Xavier Dolan's childhood letter to Leonardo DiCaprio inspired his latest TIFF film

By Meaghan Wray

The greatest stories come from real life, and doesn’t Xavier Dolan know it. In a moment of art imitating life, the Canadian filmmaker's latest project was inspired by the letters he wrote to his favourite Hollywood stars as a child actor. After nearly three years of production, he finally unveiled his English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. And what better way to introduce it than with a letter he penned to Leonardo DiCaprio at eight years old!

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Taking to the stage at the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre on Monday night (Sept. 10), the 29-year-old director read the adorable letter to his childhood hero aloud: “I watched the movie Titanic (5 times). You play very well. You are a great actor and I admire you. I’ve done a few commercials for a very known drug store chain and I had some good roles in four movies in French. I wish I could play in one of your movies once.”

Everyone has to start somewhere, and luckily Xavier’s early start in film has led to his massive success at such a young age. At only 19 years old, the Montreal-born talent debuted his first project at the Cannes Film Festival, at which he is often the youngest director in the running for the festival’s major prize, the Palme d’or. Now, instead of writing letters to his idols, he’s casting them in his films – big stars like Game of ThronesKit Harington, Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, Schitt’s Creek star Emily Hampshire and Crash’s amazing talent Thandie Newton all signed on for his latest film – and even had a chance to gush over their director at RBC and Nespresso’s Coffee with Creators panel on Monday (Sept. 10).

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“Xavier is an actor first and so he’s right there with you doing the scene,” Emily mused. “It’s kind of like this jazz dance you’re doing together.” Alias Grace star Sarah wholeheartedly agreed, saying, “It’s very much like a dance … He treats you like a very intelligent person.” She added, “He’s so actively engaged in everything that’s happening.”

Thandie, Xavier, Kit, Sarah and Emily stopped for a photo after the panel. Photo: © Eric Charbonneau

While Thandie was mostly featured in the last portion of the film, and hadn’t met the rest of the cast yet, she shared a beautiful anecdote about viewing some of the scenes while they wrapped up filming in Europe. “It was just myself and [the rest of the cast] and we had this wonderful three days in Prague," she said. "We would sit after shooting ... in [Xavier’s] room and talk and change stuff,” she described dreamily, with Xavier chiming in with a smile: “Yeah, that was fun.” For Thandie, an industry veteran of over three decades, it never felt like a job on set. “It doesn’t feel like a job, really. Xavier is so invested and so enthusiastic,” she said. “It’s a canvas which you all share … With Xavier, there was this equilibrium of everybody and there was no hierarchy at all.”

RBC and Nespresso hosted a series of Coffee with Creators panels in association with Deadline in their continued efforts to support the future of film.

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