Many people first became aware of Canadian actress Sarah Polley as the intense child star of Terry Gilliam's notorious 1988 boondoggle The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, but for her, it was just one role in a series that stretched back to a TV debut at age 5. After a childhood in television and film, as the star of series like the Beverly Cleary adaptation Ramona and Disney's series Road To Avonlea, Polley took a brief break from the industry before returning to star in films including Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Doug Liman's Go, Hal Hartley's No Such Thing, and Isabel Coixet's tender My Life Without Me. In 2004, Polley broke with a history of working largely in Canadian, independent, and low-budget cinema to star in the big studio remake of Dawn Of The Dead, helmed by 300 director Zack Snyder. This year, she made another departure by writing and directing her first feature, Away From Her, an adaptation of Alice Munro's story about an elderly couple parted by Alzheimer's. Recently, Polley spoke with The A.V. Club about making her first film, dabbling in big-budget cinema, and the "Sarah Polley role."
The A.V. Club: Is it true that you specifically wanted to adapt the Alice Munro short story that became Away From Her because you read it and pictured Julie Christie in the main role?
SP: Yeah. That was one of the main reasons, absolutely. I had just finished working with her on No Such Thing, and I had really fallen in love with her, and just thought she was one of the more interesting people I ever met. And when I picked up this story, I couldn't stop imagining Julie's face whenever I read about the character. So I wanted to see her play the part.
AVC: How did the rest of the casting happen?
SP: I basically wrote most of these characters for the actors who ended up playing the parts. Certainly the four leads—Kristen Thomson, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Gordon Pinsent—were the actors that I wrote the parts for originally.
AVC: Was there anything specific behind the choice to work primarily with Canadian actors?
SP: It just kind of made sense because the film was set in Canada, so my mind immediately went to Canadian actors. Especially Gordon. It just seemed to me that there was really no one else that could play that part.
AVC: It's difficult to portray someone suffering from mental illness without manipulating your audience or going over the top. How did you work out that balance?
SP: Well, I think that the story was a really good lead. I mean, I think what Alice Munro does so brilliantly is, she tells an incredibly poignant, moving story, but it never descended into sentimentality. There was something so piercing about the way she wrote that story, so I really wanted to honor that spirit and that tone. And I was really concerned with never feeling like we were trying to manipulate an audience or squeeze emotion out of people, that people would have space to arrive at it on their own.
AVC: Did you know someone with Alzheimer's, or have other experiences that helped keep the film real?
SP: I did a ton of research, read a ton of books, and talked to a lot of professionals that worked in the field. And I spent a ton of time in retirement homes, researching and meeting people. So I wanted to make sure that there was real information, from my point of view, coming into the film.
AVC: The "struggling with disease" film has become a bit of a cliché—there are a lot of cinematic precedents, good and bad. Did you have in mind any films that you wanted to emulate, or alternately, specific pitfalls you wanted to avoid?
SP: There were a few things I really wanted to avoid, especially in the context of making a film about older people. One thing that seems to be consistent in films about older people is that we seem to justify why we're making the film by constantly flashing back to them when they were young. And I really wanted to avoid that, because I felt like these characters are really interesting in their own right, and they're probably a lot more interesting now than they were when they were 20 or 30. So I wanted all the memories and flashbacks to be incredibly subjective and impressionistic. I guess I also feel like with this kind of film—it's supposed to be about a disease, but I feel like we somehow have decided that onscreen, when people hit 55 or 60, they become sort of sexless, and less vibrant and complicated. I wanted to embrace the idea that that is not my experience of older people, anyway.
AVC: In a broader sense, was there any particular film style or directorial style that informed your work?
SP: I'm sure I've been learning something, but I don't know if I can consciously say what's influenced me. I was conscious of not trying to imitate, because I feel like we've entered into this culture, especially with first-time filmmakers, where you feel this need to constantly reference other films. I wanted to avoid that as much as I could. At the same time, I think that if there's a filmmaker you love, they inevitably do affect you, and do influence the direction that you go in.
