Heather O’Neill on Sarah Polley

Polley became famous when she was 11. Her story’s gone untold–until now.
Heather O'Neill
Sarah Polley in her home office in Toronto. (Photograph by Sarah Bodri)
Sarah Polley in her home office in Toronto (Photograph by Sarah Bodri)

I grew up in Montreal in the ’80s, without cable TV. My dad and I did everything we could to occasionally pick up the PBS channel from Vermont. This involved a small Brechtian production. We put piles of old Yellow Pages on the radiator to lower and raise the television to a spot where the reception was clearer. Then there was a whole to-do with the antennae, which often involved sticking it out the window and using masking tape to hold it in place. Sometimes it would find a lucky spot where it could sit for a week or two. No one dared touch it.

The rest of the time we watched CBC television. And those shows were part of who we were. The first time we saw Sarah Polley was in the TV series Road to Avonlea, which was based on characters and stories from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books. Polley was playing the lead role, Sara Stanley, a wise, orphaned child who is sent to live in a rural Prince Edward Island town. She is more erudite and sophisticated than the town’s people, and she ends up enrapturing them all. At the time, in the 1980s, there was nothing more wholesome than Montgomery. I read every book of hers I could get my hands on, convinced this was the life I should be living.

My father thought Sarah Polley was the most beautiful child he had ever seen. He couldn’t stop raving about her performance, about how adorable and intelligent she was. He would sit on the edge of the couch, eating leftover spaghetti and grinning at her proudly. He once said, “I think of her as my own little girl.” My father was always bizarrely charmed by child actors. They represented a sort of innocence that he loved.

Child actress Sarah Polley playing flute in her room. (Steve Liss/Getty Images)

In her new memoir, Run Towards the Danger, Polley puts the lie to the notion that she was experiencing anything like the wholesome L.M. Montgomery life I loved. In the book, she writes that she now sees much of Montgomery’s work as creating a nostalgia for a time that never existed. (In one of our conversations for this piece, Polley describes Montgomery as “problematic on so many levels” because of this nostalgia, but acknowledges the fierce grip of her romanticism on lonely children.)

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Back then, even when she was out of character, Sarah Polley seemed to be living in a kind of idyll. In interviews at the time, she appeared before the cameras, speaking like a polite, poised adult about her role on the show. Polley thinks of these interviews as performances. When I am surprised to hear this, she leaps forward and exclaims her distaste and shock that anyone would be foolish enough to regard the precociousness of child actors as anything other than a performance. “I find it a betrayal,” she says, “that it would be taken at face value, that people are buying it. It’s so insulting. If people cared, they would notice the way I’m behaving is for them and not me.”

Oh dear, I thought. Good thing my father isn’t around to hear that.

Sarah Polley and I were meant to meet in Toronto, but the Omicron variant nixed everyone in the country’s plans. We arranged to speak over Zoom. I sat in front of the computer 10 minutes ahead of time, just staring at my face in anticipation of the call. Then Polley popped on, also early. She has described herself as excessively punctual, and so am I. “I suppose you’ve heard from mutual friends how much I love your writing,” she said near the start of our call. “Yes,” I answered, although I had no idea. She was acting as though we had known each other for years. Then I realized she has been engaging with my thoughts for years. So how could she not feel like an old friend to me, since we had met in our fictions?

Of course, Polley feels like an old friend to many of us. She was the darling of Canadian film and television for decades and went on to become an acclaimed director. Her first film, Away From Her, was nominated for two Oscars, including best adapted screenplay. When it was announced last year that Polley was attached to the adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel Women Talking, a flurry of enthusiasm erupted on social media. There is continual interest in Polley as an artist and public figure.

Polley, however, has spent much of her career ducking from the expectations of the public and media. Along the way, she has grappled with questions about the things that were in her control and the things that weren’t. In her memoir, Polley has crafted six brilliant essays to capture the nuances of her own life story. There is a sense reading the book that Polley wants to get it right, to reclaim the narrative. She knows it is a delicate, tricky thing. We never truly understand our childhoods and who we were as children. But we can revisit those moments, trying to decide over and over again what they mean.

