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Sarah Polley

Director, Screenwriter, Actor
(b. January 8, 1979 Toronto, Ontario)

“Because she’s so upfront and seems to be completely clear in her logic and thinking, there’s something very plaintive and direct about her feelings. There’s something at once very casual, very familiar about her, yet really piercing and unsettling. It’s the combination of the two that makes her unique. You never feel that she’s working hard to get to these emotions, and yet the emotions are so complex that it takes you by surprise.” – Atom Egoyan

“I’m not designed to be famous. My personality is completely wrong for it.” – Sarah Polley

One of the finest screen actors of her generation, Sarah Polley is known as much for her uncanny psychological depth and her efforts as a political activist as she is for her acting talent. Alternately sullen and sly, with an intelligent face and inquisitive eyes, she has become a favourite among critics for her sensitive portraits of wounded and conflicted young women. However, she has remained deeply ambivalent about her achievements. Despite her uncommonly successful transition from child star to grounded adult actor, she is, in many ways, the accidental actress.

Though she has been a working actor virtually her entire life and has built a prolific filmography that reflects her dedication to and love for the craft, she has also endured long bouts of disillusionment with acting (calling it “a frivolous thing to do with your life”) and assumed, after an eighteen-month hiatus from the profession in the mid-nineties, that she was through with acting altogether. She refuses to let her acting career or her choice in roles interfere with her political activism, yet her independent path has done little to detract from her celebrity or the respect she receives. As Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s magazine succinctly put it, “she has made a career of defying convention.”

Polley was born into a low-key show-business family. Her father, British-born Michael Polley, was a journeyman actor, and her mother, Diane Polley, was an actress and casting director. It was her mother’s connections that launched Sarah – at her own insistence and despite her parents’ discouragement – on an acting career at the age of four, following in the footsteps of her older brother Mark. After making her debut in Phillip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas (1985), she appeared in three films and three television productions in the next three years – including “Ramona” (1988), for which she earned her first Gemini nomination – and then landed a lead role in Terry Gilliam’s big-budget flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Her performance was better received than the film, and after doing voice work for Babar: The Movie (1989), she scored the plum role as Sara Stanley in the celebrated CBC–TV series “Road to Avonlea.”

Polley studied at Toronto’s Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts when she wasn’t being tutored on set and received three Gemini nominations for her work on the series. However, she was profoundly affected by the death of her mother from cancer in 1990, and by the time she was twelve she wanted out of the show. She continued to land other television work in addition to her “Road to Avonlea” schedule, and in 1992 she won a best supporting actress Gemini for her role as a Cockney orphan in the TV movie Lantern Hill.

Politically progressive from a young age, in 1994 Polley rebelled against what she felt was the Americanization of “Road to Avonlea” after it was picked up by the Disney Channel (under the new title “Avonlea”) for distribution in the United States. She asked to be written out of the show – her character moved to France to study writing and only made one appearance in the final season. Her relationship with Disney had apparently gone sour when she raised the ire of Disney executives at a dinner during the height of the first Gulf War; she wore a peace symbol to the event, and refused to remove it when asked to do so.

Free from her TV series commitments, Polley took on the starring role in the Stratford Theatre production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, although she was forced to bow out in order to have a metal rod inserted in her spine to correct a severe case of scoliosis. She also gave a striking supporting performance as a preternaturally wise teenager in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). Later that year, at the age of fifteen, she left home and moved into an apartment with her boyfriend in downtown Toronto. At seventeen, she left her wholesome “Avonlea” image behind with her role as a vampish goth girl in the CBC-TV series “Straight Up” (1996), then dropped out of Earl Haig Secondary School and refused any and all acting offers to devote herself full-time to left-wing activism. After some involvement with the Democratic Socialist Party, she worked for successful NDP candidate Peter Kormos in the 1995 provincial election, and for defeated NDP candidate Mel Watkins in the 1997 federal election. She has also volunteered for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the anti-nuclear group Canadian Peace Alliance and delivered sandwiches to street kids battling the wintry elements in downtown Toronto. Never one to back down from a confrontation, she lost two back teeth when she was clubbed in the stomach and elbowed in the jaw when a 1995 anti-Conservative rally at Toronto’s Queen’s park quickly evolved into a riot between police and protestors.

