The Canadian behind one of the year's most fascinating films talks family, career, and her admiration for Australian women.
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20 Sep 2013 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2013 - 1:43 PM

She's unassuming and quietly spoken, yet Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley is a powerhouse of talent. The accomplished, willowy 34-year-old beauty, who has been compared to Uma Thurman in her looks, first acted at the age of four in the Disney film One Magic Christmas. She then became a household name, dubbed Canada's sweetheart, because of her role in the television series Road to Avonlea, which was picked up by Disney for the US.

Like her fellow countryman Ryan Gosling (who says he was kicked out of the Mickey Mouse Club for rebellious behaviour), a 12-year-old Polley fell foul with Disney after wearing a peace sign at an awards ceremony. Turning her back on child stardom, she left Road to Avonlea at age 14 and devoted herself to the progressive New Democratic Party. In 1995, aged 16, she lost two back teeth after being struck by a riot police officer during a protest against Mike Harris' Provincial Progressive government. Having scaled down her political activism in recent years, she remains a committed socialist.

When she returned to acting she focused on independent films, in fact not unlike Gosling. She first appearing in Atom Egoyan's Exotica, though it was in the Canadian director's Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter that Polley became internationally known. She went on to make two films with Catalan director Isabel Croixet and was exceptional as a terminally ill mother in My Life without Me, while she co-starred with Julie Christie in The Secret Life of Words. Apart from appearing in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a child, she has only hit the mainstream once, taking on zombies with great gusto in Zac Snyder's directing debut, Dawn of the Dead.

With 2006's Away From Her, Polley demonstrated she was accomplished behind the camera as well. She managed to lure Christie from semi-retirement to play a woman with Alzheimer's in the poignant, gut-wrenching drama, for which she was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. With her second directing effort, 2011's Take This Waltz, she again had a woman as her focus and cast Michelle Williams as a wife disillusioned by her seemingly perfect marriage to a totally lovable and loyal Seth Rogen.

Nobody would have expected that the protagonist of her new film, Stories We Tell, would be herself, and to an extent, her mother. Yet the fiercely private Canadian lays her life bare, while adding some highly innovated techniques to the documentary form.

I have spoken to Polley for almost all of her films and like an old friend she asks me regarding my family and my mother's dementia. She truly cares. Possibly this is the reason she can create such an emotional impact in her movies.

For all who have seen it, Stories We Tell marks one of the most engrossing movie-going experiences of the past year. Yet for maximum impact, it's best viewed before reading reviews, or even this interview. When we sat down for a chat over a cup of tea during the Sundance Film Festival, Polley was planning on travelling to Australia for the Sydney Film Festival. Sadly, that didn't happen.

Polley, whose mother died when she was 11, gave birth to her first child, daughter Eve in March 2012, after marrying David Sandomierski in August 2011. Previously, she had been married to longtime partner, David Wharnsby, who had edited and collaborated on her films. They parted amicably. Even if she says that Take This Waltz was not autobiographical, there are some parallels to her own life.

Everyone loves Stories We Tell.

Oh, thank you.

It's hard to write about because you can't give too much away.

I know, it's hard.

It's about your family so maybe you were nervous talking about the film when it world premiered in Venice, so gave no interviews. Can you talk about that and how it's changed as it's rolled out?

It wasn't that I was nervous at all. I really wanted people for the first time to write about the film itself, otherwise the sensational and personal soap opera-ish nature of this story and the self-indulgent nature of the story would completely take over. I spent five years working on this film in order for it to be the way the story was told. So the idea of doing a whole bunch of interviews before people saw the film seemed to completely sabotage what I had spent five years of my life working towards. I wanted to make sure that I was talking about it in context and give a bit of time for at least people who were going to be writing about it to have seen it before they were reading about it. So it's been a really amazing experience because now the film has been alive and out there enough that people had their experience of it and it's a total pleasure to talk about.

You are the youngest of five children. You brother Johnny, who is in the film and is running around here, seems to have really gotten into the spirit of things.

Yes. I feel certainly he has been along for the ride for some of it, which has been really fantastic. A lot of my family have been really supportive and have come out to a lot of the screenings and it's been such a joy to experience it with them.