Each essay in the collection reveals something “behind the scenes” about Sarah Polley, something different from what she showed the audience. And each essay challenges what we think we know about her. The first piece centres around her role as Alice in the Stratford Festival’s 1994 production of Alice Through the Looking Glass. She presents a spectacularly vivid view of the backstage at a theatrical production. There is the seasoned Canadian stage actor Douglas Rain dressed as Humpty Dumpty, wearing a giant egg costume with tiny legs jutting out, yelling at other actors for laughing at him. There is a visceral account of the intense stage fright that left Polley in terror during the days leading up to a performance. There is a description of the immediacy of performing to an engaged and rapturous audience. There’s a lovely moment where she shows too much pathos for the White Knight and receives a note from stage management telling her to tone it down.

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The essay also examines Polley’s relationship with Lewis Carroll’s original text. Even at a young age, she understood the text as having problematic undercurrents. It is interesting to read what Polley thinks about Alice in Wonderland because there are so many links between her and the titular character. Like Polley, Alice engages with creatures who all treat her as an adult. They expect her to understand the world on her own. And, like Polley, Alice becomes curious and petulant and righteous as she looks for answers. One of the reasons Polley was so successful as a child actress was that she embodied the Victorian ideal of a child who is at once sophisticated, highly intelligent and delightfully naive.

The most peculiar aspect of Polley’s childhood was the consistent lack of parents. Her parents were both actors themselves, and her mother, Diane Polley, appeared on the Canadian TV drama Street Legal from 1987-90. When Polley was eight, her parents were overjoyed she won the part of Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. They were with her on the set of that film, but she was often on her own while filming Avonlea. “They were almost never there,” she says. “I usually had an on-site guardian.”

Polley takes a breather between acting jobs with mother; Diane; and dad; Michael; at home in North York. (Jim Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)
Polley takes a breather between acting jobs with mother; Diane; and dad; Michael; at home in North York. (Jim Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Polley’s mother died when Polley was 11. In another essay, she writes that she was only given a week off from the set of Road to Avonlea after this loss, and that she was then asked to perform a scene in which her character describes how she felt about her own mother’s death. Following his wife’s death, Polley’s father was bereft and unable to clean up after himself; they discussed Ulysses and smoked together, but their relationship was more one of peers than parent-child. This lack of adult supervision led Polley to leave home at 14. She and her boyfriend lived in an apartment with no furniture and a mattress on the floor. She joined activist groups, read voraciously and kept working as an actor.

In the ’90s, she was one of the most recognizable actresses in Canadian film. If she was in a movie, it signalled that the movie was going to be cool. She was like the person who makes any party they show up at into a happening. She featured prominently in the brief but glorious period of the Toronto New Wave, in which filmmakers like Patricia Rozema, Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar made low-budget, edgy, absurdist portraits of Canadian identity.

There was something elusive about her. She would occasionally disappear from acting and devote herself to activism. In 1995, she helped organize a protest against Mike Harris’s Conservative government’s austerity measures. With her body crushed in a crowd, yelling out, she lost two teeth. She was trying to see where she fit in the world, to squeeze herself into ordinary human experience and have a meaningful impact on it.

Then she was offered Hollywood fame. She was recruited for the star-making role of a groupie, Penny Lane, in the 2000 movie Almost Famous. “There was a very clear sense with that part that whoever was going to play it was going to be a huge star. Nobody made any secret of that,” Polley tells me.

She went as far as being fitted for costumes, and then she dropped out. “I didn’t design this life,” she says. “I didn’t want it. I didn’t seek out to be a famous actress. This notion of some big career, of being famous—it wasn’t my agenda. I wanted to write. I wanted to go to Oxford. I was interested in politics. And it seemed like something I hadn’t even wanted for myself could potentially take over my entire existence.”

Although she was ambivalent about acting, Polley was increasingly focused on the goal of becoming a director herself. When she was 17 years old, she came across Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. It was a reimagining of an actual 19th-century Canadian murderess, Grace Marks. Polley tells me she doesn’t remember a thing about that year other than reading Alias Grace.

So the 17-year-old Polley approached Margaret Atwood in her prime and asked for the film rights for Alias Grace. Atwood, sensibly, refused. It took 20 years for Polley to obtain the rights and turn the book into a Netflix series. In an interview in the New York Times, Polley said of Alias Grace, “The idea of having more than one identity, the face you show to the world and the face that’s deep within, captivated me.”

One of the most powerful essays in the memoir is called “The Woman Who Stayed Silent.” It is Polley’s reckoning with the fact that she did not come forward during the Jian Ghomeshi trial. It begins with a post Polley found on Twitter:

“Wonder why Sarah Polley never spoke out about being assaulted by Jian Ghomeshi. #HerToo. She was the woman who stayed silent. Ask her.”