When she was approached by Egoyan to play a pivotal role in his adaptation of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter(1997), Polley saw it as a temporary vacation from her activist work and accepted the part, thinking it would be a one-off. But she credits that experience with teaching her that acting could be important – that an extraordinary performance could have the power to change someone’s life. The film also facilitated her transition from child to adult star. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan commented: “It comes as a surprise to me that she’s an experienced actress, because there was a freshness, an unaffected quality, that people who have been acting since they were kids often lose.” The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival; Polley was named best supporting actress by the Boston Society of Film Critics and received Genie nominations for best leading actress and one best original song (in collaboration with composer Mychael Danna, she contributed lyrics and vocals to four songs on the film’s soundtrack, and was even approached by Virgin Records about a potential record deal).

Instilled with a renewed vigour for acting, Polley went on to contribute supporting roles to Thom Fitzgerald’s Genie Award-winning The Hanging Garden (1997), Clement Virgo’s feature debut The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), Don McKellar’s award-winning debut Last Night (1998) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). Her work in Doug Liman’s Tarantino-esque romp Go (1999) introduced her to mainstream American audiences and garnered her much attention from both the American industry and media, who tagged her as the new “It Girl.” This status was buffeted further by her compelling lead performance opposite Stephen Rea in Audrey Wells’s Guinevere (1999). But any doubt in the sincerity of Polley’s commitment to keep her career compatible with her ideals was laid to rest when she backed out of the star-making role of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Hollywood blockbuster Almost Famous (2000) to star in John Greyson’s cryptic The Law of Enclosures (2000).

In 1999 she turned her attention to directing for her debut short film Don’t Think Twice (1999), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. She attended the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab in 2001 and in 2002 won a Genie for best live action Short for her second film as director, I Shout Love (2001). Meanwhile, she continued acting with independent directors on more commercially marginal, unconventional films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water (2000), Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000) and Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing (2001).

Polley won her second Genie Award in 2004 for her captivatingly grounded lead performance in Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003), and that same year added to her mainstream appeal with Zack Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s cult horror classic Dawn of the Dead. She also directed an episode entitled “The Harp” for the television series “The Shields Stories” (2004), featuring adaptations of short stories by author Carol Shields. In 2005 Polley re-united with Isabel Coixet for The Secret Life of Words (2005) and appeared alongside Gerard Butler in Sturla Gunnarson’s adaptation of the Nordic saga Beowulf & Grendel (2005). She also remained involved with her political concerns. In 2004 she was appointed to a transition advisory group by Toronto mayor David Miller, and in April 2005 she and Don McKellar lobbied the federal government for increased support for the distribution and marketing of Canadian films.

In 2006 she delivered a memorable turn on the third season of Slings and Arrows, a successful Canadian TV series about the behind-the-scenes antics at a theatre festival not unlike the Stratford festival. She played an actress who struggles with a new role and a volcanic co-star (Stratford legend William Hutt).

With Away From Her (2006), Polley made her long-awaited feature directorial debut. Based on Canadian writer Alice Munro’s “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”, the film stars Julie Christie and Canadian legend Gordon Pinsent (The Rowdyman, John and the Missus) as a couple confronting Alzheimer’s. Emotionally direct and heartbreaking, the film was nominated for an Academy Award® for Polley’s elegant adapted screenplay, won almost every major Genie award and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of the year in TIFF’s annual poll.

In 2008 she appeared with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the much-praised American mini-series John Adams (2008). She returned to the big screen in 2009 with the Dutch Canadian co-production Mr. Nobody and Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi thriller Splice.

In 2011, Polley released Take This Waltz, which focuses on a love triangle involving Margot (Michelle Williams), her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) and Daniel (Luke Kirby). Despite the fact that Margot and Lou have a very good marriage by any standard, she’s immediately drawn to Daniel and vice versa. Both resist this attraction, but it soon proves too much for them. A rumination on the mutability of our desires and attachments, the film is as emotionally sophisticated as her debut, but it also demonstrates Polley’s maturation as a filmmaker boasting some magnificent stylistic flourishes including a startling 360 degree shot which succinctly and affectingly relates the ups and downs of Margot and Daniel’s relationship. Other key players in the film include Sarah Silverman; Jennifer Podemski; and Diane D’Aquila. The was named to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list in 2011 and made numerous best of lists (including Salon contributor Andrew O’Hehir’s) in 2012, when it was released commercially. Some critics did take issue with what they perceived to be the personal nature of the film. (Polley was going through substantial changes in her personal life but said that the script was not based on them.) But, as Polley succinctly and accurately argued, critics would probably never complain about a male filmmaker using autobiographical elements. The title of the film comes, of course, from a Leonard Cohen song. Michelle Williams won Best Actress awards from the San Diego and Vancouver film critic associations.

