Categories: Interviews

Interview: Writer-Director Sophie Dupuis on Toxic Relationships, the Power of Drag, and Creating Safe, Authentic Spaces on Set in ‘Solo’

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Initially premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall where it won Best Canadian Feature Film, Solo is a captivating love story that challenges stereotypes by embracing self-love and facing adversity in the vibrant Montreal drag scene. The film follows Simon (Théodore Pellerin), a young drag performer, as he falls head over heels for another performer, Olivier (Félix Maritaud), where he works. As the relationship intensifies and sours, Simon grapples with maintaining his own identity and success while his close relationship with his sister is tested and his absentee mother returns home. 

Pellerin (Boy Erased, Never Rarely Sometimes Always) is magnificent in how he navigates the sensitive, yet complex duality of Simon’s life: the glamorous, confident persona onstage and the vulnerable lover off it. Writer-director Sophie Dupuis masterfully balances Simon’s difficult journey with a commitment to showcasing authentic LGBTQ+ representation, uplifting chosen families, and celebrating drag culture.

In my interview with Dupuis, she discusses her personal and daring approach to this film and how she merged ideas about family and toxic relationships she began developing in her previous work. This also marks both her third feature film and collaboration with Pellerin, a fulfilling and liberating relationship felt onscreen and one that has now realized one of Pellerin’s life-long dreams. Her collaborative nature created a trusting environment on set and is key to the emotionally resonant narrative that is sure to lead Solo to continued acclaim.

Nick Ruhrkraut: Sophie, thank you so much for joining me today, and congratulations on making Solo, this remarkably intimate and electric film.

Sophie Dupuis: Yes, thanks for having me. And I’m very happy that Solo is coming to the USA. I’m very happy about it.

NR: Finally. Yes! [laughs] So, the movie also won best Canadian feature film at TIFF, which is a big accomplishment. What inspired you to bring this story to life?

SD: I was doing a lot of research about toxic relationships. I wanted to talk about the complexity of a toxic love story, how a very powerful human being can slip into that relationship. And I didn’t want it to be a weak character because when we’re out of a toxic relationship, we imagine that the victim of it is weak in some way, but that’s not what I thought or found through my research. And so, I was searching for a way to have a very powerful main character, even if he’s a victim of that kind of relationship. And I was becoming a very, very big fan of drag artistry: because of all the skills that drag artists have, but also because of their importance in society. I think they’re doing a great job in helping us deconstruct our knowledge of binary and heteronormativity. And making it into entertainment and humor is something that we need more. So at one point I was like, maybe I can mix those two subjects that are very important for me. And that’s how, when I was writing, I discovered it was interesting to have this character who is very powerful on the stage and getting to know himself through his drag character, but getting crushed in a relationship and being pulled away from himself. So, I was just trying something and finally it was a very good match. I was happy about it. [laughs]

NR: You make it sound so simple. There’s so much there to break down, but I want to start with the drag component of it. What was your introduction to drag?

SD: Like a lot of people, Drag Race, RuPaul’s Drag Race. I just discovered that on Netflix. And it was only when it started to be a little bit mainstream, and I was like, ‘Do you know what I’m watching? I’m watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ Like it wasn’t cool yet. [laughs] And everybody was like, ‘Yeah, I do too and it’s really nice.’ And that’s how I got into it. I think it’s a good way to get in contact with drag artistry because we get to listen to them talk about their life experience. And there are a lot of seasons, so there’s a lot to learn from. So that’s how I became a very big fan.

Then, I met a lot of them after going to drag shows in Montreal and while casting for the film, because we opened casting to every drag artist who was interested in playing in a movie. So, I saw around 200 people from the real drag scene including queer actors and actresses. So, it was a very nice experience. We met a lot of very cool people. And it was interesting because every day some of the actors would tell us how it was special for him or her, because it was the first time that they didn’t have to hide the fact that they were queer in an audition. And not only that they didn’t have to hide it, but that it was being celebrated. So, the casting process was very emotional for everybody.

NR: Wow. That’s amazing! I thought about RuPaul during my viewing, but not because there’s a competitive aspect to it. It was more like the conversations the queens have in the workroom, getting to know each other better in this very personal, heartwarming story.

SD: And the family that they were creating. That’s another important part of what I wanted to tell about drag too, the chosen family, where you can be yourself with people that understand you.

NR: And respecting your drag mothers and liking the newcomers also. And you incorporate all of that beautifully into this family that you’ve created.

SD: Thank you. I think it’s still something that I want to explore, maybe in other projects. The family has always been central in what I wrote. Different kinds of families, or the responsibility or loyalty you have in a family, or having to choose yourself or your family, things like that. It has always been important for me. And when I understood the concept of family in the queer community, I was like, that’s beautiful because you’re not always tolerant of or accept it or even love in your biological family, and you have to create your own family in order just to sometimes survive. So, I wanted to show how beautiful it can be and for Simon to pull out of it. It was harder to accept for the audience, I think, because we created that really close family.

NR: RuPaul always says, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?’ And that’s really what this film has boiled down to with Simon’s journey: loving himself and getting to perform that. And it’s a beautiful and tragic way in how you show this. You talked about hiring LGBTQ+ actors and drag performers. How did your writing either allow space for these characters or evolve throughout the development, and if their stories informed passages in your screenplay?

SD: It had a big impact on the way I work with actors, for my three features and even shorts I did before. I’m not only looking for a talent or a face or something like that. I’m also looking for a good connection between the actors and me, because I want us to work a lot, rehearse for weeks, and rewrite the scenes. Through rehearsing, we get to understand the film, but sometimes the actors are bringing so much to their characters that they know the character better than me and I want them to have this creative space. It can get to a point where we confront each other, in some ways, because they’re really free to take the direction they want. It may not be what I was thinking in the beginning, but what they’re bringing is always better, more complex, richer. And that’s why I wanted to work with real queer people. 

