What Would Sarah Polley Do?

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Sarah Polley first picked up Alias GraceMargaret Atwood’s 1996 novel about an Irish servant girl accused of double-homicide in 19th-century Canada — when she was 17 years old. She remembers lying on her couch, drinking endless cups of milky, sugary tea, reading in a brightly lit room through the Toronto winter. “I don’t think I moved from that couch for days and days and days,” the filmmaker and actress recalls. “And then I read it again.”

Today, Polley is an auteur whose movies — Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and the autobiographical Stories We Tell — form a sort of three-part meditation on female restlessness, the complexity of long-term relationships, and the slipperiness of memory and truth. But back when she first tried to option the rights to Alias Grace at age 18 — as a well-regarded young actress with no filmmaking experience — Atwood turned her down. “I started thinking about making it into a film when I was close to Grace’s age at the time of the murders, and now I’m almost the age Grace is at the end of the novel,” says Polley, now 38, whose long-gestating adaptation rolls out as a six-part mini-series on Netflix November 3, hot on the heels of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale adaptation. “My understanding of why I was so drawn to it has changed over 20 years of psychoanalysis, which has involved talking about this book a lot,” she adds with a laugh.

I meet Polley on a sweltering September morning on the edge of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Wearing a long-sleeved salmon-colored dress and gold earrings with her daughters’ initials, she’s petite, unassuming, and immediately solicitous. “Are you hungry?” she asks. “Do you want something healthy or fattening?” We decide the answer is both, so Polley steers us toward the Swan, a favorite local diner, where — ravenous after a day of press — she orders a grapefruit juice, avocado toast, fried chicken, fried Brussels sprouts, and two side salads. By the time our food has come, she’s gently peppered me with questions about myself and is trying to get me to eat more. “You didn’t order very much,” she says, looking at my kale salad in concern. “Ah, sorry, I’m being nosy.” She furrows her brow and slips into a stern, matronly voice: “You’re not eating very much, dear!”

In a previous life, Polley was a reluctant child star, and subsequently a reluctant Hollywood ingenue. Yet over her 20s and 30s, she has established herself as a preeminent voice in Canadian film — a rare position, given that most successful Canadians migrate south of the border as soon as Hollywood starts paying attention to them. Polley has remained in Toronto, where she lives with her second husband (who is pursuing a Ph.D. in law) and two young daughters. “A big part of why she is so well-known and beloved is that she rejected American stardom,” explains Jesse Brown, a prominent Canadian media figure and host of the CanadaLand podcast. “A crucial conceit of the fragile Canadian ego is that we live here by choice. It’s not really true for most Canadians, but it is for Sarah. She’s like an anti-star. She’s famous for not being more famous.”

Polley, the youngest of five siblings, was raised in Toronto by her father Michael, an actor, and her mother Diane, an actress and casting director who died of cancer when Polley was 11. She started acting at 4, and ascended to national celebrity with a lead role in the TV adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Road to Avonlea, which aired on the Disney Channel in the U.S. The show was a Canadian-TV mainstay from 1990 to 1996, and it made Polley “Canada’s Sweetheart” — a title from which she recoiled. At 12, she famously got in trouble with Disney for wearing a peace sign on a red carpet to protest the Gulf War. At 14, already fiercely independent, she moved out of her family house and took a break from acting to focus on left-wing political activism, which included getting some teeth knocked out by riot police during a protest against Ontario’s conservative government. In a 1996 clip from a Canadian teen talk show called Jonovision, 17-year-old Sarah, wearing an oversize sweater emblazoned with the logo for an Ontario trade union, is asked whether people think she’s just being a celebrity do-gooder. “Not so much,” she shoots back. “If it was to promote my career, I’d pick something a little bit more fashionable, like AIDS. I think it’s great celebrities in Hollywood stand up for things like that, but no one really stands up for anything controversial, like really challenging the system that creates this growing disparity between the rich and the poor.” When the host notes her middle-class upbringing, she responds: “Karl Marx was middle class, too.”

In 1999 — the same year she starred in Guinevere, produced by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax (more on that later)Polley was on the cover of Vanity Fairs Hollywood issue, along with Kate Hudson, Julia Stiles, and Reese Witherspoon. In 2000, she turned down the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous. Afterward, aside from a few blockbuster outings, Polley mostly took projects within the Canadian indie scene. In 2006, she directed her first feature-length film, Away From Her, and found a freedom that she had never had as an actress. “I had a couple of really shitty experiences and I thought, you know what? I love writing and directing,” she says, alternating between bites of chicken and avocado toast. “It makes me extremely happy. I’ve never been ambitious as an actor — I like it every now and then, but it’s never been my main passion. So, what’s the point of this? I’ll put myself in this position again when I’m 60. Although — ” she adds with a wry laugh. “I’ll have to write a part for myself.”