It must have brought you closer to Johnny because in some ways you didn't spend a lot of time with him growing up.

It has been a really awesome bonding experience and also for us to deal with the reactions to the film on all sides of the spectrum. It's been such an interesting process doing it together.

How is your father (Michael Polley) feeling about it?

For my dad, who raised me, I think he's had a really interesting experience. It's brought up a lot of conversations with him with people from his past and with friends and family, so I think it's been good for him. For me, the really exciting thing that came out of the whole story was that he did what my mum always wanted to do, which was write, and he's a brilliant writer. So that's been great.

How did you decide how much extra footage you needed from the Canadian actress Rebecca Jenkins playing your mum, and from other actors?

It was tricky to figure that out because we had so much archival footage. We decided to make the film with the interviews and the archival footage then we went about filling in any gaps. In the end, 40 percent of it is real. We tried to create a situation in which the audience would experience the same thing I experienced when I was talking to people and asking questions about the story and I was constantly wondering what was real and what was false, what was just remembered and what actually happened. That was hard to pick apart at times. I wanted to give the audience that same experience.

You were 11 when your mother died. How did that affect you?

It's really hard to gauge how something that's of such a huge scale has affected you personally. But it's been an amazing experience to watch people get to know her as a character and whether that character is actually who she was or not, who knows? I think people are so many things and certainly the film doesn't capture all the things she was. She was also a really accomplished person, a professional, and the film doesn't even touch on that. It's all about her relationship to the men in her life and her children and she was more than that. So it's strange because you create a version of a person for the purposes of a story that isn't all of who they are, but it's been interesting watching people respond to her and talk about her as though she's a living being.

I didn't realise that she was so accomplished.

She was a casting director for many years and then she produced The Kids in The Hall, their first TV show, she sort of discovered them. She was an actress, she was on a TV series and she was an incredible champion and supporter of artists. There are so many brilliant Canadian actors and comedians that she discovered and championed. She was extremely good at her work and she trained my brother Johnny, who is now the casting director on all of my films. So I am sort of working with her protégé and I can see how whenever I worked with anyone else there is a certain magic that he brings that I know comes from my mother.

It helps that your family are all good looking!

(Laughs) Someone told me they saw the film for the first time without sound, leaning over someone's shoulder on Air Canada. They said the film has this incredible twist, which is that Sarah Polley grew up with two incredibly hot brothers!

You have never been to Australia, yet you say you really want to go. What is your image of our country?

Honestly, I am into Australian women! Because every single Australian woman I have met has so much balls and is so candid and so strong. I just feel like feminism has a totally different meaning in Australia so I am totally excited about it and also since Julia Gillard's speech [about sexism and misogyny in the parliament] changed my life. I was like, “Okay, we are done, we are done with the bullshit. I am going to call out anything I find offensive now. I am not going to apologise for it.” It's amazing what she did for a generation of women, who watched that speech. It was just brilliant.

She is probably going to be voted out… (Little did I know at the time.) Do you ever want to direct a big budget movie?

I am having an amazing time. I am getting to make exactly the films I want to make and have total creative control and my life couldn't be better. I think if I had more money and more fame my life would be greatly diminished. So this is perfect for me.

And you don't want to get in front of the camera again?

I think I would occasionally with directors I really trust and admire, but I don't have a career ambition about it anymore. I would definitely love to work on films that inspire me and that I can learn from and grow as an actor, but I am not actively always seeking work.

How do you handle it with your child? I assume you will have a second?

Who knows? I don't know. Right now my priority is certainly being with my daughter so that also makes your career go a little bit slower and that's fine with me.

Why are you attracted to relationship dramas?

In a strange way, I look at Away From Her and Take That Waltz and they seem to me like echoes of this film as though this was the film that was behind those films. So now I have finally made that film I almost think of it as having gone into the cave and made a film about the actual figures instead of the shadows they were casting, which I was doing before. The next thing I am doing is I am adopting a book by Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace, and it's a complete departure from these films, which will be really interesting. I think I can kind of discover myself anew as a filmmaker.

