Actors Sophie Nelisse and Fellag as Monsieur Lazhar are shown in a scene from the Philippe Falardeau film. An assured performance by child actress Nelisse has her competing for a best supporting actress trophy at the Genie Awards this week.

Child actor takes Genie nod in stride

As one of two child actors competing at this week’s Genie Awards, 11-year-old Sophie Nelisse of the breakout hit Monsieur Lazhar says she’s headed to the star-studded bash with one goal in mind: to have fun. The prospect of actually winning a coveted trophy is not really something the poised pre-teen says she’s dwelling on, noting there’s little point in stressing over something she can’t control.

TORONTO — As one of two child actors competing at this week’s Genie Awards, 11-year-old Sophie Nelisse of the breakout hit Monsieur Lazhar says she’s headed to the star-studded bash with one goal in mind: to have fun.

The prospect of actually winning a coveted trophy is not really something the poised pre-teen says she’s dwelling on, noting there’s little point in stressing over something she can’t control.

“I can’t do anything (to increase my chances) for a Genie Award,” Sophie said from her home in Montreal. “I’m just doing it for fun and if I win, well, I’ll be happy.”

Sophie had just turned 10 when filming began on Philippe Falardeau’s intimate student-teacher tale Monsieur Lazhar nearly two years ago. It was her first film, and she commands the screen as the precocious grade-schooler Alice, a wise-beyond-her-years latch-key kid who is sent reeling when she discovers her teacher has killed herself in the classroom.

At Thursday’s bash, Sophie will be up for best supporting actress against seasoned performers including Helene Florent of Cafe de Flore, Julie LeBreton of Starbuck and Charlotte Sullivan of Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, as well as Roxana Condurache from The Whistleblower.

Over in the best supporting actor race, child actor Marin Gerrier is also vying for a trophy. He, too, was just 10 when he shot his francophone breakout, Cafe de Flore in 2010.

Like his character, Marin has Down syndrome, and director Jean-Marc Vallee has said he captured the boy’s charming portrayal of a young Parisian romantic largely through carefully constructed play sessions.

Marin is up against heavy-hitters including Viggo Mortensen, who played Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method; Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch, who plays a troubled photojournalist in The Bang Bang Club ; Antoine Bertrand from Starbuck and Lost actor Kevin Durand for Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster.

Genie bash co-host Andrea Martin, who will share the stage with George Stroumboulopoulos, gushed over the young thespians’ “beautifully gifted” performances but handed a lot of the credit to their Quebec directors.

“Just think of the delicacy of the direction, of the respect, the delicacy, the non-exploitation of those kids’ talents,” Martin said of Falardeau and Vallee, who are each vying for best director honours.

“It’s extraordinary. I think it speaks so much about the directors.”

The best director battle also includes David Cronenberg for A Dangerous Method, Larysa Kondracki for The Whistleblower and Steven Silver for The Bang Bang Club.

Vallee’s mystical love story Cafe de Flore leads the race overall with 13 nominations, while Cronenberg’s psychoanalysis drama A Dangerous Method has 11.

Both films are in the best picture race, along with Monsieur Lazhar, The Whistleblower and the francophone comedy Starbuck.

Sophie’s mother Pauline Belhumeur said Sophie’s acting career began at age 7, when her older brother expressed interest in show business. Not wanting anyone to feel left out, Belhumeur took all three of her kids to meet an agent, including youngest daughter Isabelle, who was just three.

Sophie landed commercial work right away, and at first Belhumeur admitted she suspected it had more to do with her attractive blond curls and blue eyes than any acting talent.

“You kind of put it off to, ‘Well, maybe she’s just cute,”’ said Belhumeur, a high school teacher who has put her own career on hold to help manage the careers of her children.

“But when (Falardeau) took her as a lead on his film we went, ’Oh my god, I guess she is good.’ We didn’t really believe it, you know . . . . To us, she’s just normal.”

Isabelle, too, has developed a burgeoning resume. Now 8, she just wrapped a three-month shoot in Toronto on the horror flick “Mama,” starring Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro.

Helga Stephenson, interim CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which runs the Genies, said young performers are gaining more of the spotlight.

“They’re better trained, they’re trained at a younger age, the kids have a big passion and enthusiasm for it and they’re honing their craft,” said Stephenson, noting this is not the first time the Genies have nominated children.

“They’re getting work and they’re doing very well.”

In 2010, 14-year-old Robert Naylor was up for a best actor prize for the Quebec feature “10 1/2.”

Young actors are at the core of “Monsieur Lazhar,” which nabbed nine Genie nominations overall. They include Sophie’s co-star Emilien Neron who has a particularly devastating scene as tensions mount in the classroom. He is up for a Jutra Award, which recognizes francophone performances.

“Monsieur Lazhar” was also a smash on the festival circuit and most recently competed for a best foreign-language film Oscar.

Belhumeur said her family watched the Hollywood bash with bated breath when it aired on TV last month, rooting for Falardeau even though his film was widely considered a long shot against eventual winner “A Separation,” from Iran.

Through all the acclaim, Sophie has managed to keep a level head, said Belhumeur, who nevertheless wonders how much of the hype her daughter actually comprehends.

“I think she’s too young to be able to envision how big of a thing it really is for a child to have,” Belhumeur said of a Genie nomination in particular.

“I remember when she first got nominated she said: ’What’s a Genie Award, mom?’… I said, ’Some people go through a whole career and never get that so we should cherish this moment.’ And I think she will cherish it more when she’s older. When she looks back and she says, ’Wow, that was really cool.”’

The rest of the Genie acting categories are packed with international contenders.

The best actor race includes Michael Fassbender for his turn as Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” “Raising Hope” star Garret Dillahunt, who plays a disillusioned war vet in “Oliver Sherman”; Scott Speedman, as the notorious Canadian bank robber in “Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster”; Montreal’s Patrick Huard, who plays a frequent sperm donor in “Starbuck” and Algeria’s Mohamed Fellag, who stars as a sensitive school teacher in “Monsieur Lazhar.”

The best actress race pits Vanessa Paradis, who plays a devoted mother in “Cafe de Flore,” against Michelle Williams as a young wife with a wandering eye in “Take This Waltz” and Rachel Weisz, who portrays a crusading peacekeeper in “The Whistleblower.”

Catherine de Lean of “Nuit 1” and Pascale Montpetit from “The Girl in the White Coat” round out the nominees.

Organizers have been coy about whether the Hollywood celebs who are nominated will attend.

Belhumeur said she’s preparing her daughter to enjoy the party for what it is — and to expect little more.

“I told her: ’You know you probably won’t win, right?”’ Belhumeur said, laughing.

“We always kind of downplay it because for us, just to be selected is an honour. Because at her age and everything it is like, ’OK, you know you won’t be getting this every year.’ You don’t want them to think this was easy!”

Sophie said she’s getting a speech ready just in case, and will thank everyone who participated in the movie.

But as a competitive gymnast, she said she’s used to pressure and doesn’t get frazzled by much — whether it’s working on a feature film surrounded by adults or attending a glitzy awards ceremony studded with celebrities.

“Pretty much you have it or you don’t have it,” said Sophie.

The Genie Awards take place Thursday in Toronto. The show will be broadcast on CBC-TV, with a pre-show streaming online hosted by Sheila McCarthy and Deb McGrath.

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