Luckily, Polley proved to be an even better director than she was an actor. “Sarah plays film the way Mozart played the piano,” says Margaret Atwood.

Or, in the words of Take This Waltz star Michelle Williams: “Sometimes when I’m acting, years ago and now, I will give myself my own, simple, direction. I whisper to myself: ‘What would Sarah Polley do?’”

Although she was well-known in the industry at the time, Polley still recalls facing a ton of resistance when she was trying to make her first film. “I got no, no, no, over again and was flatly discouraged from even trying,” she recalls. When she tried again with Away From Her, which was based on an Alice Munro short story, “I was told people were going around parties saying ‘now she’s trying with an Alice Munro film, boooring,’” she says, shaking her head with a bemused smile.

In Away From Her, which garnered Oscar nominations for best actress and best adapted screenplay, an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s (played by Julie Christie) moves into a nursing home, where she loses almost all memory of her husband (Gordon Pinsent) and develops a close relationship with another man. In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams) explodes her happy marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen) when she develops an infatuation with the handsome stranger who lives across the road from her house in downtown Toronto. In each story, Polley regards the female protagonist’s yearning as well as her long-term relationship with empathy and respect. When Margot leaves the husband that she loves for the new man that she also loves, we don’t know whether she’s making the right choice — neither does Margot — and Polley isn’t there to tell us (she divorced her first husband, a film editor, in 2008).

What Rogen, one of the many Canadians who grew up with Polley as a constant screen presence, remembers most is how personal and intimate the filmmaking experience was. “I remember how quiet the set was compared to our normal movie sets, which I liked,” he tells me. “She’s so present and connected and empathetic in a way that especially in movies very few people are. There are a lot of people who are just waiting for their turn to talk, and I find myself guilty of that as well. But she is not like that. She was looking for all these little emotional things that were not conversations I’d ever had on a movie set before. We were having deeper and more nuanced conversations than I had ever had.”

A longtime fan of Polley’s work, Michelle Williams said she’d expected to appreciate her intellectual and emotional depth when she met her as the director of Take This Waltz. But she was caught off-guard by her humor. “She is, in any situation, the funniest person in the room,” Williams says. “I laugh spasmodically at her jokes and still retell them years later because they combine humor with truth, and as far as I can tell, that is what makes life bearable.” Julie Christie, who first met Sarah when they costarred in Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing, remembers being struck that a woman in her 20s would choose to make her first film about Alzheimer’s: “Serious stuff. But Sarah has a mad sense of humor which creates a very happy and loyal atmosphere amongst her cast and crew.” When Polley shows up on set, “everyone would light up and get excited,” says Sarah Gadon, who stars in Alias Grace.

Her third feature, Stories We Tell — a film all about the power and incompleteness of narrative, and the unfathomable depths that exist in any single life — might be the closest thing to an artistic statement of intent, the ur-text if we’re to understand who Sarah Polley is and why Alias Grace struck such a chord with her. The autobiographical documentary even begins with a quote from Atwood’s novel: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood,” Polley’s father Michael narrates in voice-over. “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

Turning the lens on her own family, Polley sets out to explore one of the foundational myths of her own life. Ever since she was a child, Polley’s siblings joked about how little she resembled her father, and in Stories We Tell Polley finds the truth: Her mother had an affair while she was doing a play in Montreal, and Polley’s biological father is actually a Montreal film producer named Harry Gulkin. To make the film, Polley interviews her siblings, her dad, her biological father, her mom’s friends, and more, giving each the chance to tell their own version of the story — which diverge and overlap in small but meaningful ways. The finished product is less a film about Sarah’s own story than a way to analyze the way we make sense of our own lives through narrative, and the necessary incompleteness of any act of storytelling.

“I think people try to pin down and categorize women more than they do men,” says Polley. “Obviously my mom was a restless woman, and I think a lot of women are, and I think it’s something that we can’t quite handle. Reading Alias Grace gave me a frame through which to look at a lot of other stories, including those in my own life, in terms of there being many different versions of the same story and not one of them being the truth, but all of them existing together in chorus.”

