13 Jul 2022

Sarah Polley on her acting childhood

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 13 July 2022

Sarah Polley's screen credits include six years in the TV series Road to Avonlea, a turn as Ramona the Pest, and a scary experience in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Now an Oscar-nominated writer and director,  she has a new memoir, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, she writes about the carnage of being a child actor, losing her mother to cancer, her own health scares, and a sexual assault that she kept to herself for decades.

Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley Photo: By nicolas genin from Paris, France - 66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8818166

It took her decades to find the right words to write an authentic narrative of her experiences, Polley tells Jesse Mulligan.

“I kind of ended up finishing them all fairly close together over the course of a year after recovering from a pretty severe concussion that plagued me on and off for about three and a half years.

“One of the things that doctor had said to me was run towards the danger, meaning do the things that you're anxious about doing; your brain is getting weaker at the things you avoid so in order to strengthen your brain back to health, you need to run towards the very activities you've been avoiding.

“And that ended up being a paradigm shift for me and extending itself into looking more closely at these stories.” 

In her ‘Mad Genuis’ essay, she recalls the difficult experiences as an eight-year-old on the film set of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the lack of accountability for the dangers of special effects and stunts gone wrong.

“What I was interested in looking at is the sort of fetishisation of this archetype of the white male mad genius, who is excused any behaviour and any terrible thing that happens to anybody in the wake of them making a great piece of art is okay because it's justified by the great piece of art existing.

“We've allowed people to get away with far too much in the name of genius or art.”

She says in one instance she had to be hospitalised after a horse jumped out of a boat they were in and an explosive went off too close.

“I think I knew that it was really dangerous and really scary.

“I think I accepted that that was a part of making that film until I was much older and sort of went wait a minute, I was eight or nine years old and I didn't have much agency there.”

Later in life, when she heard the director (Terry Gilliam) would be working with another child actress, Polley decided it was time to put pen to paper and lay bare the impact of her experiences.

“Initially, I think I was just really pleased that he acknowledged it and responded. In retrospect, I would say there are moments in that e-mail where he really abdicates responsibility, somewhere he takes it.

“And I look at my own emails from that time and go, wow, I'm doing everything I can to make this okay for him and let him off the hook in a way that I think a lot of women do with powerful men, like there's this sense of like needing to apologise for complaining, instead of just saying look this was really harmful and this is really difficult, you should have taken responsibility.”

Going through adulthood and becoming a mother have helped her reflect on her experiences with a new viewpoint, she says.

“Some of the heroes and villains have like melted into more grey roles. I don't sort of need to hold the villains in my story as tightly as villains, like I think people have been able to melt into sort of flawed humans as opposed to these figures that I blame and hold responsible even if they did terrible things or neglected to do really important things.

“I feel like they don't, the stories in this book at least, don't have a hold on me in the same way that they used to.

“For me, I feel a kind of lightness now around some of the memories that I held most solidly and most in a more difficult way because of the lightness at the present moment that I'm in with my kids now.”

Sarah Polley is also directing the upcoming film Women Talking, based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, starring Frances McDormand and Claire Foy.