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Sarah Polley on love, remembrance and antistardom
by Greg Ursic

Sarah Polley, aka “Canada’s Sweetheart” has been acting since the age of four and shot to fame as Sara Stanley on the TV series Road to Avonlea at the tender age of eleven. She made an impression on movie going audiences with her role as the teenager in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter in 1997 and went on to make a series of films that ran the gamut from Go, a teenaged style Pulp Fiction which exposed her to US audiences, to the zombie filled Dawn of the Dead. In addition to acting, Polley is a respected writer, director and political activist.

Yet for someone of her pedigree, Polley remains remarkably unassuming: when I caught up with her at VIFF 2006 she arrived at the interview suite solo, sans handlers, fawning publicists or fanfare. But, as I sat across from her in the interview suite I couldn’t get over how tiny she is – I swear that if they were to turn on the fan sitting in the corner she would blow away. But anyone underestimating her does so at their own peril.

This is after all the woman who at the age of 11 refused to remove a peace symbol necklace she was wearing when asked to do so by a handful of Disney execs at an awards show (and was consequently blackballed). She also faced down the Ontario Provincial Police during a protest and received a truncheon in the face and a couple broken teeth for her efforts.

Our paths have crossed twice in the past, first in 2003 when I was pressed into service as her impromptu security detail when she arrived for the VIFF gala presentation of her new movie My Life Without Me - apparently there were some issues with a local “fan”. When I mention the encounter as a point of interest at the outset of the interview she appears surprised "Pardon? They never told me anything about that..." Oops. Moving on... More recently, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I almost bowled her over in my effort to dodge a hopped up caffeine junkie who cut me off in a mad dash to make a screening. I choose to avoid mention of our near miss. But we’re here to talk about Away From Her, Polley's feature directorial debut.

Based on Alice Munroe's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain", the story examines a couple’s relationship when, after 40 years of marriage, the wife is committed to a home after the onset of Alzheimers and the couple begin to drift apart. A poignant, beautiful film, it boasts an evenhanded treatment of the subject matter, without succumbing to overblown dramatics and the leads – Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie and Olympia Dukakis – deliver solid performances (it’s rumored that the film was delayed so that Christie would have an opportunity to be considered for the 2008 Oscars). So what prompted Polley, - a 27 year-old no less - to tackle such heavy subject matter when most directors her age focus on introspective pieces about their contemporaries?

“I guess it was a few things,” she explains. “One was the environment of the retirement home which is a big unexamined part of our society. In the last year of her life she [Polley's grandmother] started to exhibit signs of dementia. I spent a lot of time with her in the retirement home and I was really fascinated by the environment.

Polley’s personal experiences seemed like a natural fit for adapting Munroe's story. “I was really attracted to the love story and what love looks like after've been through a life together and failed each other a few times and still have some kind of connection and how much more romantic that is than the beginning which is what we constantly celebrate.

Judging by the final product it’s clear that Polley not only has a solid grasp of the subject matter, she also evinces a maturity that most directors twice her age would envy. I note how impressed I was by the subtle nuances she utilized when adapting the story for the screen i.e. filling in gaps, translating internal monologues and the addition of new characters. Polley, true to character, is quick to deflect any credit.

“The source material was so strong. The characters and their relationships were so fleshed out. It wasn’t like I was creating anything from scratch. I believe the film’s quite faithful to the original. So I found it was really great to work with that source material, and just understanding it and I worked a lot with the actors themselves on the characters trying to make those shifts made it more authentic and bring them to life.”

The relationship aspect of the story took on a necessarily personal dimension for Polley as she worked in close quarters with her husband – film editor David Wharnsby – for eight months while they edited the film. I was curious how their relationship shaped the film’s evolution.

Polley reflected for several moments before answering. “I’m not sure if the film would be different but it was very very heartfelt and I think that was a big part of it. We were dealing with our relationship through the course of the film: here we were married and editing a film about a marriage and alone together all day and all we talked about was these people’s marriage and it was this incredible intensive process. I think a lot of our marriage and our love for one another ended up in the film.”

Many actors dream of moving behind the camera to direct, but for every Ron Howard, most never make it beyond directing the occasional sitcom episode. I ask Polley what she found to be the greatest obstacle in her transition.

“I think probably just the confidence it takes to do it. I mean you really have to just tell yourself that you really believe in what you’re doing, and I’m one of those people who question themselves a lot and so it was tough to make that leap. And just say ok, I’m just going to jump in and believe that I know what I’m doing and have faith in it. When you make a film you have to be clear about what you want and articulate that and I’ve always been someone who’s really terrified of conflict and that part of my personality really had to develop fast.”