In 2012, Polley completed her first documentary, The Stories We Tell. She actually began the film before Take This Waltz but the shoot and the post-production process for the documentary took longer than originally planned. The film received a rapturous response everywhere it played and went on to win the Canadian Screen Award (formerly the Genie) for Best Documentary Feature and the Toronto Film Critics Association prize for Best Canadian Feature (which came with a cash prize of $100,000). It was included on TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list as well. Profoundly touching, The Stories We Tell deals with Polley’s discovery that the father who raised her was not in fact her biological father, but it’s also a meditation on how families pass on or don’t pass on information. It again demonstrates Polley’s maturation as a filmmaker offering up an exploration of documentary codes and the audience’s assumptions about reality and its presentation. The film skillfully combines home movies with unannounced re-enactments. In fact, Polley cast one of Canada’s best known actresses, Rebecca Jenkins, as her deceased mother yet disguised this so effectively that few recognized her quickly. She was abetted by cinematographer Iris Ng, who doctored some of the images she shot to suggest aging. Perhaps ironically, few if any critics complained that the film was too personal.

Film and video work includes

One Magic Christmas, a.k.a. Disney’s One Magic Christmas, 1985 (actor)
Friday the 13th series, one episode, 1987 (actor; TV)
Heaven on Earth, 1987 (actor; TV)
Prettykill, a.k.a. Tomorrow’s a Killer, 1987 (actor)
Hands of a Stranger, 1987 (actor; TV)
The Big Town, 1987 (actor)
Blue Monkey, 1987 (actor)
Ramona series, a.k.a. Ramona Q., 1988 (actor; TV)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988 (actor)
Road to Avonlea series, a.k.a Avonlea; Tales from Avonlea, 67 episdoes, 1989 – 1994 (actor; TV)
Babar: The Movie, 1989 (voice)
Lantern Hill, 1990 (actor; TV)
Johann’s Gift to Christmas, 1991 (actor; TV)
The Hidden Room series, one episode, 1993 (actor; TV)
Exotica, 1994 (actor)
Avonela series, 1995 (actor; TV, one episode)
Straight Up series, 1996 (actor; TV)
Joe’s So Mean to Josephine, 1996 (actor)
Children First, 1996 (actor)
The Sweet Hereafter, 1997 (actor; lyrics)
The Hanging Garden, 1997 (actor)
The Planet of Junior Brown, a.k.a. Junior’s Groove, 1997 (actor)
Jerry and Tom, 1998 (actor)
White Lies, 1998 (actor; TV)
Last Night, 1998 (actor)
The Best Day of My Life, 1999 (director)
Don’t Think Twice, 1999 (director; writer; co-producer with Maria Popoff)
eXistenZ, 1999 (actor)
Guinivere, 1999 (actor)
Go, 1999 (actor)
The Life Before This, 1999 (actor)
Made in Canada series, one episode,1999 (actor; TV)
This Might be Good, 2000 (actor)
The Weight of Water, 2000 (actor)
Love Come Down, 2000 (actor)
The Law of Enclosures, 2000 (actor)
The Claim, 2000 (actor)
I Shout Love, 2001 (director; writer)
Life and Times series, My Beat: The Life and Times of Bruce Cockburn, 2001 (narrator; TV)
No Such Thing, 2001 (actor)
All I Want for Christmas, 2002 (director)
The I Inside, 2003 (actor)
The Event, 2003 (actor)
My Life Without Me, 2003 (actor)
Dermott’s Quest, 2003 (actor)
Luck, 2003 (actor)
Dawn of the Dead, 2004 (actor)
The Shields Stories series, one episode, 2004 (director; writer; TV)
Siblings, 2004 (actor)
Sugar, 2004 (actor)
Don’t Come Knockin’, 2005 (actor)
The Secret Life of Words, 2005 (actor)
Beowulf & Grendel, 2005 (actor)
Away From Her, 2006 (director; writer)
Slings and Arrows series, five episodes, 2006 (actor; TV)
John Adams mini-series, 2008 (actor; TV)
Mr. Nobody, 2009 (actor)
Splice, 2009 (actor)
Trigger, 2010 (actor)

By: Andrew McIntosh
Additional Notes by Steve Gravestock