I remember one day we were working on a scene between Olivier and Simon. I said something, and Félix Maritaud who played Olivier, told me, “That’s a hetero way of seeing life.” And I was like, “Oh, how come?” So, we talked for hours about it. Those are the kinds of discussions we’re having when we’re rehearsing. And so we rewrite a lot of things. The actors were bringing ideas of new scenes and when it was possible, we added them. And I really think that the film is way better than if I wouldn’t have let them use the space to create. If it wasn’t real queer people, I think the film wouldn’t be that good and that real.

NR: Yeah, I think you’d have a sense of feeling that. But the way you made the film, everything does feel organic and authentic, which is really important to the characters in the story. This is also the third time that you’ve worked with Théodore Pellerin, and he brings such a delicacy to Simon. Was there something about his acting style that you wanted to highlight or maybe that you see in yourself, that you wanted to bring to this film?

SD: Théodore is able to do anything. He told me when we were younger, just after we shot our first feature together, that it was one of his dreams to play a drag queen. I don’t think that’s why I wrote the film, but maybe I was remembering that. The interesting thing is he read the script and the first thing he said was, “I think Simon is you.” He was talking about me and I was like, “Really? You think so? I don’t think so.” And as we worked on the film more, I was like, yeah, maybe in some ways I am talking about myself, even if I made a promise to myself to never do that. But we’re always talking about ourselves a bit because it’s our sensitivity, and it’s what we get emotional about. I think the discovery of your own self and getting free from everyone around you that is maybe trying to bring you in their path is something I’ve been working on for years. 

But working with Théodore is quite special. He didn’t go to film school or acting school. I don’t know where he learned that, but he’s very special. His look on every character he has played is very unique and he’s a joy to work with for everybody on set. That’s very important for me too, because I want us all to be in a very nice environment together. And he worked a lot because the first time he put heels on, he wasn’t that good. [laughs] It was a disaster. And I got very scared for the film, but he was dedicated to the point where he was always wearing heels, and then it became so easy for him. We love to work together and work the script together, and he loved to have this opportunity to be that free on a set. So yeah, we’re a good team.

NR: You are. And he disappears when he’s in drag with the makeup and the costumes. Can you talk about your collaboration with the costume designer, Cédric Quenneville, and how you use costumes and fashion to enhance the story to build up these characters?

SD: Yes. It was important for me to work with people who know a lot about the drag culture for all costumes and makeup, because we created the drag characters all together. That was a very complex collaboration because in Quebec we don’t have a lot of money to make films, so we have to do everything quickly. We don’t have a lot of time. Money in cinema is mostly time. And we had to create the characters with the actors because I wanted them to tell us about their fantasy and allow them to choose their drag names. So, I had ideas of aesthetics and style, but I wanted them to bring what they love. So, we worked with them, with the choreographer, determining what music to use, and it all happened in a short amount of time. So, Cédric came every time with an idea of costumes and makeup and hair, and brought the additional things to get the overall look.

And the choreographer took the music, the look and everything to create the dance and the number. But it was interesting, and it was fun to play with references because in drag culture, references are very important. For example, the Dalida dress, the colors, the textures, what every character would like. And it was like creating two films in one. That was the best part of making the film but also the more complex part of it. And for the actors, it was like three, four hours of getting dressed in the drag queen costume every morning.

So, he didn’t sleep a lot. [laughs] And it was very special. Every time a drag queen was arriving on set, it was a moment. Everybody was impressed because everything is larger than life: the hair is tall, the heels, everything’s big. And I think the actors were getting fueled by this energy that only their look and their presence were creating on set. We tried to cast only queer extras, who were giving us so much energy and having fun with them, too, even when they were working on a number for five hours long. And those moments were very powerful for us all. The film wasn’t only happening in front of the camera, it was behind the camera, too and we all felt that. In shooting, people behind the camera and on set were feeling more free and comfortable in their own queerness. The film hadn’t even come together yet and it already started to have positive impacts.

NR: And you definitely feel that energy. I especially love the impact of the neon green dress originally made for Simon but is worn by Edouard. It’s featured during the activism set where you see the Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter signs. Can you talk about including  that scene and highlighting both the artistic and political aspects to drag?

SD: Yes. It was very important for me to have a political number because of the impact drag queens are making in society. Even when they’re not thinking about being political, they are. Well, thank you for the comments because that’s what I wanted to make. I wanted people to feel like this when they were watching the film, and I really think that people told me that they’re more interested in discovering this art now, because of how they get in touch with it in the film. So, if we only made that, I’m happy.

NR: You did it in a realistic way that showcases the positive aspects while navigating toxic relationships and the influence of drugs, too. But I think you leave this movie on a high, in a good way, and it brings about some great conversation. Thank you so much for having this chat with me about the film, and I wish you and the film the best of luck.

SD: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Solo is now playing in limited U.S. theaters and being distributed by Music Box Films.

Nick Ruhrkraut

Nick Ruhrkraut is a dentist by day, avid moviegoer also by day, and night. He enjoys discussing all things Oscar related on his podcast, “Oscar Wild,” including conducting interviews with nominated talent, predicting current awards seasons, and recapping past award ceremonies and winners. In 2020, he became the only person to ever correctly predict all 24 categories for the Oscars on Gold Derby, where he is also a contributing writer and has moderated film and television talent interviews for major studios. He has also written multiple film and television critiques for AwardsWatch. You can find him on Twitter @sauerkraut27.

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