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CANADA’S PREEMINENT SWEETHEART SARAH POLLEY DOESN’T PLAY THE TINSELTOWN GAME.


Ask any Canadian film scholar to jot down a list of homegrown film conven­tions, and they’ll probably mention family angst, cerebral iden­tity quests, sexual dysfunctions, outsider-type protagonists, barren landscapes and offbeat humour.

Oh, and Sarah Polley. Because there was a time in the ’90s when you couldn’t pop in an award-winning indie production without seeing our flaxen-haired film mascot.

Sitting down to chat with Naked Eye at a Mr. Nobody press junket during last year’s TIFF, Polley is as wise, humble and ostentation-free as one might expect. While these interview setups can often veer towards studio-rehearsed anecdotes and cloying praise for everyone the interviewee has ever collaborated with, Polley doesn’t play by those rules. A film veteran with over a quarter century of experience, the breadth of her talent is proportional to the wide range of characters and film genres she has tackled – including recent parts in Splice and in Bruce McDonald’s upcoming Trigger.

So when you meet one of the sharp­est young talents in the film biz, what’s the best icebreaker? Why, Road to Avonlea, of course!


FORMER CHILD ACTOR, SPONTANEOUS CANDOUR

You probably remember Polley’s Sara Stanley, an adventurous little turn-of-the-19th-century heiress who lived with her two aunts in Prince Edward Island. By the time Polley was 11, she was already a bona fide CBC period starlet. The show recalls public tele­vision’s halcyon days, when loyal viewers from coast to coast would rally around weekly series like Avonlea.

But Polley doesn’t mince words when asked about the hugely popular show that broke her into the biz.

“It was a bit of a whitewash of Cana­dian history. I don’t feel as though it’s appropriate to depict that period of time without making some reference to what was going on with native people or Quebec. If you’re going to make a show about Canadian history, maybe everything looking beautiful and bucolic with only white people around is slightly problematic. Maybe not the best contribution.”

Acknowledging how scathing such criticism might sound, she is quick to add, “It was an unhappy experience for me for the majority of my years on the show, so that probably clouds my judgment.”

Refreshing candour from the always earnest actress, whose expe­rience on Avonlea informed all her future independent film leanings, including work with some of the world’s most accomplished auteurs. Known for taking on dark roles filled with repressed angst and existential ennui – most notably as a wheelchair-bound bus-crash survivor in The Sweet Hereafter and a trailer-home mom diagnosed with terminal cancer in My Life Without Me – she upped her motion-picture ante a few years back with her directorial debut, Away From Her.

Never one to become compla­cent, Polley has often challenged her erudite image by playing against type, as in the high-octane Go (as a cashier-by-day, pill-dealing raver by night) and in the popular Dawn of the Dead remake, as a zombie killer. And, lest we forget, Dawn is an extended allegory on consumerism, which perfectly taps into Polley’s militant lefty roots.

Most recently, she applied her anti-corporate principles by removing her name from a short film she had directed for the 2010 Oscar telecast, when it was revealed the short would serve as de facto advertising for Becel margarine.

“Regretfully, I am forced to remove my name from the film and disassoci­ate myself from it,” Polley announced in a written statement. “I have never actively promoted any corporate brand, and cannot do so now.”


FERTILE IMAGINATIONS, PATRIOTIC CONSIDERATIONS

Choosy when it comes to lending her name to corporate concerns, Polley is also choosy about the projects she takes on.

“In a director, I look for someone who is inventing something, who isn’t being derivative, who has some­thing original to say and is going to say it in a completely original way. Someone who makes films that can change my mind… and I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.

“But Jaco Van Dormael [the creative mind behind Mr. Nobody] is a film­maker who has changed the way I see the world. He has made me realize that everything is possible.”

Mr. Nobody, a big-budget Belgian co-production partly shot in Montreal a few years back, is a gorgeously lensed sci-fi rumination that borrows from the superstring theory to look into the impact of individual choices on the outcome of one’s life. In June, Polley slipped into a white lab coat for the release of Sundance sleeper Splice, a cautionary genetics tale about two scientists (Polley and Adrien Brody) who leap over ethical hurdles to splice human and animal DNA in a master plan to create a novel creature.

Miles away from a dysfunctional Egoyan drama, Splice is nonetheless another Canuck production for the proud homegrown star.

“I think the Canadian voice is hard to pin down. There isn’t one Canadian identity. We are a country of immigrants and the face of what a Canadian looks like is changing massively, so a film in Punjabi is just as Canadian as a film in English or French at this point.

“The one thing I feel protective of in Canada is that we make films that speak to our own experience, what­ever that is and however diverse that may be.”

In hindsight, Polley’s highly contro­versial decision to back away from Almost Famous’ rock groupie part – which eventually went to Kate Hudson – was clearly on point, as the independent-minded artist would have surely balked at studio execs constantly pulling her strings.

And so the actress politely declined an invite to Hollywood’s inner circle. We couldn’t be more delighted.

Words by: MICHAEL-OLIVER HARDING