The memoir is Polley’s answer. She lays out every detail of her encounter with Jian Ghomeshi. Once again she was incongruously young. She was 16 years old and Ghomeshi was in his late 20s. Polley describes how she went on a date with Ghomeshi and went back to his house. She says they had sex, and he put his hands around her neck. When she said she didn’t like it and she didn’t want him to do it again, he did it again. She says that her body was contorted in a painful position, and that he ignored her when she said she wanted him to stop. (Ghomeshi did not respond to a request for comment sent to Roqe Media, a digital broadcast network that he co-founded.)

Polley is photographed for Talk magazine on May 27, 1999 in New York City. (Michael Birt/Contour/Getty Images)
Polley is photographed for Talk magazine on May 27, 1999 in New York City. (Michael Birt/Contour/Getty Images)

Polley chose not to come forward and testify with the three other women who did. As a mother of two young children, she felt she was not in a place in her life where she could withstand the exposure that would come with the trial. The women’s credibility was challenged ruthlessly on the stand. The legal system makes it incredibly difficult for a woman to prove she was sexually assaulted, and forces her instead to be scrutinized and humiliated and accused of the vile crime of perjury herself.

The chapter in Polley’s memoir about Ghomeshi is carefully written, and relentlessly examines and dissects the alleged assault and her own reactions to it. She subjects herself to the same scourge of questions she would have been asked, in all probability, by a trial lawyer. She is her own prosecutor. She is her own jury. She is her own Twitter troll. “It is such a hard time to talk about because I spent so many years finding the exact words I wanted to use and felt comfortable using,” Polley tells me. “What I will say is, for however many years since the trial, I have not carried it lightly. I carry around really heavily not having said anything that may or may not have lent legitimacy.”

Some of the main evidence used to disprove the women’s allegations was their own behaviour following their encounters with Ghomeshi, such as writing him friendly or flirty texts. In the essay, Polley recounts her own similar actions and behaviour toward Ghomeshi after her alleged assault. She describes an interview she did with him in 2012 on his hugely popular radio show Q for her film Take This Waltz. The interview seemed awkward at the time, because Ghomeshi kept circling back to questions about whether monogamy was possible. Polley recalls her squeamish attempts to act normal on the show. “I hate these questions and I am deeply uncomfortable having this conversation with him,” she writes. “But I am good-natured, almost flirty, and happily diminish myself.”

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Polley has spoken about sexual predators in the film industry before. In 2017, she published an essay in the New York Times about her encounter with Harvey Weinstein in a hotel room. Weinstein described having a “close relationship” with a famous actress and said that if he and Polley developed the same kind of relationship, she would have a similar career to the famous actress. Polley let Weinstein know she wasn’t interested. She acted in the manner of the so-called “perfect victim,” one who protests and refuses the perpetrator. But she didn’t have as much to lose as many of the women Weinstein abused. As she wrote in the Times piece, she was no longer interested in acting. But avoiding Jian Ghomeshi in the Canadian media landscape at the time was impossible.

A still from the 1988 film 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,' starring a young Polley (Columbia/Everett Collection/CP)

Polley is worried about being judged for not coming forward previously. She reminds me that the Ghomeshi trial happened before the #MeToo movement. Now, there are a lot more resources for and a much better awareness of trauma and the complicated ways women process and cope with abuse. We didn’t know how to listen to women. We didn’t understand how to believe women. Most of all, we had a major blind spot when it came to the way women reacted to and lived with trauma. I circle back to Polley’s interview with Ghomeshi and ask whether she is worried about people watching this video and looking for her unease and discomfort. “Oh no!” she says. “I want them to see it. I want them to see how awkward I am.”

About 10 years ago, I was having lunch with my friend Marie. She worked at SODEC, a government agency that promotes and funds Quebec-made films. I was looking at my plate, confused by my decision to order escargots as a main course. Marie began telling me about her colleague Harry Gulkin, who we both knew. A director and producer known for his 1975 film Lies My Father Told Me, Gulkin was a short and charismatic man with a shock of white hair that curled wildly above his head.

Marie said Harry was taking time off work to spend with a daughter he had just found out about. She was grown and he had missed out on her youth. He was desperate to spend more time with her and get to know her.