In 2012, now an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Polley again approached Atwood about the rights to Alias Grace, and this time Atwood agreed to hold the project for her until she was ready. But then she got pregnant twice in quick succession, and opted to focus on raising her two daughters. She wrote much of the script in stolen minutes during nap-time — which she sees as another big problem facing women in the industry. “The next step, once we actually get people to trust that women can make films, is to create an environment that women with children also want to make films,” she said. “A lot of us are self-selecting out of it just because we have children.”

Over the years, what Polley had originally envisioned as a feature film expanded into a mini-series – with all six episodes penned by Polley – and found a home on CBC and Netflix. While she originally planned to direct, she decided ultimately to pass the mantle to American Psycho’s Mary Harron (a fellow Canadian). Through all this, Polley said Atwood’s faith in the project never wavered, despite the many opportunities for frustration. “Instead she mostly was concerned about how my pregnancies were going and how my kids were and offering advice about being a mom,” she says. “She’s got this side to her that I felt like I don’t see reflected a lot in media, which is she’s incredibly nurturing and maternal, especially with young women.”

When Polley first began writing, Atwood spent six hours answering every question she’d ever had about the book. Whenever they sat down together, Atwood would grab her notepad and jot down dozens of books and movies Polley had to see. “You feel like you’re in a full course lecture with her,” says Polley. “She wants to see everything, she wants to do everything, and I think that that’s why she’s so incredible with character and why she sees so deeply into the underbelly of human nature — she’s just never stopped being hungry.”

Alias Grace tells the true story of Grace Marks (played by Sarah Gadon), an poor 16–year-old Irish-Canadian immigrant accused of murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his mistress Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) in Toronto in the mid-1800s, in collusion with Kinnear’s stablehand James McDermott (Kerr Logan). (The production feels a bit like a who’s who of Canadian cinema; even David Cronenberg has a bit part.) Her case became an object of public fascination, with Grace as a cipher onto which contemporary onlookers could project their opinions — was she crazy or coerced, wicked or possessed? When we meet Grace, she has been in prison for 15 years, and an early practitioner of the nascent field of psychiatry, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), has come to interview her. Yet the more he gets to know her, the less he is able to put her in a box. For Polley, the crucial challenge was retaining the book’s ambiguity, which the show does by filtering the story through a number of narrative layers — we see Grace telling her story to Doctor Jordan, and we also see Grace reflecting on what she decides to tell him, while a series of flashbacks both reinforce and complicate the story she shares.

While Alias Grace is bound to garner comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale — and will certainly attract viewers caught up in the current Atwood-mania — the two shows couldn’t feel less alike. “They have nothing to do with each other tonally, aesthetically, thematically, visually,” says Polley, who confesses she has seen not all, but “a lot,” of The Handmaid’s Tale. Where The Handmaid’s Tale has the slickness of prestige TV (think rock songs playing over hyper-stylized tableaux of red-robed Handmaids), Alias Grace, at least visually, is a much more austere, traditional period drama. At times, it calls to mind the “Canadian Heritage moments” that used to air on Canadian TV to teach people about key milestones in the country’s history.

Yet despite that familiarity, it avoids any romanticized nostalgia. “We always see it in this Merchant Ivory context that’s kind of glossy. From a female perspective and from the perspective of an immigrant and somebody who was in the servant class, I think suddenly the Victorian era doesn’t look so pretty anymore,” says Polley. She sees Alias Grace and Handmaid’s Tale as perfect companion pieces for our present moment: one a vision of the horrific possible future, the other a vision of the horrific real past. For all its postmodern storytelling conceits, Grace’s story is an unflinching portrait of the violent patriarchal society that spawned her. The show is an unending cavalcade of abuses, from the brutal sea passage over from Ireland to Grace’s subjugation at the hands of a series of male tormentors, and shot through with horrifying moments of violence and bloodshed, including a botched back-alley abortion.

“I think women at that time were prey and continue to be in many places and indeed in North America, too,” says Polley. “Grace was harassed, abused constantly. So where does that go? What do you do with that? Who do you become? I think it’s so interesting when you look at Grace and ask: What got repressed and what happened to it? Because those things don’t go away — that anger, and that fear, and that sadness — it doesn’t disappear. What does it get turned into if you can’t express it?” she says. “I’m so fascinated by what the repercussions of that were in a woman’s psyche.”

Suddenly, in the midst of this very serious conversation, Polley leans forward to take a sip of her grapefruit juice and overshoots, so the straw goes up her nose, spraying grapefruit juice onto the leather banquette. “Oh my god! That was amazing.” She starts giggling. “I’ve done that my whole life, where I don’t hold the straw and I just go for it, and I’ve been made fun of for it my whole life, and that has never happened. I’ve finally physically learned my lesson, which, gold fucking star.”

