Dive In: Canadian swimmer Savard makes acting debut in Cannes-selected film

Canada’s Katerine Savard approached her first acting performance with an intensity normally reserved for a big swim meet.

It paid off in her debut appearance in ”Nadia, Butterfly,” a film that was named an official Cannes 2020 selection this week.

“I think I (found) success in my swimming life just because I was kind of hard with myself,” Savard said. “I was training hard, I was pushing myself and everything. So I guess I’m like that with all (things) in my life.”

Savard, who won Olympic relay bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, played the title role of “Nadia” in the film. Directed by Pascal Plante, it was billed as the only Canadian entry to make the 56-film cut for Cannes out of 2,067 overall submissions.

The prestigious international festival was set for May but had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cannes won’t have a 2020 edition at all but revealed the lineup anyway, giving the selected films a badge of honour.

If accepted elsewhere, films can still have premieres at festivals later this year — should they happen — like those in Toronto, Telluride, New York and San Sebastian.

“Nadia, Butterfly,” shot last year in Montreal and Tokyo, examines the difficult transition an athlete can have after retirement as they search for a new identity. The film crew tried to create an alternative Olympics as the final race for the character played by Savard.

“Just the cycle of an athlete, especially in an individual sport,” Plante said from Montreal. “It’s not as binary as a lot of sports movies that are based around either teams or boxing where it’s extremely clear: it’s you win or you lose.

“That makes for a very understandable stake. So I tried to complexify things up a bit.”

A former high-level swimmer himself, Plante decided to consult with Olympians to get some first-hand knowledge for the project.

He reached out to Savard, who read the screenplay and ended up auditioning and landing the lead role. Elite swimmers Ariane Mainville and Hilary Caldwell also star in the 106-minute narrative film.

“The experience for professional athletes to go in front of a camera for cinema, it’s not necessarily that big of a jump because they’re used to the camera already,” producer Dominique Dussault said from Montreal.

Savard, a 27-year-old native of Pont-Rouge, Que., had the swimming chops down and was comfortable showing her emotions as needed.

“I remember a scene that I had to cry,” she said from Quebec City. “They just asked me to cry and I started crying. It was easy for me.”

Filming was done last fall and the project was completed in February.

“I knew we made a great film,” Dussault said. “The shoot and everything, there was a moment of magic that I felt we created. We really created a synergy with all the crew and the actors. So I knew we had a special film.”

An in-person screening for cast and crew was set for mid-March but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m a bit nervous to see it but I guess there’s something good if we were selected to Cannes,” Savard said with a chuckle.

Savard made her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games. She won butterfly gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and earned a relay gold at the 2016 FINA world championship in Windsor, Ont.

In 2018, she decided to take a five-month break from swimming.

“I was feeling like I did everything in my sport,” Savard said. “So I didn’t really know why I was swimming anymore. I think I was just swimming because I was a swimmer. I found that really hard mentally. So the break was really helpful.”

Feeling recharged physically and mentally, the University of Montreal graduate returned to the pool last year.

“I just started to set goals again and have dreams again,” she said. “So I started training hard and a year later, I’m here now. Before the pandemic I was back where I was before I stopped. So I was really happy about that.”

Her backyard pool has had to suffice for training during the pandemic. Once her regular facility reopens, she hopes to build up again to compete at next year’s Olympic Trials for the 2021 Tokyo Games.

“Nadia, Butterfly,” is scheduled to be released in theatres this fall.

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