Gabrielle is an upcoming Canadian drama about a young woman with Williams syndrome in the throes of her first romantic relationship. We sat down with Alexandre Landry, who plays the love interest in question, when he was in town for the Sydney Film Festival.
So Gabrielle is your first feature, right?
It is my first feature. Before this, I’ve done shows and television series, but this is my first film.
You did a lot of theatre before this. How did you find the transition from theatre to feature work?
Actually, I really really liked it. I was hoping to do film because that was one of my passions, and I also like the way that it’s subtle. It’s a completely different kind of acting, and I think I learned a lot from Gabrielle for the first those first scenes, you know. You’ve got to adapt, and after that you’re good.
In theatre, you’re often communicating to people quite far away, but in Gabrielle in particular, there’s a lot of quite close up work. Was that something that was difficult to deal with, or that you sort of slipped into?
I had a friend when I was young who lived with the same syndrome as Gabrielle, which is William’s Syndrome. And I tried to be as honest as he was when I talked to him.
So that informed your acting?
It really did. He really inspired me, and in a way – I had to represent something I knew. And it went through, let’s say easily, because I had a connection with him.
I was going to say, obviously in the film you portray a character who has an intellectual disability, and that’s not something that you yourself have. So that was your hook, to get to the character?
Yeah, it really was. And with Gabrielle [Marion-Rivard] also, and all the other handicapped and mentally challenged people, because I rehearsed with them before the movie for a couple of months. So I guess being around them and talking to them inspired me, also just to feel them, you know what I mean?
Yeah. So how did you come on board the film? How did that happen?
It was special. It was not like all of the other mentally challenged people, I had an audition. At the beginning they were trying to figure out an actor who had this disability, who was mentally challenged. But in a way, Louise [Archambault] told me after that people couldn’t express the love as she was trying to figure out. The connection with Gabrielle was harder. At one point she found a good actor, he was autistic, and he said at the end of the scene in the audition with Gabrielle, “I really like your movie and I really want to be a part of it, but I can’t fall in love with her”. And Louise was like, “Ok, I think we’ve got to figure out another solution”. Then she started to have actors, and I went for it, and Louise asked me to meet Gabrielle, to see if the chemistry would be ok, which I did. And I went to the school, where she was rehearsing, and I started to sing with them. Louise wasn’t there, but at one point she showed up and stared at me through the door, and then she figured out, “ok, this could work”.
What drew you to the script? Was there a particular thing that appealed to you in the way Louise had crafted it?
I think I really liked the way it was written. I thought it was honest. She spent a lot of time in understanding the situation of mentally challenged people, and I really wanted to get through that, to understand, as much as she understood. I studied and I rehearsed with them for a couple of months just to figure out the same spot, the same zone.
I read in another interview, you said that one of the things that drives you as an actor is understanding other people’s worlds and getting to know them. Do you feel that you understand Gabrielle’s world more, after doing the film?
Yeah. Plus I’ve been touring and travelling a lot with her, and she’s become more than just a professional colleague, she’s a friend. And I feel like every single time we see each other, we just have this special moment of excitement. She’s really great. I saw her recently – I’m a spokesperson for handicapped people now back home, and she is as well, so we spend a lot of time together and our relationship grows and grows. It never stops.
So you’re a spokesperson now?
Yeah, with Les Muses, which is the school in the film. It’s not a choir like in the film, it’s actually a school, but it teaches singing, acting, improvisation, dancing, everything, for handicapped people.
Obviously it’s a difficult thing to grapple with portraying mental disabilities as part of a film. Do you feel like we’re getting closer to a better way of representing that in cinema?
I feel like whatever is the way we represent them, the good thing is that we represent them, that they are there. It’s like when there’s only one black person in a film, and we think, “ok, he’s representing the black community”. But it’s much more about diversity, and I’m happy that this film shows a whole range of mentally challenged people. But we hardly have a connection, and I feel like Louise dedicated a lot of time to that, and in the film also, which is a great thing. But I can’t compare it to anything else because I’ve never been through anything else. But I felt like that was right.
Tell me about #changerlemonde. That’s your organisation, your movement with social networks, rights? How does that work?
