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Mommy writer-director Xavier Dolan has added two big names to his first English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan: Oscar winners Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon.
The film tells the story of fictional actor John F. Donovan (Kit Harington) — famous for playing a Marvel-style superhero — whose life and career are turned upside-down when his private correspondence with an 11-year-old fan is exposed and made to look indecent by a villainous gossip columnist (Jessica Chastain).
Bates is being slated for the role of Donovan’s high-powered manager, while Sarandon will play Harington’s mother.
“I’m so psyched about working with these two wonderful, mythical actresses,” Dolan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My excitement is almost convulsive.”
Dolan tells THR the two actresses were his first choice for the roles and that he printed out their headshots months ago in an effort to help visualize the project.
Dolan has been a favorite on the festival circuit ever since his first feature, I Killed My Mother — made when the actor-turned-filmmaker was only 19 years old — took top honors in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. But it’s Dolan’s fifth feature, Mommy, set to be released in the U.S. on Jan. 23 by Roadside Attractions, that has been his first film to break through to a wider audience.
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After receiving a rousing 13-minute standing ovation and taking the Jury Prize at Cannes in May, Mommy is dominating the box office in France and Canada. The film is Canada’s official Oscar entry for foreign-language film, and according to THR’s Scott Feinberg is a serious contender for a nomination.
In his conversation with THR, Dolan, who co-wrote the script for Donovan with fellow Canadian Jacob Tierney (writer-director of 2009’s The Trotsky), went to great lengths to dispel the notion that his new film will be a Hollywood satire, highlighting the fact that not a single scene in Donovan’s script is set in Los Angeles.
“It’s not about Hollywood itself,” explains Dolan. “It’s about the impact Hollywood has on your private life and how it can transform and distort your intimacy with others.”
Dolan says the film will be a very private take on how family, and specifically mothers — both Sarandon’s role as Donovan’s mother and the yet-to-be-cast role of the mother of Donovan’s 11-year-old pen pal — respond to their sons’ fame. For the director best known for Mommy and I Killed My Mother, exploring mother-son relationships is familiar territory and Dolan will once again mine his real relationship with his own mother for material.
“Susan Sarandon’s role of the mother is tricky for me because it feels very real,” explains Dolan. “The rapport my mom has with my life [since my profile has risen] — and of course I’m not as famous as the character of Donovan — is different now. I think all people can relate to this because whenever you walk out of the path that’s been traced for you, people from your old life find it a little menacing, because it questions their own worth.”
In describing Bates’ role, Dolan says the American Horror Story star will “epitomize the very efficient, brash, fast-moving, bitchy manager.” In meeting with Bates, Dolan says he was instantly comforted that she embraced the cliches of her Ari Gold-like role.
“We are trying to explore the cliches of American filmmaking and storytelling,” explains Dolan. “It’s going to be a deconstruction of the superhero myth and that format of storytelling.”
Production is set to begin in late spring 2015 in London, New York, Miami and Dolan’s hometown of Montreal, where he hopes to shoot a majority of the film. Producers are Lyse Lafontaine of Lyla Films (Laurence Anyways) working with Dolan’s Sons of Manual. Dolan will serve as his own editor and costume designer, as he has on his previous four films.
Sarandon is represented by UTA and Bates by ICM, while CAA reps Dolan and is handling the domestic rights for the film.
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