How is it for you in Canada since this film? Has it been invasive?

Mostly people come up to me to share their own family histories and I love that, because I feel like with this film, people are watching my family but thinking about their own. So for me the joy has been getting to hear other people's family histories and how it's made them think about or talk about their own families.

How did you convince your siblings to do it?

No one said no, I was shocked. I think some of them were nervous about it but everybody signed on as soon as I said what I was doing. I think they wanted to support this process for me and do something as a family. There is something about creating a piece of work together that was about us that was really exciting.

How did you decide the form of it?

It was an evolving, changing thing. I began just by doing interviews with my father and my biological father [Harry Gulkin] and then I started interviewing my siblings and it kept mushrooming out until it became bigger and bigger and then I realised I had to work on ways to make it cinematic.

Have your siblings met Harry? (She is the youngest of five children.)

I think they met once briefly and it was very cordial and fine but there hasn't been a lot of interaction or anything.

And your father who raised you?

I think my dad has been extraordinarily mature and elegant about this whole thing. When he met Harry for the first time, the first thing he did was shook his hand and put his arm around him and said, “Thank you for giving me one of the greatest gifts of my life with Sarah.” It's not a reaction a lot of men would have. He's a pretty emotionally evolved person in many ways.

It makes you appreciate him more doesn't it?

Yeah, I think it definitely brought us closer and it definitely made me grateful to have grown up with him. It wasn't perfect; every parent has flaws. But I feel like there is something so accepting about my dad, who has been unconditionally supportive since I was a little kid.

To meet your biological father must have been amazing to see. Did it raise the argument of nature versus nurture?

Yeah. But it doesn't settle anything. What's so interesting is I can make an argument for both. I could say, well, Harry is a film producer and interested in adopting Canadian literary works to the screen and he was a communist and so that's maybe genetically why I am who I am. Then I look at my dad who is an actor and he was an anarchist and he filled the house with books and movies and discussions about politics and maybe that's why. I don't think you can pick it apart, I don't think I can ever actually say which had more influence. My sense is it's probably nurture. Oddly, I think the more I have looked at this, the more I think that my family who I grew up with has made me who I am or have informed that.

In Canada you are so well known. Do you find it easy to get finances for something like this?

For this film it was great because it was all through the National Film Board (of Canada). It was kind of one-stop shopping in terms of funding and they were so invested and had so much faith in the creative process. I am so grateful for that because I think it would have been difficult everywhere else. I couldn't describe what I was making. I feel like if I had made it anywhere else I would have stopped, because it was so hard and so crazy to make a film, which exposes yourself in this way. It just felt like such a dumb thing to be doing, but I felt like, “Well, they have so much faith in me and put all this money into it, so I have to keep going”. I really credit that organisation with the film getting made.

What were the crazy things that were the impediments that made you stop and think you might not finish?

Well, nobody wants to think about their family for, like, 13 hours a day, every day for five years. It's nuts. It's all well and good to go through therapy and analyse these things, but you don't need to stick your nose deep into it every single day. It was exhausting and totally claustrophobic. I just wanted to escape it all the time and I didn't know why I'd created this prison for myself. But when it was done it was by far the most rewarding thing I had ever done and in terms of conversations I get to have with people about it, what I learned about other people's families, it's like I don't know if I will ever make a film where I will have such joy in sharing it with other people and getting to hear their responses. So it was absolutely worth it, but you would not have been able to convince me of that while I was making it.

Did your ex-husband work on the film? He's thanked in the credits.

He didn't, but he watches cuts of everything I do and gives notes and is really helpful.

You really have a great family in the end. All these very different people get along. It's quite idealistic.

It really is. I am really, really lucky. It's a really modern family that shouldn't work; it's like lots of marriages, and divorces and deaths and fractured circumstances. Yet somehow there is this real warmth that runs through us all and I think that comes from my mother who is just an incredibly warm, vibrant person.

What is your most prominent memory of her?

I think it's probably something I can't put into words, but it's probably what's captured in the film. Something of her spirit that's in the film is probably what my memory is in some way.

Stories We Tell is released in cinema nationally on September 26.