I don't know who actually influenced me in terms of this film. I have no idea. But the filmmakers that I love would be Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski. And I think the filmmakers that have been the most supportive of me and there for me as I've tried to make my own films would be Atom Egoyan and Wim Wenders. I'm sure they've had a big influence in many ways.
AVC: You're a young woman, making a film about end-of-life issues and old age. Have people questioned your credibility, or whether you have the perspective to make this film?
SP: No. I feel like people have been curious about it, which makes sense, because it's probably an unusual choice. To be honest, in the entire course of making the film, it never really occurred to me that it was strange that I was making a film about older people, until the film came out and people were interested in how I came to be interested in the subject. But for me, it was just such a compelling story, and I felt like I had so much to learn from it. I think probably because I'm younger, and at the beginning of a relationship, it was really interesting to think about what a marriage looked like after 44 years, and what love looked like after a lifetime. I did feel like I had a pretty good backup in terms of the insights of Alice Munro, as well as all these actors who were in that age range. So I felt like I had a lot of support in gaining that insight, or taking some of theirs.
AVC: Why the decision to make the film achronological?
SP: I guess a couple of reasons. One, I liked the idea of the structure of film mimicking the fragmentation of memory, and having that sense of having to put things together. And I also felt like the film needed a kind of tension. It's very much a character-driven piece. I felt like we needed momentum, a sense that we were in fact going somewhere, and that it was somewhere very unexpected. So I feel like the tension came from the idea, "How is he going to get there?" as opposed to "Where is he gonna go?" That was probably more realistic for this kind of story. I felt like it was important to keep us moving.
AVC: What's it like being a young director working with actors that are so much older than you? Were you intimidated at all?
SP: I did at first, yeah, because they're people I look up to so much, and have so much respect for. But they made it very easy for me to actually be the director, and to not be worried about taking on that role.
AVC: Does knowing them personally or professionally from past films make it easier? Or is it harder to crack the whip on people you've been on an equal basis with as an actor?
SP: I think it makes it a lot easier, actually. I felt an enormous amount of support from them, and also a kind of nurturing. I think Julie and Olympia were quite happy for me that I was taking on this role, and were incredibly supportive in a personal way that was always a professional way.
AVC: What has working as an actor taught you about directing actors?
SP: I think what I've learned most from being an actress is that there's no method, you know? That you have to invent this process over and over and over again, depending on who you're working with and what you're doing. To me, the important thing with each actor was to develop a language with them that was specific and unique to our relationship. So it was like learning five or six different languages in a very short space of time, which was challenging, but also really interesting.
AVC: Are there mistakes that directors have made with you in the past that you'd never make, having had that experience?
SP: I think I've been pretty lucky—I haven't worked with anyone really atrocious. But I've always felt it's much more helpful for people to tell me what they want, as opposed to what they don't want. And when they're concise and clear when they give direction. But other than that, I just feel like it's about communicating with other human beings, and that's as individual and unique as you are, so it's something that I don't know if you can necessarily teach or imitate. It's something you have to fully discover for yourself.
AVC: Do you think directors would be better off having to work as actors first, to see what it's like?
SP: I don't know. Maybe. Although some of the directors that I've worked with… I sort of think everything works, you know? I'm one of those people that thinks nothing is really wrong, that you can't really make any big mistakes as a director. It's sort of about who you are. So I know directors that break all the rules of what you're supposed to be to be sensitive to actors, and it all seems to work somehow… very interesting filmmakers.
AVC: What film has been closest to your ideal experience as an actor?
SP: I loved making My Life Without Me. I loved making The Sweet Hereafter. I feel like I disappeared into both of those projects, and it was just joyful from beginning to end. Such a rich and deep and intense experience.
AVC: Do you think that has more to do with how the director approached things, or the content of the film, or the role, or some combination of things?
SP: I think it's probably a combination, but I think the filmmaker is pretty pivotal in setting the tone and creating an environment for people to work in.
AVC: Before this feature, you directed a series of short films. How did that first come about?
SP: I had an idea for a short film when I was 20. I'd always wanted to write, but I never thought I would write films, until I had an idea for a short film script and wrote it. And after I wrote it, I thought, "Well, I might as well make it." I never considered making a film before that, but I just really fell in love with the process through doing it.