She wipes her nose and grins. “That was great.”

There seems to be a disparity between the kind of work Polley makes and her sunny energy in person, which she freely acknowledges. “I do think there’s something weird about that,” she says. “I really like people, I’m really social, I’m not sort of brooding.” Yet as easy as she is to be around, and as willing as she is to volunteer intimate psychoanalytic insights, I never quite get the feeling that she’s putting all her cards on the table. While she’s happy to discourse about the big ideas and feelings that animate her work, she resists discussing her personal life beyond what we’ve seen onscreen (for instance, she won’t tell me where in Toronto she lives, and as much as I scour Google, I can’t seem to find a single mention of her youngest daughter’s name). No matter how forthcoming she is, something about her always feels a little out of reach.

“When you are written about since you were little, you sort of feel like — when someone pins down an identity for you then it’s almost like you have to make some kind of a statement to just be who you are, which is complex and not only that one thing …” she says, before trailing off. “Then there’s all of a sudden a person out there, that you didn’t create.”

Sarah Polley prefers to tell her own stories. A few weeks after our interview, her byline appears in the New York Times under the ominous title “The Men You Meet Making Movies.” In the piece, Polley describes Harvey Weinstein offering her the opportunity for “a very close relationship” when she was shooting Guinevere for Miramax in the late ’90s, which she says her lack of ambition as an actor gave her the freedom to turn down. And she elaborates on what she has suggested to me — that she went into writing and directing partly because the movie world treated women actors like garbage. “Now there were no assistant directors trying to cajole me into sitting on their laps, no groups of men standing around to assess how I looked in a particular piece of clothing,” she writes. “I could decide what I felt was important to say.”

Over lunch, she shared a story that later made its way into the Times piece, about getting a bunch of actresses together to share their “hilarious” experiences with men in the industry — only to find the stories getting less and less funny as they realized they were all describing abuse and assault. “It was so horrifying realizing as we listened to each other that this had become normalized for us, that this was the culture,” she tells me. “The dynamic between older male filmmakers and young actresses is not one of trust.” (When I message Polley a few weeks later to follow up on the Weinstein piece, she says she doesn’t want to say much beyond what she’d written, but added that “it felt good to finally frame it in [her] own words.”)

Although activism always has always been an essential part of Polley’s identity — “that thing that was supposed to happen at 30 years old, where you become less left wing did not happen to me,” Polley jokes — she, like many others, has found herself newly emboldened in 2017 when it comes to speaking out about feminism, racial inequality, and sexual violence. “I was a big fan of Camille Paglia when I was a teenager,” Polley tells me, with a knowing eye roll. “It was really easy as someone born in ’79 in a white middle-class background to disregard what feminism was, because it felt like it had always been this way. Then you start to get older and you start to think, like, if an alien came down from outer space and you showed them the history of women over thousands and thousands of years, where they had no rights, no agency, nothing, and then this tiny blip of a few decades where actually things were starting to look up, would you think that’s inevitably going to last? Or would you think probably not? And I think what we’re seeing now is the probably not.”

She says her goal now is to keep learning, and to try and help create space in the industry and provide resources for filmmakers of color to tell their own stories, an ongoing education she attributes in large part to watching Black Lives Matter unfold. She’s developing what she describes as a “more collective project,” bringing together women from different backgrounds to give voice to their own stories. She is also working on the script for adaptation of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, about a man accused of sexual assault and how his family — who know him as a loving father and husband — grapples with the allegations. Right now, most of her energy still remains focused on raising her two girls, who are 3 and 5. “The truth is that I’m still not really back,” she acknowledges. “I keep thinking that I’m ready to not be there [with her kids] all the time, and I end up being wrong about that.”

Yet while Polley plans to eventually return to directing, she acknowledges that the creative journey she began when she picked up Alias Grace at age 17 — which encompassed tracking down her birth father, devoting three films to the boundless subject of self-searching, and, finally, bringing her favorite book to the screen — may be coming to something of a close. “It’s possible that I’ve got this particular neurosis out of my system,” she says. Still, “I remember saying to the first psychoanalyst I went to: ‘My worry is, like, if I do this and I understand too much about myself, I won’t have anything to make, because I’ll “get it” too much,’” Polley recalls with a wry laugh. “And she was like, ‘One thing I can assure you of is that there will always be things you won’t get to the bottom of.’ And that remains true, 20 years later. There’s absolutely no danger of me understanding too much about myself.”

What Would Sarah Polley Do?