The Fresh Young Filmmaker and Her Scenes From a Long Marriage

Former child actress Sarah Polley directed
Former child actress Sarah Polley directed "Away From Her." (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 6, 2007

The 28-year-old actress Sarah Polley has had a more varied and iconoclastic career than many people twice her age. A child star in Canada, she escaped the trap of adorableness in her teens by becoming a die-hard left-wing activist. The lissome blonde then chose to walk away from a Hollywood ready to anoint her the next It Girl and instead has remained in her native country and focused on working with directors whose work intrigues her -- from Michael Winterbottom to Wim Wenders.

And now Polley has defied expectation again by transforming herself into a film director to watch, taking on subject matter one might not expect from a 20-something. Her first feature, "Away From Her," was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and opens in Washington on Friday. "Polley makes a miraculous debut as director and screenwriter," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.

Polley's screenplay is based on an Alice Munro short story and explores a long-term marriage threatened by Alzheimer's disease. "Away From Her" stars Gordon Pinsent and the legendary Julie Christie. "Instead of being a film just about illness, this becomes a film about the true nature of love," says Noah Cowan, co-director of the Toronto festival.

You might recognize Polley as the little sprite from the fantastical "Adventures of Baron Munchausen" or from her half-dozen years on the Disney Channel's "Road to Avonlea." (After that series, in her mid-teens, Polley left acting for a while and threw herself into political activism, famously losing a couple of teeth to riot police during a rally in Toronto.)

As a young woman, she is an actress of many facets -- by turns alluring and cool in "Guinevere" and "Go," heart-rending and girl-next-door in "My Life Without Me." Although she mostly chooses independent films, she was featured in the 2004 zombie remake "Dawn of the Dead." But her signature role after all these years remains Nicole, the young woman crippled in a school bus accident in "The Sweet Hereafter," the critically acclaimed film by Atom Egoyan. "Sarah has a kind of piercing intelligence, and a sense of unsettling calm, that left a really strong impression on me," says Egoyan, who executive-produced "Away From Her."

In Polley's film, Grant (Pinsent) and Fiona (Christie) are a happily married older couple living in rural Canada. There are hints of Grant's past infidelity, but the two have struck a delicate harmony. Little by little, however, Fiona is losing her memory. She decides to commit herself to a nursing home while she still has her faculties, to spare her husband having to take care of her. But when Grant comes to visit her after a mandatory initial month of separation, Fiona seems no longer to know who he is. Worse, she has transferred her affections to another resident of the home. Forced to watch the woman he loves deny their past, Grant must try both to break into Fiona's shell and to accept her as she is now.

So why did a 28-year-old choose to write a screenplay about a mature marriage threatened by illness? "I haven't had an intense experience of Alzheimer's firsthand," Polley says during a recent interview, settling into a chair in the lobby of New York's Mercer Hotel and ordering a mint tea.

But she says she was strongly drawn to the subject matter of the Munro story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," on which her screenplay is based: "It's completely fascinating to me, as someone who has just gotten married myself." (Polley's husband, film editor David Wharnsby, worked on "Away From Her.") She continues, "We keep seeing movies about the beginnings of love, but I don't find the love that occurs between two people who don't really know each other very well all that interesting. And yet how interesting it is to speak of a couple who have been together for 45 years -- who have become so painfully aware of each other and who have experienced being failed by the other and have remained together nonetheless."

In the past, Polley was said to dislike interviews, so it's a welcome surprise to find her so open. "The press stuff . . . felt like a charade where I had to play some role so the journalist would have enough to write about. But now, having directed this movie, I've found my place within this process where I can be myself. I don't feel fraudulent talking about my film. I know where it came from. I was alone in a dark room with these ideas for a long time."

The course of becoming a director wasn't always smooth, however. "During my interview for film school [at the Canadian Film Centre], I remember someone on the board, who was himself an actor-turned-director in Canada, saying, 'I guess the big question, Sarah, is whether this is something you're actually serious about, or are you trying this on?' " She laughs caustically at the memory.

"And I thought, 'Wow, clearly he doesn't feel like that about actors, because he is one himself, so this is about being female and an actress.' Thankfully, there have been enough people who have been supportive of my work." She notes nonetheless the disparity between the sexes in the industry: "There aren't that many female filmmakers in their 40s and 50s and 60s, so it's hard for younger women to see themselves in that role."