AVC: There isn't much of an outlet for short films, apart from the occasional festival. Was "Why make this?" ever a question?
SP: It's funny, I've always been such a fan of short films—in fact, I never considered that I would actually make a feature. I just thought I wanted to make shorts for the rest of my life. They are a lot harder to have shown and a lot harder to find and see as an audience, but I don't know. It's just a form that I really love. I was just making them for the process, but ultimately, I did get them into festivals, and they did end up on television, and they had as much of a life as short films can.
AVC: Did the short films teach you things you needed to know for your feature debut?
SP: I think they taught me how little I knew, and I was grateful to find that out in the shorts rather than in my first feature. I was able to practice a lot of stuff, especially visually. I really got a chance to find my feet. When I was 20, I was just stunned that I really didn't know about editing, how things cut together. I'd thought I had a sense of how things were done, but the actual doing of it was just a completely different way of thinking.
AVC: What was the biggest surprise in moving to a feature from shorts?
SP: The endurance, and the amount of strength and stamina you need to make a feature. I was really amazed. But it was also a great experience to find out I could handle it. It was more than I thought I could handle, and then in fact it was fine, and I loved it.
AVC: Did anyone in the film industry help out or teach you?
SP: Well, I made a couple of shorts, and then I went to the Canadian Film Center, which is like a yearlong director's lab. And I've always sought the advice and the input of people I know, so that's been a big part of my education.
AVC: Do you want to continue your acting career, or are you leaning more toward writing and directing?
SP: I'd like to do both. I mean, right now I'm obviously more focused on writing and directing. It's so new and so thrilling. But I would ultimately really like to do both equally.
AVC: Could you imagine directing yourself in a film?
SP: I don't think so. I think that I get different kinds of joy out of both things, and it's sort of necessary to just be doing one and focusing on that. I'm in awe of anyone who tries to be an actor-director, so I couldn't really see that.
AVC: There's a tradition of actor-directors, from Orson Welles to Gary Oldman, taking acting jobs they don't love in order to fund their own movies. Could you see yourself doing that?
SP: I mean, it makes a lot of sense to me. I'm not sure, I haven't really gotten there yet. But I'm hoping I'll be able to get my films financed here in Canada with public money. If that becomes difficult, I don't know. I can see making that decision, but for me, that decision isn't there yet.
AVC: What's the difference for you between the joy of acting and the joy of directing?
SP: As an actor, I love the lack of control and the sense of really becoming a part of someone else's idea and vision of the world, and finding out how to serve that. And as a director, I love that sense of intense collaboration that comes when you're deciding how to shoot or edit something, and working with actors. And also that sense of the writer and director really being able to express something that you feel very deeply, and very directly.
AVC: You tend to take a lot of very quiet, serious, intense roles. Do you think of there being a "Sarah Polley role"?
SP: No. I mean, I am aware that I've generally been more attracted to introspective roles, but it's sort of bizarre, because it's the opposite of who I am in many ways. I think I'm quite an extroverted, loud person. So it interests me that that's sort of the place that I go all quiet, is when I'm onscreen. It's a bit strange.
AVC: What's the primary thing that determines whether you take a given role?
SP: For me now, it's the filmmaker. For me now, I'm just interested in working with filmmakers where I feel like they have a unique and interesting thing that they want to express.
AVC: You say "now." Has it changed over time?
SP: I think it used to be more about the character and about the script. And I feel like the more I work on films and watch films, the more I feel like you can make a great film from a terrible script, and you can make a terrible film from a great script. So it's starting to become more and more clear to me that this is really a filmmaker's medium.
AVC: Do you have an example of either of those? A terrible film from a great script or a great film from a terrible script?
SP: I do, but I can't say what they were, because I was in the films.
AVC: Not be too obvious about this transition, but how did you get involved in the Dawn Of The Dead remake? It's not at all like most of your projects.
