Note to reader: Although this interview was done years ago, I wanted to include it for all of us who have followed Sarah Polly’s current career as a director. I was struck by her incredible passion, seeds planted, even as a teenager!
SARAH POLLEY INTERVIEW
BY LAURA GOLDSTEIN
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. “I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Like Alice in search of herself, Sarah Polley is adrift in a turbulent sea of ideas and opinions. The wide-eyed waif who starred in Terry Gilliam’s multi-million dollar fantasy film, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ; the mischievous pixie in the PBS series, Ramona and the child-woman, Sara Stanley in her fifth and final season on CBC Television’s, Road To Avonlea , is at a crossroads in her career.
“I have a lot of very definite goals and where I want to be in life and acting just isn’t one of them,” confides the pensive fifteen-year old, who genuinely seems oblivious to her own worldliness. “The biggest part of acting is being able to be expressive but there is also an intellectual process that goes along with it – to think like an actor. The real trick is to be able to take that intelligence and convey it and I am constantly frustrated with that. I just don’t have the same confidence in it as I used to.”
“All of my goals require an amazing amount of education,” says Polley, “and my dream is to go to Oxford. My family is from England and I have visited the campus many times. It’s not just the romanticism of the college but some of my literary heroes like Lewis Carroll and a lot of political scientists went there. It’s the oldest university in the world and it has such an incredible legacy and I want to be part of that.”
The youngest of five children who all tend to be “more academic than artistic”, Polley seems delighted to be compared to Jodie Foster who also realized very young the merits of a good education.
Trying to juggle school with a gruelling work schedule has always been Polley’s nemesis. “This career has been so good to me but I keep thinking that I ‘m only fifteen with so many responsibilities. I just don’t have any time for myself.”
Whether she is acknowledging a desperate plea to slow down (Polley made her acting debut at age four in One Magic Christmas and has worked steadily since then), or just heeding her inner voice at a bewildering point in any teen’s life, she is adamant that she wants to leave the show that has mirrored her passage to young adulthood.
“I asked specifically to be written out more this season,” says Polley who will be shooting seven of the thirteen episodes produced by Sullivan Entertainment. It’s really important to me that I leave on a high note.”
“Sarah is extremely bright and knows plot holes when she sees them, even in turn-of-the-century novels, so I’m not surprised that she’s interested in writing,” says producer, Kevin Sullivan. “Those talents also make her difficult to write for in that a lot of time is spent on her lines. Because she is in fewer episodes this year, it has allowed us to create material for her that is really special and I think that she has done some of her finest work this season.”
“The way I have matured personally and my character Sara has matured on the show is almost identical. When I started the series, I was ten years old, and I was very whimsical, dreamy and totally illogical. I had just started getting into poetry and writing at that time too. As I got older, I have become much more reasonable and logical and my character has as well.”
“I used to think of my Mom’s death (actress and talent agent, Diane Polley died of cancer when Sarah was eleven), in the context of my character and even how ironic that Anne, in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s books had also lost her mother. But that was the most stupid thing I could have ever done. It’s important to separate your job and your life. I think that it’s a sick trap to fall into when actors use their life experiences to portray a character. It makes my life so artificial when I use my Mom’s death for my character in crying scenes.”
Co-star Cedric Smith who plays Alec King in Road To Avonlea, knew the Polley family for many years before the series but became a very close friend to Sarah during this difficult period in her life.
“She was very fragile when her mother was sick but over five seasons on the show Sarah has really blossomed into a very unusually talented and sensitive young woman, “enthuses Smith. “She just showed me a play that she has been writing and it’s so earthy. What I love about Sarah is that she, like her character in Road To Avonlea, has great willpower and is not afraid to laugh at herself. Over all of the years I’ve known her, she will always be eight years old going on forty-three!”
When Polly isn’t immersed in shooting the series, she attends grade eleven at a high school for the performing arts in Toronto, supplemented by a tutor on set. She has established some very strong friendships and insists that there is no undercurrent of jealousy among her peers.
“In a way, I feel that my friends and I in the theatre program at school are on very equal ground because I never had any formal training, in fact I think that they actually have an advantage. They know that it’s not such a glamorous life.”
Any assumptions that these teens must be 90210 clones are quickly dispelled. In fact, they seem closer to the Bloomsbury Group than Melrose Place. Polley confesses that she loves a good argument and was up until 2:00 a.m. the morning of this interview arguing about politics and feminist issues with a group of close friends. Entertainment revolves around episodes of Seinfeld (“he’s so cool”), listening to Lenny Kravitz and going to jazz and blues clubs.
Although she does take some ribbing from her friends about Road To Avonlea being too sugar-coated she defends the Emmy award-winning series’ mandate to tackle more controversial subject matter each season, including the plight of the homeless, politics , literacy and the death of a child.
“I’m a minimalist,” Polly says, “Just jeans and shirts for me. I don’t like to clutter up my life with a lot of stuff. I would like everything to fit into a knapsack so it’s easy to just take-off.”
And that she did a year ago, travelling with her father, actor, Michael Polley, to Turkey, Greece and France.
“We didn’t rough it though,“ she laughs, “my Dad’s already done the roughing it routine. He’s past that. We stayed in hotels! He is the coolest Dad and I always get the most honest advice from him.”
“I know that I’m really going to miss the cast of Avonlea – they have been so supportive. Especially Mag Ruffman (Olivia ), who has always made me feel so secure. And Jackie (Burroughs who plays Hetty ), takes her work so seriously but is funny and lighthearted and a joy to be around.”
Polley is as pragmatic about her first on-screen kiss with actor, Jaimz Woolvett (Unforgiven ) in an upcoming episode (“I always envisioned that it would be so awkward but it was very relaxed”), as she is about slowly easing herself out of acting.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing this character too long – it’s time for both Sarahs to move on. I will be playing Alice , in Through The Looking Glass this summer at the Stratford Festival and then I want to concentrate on school. There is just so much I want to do…I’d like to be a writer. I’ve been working on a book for a long time. Finish my play. Or even be the Prime Minister some day!”
Somehow, we don’t doubt that she will do it – all!