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Q&A / Film: Sarah Polley

The indie-film heroine on the perils of growing up in public

Sarah Polley was four years old when she first stepped onto a film set. At nine she won the lead in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), then signed up for a kids TV series that saw her crowned “Canada’s sweetheart” but tied her contractually for longer than she would have liked. By 12, her individuality was starting to assert itself, and she angered Disney by wearing a CND badge at a press conference to protest against the first Gulf war. She left home aged 14 and quit acting altogether to concentrate on political activism, and in 1995 got two teeth knocked out when she was elbowed in the face by riot police. Polley returned to acting for Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and has clocked up critically acclaimed roles in quality indies since with the likes of Hal Hartley, Wim Wenders and David Cronenberg – but turned down Kate Hudson’s role in Almost Famous, preferring to avoid the Hollywood machine. In 2006, aged 27, she made an astonishingly assured debut behind the camera, directing Julie Christie to an Oscar nomination in Away From Her. Her second feature, Take This Waltz (the title borrowed  from a Leonard Cohen song), stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a troubled young couple, with a memorable supporting turn from comedian Sarah Silverman and some stolen baby chicks.

Dazed & Confused: How did the experience of directing Take This Waltz compare with your debut?

Sarah Polley: During my first film I didn’t sleep, I made myself ill. With this film I realised I had the luckiest job in the world. You’re handed all these talented people to play a game of make-believe – it’s a total childish fantasy!

Dazed & Confused: Was there a single image that sparked the idea?

Sarah Polley: Yeah, the image of Michelle (Williams) on a really hot summer day in Toronto, filled with restlessness. At that point I didn’t even know it would be about a relationship, I just wanted to see a character grappling with emptiness, and turn their life inside out to try and solve it.

Dazed & Confused: We’re used to seeing the beginning of relationships or the end of them in films, but not the middle. Is that something you wanted to put on film?

Sarah Polley: Absolutely. We never follow up and say, ‘Well, what happened then?’ What happens to that intensity? And can we live without it?

Some think Michelle’s character is unbelievably self-involved and obnoxious, some can’t believe she doesn’t get out of her relationship with Seth Rogen’s character... I don’t know who’s right or wrong. It’s just a very messy, human situation

Dazed & Confused: Have you read the reviews? Opinions are very divided on Michelle Williams’ character – they either love her or hate her.

Sarah Polley: That’s been the true pleasure of making the film: how polarised people’s responses are to each character. Some think Michelle’s character is unbelievably self-involved and obnoxious, some can’t believe she doesn’t get out of her relationship with Seth Rogen’s character... I don’t know who’s right or wrong. It’s just a very messy, human situation. People really project the relationship they’re in on to the film. Toronto itself is so important to the film – it feels like your personal tribute to the city. The Scrambler is definitely a personal thing. Basically, my favourite thing in the world is the Scrambler ride in Center Island, it’s pretty scary. I’ll sometimes ask them to play ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ when I ride it. Michelle had to ride it 50 times on the day of shooting, and I was worried she was going to be really sick. But she got obsessed with it too – she was back the next weekend to ride it some more. But yeah, I wanted to show Toronto the way I experience it – I romanticise it to a certain degree, see it as slightly fairytaleish. It’s a huge part of who I am, both as a person and also in the films I want to make.

Dazed & Confused: Did directing two comedians – Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen – affect the way you work?

Sarah Polley: They were completely without ego, which surprised me. I don’t know why I assumed comedians must have egos. Sarah and Seth are used to trying out things, seeing what works, and they couldn’t have been less tortured about their process. Poor Seth plays a chef and he was chopping up chicken for months and months, it was ridiculous. He told me he began having these weird dreams about chopping up his dog. I’ve always been a really big fan of his and I wanted to see him do something dramatic. He was the first person in my brain when I started writing.

Dazed & Confused: There’s a naked shower scene with Sarah Silverman and Michelle Williams – were they  nervous about that, considering they’re high-profile people?

