Not many University of Toronto cinema studies students get to experience their subject from the inside, but Sarah Gadon is an exceptional case, having taken time off school to shoot two films back to back with David Cronenberg.
Her role opposite Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung's neglected wife, Emma, put Gadon at the top of casting agents' want lists across the country. Next Cronenberg tapped her to play Elise Shifrin, the distant spouse of Robert Pattinson's crumbling billionaire Eric Packer, in his adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis. Cronenberg's son Brandon subsequently cast Gadon in his directorial debut, Antiviral; she accompanied both films to Cannes last month.
Back in Toronto for the Cosmopolis press launch - and installed in a gleaming boardroom beneath the Thompson Hotel for extra atmosphere - Gadon was more than willing to dig into the implications and interpretations of the movie.
David Cronenberg has cast you as the wife of his protagonist in two consecutive films - in A Dangerous Method you played the long-suffering Emma Jung, and now in Cosmopolis you're Elise Shifrin, the relatively recent bride of Eric Packer. Did you find any common ground between your two characters?
I really see the two characters as completely distinct - they are both married - but in terms of their similarities, it stops there. Emma Jung was based on a real person, and she was very supportive of her husband. She believed that he was a revolutionary, that he was creating something incredible. She was there to support him, regardless of anything else that was happening in his life. The way I look at Elise Shifrin is quite the opposite: she views her relationship with her husband as a merger, but at the same time just does not allow for him to project anything onto her. What I think is so rare and unique is that you rarely see women in film who don't allow the romantic lead to project onto them.
That's true. Elise doesn't indulge any of her husband's suggestions or entreaties. She just smacks them down, one after the other.
That's what I find is so different about the two characters, and makes Elise so distinct. And that's what's kind of brilliant about David's decision to cast this film younger - because originally he was going to cast Colin Farrell. By casting actors like Rob and me, it's almost more interesting, because you never see young people act that way. Yet young people are at the helm of so much wealth and power.
And Elise operates in a very different world than Emma, both literally and intellectually.
Emma Jung was an intellectual; she later on became a psychologist in her own right and pioneered her own research. I really believe that Elise is kind of a pseudo-intellectual - constantly talking in prose, you know. She's a poet, and the way that I read the dialogue, I just thought, "She's always speaking as if she's writing a poem." Pontificating. Pedantic.
She carries herself with a self-possession that seemed very specific to me - as though she'd walked out of the 1940s.
Yeah, she's a huge narcissist. It made me feel as if I had done some justice to the character when I was reading the book after we wrapped, and Eric describes her as beautiful and wealthy. "She's a poet. Her poetry is shit." [busts out laughing] And I thought, "Yup! That's it exactly! ‘Her poetry is shit!'"
But even being a poet seems somehow anachronistic. She's always removed from the shiny stuff that surrounds Packer - the technology, the limo, all of it. He stalks the financial markets, and she goes to bookstores and stage plays.
Yeah, well, they're so wonderfully alienated from their environment.... All of their scenes take place outside the limo, unlike any of the other characters he encounters, and yet [Eric and Elise] refuse to interact with their surroundings. They are alienated from their surroundings, and that points to how far they're removed from their culture and society. They just exist in this vacuum. They don't actually exist in the real world. It sounds like such an abstract idea, but after coming back from a place like Cannes, you see how much there is a discrepancy between the wealthy and the rest of the world. You go to these premieres and you're in black tie and these people descend from their yachts to watch a film. I think there was something kind of brilliant about David showing this film at Cannes, showing it to that 1 per cent.
What was their reaction? How did it play?
I think it was somewhat subdued, which is a huge reaction to get from an audience at Cannes - normally, they're booing or [applauding], you know. We got a standing ovation, but just as the credits were rolling, there was a hush. Tension. That's DeLillo, and that's Cronenberg. You don't know exactly how you feel about things because you're so in it. You're still thinking about it. I think it's funny that the tag line is "the film for the new millennium." It should be "The film that you really have to watch at least twice to understand." [laughing]
I got a really strong Naked Lunch and eXistenZ vibe from it - other films Cronenberg has made about characters on journeys into slightly surreal worlds. You're still pursuing a major in cinema studies at U of T; what was your academic assessment of Cosmopolis?
I think there's something very Brechtian about this film. I am speculating - I don't know if that's David's intention. I don't know if he makes films like that. But as a spectator, removing myself as an actor, when I first watched it I went through the classic spectator frustration of "Why is he not sewing me into this narrative? Why are there no music cues?"
And there's something so Brechtian about the dialogue. When I watched it for the second time at Cannes, and I was really prepared to be as engaged as you need to be when you're watching a Cronenberg film, it was a totally different experience.
The whole thing exists at a slight remove - you could almost view the trip as a fantasy. Maybe he never gets in the limo at all. Although that would invalidate your entire performance.
Not necessarily, though. But that's what is such a gift, too, about [Cronenberg's] work. He opens the door for you to conduct a criticism. We're so used to not watching film like that right now. I have a tremendous respect for David because he has the gall to make films like that, and then cast Rob Pattinson as the lead. [laughing]
And now that you've starred opposite Michael Fassbender and Robert Pattinson - two very visible, very bankable actors - are you seeing more heat building in your own career, more offers, more media attention?
It's definitely elevated my career, for sure - but more in terms of my street cred than my fandom.