Sarah Polley’s career: From child actor to award-winning director

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

(L-R) Claire Foy, director Sarah Polley, Ben Whishaw and Jessie Buckley attend “Women Talking” during the BFI London Film Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, in London on October 12, 2022. Photo by PA images.

Sarah Polley is Oscar-nominated for writing the screenplay for “Women Talking,” and the film is also in contention for Best Picture. Now, in her mid-40s, Polley discusses her trajectory from being a child actor to morphing into a directorial career in her 20s. 

Polley started her film career as an actor at the age of four. By the time she was a teenager, she had a robust acting roster in both television and movies, and had endured different types of abuses on sets. 

Those traumatic experiences left her deeply conflicted about allowing children to work as actors. In “Women Talking,” the children were instructed to play while the cameras followed them around, and were given very specific rules: “If anyone wasn't having fun anymore, they just left or took a break,” she explains. “That speech was made every single day, both to the parents and the kids.” 

She adds, “I still can't guarantee that those kids weren't facing enormous pressure at home. I have no idea. So if we do take [that] on, we have to put all of our attention on how we make it a positive and consensual experience because I think in so many cases, it isn't.” 

Polley has remained ambivalent about child actors and has openly talked about the issues she faced on sets. “I do think, in general, having kids in a professional, adult working environment is something that should be at least interrogated really rigorously.”

Directing her first feature

After Gilliam’s film, Polley continued acting, and appeared in the popular Canadian television series “Road to Avonlea,” and dozens of other TV shows and movies.  

But in the early 2000s the veteran actor started shifting her career. She started by directing five short films. During that time she came across Alice Munro’s short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," and decided to direct and adapt it to her first feature film, “Away from Her.” 

“The sort of impetus for making films actually just came, at first, from my ideas for short films, and then my idea for that film, and it has continued that way,” she says. “There's never been some overarching plan, and so in a way, it's a way of avoiding making things for the sake of making things, I just want to make things that I really feel…[and] I was passionate about making that film.” 

Polley wanted actor Julie Christie to play Fiona Anderson, a woman with Alzheimer’s, for the main part. In the film, Fiona’s husband Aubrey (Gordon Pinsent), institutionalizes her, as they both face new realities and separate lives. 

When the film ended production, Polley was 27-years old. At that point, she had finished film school and had a long acting career, but that didn’t help her. 

“At that point, the idea of an actress making a movie was kind of scoffed at,” she says. “At that time, that was a real uphill battle just to get people to take me seriously.”

As she faced industry skepticism, she was rejected several times. 

“People just assumed that actresses could not make a film,” she explains. “Now we've seen so many awesome female actors make films,... [so] I don't feel like I'm this alien anymore. It feels like this totally normal thing that people have gotten used to.”

“Away from Her” has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has received 42 nominations, including two Oscars, and won 62 awards. 

Making a personal documentary

Six years after making “Away from Her,” Polley embarked on her most personal project. She wrote and directed “Stories We Tell,” a documentary about her family’s secrets, and how difficult it was to clarify even the simplest truths, which varied a great deal depending on who she talked to. Despite that, she was amazed at how cooperative her family was, and how willing they were to be part of it. 

“They wanted to support me in being able to tell this story,” she states. “I thought I would have a lot more resistance than I did, but everyone in my family was really supportive of the idea, even if it cost them a lot to participate.” 

That included her father, Michael Polley, whom she says, responded “incredibly magnanimous,” to finding out he was not her biological father.

“He is concerned about me and how it was impacting me, and he had just had an incredibly generous and self centered response to it. So the film showed that aspect of him. That was a real aspect of him, and there were so many beautiful things about my dad.”

But in her 2022 memoir, “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory,” she writes she couldn’t talk about the more difficult aspects of her father, or how he didn’t succeed as a parent while he was alive. Michael died in 2018 of dementia.  

“I think that it was important for me to not put that into the world until it could no longer hurt him.”

