Looking back at Sarah Polley’s first TIFF triumph

Nearly a quarter century ago, 18-year-old Polley debuted three films at the fest, was politically active and was on the brink of becoming a director herself


We’ve been writing about Sarah Polley in these pages for a long time. It’s sort of hard not to, given the space she’s created for herself on the landscape of Canadian film – first as a magnetic young actor, then as a filmmaker in her own right. She’d hate to be described as an icon, but that’s where she’s ended up.

And she’s put in the work. The TIFF cover story we’re discussing hit the stands in September 1997, almost a quarter of a century ago, when Polley was at her hometown festival with The Sweet Hereafter, The Planet Of Junior Brown and The Hanging Garden. 

The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel about a small town devastated by a schoolbus accident – is the one people still talk about. Polley played Nichole, a teenager who survives the disaster to become the story’s moral centre; she carries the film on her back. But she’s just as solid in the other two films, playing a street kid who befriends the eponymous hero of Clement Virgo’s second feature and the younger version of Kerry Fox’s character in Thom Fitzgerald’s magic-realist study of a young man returning home to confront his past. 

Polley was 18 years old. She’d been working in film (One Magic Christmas, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen) and television (Ramona, Road To Avonlea) since she was four, encouraged by her mother, the talent agent Diane Polley, and her dad, the actor Michael Polley. (Diane died when Sarah was 11; years later, she’d learn Michael was not her biological father, a discovery around which Sarah would build her remarkable 2012 documentary Stories We Tell.)

Ingrid Randoja’s interview finds Sarah a year out from her appearance at the Toronto Days Of Action protest of 1996, where she stepped up to protest Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government.

“Being politically active is in my future, and is a necessity in my life – that’s what I think I was born to do,” she said. “Acting is more of a passion I can live without. Of course, if I could have it all, I would act and do everything else.”

That’s how it worked out, for a while.

The success of The Sweet Hereafter gave Polley the chance to work with dozens of filmmakers inside and outside Canada, from Kathryn Bigelow (The Weight Of Water) to Zack Snyder (Dawn Of The Dead). And right around the same time, she started exploring her options behind the camera, making her first short films in 1999 and working her way towards her first feature Away From Her, a 2006 adaptation of Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over The Mountain that saw star Julie Christie nominated for an Oscar for best actress, and Polley herself nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 

Polley’s second feature, Take This Waltz, arrived at TIFF in 2011, completing her unofficial transition from acting to full-time filmmaking. Polley’s last on-screen roles had been a starring role opposite Adrien Brody in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice and a brief cameo in Bruce McDonald’s Trigger, both in 2010. And since then she’s been working exclusively behind the camera, giving shape to complicated projects like the CBC miniseries adaptation of Alias Grace (which Polley wrote and produced) and lending her support to the documentaries Secret Path and A Better Man as an executive producer. 

True to her word, she’s never stopped being an activist; her friendship with the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton even led to him offering Polley his house as a shooting location for Take This Waltz. Her conversation about sexual harassment within the film industry in an interview with NOW’s Radheyan Simonpillai may have helped get the #MeToo movement rolling in September 2017. (Hey, the timing lines up.) And she recently reactivated her Twitter account to steer people towards vital resources during the pandemic. 

And she’s currently shooting her first feature in over a decade, an adaptation of Miriam Towes’s novel Women Talking that stars Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Clare Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Ben Whishaw.

The odds are excellent that it’ll be ready for next year’s TIFF, a full 25 years after that NOW cover. 

We’d frame it as a homecoming, but that’s the thing about Sarah Polley: she’s been here the whole time.

Norman Wilner

Below is Ingrid Randoja’s cover story, Sarah Polley: From Child Star to Film Fest Fave, republished from the September 4, 1997 issue of NOW Magazine.


Polley set for triple threat

By Ingrid Randoja

American glamour magazines are calling Sarah Polley the next Uma Thurman.

It’s the kind of hype-mongering that most young actors dream about, but not Polley.

In an and-this-too-shall-pass mode, the 18-year-old acting sensation sloughs off the chatter.

“It’s really nice and I appreciate it, but at the same time it’s generic, flavour-of-the-month stuff.

“They have to say that kind of thing to justify doing a story on someone. It’s pretty frightening if you believe what they say, as opposed to how you feel about your work. You can’t let it affect your opinion of yourself.”

Polley sits on a couch in a Queen West photographer’s studio. Small, with large, luminous eyes, she muses on her future in a less-than-comfortable spotlight. The reason – her work in Atom Egoyan’s newest film, The Sweet Hereafter, which kicks off the Toronto International Film Festival tonight.

Polley stars as a wheelchair-bound saviour, a young woman trying to stop the bleeding of her town, which has lost most of its children in a horrible accident. She’s marvellous, radiating rock-hard spirituality and ageless wisdom.

Street kid

And then there’s her work as a street kid in Clement Virgo’s tender The Planet Of Junior Brown and as a young East Coast woman in Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden, both of which premiere at this year’s festival.

Her plate’s full and she gives thanks, but acting isn’t her only source of nourishment.

“These roles came at a time when I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to act anymore. I was just going to go to school and be politically involved.”

You may remember Polley speaking out during the Days Of Action protest last year, where her moral outrage found a political voice.

“My life was going to be centred on something else, but then this work happened and I felt like it wasn’t really up to me anymore. If things continue to come along that are as interesting as the things I’ve done recently, then I’ll keep acting.

“But the chances aren’t great and that’s fine. I’m completely happy to go to university. For me, being politically active is in my future and is a necessity in my life – that’s what I think I was born to do. Acting is more of a passion I can live without. Of course, if I could have it all, I would act and do everything else.”

Saying that Polley’s mature for her age is like saying Wayne Gretzky’s kinda handy with a hockey stick. But what’s frustrating for her – and every 18-year-old, for that matter – is that people are keeping track of everying she says, as if all her decisions were written in stone.

“People hold things you say against you. The media really feel there’s some kind of betrayal going on if you don’t do what you say you were going to do when you were eight years old.

“I’ll see a reporter at a party and he’ll come up to me and say, ‘So, I guess you haven’t quit the acting.’

“Come on. So what? I’m a healthy person who changes her mind.”

The former child star – she made her debut in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen and then moved to TV’s Road To Avonlea – is used to seeing herself onscreen, but with The Sweet Hereafter Polley also gets to sing, and would it surprise you that she’s also got a wonderful voice? She covers Jane Siberry’s One More Colour, the Tragically Hip’s Courage, and she wrote the lyrics to two other songs on the soundtrack. With her kind of resume, I don’t think I could have handled being her friend when I was 18.

“It was a really casual thing,” she tosses off. “We just started to screw around and start singing, and to tell the truth, I thought it was bullshit because I didn’t think it was going to end up in the movie. It wasn’t too nerve-racking because I never told anyone that I was a singer, so I wasn’t going to be letting anyone down.

“But it’s kind of exciting, actually. It’s like when you see yourself onscreen for the first time.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

@normwilner

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