There’s a photograph of Sarah Polley, who has been acting for 23 of her 28 years, in her debut role in the Disney movie One Magic Christmas. The still is enormously endearing, less because the 4-year-old looks adorable in blond bangs and a woolly cap than because her lower lip is stuck out in an attitude of mutinous pugnacity that foretells not only Polley’s testy subsequent relationship with the studio, but her wild teens and 20s as a high school dropout and a rebel with many a good activist cause. In between, the press anointed her “Canada’s Sweetheart” after she starred in the long-running series Road to Avonlea, which she left when it underwent the usual Mouse House cleansing for airing on the Disney Channel.
Polley blossomed into a pretty blue-eyed blonde whose ethereal, slightly off-kilter face got her repeatedly cast as someone to whom bad things happen, beginning with her haunting turn as a paralyzed victim of a school-bus accident (with some sexual abuse thrown in) in Atom Egoyan’s 1997 The Sweet Hereafter. That role got her noticed in this country, where Polley has appeared in a handful of studio movies, notably in Doug Liman’s Go and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. But you can’t sustain yourself as Hollywood’s Next Big Thing by pulling out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (in which she was to play Penny Lane) in order to star in a low-budget Canadian feature, The Law of Enclosures, which tanked on arrival. Not a sterling career move on the whole, but an irresistible fuck-you from someone who, when other actresses her age were busy with retail therapy, was out on the streets of Toronto, protesting on behalf of the homeless. Polley likes to be in movies she’d pay money to see, which means that she has built her résumé around brainy independent directors like Egoyan, David Cronenberg (eXistenZ), Wim Wenders (Don’t Come Knocking) and the Spanish director Isabel Coixet, for whom she has played a young mother with months left to live (in My Life Without Me) and a scarred survivor of the Balkan wars (in The Secret Life of Words).
There’s nothing remotely pugnacious, ethereal or wounded about the poised, cheerful young woman who shows up at a West Hollywood hotel in jeans and a casual shirt to talk about Away From Her, her assured first feature as a director, which she also adapted from a short storyby Canadian writer Alice Munro. Polley had read Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a desolate yet oddly uplifting tale about an older couple whose long marriage is called into question by the wife’s slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, in The New Yorker shortly after co-starring in Iceland with Julie Christie in Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing. “When I picked up this story I couldn’t stop seeing Julie’s face,” says Polley. It was a long slog to get Christie — who’s as blithely indifferent to her celebrity as Polley is to hers — to commit. But Polley ground her down, and the result is a transcendently quicksilver rendition of a woman who, as her character ruefully says in the movie, is “beginning to disappear” but will brook no pity. “The idea of yourself falling apart is probably the most terrifying thing you can play,” says Polley. “But she dove right in.”
Polley, who after a tumultuous early love life is now contentedly married to Toronto-based film editor David Wharnsby (he edited Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World), has a precociously mature understanding of Munro’s austere, inward, yet intensely physical account of this enduring but troubled union. “I don’t think there can be a simple love story when two people know each other for that long,” she says. “The relationship is full of failures and heartbreak and betrayal and moments of redemption. This was uncharted territory for me, but it felt so obviously cinematic, the way she describes the landscape and the light.” Polley is matter of fact about writing an adaptation for the first time, about achieving the Nordic look of the film, the plaintive blending of Bach and Neil Young on the soundtrack, and about her delicately respectful reframing of time and space in Munro’s story. “These characters were so finely nuanced that it didn’t feel like a big job to figure out how to adapt it,” she says. “I wanted to remain as close to the story as possible.” She succeeded well enough that, after reading the script, the publicity-shy Munro gave her blessing to the project in a warm message on Polley’s voice mail.
Away From Her has been getting rapturous advance notices in North America. It’s the Canadian reviews Polley is nervous about, because that’s where her funding comes from and she is already hard at work pursuing the rights to Alias Grace, a novel by Margaret Atwood. Polley comes from a performing family — her father, Michael Polley, acted while working in insurance to support the family, and her mother, Diana Polley, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11, was a producer and casting director. Polley wants to maintain a dual career and talks intelligently about the relationship between actors and directors. “One thing that doesn’t really work for me as an actor is when a director has a ‘way’ or a ‘method’ with actors. For me, it was really important to try to learn each actor’s language and for us to develop a common vocabulary.”
But Polley feels that acting, in part because actors are so shielded from everyday disasters on the set, was of little help once she settled into the director’s chair. “Everything I learned about filmmaking,” she says, “was not from being an actor but from making my five shorts.” She has a couple of acting projects coming up, but finds herself far more open to a Hollywood offer to direct. “It’s funny how much more tempting that is as a director than as an actor. I feel as though I’ve been so immune to Hollywood as an actor, but if I was offered a great film to direct and a decent budget it would be hard to say no. Especially after having gone through four or five years trying to get movies made.” Certainly it never occurred to her to direct herself in Away From Her. “You want people to fall in love with the actors,” she says, “and I don’t think I could fall in love with myself.” If that makes her the right person in the wrong town, so be it.