I stared at the escargot dripping with butter at the end of my fork, and asked what Harry’s daughter did for a living.

“Oh, she’s Sarah Polley,” she answered.

“Wait, what? Sarah Polley is Harry’s daughter! That’s totally crazy!”

“Mmmm,” Marie said.

“Marie,” I said, matter-of-factly, before eating my snail, “you do not know how to tell a story.”

But how in the world does one tell such a story? Polley thought up her own unique way, creating a documentary called Stories We Tell that eschews the boundaries of the form.

Nine months prior to Polley’s birth, Diane Polley had taken a role in a Montreal play and was away from the family. Throughout her life, Polley’s siblings would joke that she looked nothing like her father, and that perhaps she was the result of an affair. Polley begins the documentary looking for the answer herself. She interviews her siblings and father. They suspect the handsome leading man in the play is her biological father. When Polley interviews Harry Gulkin, a friend and colleague of Diane’s, thinking he can provide some light on her mother’s time in Montreal, he reveals he had a romance with Diane Polley at the time. To everyone’s surprise, the DNA tests conclude he is her biological father.

Polley created fake Super 8 films of her mother, played by Rebecca Jenkins. The Diane Polley who appears in these half-real films is effervescent, always in motion, always smoking, laughing, talking on the telephone or serving dinner. She is a typical 1980s supermom, devoting herself to work and her family in a frenetic, hysterical existence. I, like many viewers, did not realize at first these were not authentic home videos but dramatizations. This aspect of the film caused people to question whether it was truly a documentary. But what are memories? They change. They become small films we direct and edit and play in the cinema of our minds to determine who we are.

Polley’s approach to her essays is much the same as her documentary. There is a sense that, going into them, she did not know exactly what they would say. But that was the point. While Polley was getting dressed after a swim at a local community centre in 2015, a fire extinguisher fell on her head. She suffered a concussion that rendered her thought process foggy and made it difficult for her to even get out of bed. She travelled to the United States to visit an eccentric doctor with a cult-like following, who instructed her to “run towards the danger.” In other words, if there was a thought or event that seemed difficult to her, she was to encounter it head-on. She was to pursue it instead of retreating from it.

This cured Polley. It helped her confront the things in her life that have haunted her the most. These essays are the result—portraits of a mind trying to make sense of an unusual life, trying to figure out how to believe in your own sense of self and your own desires in a patriarchal world.

AWAY FROM HERE, Director Sarah Polley (right), on set, 2006. (Everett Collection/CP)

This year marks the release of the first film Polley has directed in 10 years, Women Talking, which stars Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand and Claire Foy. The book by Miriam Toews, from which the film was adapted, was inspired by a case of widespread and shocking abuse in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 130 women were drugged and raped by men in their colony. The community’s elders and the women’s fathers and husbands dismissed their complaints as “wild female imagination.” Toews’s book examines not the horrific rapes these women suffer, but the aftermath. The women assemble in a barn and talk for three days about how to move forward. Will they be able to be strong enough to flee the community? What will their lives look like? What does it mean to begin their own story? They have no tools to survive. They have only been thwarted. But they feel that if they can articulate what they want—if they can conceive of it, imagine it—they will be able to follow that intellectual idea and find independence.

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Women Talking mirrors Polley’s own exercise. She had to make sense of the pieces and episodes of her life in order to move forward, to know this was the path she willingly chose, and that whatever it is she is doing with her one wild life, it is on her own terms.

She tells me that when she began shooting Women Talking, she felt as though she were suddenly home: “This is where I grew up. There is nowhere I am going to feel more at home than at 4 a.m. in the dark, in a minivan, going to a film set, going home for the holidays. I grew up in this circus. I tried to shift my identity so I wasn’t a circus animal. But part of me grew up there and feels a sense of belonging there. This time I felt a joy I hadn’t noticed before, because I was choosing it.”

A previous version of this story contained several errors. It incorrectly stated that Polley’s parents hadn’t come with her to the Adventures of Baron Munchausen set. We also incorrectly stated that she asked for the rights to Alias Grace when she was 19. In addition, the order of events during Polley’s date with Jian Ghomeshi were incorrectly described, as were some of the comments in her New York Times story about her encounter with Harvey Weinstein. Contrary to our original description, she did speak with him many times following this encounter. Maclean’s regrets the errors.

This article appears in print in the April 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “What Sarah Polley wants you to  know.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.