Famous in Canada, much less known outside it, Sarah Polley is an actress (The Secret Life of Words, The Sweet Hereafter
) known for her unfailing integrity and engaged politicism — she once lost a few teeth protesting her native Ontario’s Conservative government. Her directorial debut Away From Her
, is based on fellow Ontario native Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain
Polley began her acting career at the age of four and then gained national attention as a ten-year-old Sara Stanley in The Road To Avonlea
, a family-friendly period drama based on a Lucy Maud Montgomery story (Anne of Green Gables
) which was one of the most successful Canadian shows ever. After the series got picked up by Disney, Polley left, in part as a reaction to the Americanization of the show. She was 15 at the time. The story being circulated is that she was fired and subsequently blacklisted for refusing to remove a peace symbol at an official Disney function.
Her break as a serious, adult actress came in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter
, in which Polley commands attention as the prematurely embittered lone survivor of a school bus accident. One of those impressed by Polley was Cameron Crowe who was looking to cast his groupie character Penny Lane in Almost Famous
. She initially agreed to appear in what would have been a career-defining role, but for reasons probably baffling to the people who make the pursuit of fame their living, she dropped out of the project. The role of course went to Kate Hudson who has since made a career in feather light rom-coms. Polley returned to Canada and appeared in a series of low-budget Canadian productions, sometimes in very small roles.
In preparing to sit down to talk with her, I came across this foreword written by Polley describing her reaction to the Munro story she read in The New Yorker
that she credits with transforming her notion of relationships:
The Bear Came Over the Mountain
entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn’t understand until years later.
She goes on to describe herself as a foolish 21 year old prone to self-destructive relationships, eventually coming to understand her love for her then boyfriend and current husband:
At some point in the years between reading the story for the first time and optioning the film rights, the weight of my love for my best friend, David, hit me like a Mack truck. I’d like to think this would have happened without my immersion in the world of the story, but I’m not sure it would have happened as clearly or quickly, and I’m not sure he would have waited much longer.
The foreward is a beautiful little piece, written simply, elegantly and with a disarming earnestness. The story it refers in Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over The Mountain
, which, like all great works of literature, sags ever so slightly under the weight of expectations, only to grow in stature with repeated readings. Its narrative, of a man forced to confront the reality of a wife succumbing to Alzheimer’s and his guilt over past infidelities is told with a sort of spare, unsentimental poeticism that comes into gradually sharper relief. Set in rural Ontario, Polley’s film (which she also wrote) captures the understated tones of grief, loss and emotional vulnerability among its middle-class characters.
For Polley, the story’s appearance into her life had an obviously profound effect.
I read it calmly, put it down, and found myself weeping. I read it again — and again. I read it almost every week for several months.
Veteran actor Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie (sporting an effortlessly authentic Southern Ontario accent) embody Grant and Fiona just as I imagined them and the story’s details are filled in right down to the inevitably middle-class porcelain coffee mug holder Munro describes.
She begins by telling me how she came to become a filmmaker: “Atom Egoyan convinced me that making films could be a worthwhile thing to do with your life,” is how she describes the closest thing to a mentor.
"It’s sad to think there was a time when people lined
up around the block to see Bergman movies... and how unimaginable that is now.”
When I ask where she got the self-confidence to write and direct a film at the age of 28, she says, “I don’t think I have been that confident, actually…” After making several shorts and taking a nine-month director’s program at The Canadian Film Center, she says, “I’ve been really cautious.”
She’s gratified by the early critical response to the film and admits to being a big fan of film criticism. “As an actress they’ve been really useful…to have people call you out on your tricks.”
When I ask her about the Disney blacklist, Polley is relived to be able to tell her side of the story.
That’s not true. I’m so glad you tried to clear that with me… you’re like the only person who ever tried to clear this with me, as opposed to just printing it again and again.
It turns out there was no blacklist, but an executive at Disney did in fact speak to an 11-year-old Polley about wearing a peace symbol as a statement against the Gulf war at an official dinner, which she does acknowledge was “creepy.” After leaving the series, her attempts at having a more regular life for a while were derailed by her foray into political activism.
“I didn’t end up having my dream of a normal childhood,” is how she put it. As proudly Canadian as Polley is, she confides that her home country does have something of an inferiority complex: “The culture of total self-loathing,” as she puts it; “If it’s Canadian it’s automatically shit.”
She does seem comfortable with her decision to drop out of Almost Famous
, however, which would have changed her life irrevocably:
“I wasn’t really excited by… the life that the person playing this part was going to have. I wasn’t interested or ready for that.”
It’s hard to imagine Polley playing a groupie or dating numb-skulled celebrities (she is in fact married to her editor on the film, the David mentioned in her foreword to Bear Came Over The Mountain)
. I draw out of her a lament for the mainstream audience’s movie habits which she alludes to in Away From Her’s
“It’s sad to think there was a time when people lined up around the block to see Bergman movies… and how unimaginable that is now.”
Perhaps, but while she may joke about Away From Her
beating out Spiderman
on opening weekend, Polley’s slightly Bergmanesque film is getting rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and suggests a second career that may one day surpass her first.