SP: When I first heard about it, I was interested because I love George Romero, and I love that original film. And yet I was skeptical about doing something in that kind of realm. And then I met with the director, Zack Snyder, and the producer, Eric Newman, and I thought they were really interesting, funny guys. And I thought it would be a really interesting thing to work on. It was definitely an aberration, but it was a really fun one.
AVC: Do you tend to watch those big, commercial Hollywood films yourself?
SP: Not a ton. I think I probably go through one or two each year in a theater. Ideally, I would just like to be in films that I would actually pay money to go see. So if I would go and see one big commercial film out of 20 films, I figure why not be in one commercial film out of 20 films that I'm in?
AVC: Could you ever see yourself directing a film of that scale?
SP: I don't think so. I don't think so. I think that Zack is incredibly collaborative and able to hear a lot of opinions, and still keep his focus. And I don't know—I think it would be very, very hard for me to give up the kind of creative freedom and autonomy that you have making smaller independent films.
AVC: What was making the film like for you, compared to your usual project?
SP: I mean, it was hilarious. Just the glut of watching a Hollywood film getting made was hysterical, especially when you come from independent film. I remember Zack taking his sweet time between a scene being finished and saying "Cut," or even between the slate banging and him saying "Action." I could just hear the film rolling through the magazine, and I'd think, "Oh my God, I could make three features just from the wasted film here." [Laughs.] It was kind of unbelievable, and it was really, really fun. I have to say it was a really great experience.
AVC: You said in interviews at the time that one of the reasons you were interested in Dawn Of The Dead was because the script was so political. You actually characterized it as more political than Romero's original film. Did you see that carried out in the final product?
SP: It was not as political as I thought it was going to be, that's for sure. I thought there were still elements of that in there, which I was really pleased to see, but did I think it was as political as George Romero's version? No, absolutely not.
AVC: How did you feel about the finished film?
SP: I kind of loved it, actually. I think it's a pretty great zombie movie. Politics or no politics, I thought it was pretty fun to watch. You know, obviously I would always want everything to be more political.
AVC: Your roles and your political activism seem to indicate a highly developed sense of responsibility, a desire to use your celebrity for good. Is that an off-base assessment?
SP: No, I guess it's a sense of not wanting to waste time, and not do things for the wrong reason. As far as roles go, I feel like my sense of identity is sort of tenuous enough that spending four or five months of my time doing something I don't believe in really threatens that. And I'm lucky enough right now that I can stick to films I believe in and still be okay, so I don't know why I would change that. You know, unless it was for survival.
AVC: You've been actively involved in politics for a long time. But you've been characterized recently as scaling back your public involvement. Is there a reason for that?
SP: Yeah, it's so funny that it gets written about that way, because the whole time I was a full-time actress as a teenager, I would still get involved politically on campaigns. Really, the only reason I haven't been really involved in the last couple of years has been because of Away From Her. It's just taken up my entire life. But it's so funny how people, especially in Canada, I've noticed, really feel the need to write about how I've mellowed politically. Like that's just the normal trajectory of getting older, how your politics soften. And that's not actually how I feel at all. In fact, I probably feel angrier and more committed than I did before. It's really strange to read that sometimes. "She's really softened her politics."
AVC: Well, what issue are you most caught up in right now? What would you most want people to know about and take action on?
SP: To be honest with you, because I haven't been involved in the last two years, I feel ineloquent to talk about it. As a political activist, I've never been comfortable or particularly good at being a spokesperson. I loved organizing, I feel like that's where my skill-set is, and that's what I like doing, but I think I'm a terrible spokesperson. So I guess I've always been uncomfortable with combining what I'm doing in the public eye with my politics, not because I'm worried about talking about it, but just because I always feel like there are people so much better equipped and smarter about these issues than I am, and I work with them, and it feels so wrong for me to be the spokesperson.
AVC: Do you have a particular accomplishment that you're proudest of from your career in political activism?
SP: There were some great years around when Mike Harris was the conservative premier of Ontario. In the first four years of his horrible eight-year reign, welfare rates were chopped away, arts funding was chopped away, evictions came in by the thousands because people couldn't afford their rent any more. It was just an absolute nightmare. But in those years, this place was so volatile politically, I feel like we did a lot of really interesting stuff with direct action around that on behalf of the homeless, and around issues of poverty. And it was really brazen, crazy direct action, and I think it was really, really smart and effective, and I was really happy to be part of that.
