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Sarah Polley

Sarah Polleyb. 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 intelligence, 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, probing 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 in any way with her political activism – which is clearly a fundamental priority in her life – 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 Award 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. She also gave a striking supporting performance as a preternaturally wise teenager in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). She was forced to bow out of the Stratford production in order to have surgery; a metal rod was inserted in her spine to correct a severe case of scoliosis. 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 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 spectacular 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 Festival de Cannes; Polley was named Best Supporting Actress by the Boston Society of Film Critics and received two Genie nominations: one for Best Leading Actress and one for 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, integrity or conviction 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 populist Hollywood blockbuster Almost Famous (2000) in order 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 the allegorical Hollywood horror flick Dawn of the Dead. She continues to direct – she contributed an episode entitled “The Harp” for the television series “The Shields Stories” (2004) featuring adaptations of short stories by author Carol Shields – and is still very involved with her political concerns – she was appointed to a transition advisory group by new Toronto mayor David Miller in 2004, and in April 2005 she (along with Don McKellar) lobbied the federal government for increased support for the distribution and marketing of Canadian films. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband, the Genie Award-winning editor David Wharnsby.

By Andrew McIntosh

Film and video work includes

One Magic Christmas, a.k.a. Disney’s One Magic Christmas, 1985 (actor)
Friday the 13th series, 1987 (actor; TV, one episode)
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, 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, 1993 (actor; TV, one episode)
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)
eXistenZ, 1999 (actor)
Guinivere, 1999 (actor) Go, 1999 (actor)
The Life Before This, 1999 (actor)
Made in Canada series, 1999 (actor; TV, one episode)
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)
My Beat: The Life and Times of Bruce Cockburn, Life and Times series, 2001 (narrator; TV, one episode)
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, 2004 (director; writer; TV, one episode)
Siblings, 2004 (actor) Sugar, 2004 (actor)
Don’t Come Knockin’, 2005 (actor)
The Secret Life of Words, 2005 (actor)
Away From Her, 2006 (director; writer)

Note: Updated to July 19, 2006


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