Irdens Exantus was born in Montreal, Quebec. As a child, his family moved across the river to Laval, where he still lives today. The diversity of cultures in Greater Montreal always seemed normal to Exantus, until he travelled to different areas. Then he realised Montreal was special, a place where you could interact with and come to know all different kinds of people. He has fond childhood memories of the local grocery store, parks and swimming pool, and playing basketball in his neighbourhood.
Growing up, Exantus was a bit of a social butterfly and a class clown. He played football in a neighbourhood league, basketball on his school team, and saxophone in church. His love of performing caught the attention of his high school drama teacher, who instilled in him an interest in the theatre. Exantus took a shine to acting, and his teacher would push him into more challenging roles. She encouraged him to attend theatre school, but Exantus saw acting as more of a hobby than a career. His parents agreed.
After high school Exantus took some classes and considered studying electrical engineering but ended up going into communications. He continued to harbour a secret passion for acting that he couldn’t get out of his mind. He wanted to go to theatre school, but was worried about financial instability, being rejected for roles, and disappointing his very traditional parents, who wanted him to be an engineer or a nurse. All the while, he continued to act in community theatre. When his parents came to see his performances, they were struck by his talent and the way people praised his performances. Seeing his obvious skill and love of acting, they gave him their blessing to pursue it full time. Without that fear of letting them down, Exantus felt a huge weight come off his shoulders. His parents had immigrated from Haiti and wanted their children to have the best opportunities Canada had to offer. All he wanted was their acceptance and recognition, and he finally had that.
He auditioned and landed his first film role as Haitian parliamentary intern Souverain Pascal in Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre (My Internship in Canada) while he was attending theatre school. He got a phone call while on his lunch break at school — it was the director Philippe Falardeau, confirming that Exantus had gotten the part. It must have been fate — in class he had been studying Falardeau’s film Monsieur Lazhar (which you can see in REEL CANADA’s catalogue). Exantus’s experience working with Falardeau was a dream come true. Over the time he spent working on Guibord, Exantus stopped seeing Falardeau as an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and started seeing him as a friend and mentor, someone with whom he could attend parties and CFL games, and to whom he could go when he was feeling insecure about his performance on set.
Falardeau wasn’t his only mentor, though. A key aspect of his character was Souverain’s Haitian roots, so Exantus had his parents speak Haitian Creole day and night so he would be comfortable and fluent speaking it in the film. The film mirrored his own life, in a way, as Exantus acknowledges being a first-generation Canadian leaves one in a state of feeling in-between. “You aren’t fully Quebecois, and you’re not fully Haitian,” he explains. But he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Exantus would encourage other immigrants and children of immigrants to embrace all those parts of their identity as a gift.
Exantus loves screen acting, but his true passion is for the theatre. For him, there is no better feeling than the emotional connection between an actor and the audience, when he sees them react to a scene, and feels their energy powering his performance. He still thinks about his old high school theatre teacher. Looking back, he realizes he has never thanked her or told her how important she was in his decision to become an actor. Exantus really wants her to know that she put the passion for theatre and acting into him, and without her he might not have ended up in Guibord.
Exantus thinks it is important for Canadians to watch and embrace the films made here. He says Canadian films are part of our culture, and part of our national identity. He called Canadian film an industry that “helps us be aware and engaged and proud of what we’re doing here.” At REEL CANADA, we couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’re delighted to name Irdens Exantus one of this year’s RBC Emerging Artists, and we look forward to more of his work in the future. You can see him in Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre (My Internship in Canada) as part of the REEL CANADA programme.
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