AVC: Do you mix your careers? Do you try to get other people in the film industry politically involved?
SP: Every now and then—it depends if I'm on a campaign, I can't be invasive. There was an incident at a hotel in Toronto where the hotel was mistreating its staff incredibly, and it was during the film festival, and we started campaigning to make sure that nobody stayed at that hotel, and that people from the film community all over the world wrote letters. And that seemed to be quite effective. So if there's a point to it like that, then yeah, I tend to try to get people involved.
AVC: You've been in the industry since you were 5 years old. What do you remember about the earliest days?
SP: I don't remember much about the really early stuff. I remember stuff later on as a kid probably around 8 or 9, and I don't remember it as altogether positive experiences, that's for sure.
AVC: Was there a transition period where you wanted to stop acting altogether?
SP: Yeah, there were a few years as a teenager where I completely stopped, and I just dedicated myself to politics and political work, and was not interested in ever coming back to acting. And then I came back through Atom, and he gave me the script for The Sweet Hereafter. It had been a really long time, and I thought, "Well, this will be a break from what I'm doing now." And then it ended up being something that I really wanted to continue doing. I think the moment I actually decided I wanted to do this with my life was after working with Atom Egoyan. I really wasn't interested in doing it long-term until then. So I kind of fell in love with it pretty late for somebody who's been doing it for so long. It was just him and the project. It was feeling like film could be an interesting, worthwhile thing to do with your life, as opposed to this superficial, meaningless occupation.
AVC: What motivated him to send you a script after you had left acting behind?
SP: We worked together briefly on Exotica before, so he had been writing this, and thinking of me when he was writing it.
AVC: Some of the articles about your career use some aggressive language about your break with Disney over Road To Avonlea.
SP: Yeah, which is hugely exaggerated.
AVC: Do you think about it in strong terms? They call it a "feud" or a "falling-out."
SP: Yeah, there wasn't anything like that. I wanted to be off the show because I wanted to be in school with my friends, and I didn't particularly want to be acting. And there was an incident where I wore a peace symbol to this press conference, and I was called later and told not to make political statements. So it was kind of gross behavior on their part, but I don't think they went as far as blacklisting an 11-year-old.
AVC: Did you feel like your behavior was constrained by the fact that you were growing up in the public eye?
SP: I didn't, because I was always encouraged by my parents to be sort of a shit-disturber. That was the way you got brownie points in our family, was by being as rebellious as possible, so I never felt that pressure, even if it existed.
AVC: You got some attention a few years ago with your letter to the Toronto Star about Terry Gilliam and your experiences as a child actor on Baron Munchausen. What were you hoping to accomplish?
SP: It was a response to a piece that had been written the week before about child actors, where I felt like there were a lot of assumptions being made, and I found it kind of disturbing. So I thought it was important to show another perspective on the idea of kids working in film.
AVC: Were you satisfied with the results?
SP: Yeah, very much so.
AVC: Do you think it will change anything? Either in terms of Terry Gilliam, or in terms of the industry?
SP: I don't think that piece alone, no, but I found that I got a lot of e-mails from mothers of kids in film, and agents who work with kids in film, and filmmakers who felt it made them think about the issue in a slightly different way. I don't think one article does anything, but I think it's important to engage in a dialogue about things you know about and you have experience of.
AVC: Was the response basically positive?
SP: The only responses I got were positive, yeah.
AVC: There did seem to be some backlash online.
SP: Yeah, I guess I didn't see any of that. I think that's sort of strange. I would say that you can't really argue with someone's experience with their own life. I can't see how someone could have a negative impression about someone talking about what happened to them as a kid. It's odd.
AVC: How do you feel about your current level of fame? Do you see yourself as a cult icon?
SP: No, I don't think so. I don't think of myself as particularly famous at all, actually. I think that I'm a working actor, so there are people who pay a lot of attention to film and know who I am, but I don't think it reaches much beyond that.