We started, last summer, a project, where we go through the parks and public places to connect directly with people and to make them act, and to react from a proposal that we make with them. We try to make people make good actions right away, with us, and it works actually. A lot of people started to go through this thing, and we still have more capsules coming, like little videos. It’s really nice to see how people are willing to do great things, and how they behave with us, they’re not rejecting us, they’re willing to commit. I don’t know, we think that #changerlemonde, change the world, is only with little actions. We don’t need to do big, big things, we’re just trying to make people realise that they could do great things really suddenly. Just now. And we experimented with that for a whole summer, and now we’re working with a producer to make it bigger and bigger.
So where do you imagine it going?
Now it’s a work in progress, let’s put it that way, but we are meeting people and trying to bring it to a TV series.
What would your involvement with that be? Directing, producing, acting?
Not acting, actually. What we want is to make people act or react, to different kinds of challenges that we bring to them, but I’m more involved in the production side and behind the camera, trying to connect with people in the street. I really like it, it’s kind of like you’re sharing something with someone.
I wanted to touch briefly on Tom at the Farm. You were in the play, right?
I was, yeah.
Is that a little weird, to see that at the festival now and to see how that’s evolved?
Is that in the festival here? I really want to see it. I didn’t even know. Xavier [Dolan] is one of my friends, and I had a coffee with him after he saw Tom, and he was really really touched by the play, and he said right away to Michel Marc Bouchard [the playwright], “Who is making the movie?”. And he was like, “Well, no one, there is no movie”. And Xavier said, “Yeah, there is a movie, I’m doing it”, like right after the play. So he was really touched by the play, and I’m happy it went through. He’s an actor, he wanted to act in it, and I totally understand. I was like “Oh my god, that would be great”. He’s actually perfect for the role.
So there was no discussion about you taking on that role?
Well I never heard about it. And he has, let’s say, an international reputation, which is great for the movie. And he’s a good producer, good director and good actor. I think it was obvious that he could manage to do that, you know what I mean?
Yeah. It was interesting reading some reviews of the play, and of Gabrielle, and reading that a lot of critics who saw you in Tom at the Farm didn’t recognise you in Gabrielle, and they were saying that there was this total transformation you went through. Is that something that’s liberating for you, completely changing character and taking on a new identity?
Yeah. I do a lot of surgery [laughs].
But there was quite a lot of weight loss for Tom at the Farm?
Yeah, there was. And I have another movie coming out where I do a male prostitute, and I feel like I’m happy, privileged in a way, that people trust me in that kind of thing. It’s probably one of the things that actors want to do most, you know, to play such different people.
So you enjoy taking on those personas?
I really do. I like to transform my body, to make it different. I don’t know, I feel that you just embrace the role a bit more. It takes me, you know? It’s a good connection, an evolution.
Does the physicality of the character help you get to their thought processes? Having those visual triggers like weight loss, does that give you a way in?
It helps, yeah. It helps I think, with the make-up artists and everything. The weight loss and the way you see people and their body, and how they behave, I feel it’s inspiring for an actor to be around. For this movie, for the male prostitute, I’ve been around male prostitutes for quite a long time. I was just walking around the male prostitute – quartiers?
The neighbourhood, yeah, where there’s a lot of male prostitutes, just offering cigarettes and just talking with people. I feel like when you have a connection, a special thing with someone, you understand more of the mentality around it, and the physicality also.
So what is this next film?
It’s called L’amour au temps de la guerre civile, like Love in the Civil War, or something like that, I don’t know what it will be in English.
And who’s the director for that?
He is Rodrigue Jean, he did a lot of movies, I think this is his sixth, he’s really known in Quebec. I hope it will go well.
Can you tell me about the plot, or the narrative at all?
It’s about a male prostitute, but I think I’m not even allowed to say that much about it. It’s about someone in this environment, not happy, that drug addict world. Different kind of relationships, not a sweet and sugary movie.
Is that how you see Gabrielle, as a sweet film?
I feel there’s something behind it – yes, it’s a feel-good movie, but in the meantime there’s something shaking just under it, which is not a love story, not like “this guy will go with this girl and at some point there’s a bad thing coming”. You can understand the situation of the handicapped people, and I feel it’s bigger than just a sweet, sugary romance.
So that after this film with Rodrigue Jean, what’s next?
I shoot another movie this summer, and then, life I guess. I don’t know.
Do you want to keep working as an actor or are you looking at doing different things?
I look at everything. I’m not the type of guy who settles down, and I learn from different areas and different things. I don’t know, I’ll see where life brings me. But I feel good now in acting, and I feel like I have so much to learn, I’ll stick around for a bit.