MY LIFE WITHOUT ME directed by Isabel Coixet, written by Coixet from a story by Nanci Kincaid, produced by Esther García and Gordon McLennan, with Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo, Scott Speedman, Deborah Harry, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros and Alfred Molina. A Mongrel Media release. 106 minutes. Opens Friday (October 10). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNN
At only 24 years old, sarah polley has a husband, a property tax bill and a role most actresses put off till there's no other choice - mother. "I've always been a bit domestic," she admits.
In My Life Without Me she plays a trailer park mom facing death. Instead of unloading on her family, she sets out to create the perfect final weeks.
"It's this nice marriage of two cultures," Polley says. "It's a Canadian story set in a Canadian city but made by a Spanish director, so there's a fantastical element to it. It's got a romantic feel that maybe another director wouldn't see."
Tucked up in a chair during the Toronto International Film Festival, she lets the words race out of her.
Director Isabel Coixet, she says, is "just brilliant. She shoots all her own stuff. It's totally inspiring to watch this woman, who's got a camera on her shoulder at all times, directing in three languages."
She gives two tight little sneezes, says "Fuck!" and continues.
"It reminds me of Atom (Egoyan) a bit. She gives you total freedom, but will rein you in when you need to be."
When Polley was 11, her own mother died from cancer.
"Because I've experienced this story from the child's point of view," she says, "being able to experience it from the mother's point of view was a great thing for me. It throws the self-pitying part of your grief in a tailspin."
Polley talks like this - emotional, but shorn of sentiment. She's acutely aware that feeling is her stock-in-trade.
When she took two years off to study directing at the Canadian Film Centre, she realized she'd lost her purge valve.
"Because I've done this since I was a little kid, there's a whole reserve of emotion that needs to burst out," she says. "I'm not comfortable doing that except on screen. That's pretty perverted and fucked up. On some subconscious level" - she laughs here - "I was saving up a certain amount of pain for work."
Polley has the skill and looks to be a movie star, but seems - like Johnny Depp in the 90s - to defy stardom every chance she gets.
"I don't think I have charisma," she protests, then rushes to head me off. "No, that's not being self-deprecating. There's a certain quality you need to be a movie star. It's what I want in a movie star if I'm watching Entertainment Tonight. I want someone who has a lot of charisma and looks fabulous, who loves being in front of people.
"I don't love being in front of a whole bunch of people I don't know, and my strengths as an actor come from the fact that I'm quite introspective on screen.
"For certain scenes in a movie, you need someone who comes in and lights up a room. I'm much better in situations when the camera or the audience comes to me and I don't have to go to them, because I'm not capable of entertaining in quite that way.
"And in terms of being a big star, your life becomes so incredibly small and narrow. I don't want to start having to protect myself from the world."
So it's the salt mines of indie cinema, then.
"Four months ago I would have said I only want to do movies that are under $4 million," she says. "But I did Dawn Of The Dead this summer." Her eyes get huge. "And it was so much fun! Now I feel conflicted. Every five years I would love to do a movie like that.
"I expect when I go to work for it to take years off my life, emotionally," she admits. "To run around with a shotgun shooting zombies was just a great way to spend the summer."