Sarah Polley: They were really nervous. The week before we shot that scene, all these stupid paparazzi were shooting through the windows of the pool, getting photos of them in their swimsuits. I realised how vulnerable they were – so many nasty people, women too, were commenting on their bodies, writing these catty, awful comments. So the morning of the shower scene I said, if you don’t want to do this, it’s fine. But it was funny because it resulted in a weird feminist war. They were like, ‘No! Forget it. We’re doing it, we’re not going to be scared off by this.’ I kept waiting for the penny to drop, for them to see it and regret it, but it never happened. It takes a lot more courage than I would have had.

Dazed & Confused: You didn’t get naked yourself to show solidarity?

Sarah Polley: This is how I know it takes courage: after the scene was lit, I got naked by myself in front of the camera and filmed it, to make sure it was a flattering light. And I was thinking, ‘Nope, I could never, ever do that in a thousand years!’

Dazed & Confused: Does being an actor yourself help you empathise with your cast?

Sarah Polley: Well, if you’re going to have head-to-toe nudity you want actors to have faith in you. The thing about that scene is, it looks really realistic. They’re certainly not glamour shots.

Dazed & Confused: You’ve been acting since you were a child. Was a film set the place you’ve always wanted to be?

Sarah Polley: No! I don’t think I ever wanted to be an actress. I dreamed as a kid to a certain degree and then I stopped liking it – I wanted to be politically active and I wanted to write. Child actors tend to grow up quite quickly, and lose something of their childhood.

Dazed & Confused: Do you have happy memories of acting as a child?

Sarah Polley: I suppose I have a few happy memories. But by and large it wasn’t a great experience for me. I just wanted to be in school!

Dazed & Confused: Why?

Sarah Polley: Well, I was in some not so-great situations as a kid. Some pretty terrifying situations, where I should have been protected better. Sometimes I think my experience was abnormally bad, but when I talk to other former child actors I realise they’re pretty much the standard. Generally on film sets, the adults weren’t particularly well equipped to be around kids.

Dazed & Confused: A lot of child actors experience problems later in life. You seem to have largely avoided those pitfalls though…

Sarah Polley: Pure luck, to be honest. There were a few moments where I could have easily gone completely off the rails. There was a gap between Road to Avonlea, this TV series I was in as a kid, and getting cast in the Atom Egoyan film The Sweet Hereafter, which was pretty fluky. If that hadn’t happened, I really don’t know what I would’ve done with myself, whether the rest of my life would have felt like some huge anticlimax – that’s certainly what happened to a lot of people I know. Most former child actors have incredibly conflicted feelings about it, if not outright negative feelings.

Dazed & Confused: Do you blame the parents?

Sarah Polley: What’s bewildering to me is, I get asked by parents about their kids going into film – and when I suggest that it was anything but positive, you see their eyes glaze over. They’re not interested in hearing the truth. Their response is always, ‘But my child wants to do this.’ But kids want to be firemen, doctors, acrobats, a lot of things! And generally the rule is, you go through school and then you join the world of adults and decide. It’s not like, ‘Well, let’s do it now, because you want to and I can’t say no.’

Dazed & Confused: You were pretty headstrong as a kid. Were you rebelling against that environment?

Sarah Polley: My parents were really good at not congratulating me too much for being nice. ‘Nice’ was not thought of as the goal. They were supportive of me having an opinion and saying the controversial thing, being a shit-disturber. Right from when I was in elementary school, where I would stand up to a teacher. They didn’t encourage brattiness, but they definitely encouraged strength and integrity. I think those are qualities that are really undervalued by parents.

Dazed & Confused: What’s next for you, acting or directing?

Sarah Polley: Both – I’m adapting Alias Grace, a novel by Margaret Atwood about a double murder, based on a truelife  story. Andthere’s a Wim Wenders project I’m acting in. I’ll always be more focused on directing, but I want to continue acting with directors I admire. I sleep a lot better when I’m acting!

Dazed & Confused: Once a film is wrapped, do you find it easy to let it go?

Sarah Polley: (laughs) I get excited about telling new stories – I don’t think I’m that tortured a filmmaker.

Dazed & Confused: So, films aren’t like relationships?

Sarah Polley: No – they’re much easier to leave!

Photography by Seth Fulker