“Terrified of conflict?” That statement sounds like an oxymoron coming from Polley – this is after all the woman who moved out on her own at the age of 14 and is known for never backing down from a challenge. Clearly she’s made from stronger stuff than I am.

As an actor, Polley was accustomed to seeking motivation from her director, but with the tables turned, she found herself having to provide that guidance. The change in expectations did not come easy.

“It was definitely a challenge - it was really foreign.” You can practically hear her heart rate increasing as she continues, “sometimes I think it might have been easier knowing nothing about acting to direct actors because I was so hyper-aware of the tightrope I was walking. And you can easily lose an actor as a director without knowing it. It was really very, scary. And it made me very neurotic.”

Further complicating matters was the fact that Atom Egoyan, her mentor for many years, was the executive producer on the project and Julie Christie, a long time friend was the lead actor. How did she handle this shift in perspective?

“It was amazing - it was tough but it was really interesting, before that, my relationship I’ve spent my whole life on the other side [of the camera] and to shift that dynamic so dramatically…it was such a head twister to take this relationship that you’ve always had and turn it on its head. It was pretty intense.”

When asked during an interview if she ever thought about winning an Academy Award, Polley stated “I can’t imagine being nominated, ever.” Based on the glowing reviews the film has received and wanting to continue living vicariously through others (the last Canadian director I interviewed – Paul Haggis - won the Oscar for best Picture in 2006) I ask whether she’ll go and what she’ll wear if she’s nominated.

Polley laughs nervously and her face flushes crimson – it’s the first time during the interview that she loses her focus, but she quickly regains her composure. “I don’t’ think that there’s any chance that I would get nominated. I mean I really hope that the actors have a shot at it and I think that some energy will be put into a campaign for them which is great…it would be such a dream come true if they were acknowledged. But I don’t think there’s any chance of a first time filmmaker getting nominated which is also fine. I mean it’s not something I’ve focused on.”

I add “Well, we’re not ruling it out”. The tinge of a blush returns and she laughs “Okay.”

While she is well known for her many accomplishments, Polley is probably best known by many for what she didn’t do: offered the role of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (which garnered an Oscar nomination for Kate Hudson), Polley dropped out of the project after several months of rehearsal and returned to Canada where she sought refuge in small independent projects. I want to know what she would do if she were offered a similar opportunity today? Clearly it’s a subject she’s given some thought.

“I think it's really good I didn't take that role at 19… [as] I think at that age it could have been disastrous for me and unmoored me and made me have a much longer journey of discovering myself, and so it was absolutely the right decision for me at the time and I would absolutely do that over again. Now I'm not so certain as…. I would be more confident in my ability to remain myself. I mean I feel like it wouldn't be such dangerous territory for me anymore because I have a life and I'm really happy and I've thought about myself and there are a lot of things I know about myself that I didn't then. So it would less dangerous, and at the same time I don't think that's where my ambitions would take me. I think that I would never steer myself in that direction.”

Okay, she’s not interested in being a “star”, but what if she was invited to Hollywood to direct? Would the prospect of bigger budgets, wider distribution and access to a wider pool of creative and acting talent be enough to peak her interest?

“I don't know,” she answers matter-of-factly. “Again as an actor I've had a lot of time to kind of witness directors’ work and in the States invariably they have so much less creative control than we do here. I'm not going to rule it out, but I know that I would be over my head in terms of a world of trouble of creative interference, so I would hope I would take a long, hard look at that and make sure it was the story I wanted.”

Given her choices as both an actor and director – Polley once noted that she’s “comfortable working in sadness” I ask whether they are a reflection of the roles she’s had, her personal life, or a combination of both?

“Probably a combination of both – I think I’ve sought out ways to sort of work through, talk about, articulate and grapple with the damage and pain. I don’t think that my childhood was a horror show, but it certainly wasn’t easy and I think acting and film in general has been a safe place for me to explore those things and work out those problems.”

Given her resume, I want to know when she’s going to make us laugh or at least give us another kick ass zombie flick. Before I can get the words out however, the media coordinator bursts into the interview suite. The mc catches her breath and explains that there has been a scheduling oversight and she has to steal Polley away for a photo shoot. Polley apologizes and thanks me for taking the time to sit down with her. Thanks me. Sweetheart indeed.

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originally posted: 05/08/07 05:53:57
last updated: 05/17/07 02:29:44
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