how I changed between sixteen and twenty-three would be the whole story of my life. I was so focused when I was sixteen, up until Chien de Garde. I was so focused on this one thing, with acting. I set aside everything else; friendships and anything that didn’t feel like it was serving me and allowing me to grow as an actor.
I had to learn to live, and that living is also very important if you want to be an actor. Relationships, just having a good time, going after pleasure and fun and different things are all good. Being focused on acting and only acting is not going to make you a better actor.
Chien de Garde was a moment where I felt free and I felt good. [When] I feel good, my work is even better. When you do something that you’re not very proud of or you’re part of a project that you don’t particularly like, when you watch it, you can be more forgiving.
7R: Do you watch yourself when you do a movie or television show?
Théodore Pellerin: Yeah, all the time. I don’t think I’ve seen all the episodes of On Becoming a God [in Central Florida], but for movies, yeah.
7R: How’s that experience for you?
Théodore Pellerin: Before watching, I’m always very nervous, I don’t know how it’s going to come out. But you often know if it’s going to be good or not, not only based on your feelings on set but from what people working in post-production have been telling you. If you don’t hear much, it’s not a good sign. But if you hear a few things said, it’s probably going to be okay. I’ve been proud of myself, and I’ve been happily surprised. I’ve been very, very, very, very disappointed, but it’s part of it. I learn from it, but it sucks. Sometimes, it ruins your month to watch something you thought you were good in, and then you’re not proud of it. It’s rough.
7R: Lately, you’ve been doing a lot of roles in American films, but looking forward, do you think you want to also continue to work in Quebec?
Théodore Pellerin: I’m more script-oriented now and part-oriented. I’m doing a play in Quebec eventually and love the writing. I want to keep working here. It’s very important for me to check in with myself, working in Québécois, with my language. I think it’s important, as an actor, to do that. I don’t really have a plan. I just want to go where I feel good.
7R: What are you working on next? You talked about the play coming in September. Is there anything else?
Théodore Pellerin: It is a weird year. There’s a TV show that’s gonna come out in Quebec; it’s like Black Mirror. Patrick Senécal did ten episodes of horror or thriller short stories, and I did one. That was very fun. And then the play. And then, I’m going to shoot a movie, but I don’t think it was announced, so I can’t really say what it is. It’s a French-Swiss co-production that we’re shooting in Sicily, so we’re going there in May or June. It’s basically a mother-son relationship re-bonding after a separation. I love, love, love the script. I love the director. I love this project. I’m excited about it.
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Read Justine’s previous essay on Théodore Pellerin’s work in…
- When Pellerin attended the school, it was called école Saint-Louis. In 2014, they changed the name of the school to honour pioneering actor, writer and co-founder of the Théâtre Expérimental de Montréal, le Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental and l’Espace Libre, Robert-Gravel. Since 2004, the school has offered a program dedicated to the dramatic arts.
- A private school in Montreal founded by the Jesuits. Until 2014, it was exclusively a boy’s school. One of the highest ranked secondary schools in Canada, it is the secondary education institution that has produced the most Canadian prime ministers in the country, including Pierre Elliot and Justin Trudeau. Philippe Lesage was a student there.