As Polley began to write the screenplay of "Away From Her," she had Christie in mind from the start to play Fiona. Polley and Christie have acted together twice (in Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing" and Isabel Coixet's "The Secret Life of Words") and had become friends.

"For me, it was really hard to imagine anybody else in the part of Fiona except Julie," says Polley. "Julie's got this ability to be totally present, and yet incredibly ephemeral. She's with you one moment but the next you're chasing her."

Christie is elusive in a literal sense, too. "I'm not, as Sarah put it so beautifully, the most ambitious of actresses," she says in Toronto during the festival, sitting on a sofa with her legs curled under her. "I could see that this was a wonderful script, but it was entering turf that wasn't perhaps where I wanted to be. So I resisted for a long time."

Finally, Christie underwent a change of heart and turned in a performance that has people already talking about an Oscar nomination.

For the role of Grant, Polley chose Pinsent, a veteran Canadian actor she has known for years. And she approached Olympia Dukakis, with whom she had acted as well, to play Marian, the wife of the man who becomes Fiona's new suitor.

"Away From Her" began shooting early last year near Bracebridge, Ontario. "The first few days we were shooting outdoors on a lake and it was minus-30 degrees centigrade," says Daniel Iron, one of the film's producers. "But Sarah was very calm, methodical and collaborative." The frigid climate was essential for the effect that Polley wanted to create: a snowbound, crystalline winter light that sets off emotions in sharp relief.

Since the story is so intense, Polley and her actors were keen to avoid the trap of sentimentality. "Both Sarah and I can't stand sentimentality, because sentimentality is dishonesty," says Christie. "It's not actually looking face-on to whatever it is that life is presenting you with."

Despite the pressures of the shoot, Polley says the experience was euphoric. "Somehow I surrounded myself with all these parental figures -- Olympia and Julie and Gordon -- who were extremely protective of me," she says. "It's interesting for me to wonder, now that I have a little bit of distance, did I need that nurturing to go through this process?"

It's striking that Polley did not seem to need much nurturing when she was younger -- and that perhaps she is only now allowing herself to express her vulnerability. She entered the adult world very young: "I was surrounded by acting and really wanted to do it," she says. Her father is an actor, while her mother, who died when Polley was 11, was an actress and casting director. The youngest of five children, Polley started acting when she was 5 and at 8 was cast in Terry Gilliam's 1988 film, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

In 2005, Polley published in the Toronto Star an exchange of e-mails with Gilliam in which she detailed being put in what she felt were frightening and unsafe situations during the shoot -- being in cold water for long periods of time, temporarily losing her hearing after explosives went off near her. Gilliam responded that he had been unaware at the time of her discomfort and that he felt the conditions were not quite as dire as she remembered. Nonetheless, the trauma, according to Polley, lasted for years. "After that, the idea of doing big Hollywood films was terrifying to me," she says. "It really defined the career path I chose in terms of doing independent films. And, as a director, it's really made me aware of whether people are happy, whether actors feel safe."

Her awareness of other people's welfare has led Polley to her political activism as well, involving issues such as the protection of the homeless and of the Canadian public health-care system. For a period of time in her teens she chose activism over acting and, in fact, might not have returned to the craft if Egoyan had not cast her in "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter." And Polley remains very selective about her roles: She was cast as Penny Lane in "Almost Famous," only to leave the film while it was still in rehearsal. "I think I realized at some point I was not the right person for this part, but I was also not the right person for that life," she says. "I could see the beginnings of getting really, really lost."

Instead, she went back to Canada and began to work on her first short film. "I never would have made a film if I hadn't made that decision," says Polley. "It directly led to everything good in my life -- making films, meeting my husband, meeting people I'm still collaborating with."

Polley says that she plans to keep on acting but that, in the wake of "Away From Her," she has different priorities: "I want to juggle acting and directing from now on. Not that I haven't loved every second of what I've been doing in the last 10 years, but this is something I really had to fight hard for and develop from the ground up. This is how you're supposed to feel in your 20s -- that you're at the beginning of something and there's an infinite amount for you to learn and you're scared and excited." She smiles. "For the first time in my life, I feel exactly my age."


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