After her mother passed away when she was 11, Polley says her father became more of a friend to her, and she felt he didn’t take care of her in a parental sense, so she left home at 14 living alone or with friends after that – a life she doesn't recommend to anyone. 

At the same time, the filmmaker believes that everyone has a negative and a positive story about their parents, and they are all true. 

“I think we get clinging to these narratives of either the good parent or the bad parent, and I think it's just much messier than that, which is what ‘Stories We Tell’ sort of attempted to look at and talk about,” she affirms. “But they're just so many perspectives, and they're all real.”  

Run towards danger

Despite the complicated relationship with her father, Polley believes he would have agreed with her memoir, “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory,” which she wrote as part of a therapeutic process. Following a freak accident, and then struggling with lingering effects of a concussion for three and a half years and many treatments, she found a doctor who prescribed physical exercises, and a more unconventional therapy. 

“The main thrust of it was, you need to expose yourself to the things that have been bothering you,” she says, “the more you avoid things, the worse your brain becomes at processing and handling those things, so you have to run towards the danger.”

The danger, she adds, meant, “If the party bothers you, you need to go to a party. If sunlight bothers [you], you go for a walk outside, do things that bother you just [to] help strengthen your brain back to being able to handle and process those things.”  

She decided to “embrace discomfort,” and write about them. Within six months, she started to feel better. 

“That became this paradigm shift in the rest of my life to move towards the things that caused me discomfort instead of running away from them because I was making those things stronger by turning away, which became the basis of the book and all of the stories in the book became stories of recovery,” she explains. 

“Women Talking”

Polley dispelled all doubts when she wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 2006 film “Away from Her.” Fifteen years later, “Women Talking” is a double Oscar-nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. 

The drama – an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel by the same name, and which Frances McDormand had secured the rights of – was brought to Polley by producer Dede Gardner. Then, they started looking for potential partners. Gardner reconnected with then MGM’s executives Mike DeLuca and Pam Abdy and told them about the project. 

“It was a marriage made in heaven,” she says. “They understood the film completely, from the beginning, and had great insight and created such an incredible safe space for us to figure this out.”

That feeling of “safe space” occurred after a moment when the film was stuck and the team felt nervous about what would happen. 

“I remember Pam Abdy being the one to say, ‘When you look at the performances in this film, there's a great film in here, so everybody, just relax. The film is there, so just keep working. Here's some extra time,” she recalls. “To have the studio person say that to you is kind of unbelievable.”

While the partnership was ideal, Polley sees they also had a stroke of luck. “I'm pretty optimistic, and maybe that's naive,” she admits. “I don't spend like a ton of time thinking about the business or the industry. I've been out of it for 10 years and coming back to this dream scenario was probably not a good start and setting me up for a lot of disappointment.”

The story in Toews’ novel was inspired by real events that occurred between 2005 and 2009 in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, called the Manitoba colony, which was used as the background story for the novel. During that time, women ranging from three to 70 were drugged with cow tranquilizer, and raped in their sleep. Eventually all of the attackers were caught. 

Both the novel and the film “Women Talking” begin as a fictionalized result of those occurrences. Toews writes this idea that while the men of the colony are in the city bailing the attackers out, the women meet in a hayloft to discuss whether to stay and fight, to leave, or to forgive the men and do nothing. 

While Polley has had contact Mennonite communities over the years, and Toews is Mennonite herself, she still felt it was important to have Mennonite consultants  present at every level of the production. 

“As a non-Mennonite making this film, I didn't want people to be able to kind of point to those communities that are already, I think, very misunderstood and say, ‘Oh, this could only happen there,’ as opposed to it reflecting back at us as well. The kinds of issues we are facing in so many patriarchal societies, including our own,” she explains.

The film does not use the word Mennonite, name the colony, or give the name of a specific faith. “We're very, very true to the details of [the novel], and we wanted to get it right.” 

At the same time, Polley acknowledges those events did happen and have been well documented, so she didn’t want to shy away from them. 

Women Talking” is playing in theaters now.




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham