When Sarah Polley At the age of four, she played the Python song “Sit on My Face” in a Christian kindergarten class. “I love hearing you dictate/When you’re between my thighs…” she tweeted, to the delight of her liberal parents, who denied all responsibility when they were asked to by the school.
At the age of eight, at the instigation of her superfan father, she auditioned for a new fantasy adventure film by Pythons. Terry GilliamShe’s already a veteran of one of the few horror films she’s too young to watch, but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is something else: an absurd riot of special effects that she’s often seen in Weeping in the arms of the parents. Forced to run across the battlefield surrounded by explosions, with only a few cotton balls to protect her tiny ears. Gilliam has always insisted she has a safe set, but the experience is one of the reasons she’s so adamant about her three children becoming child stars, even though both of her are already keen, and she relented during filming . Her latest films, because having them as extras is the only way she can get them on set under strict Covid regulations.
Today, Polly is best known as a director and screenwriter, with credits including an autobiographical documentary, “The Story We Tell,” listed as one of the 100 best films of the century. BBC critic poll, and her Netflix series Alias Grace, which she adapted and produced. Her latest project is Women Talk.Based on a novel Miriam Tos On the impact of sexual abuse in a small Mennonite community, it has a top-notch cast including Francis McDormand, Ben Whishaw and Claire Foy. She is currently busy in the final sprint of post-production promoting her first book, Women Talking. It was nine in the morning when we talked, and the shutters of her Toronto home were still down in the bright morning sun. On her wrist, her kids made her a candy-colored plastic bead bracelet. “Oh yes, it was on me this morning. Here…” she said, holding it up close to the screen. “It’s for the color. It says they love me, which means I’m a great mother. So you can include it.”
Her book is “Towards Danger: The Confrontation with Memory.” It gets its name from the counterintuitive advice her doctor gave when battling the long-term effects of a severe concussion: Don’t avoid symptoms-triggering activities because you have to train your brain to live with them. Consisting of a series of essays, it’s a situational memoir about an actor, director, and human life unlike any I’ve read: it deals with childhood bereavement, extreme stage fright, pregnancy and premature birth Crisis, and the abusive industry in showbiz, is a candid and informed account of the physical and mental damage Polly has endured and overcame during her 43 years on Earth. It’s a conversation between two very different time frames in her life, she writes: “Past and present have been in dialogue, influencing each other in a dance of mutual pressure.”
It would be wrong to describe it as an angry book, even though there are plenty of angry moments in it. Take her experience on the set of Baron Munchausen, which included watching Oliver Reed viciously stomping on the feet of 17-year-old Uma Thurman; and being forced to work in dangerous conditions for a ridiculous amount of time, as the film overwhelmed all Budget and deadlines. The chapter is titled Crazy Genius, challenging the fascination with irresponsible creativity. As an adult, when Polly learned that Gilliam was about to cast a child actor in the lead of another film, she sent him an email detailing her trauma. He shrugs, rashly questioning her memory and effectively igniting her. Munchausen’s special effects technician had apologized to her, but her voice was not finally heard until fellow actor Eric Idel defended her. “She was right. She was in danger. Many times,” he said.
However, in a remarkable example of “mutual dancing” between past and present, when we discuss her children are filming for “Women Talk,” she recalls the moment she nearly lost it as a director, slipping into A vivid present tense, she said. “The light is going out. There’s this crane shot. My kids are supposed to be sitting on the haystack with a bunch of other kids and playing. It’s the biggest shot I’ve ever taken in my life, we had five minutes to shoot, and every time we Bring the crane in and the kids in my middle will pull all these faces into the camera,” she said. “There was a moment where I thought if I hadn’t benefited from childhood trauma, I couldn’t have lost my mind to my kids right now. It’s scary for all people (including children) as a filmmaker, and I have an extreme Empathy. It doesn’t say everything is normal or correct, but it’s really complicated when you have 100 people standing together and spending millions of dollars.” The day after the interview, she emailed that until now she It occurred to me that Gilliam never lost patience with her on set. “I think I should admit that to him.”
The most dangerous chapter in the book is, in some ways, the most important chapter about her dealings with Canadian chat show host Jian Ghomeshi, who in 2014 was accused of beating multiple people. women were tried. He has maintained his innocence and was found not guilty. Polly first met him through charity work when she was a child actress, and he was in his 20s. She claims she had abusive sexual contact with him when she was 16 years old. Although not part of the trial, she considered testifying against him. Her children are young, and her husband is a legal scholar, so they have a wide range of lawyer friends to consult. Most advised her not to testify because an interrogation on the witness stand would be damaging to her and her family. “I decided not to come forward,” she wrote. “I have too much information about what to expect…”
Another reason she said she did not testify was because she believed her subsequent actions would mean her evidence would not be believed. “I’m mild-mannered, flirtatious, and almost happy to belittle myself,” she wrote. Gomeshi’s TV interviewin a promotional campaign for her 2011 film Take This Waltz.
Ghomeshi was acquitted at the criminal trial and did not respond to Polley’s allegations (the Guardian reached out to him through his production company, Roqe Media, but received no response). “It’s really easy to be passionate about your language after you’ve had a really bad experience,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to say something publicly, you need to be as accurate as possible, which isn’t always possible in these situations because memory is a slippery, difficult thing. But I’ve had years of Time to think about this.
She had the same forensic examination of her childhood memories. Her mother died when she was 11 – much younger than her siblings – leaving her alone with an overwhelmed father. He neglected basic parenting responsibilities, like making sure she was wearing a much-needed back brace to correct her crooked spine (she didn’t, with serious consequences). At 14, she ran away from home and at 15 moved in with her boyfriend who was four years her senior. But in her documentary “The Story We Tell You”, she portrays her father as a hero who remains steadfast in love for her and her mother despite finding out Sarah was not his biological child. She said that if he was still alive, she could not have exposed the other side, but life is complicated and both portraits are real. The paradox kept surfacing in her mind as her eldest child approached the age when her mother died, and she was examining her own stricter parenting style.
By the time her mother died, she had signed a six-year contract with Disney and became the star of the hit TV show, road to evenley, based on the story of Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery. She has no time to grieve. A year later, she put Walter’s anger on her head when she wore a peace sign necklace that belonged to her mother to an awards ceremony attended by several high-ranking figures involved in waging the first Gulf War. Her contract was terminated and then reinstated. She was finally released early, with a black mark next to her name, only to find herself in a different kind of contract hell: through the mirror and the drama Alice found there, which gave her such a crippling attack that she succumbed to stage fright. At the mercy of a plastic surgeon and escape by undergoing major back surgery.
Although she continued to act in films, she never returned to the stage, turning more and more into directing in her 20s. She made her debut at 28 with Away from Her, a surprisingly mature meditation on living with Alzheimer’s based on Alice Munro’s short story, The short story earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination. Fame, she said, never interested her. Yet in one article, taking a break from an impromptu family vacation when her youngest was just 9 weeks old, she’s back on a promotional tour for Disney’s “I Feel Like a Circus Horse” Painfully, and surprised to find herself a little annoyed that no one knows who she is now. “There’s nothing more humiliating than realizing that some part of you, even if it’s small, wants to be recognized by a bunch of healthy schoolgirls you thought you were hiding from.”
The mutual pressure dance of past and future was turned upside down in 2015, when a fire extinguisher fell on her head while rummaging in a lost and found box, causing a concussion. As she struggles to figure out why the incident affected her so badly, she recalls the harrowing days of being dizzy as a child after being hit in the head while filming a carriage scene for a TV show. Concussions are cumulative, doctors told her. When she asked if she would direct again, he sighed and said, “I think it’s a good goal.”
She did go back: Alias Grace was running out of options, and she was determined not to let it go. She is now symptom-free and has been spending her life making women talk. It didn’t come out until the fall, so she kept having to stop herself from giving up too much. But, ultimately, she says, it’s about forgiveness: “Can you forgive, should you forgive? What does an apology look like? When they’re there, can it heal?”
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more focused on that,” she said, “because I think it’s really important to get involved and speak up about injustice, both individually and in a general context. But I’m now very concerned about what’s going to happen next. Interested too. What are we building? Can it be part of the process of imagining different worlds?”
Sarah Polley’s “Toward Danger” is published June 2.