Polley, Sarah

  There is a pivotal scene in The Sweet Hereafter where Nicole, the teenage girl played by Sarah Polley, testifies at an inquiry into a school-bus accident that has left her paralyzed from the waist down. She lies. Then, under questioning, she lies again, her voice breaking with just the right edge of emotion. The quiet satisfaction of deceit is visible - barely - in her unwavering eyes, and in the hint of a smile that threatens from the corners of her mouth. But the lie also contains a terrible truth, a secret understood only by the girl's father, who watches in shocked silence. Playing the scene utterly still, Polley conveys a psychological depth that is uncanny. There she is, an actor portraying a girl who has come of age by learning to act - to lie and to tell the truth in the same breath. And just as her character closes the door on girlhood innocence, so does Polley. The child star who grew up in the green pastures of the CBC's Road to Avonlea is a child no more. And now the Toronto-based actor is making the transition to adult roles with the clear-eyed poise of a young Jodie Foster.

Flush with its triumph in Cannes last May - where it won three awards including second place in the Grand Jury Prize - The Sweet Hereafter opens the 22nd Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 4 to 13) this week. The movie, which will be released across the country in October, signals a new phase of maturity for its celebrated Canadian director, Atom Egoyan. But for the 18-year-old Polley, it marks a stunning rite of passage. Her performance, though contained within a superb ensemble, emerges from The Sweet Hereafter as a quietly devastating revelation. "Because she's so up front and seems to be completely clear in her logic and thinking," says Egoyan, "there's something very direct and plaintive 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."

Sarah Polley has made a career of defying convention. She is a serious actor who continually asks herself if acting is a serious enough way to spend her time. At 15, she left home to move into her own place in downtown Toronto. At 17, she dropped out of Grade 12 - and acting - to devote herself to left-wing activism full time. During an anti-Mike Harris protest at the Ontario legislature, she climbed over a barricade, got clubbed in the stomach and elbowed in the jaw by riot police, who knocked out two of her teeth - lingering baby teeth as it turns out. Now, Polley remains politically active, a committed socialist. But recently she has rekindled her career to become the hottest young star in the country.

In addition to The Sweet Hereafter, she is featured in two other new Canadian films at the Toronto festival, The Hanging Garden and The Planet of Junior Brown. She is currently shooting White Lies, a TV movie for the CBC. And she has casually disclosed a new talent: in her role as a teenage folksinger in The Sweet Hereafter, she performs four songs on the sound track, with a voice that has a stark, haunting beauty. Encouraged by the composer of the movie's sound track, Mychael Danna, she even recorded an extra song titled The Sweet Hereafter, to be released this week by Virgin Records as a radio single.

Meanwhile, American scripts are pouring in, along with critical praise. "The Sweet Hereafter was the best film in Cannes," Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, told Maclean's, "and the movie pivots on her performance. If it doesn't ring true the whole movie falls apart. But it's not a flashy part - it doesn't call attention to itself. And it's so well done you forget how difficult it is to do." Added Turan: "It comes as a surprise to me that she's an experienced actress, because there was a freshness, an unaffected quality, that people who are acting since they are kids often lose."

But Polley remains deeply ambivalent about her success. "I go from being really excited to really uncomfortable with it," she says. For someone who has acted since the age of 4, starred in a Hollywood movie (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) at 8, and been a fixture of family television, she should be used to it by now. Spoiled by it. Yet she seems miraculously unaffected. "I can't imagine anyone being in the entertainment business as long as she has being so completely levelheaded," says Egoyan. "I can't understand how it hasn't affected her. She's not self-absorbed. In fact, I think she forces herself to be socially committed as an antidote to stardom."

For an interview, Polley chooses the Epicure Cafe, an artsy hangout on Toronto's Queen Street West. As she walks in, she seems in no danger of being mistaken for a movie star. Heads do not turn. Conversations do not stop. Dressed in ragged blue jeans and a black top, Polley is fair and fine-boned, a slight, delicate figure, just five feet, two inches tall. She wears no makeup. Her pale blond hair is lank and unstyled. But there is something immediately striking about her soulful eyes, which are large and blue and alert with unguarded intelligence. Polley is not an obvious beauty. On camera, she bears a certain resemblance to Uma Thurman. "She has the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, which always appeals to me," says Toronto actor Don McKellar, who will begin working with Polley in Last Night, his first feature as a director, later this month, "She's very attractive. But she's not the kind of girl that you just look at. She's got that bratty yet mature quality, and that submerged intelligence."

In person, there is nothing submerged about it. As soon as she sits down, Polley begins to talk with disarming insight into herself. Fielding a compliment on the power of her understated performance in The Sweet Hereafter, she says: "I always feel like I'm faking it. The only way I feel I'm not faking it is to do nothing at all. I really don't consider myself an actor, or a performer, but maybe as someone able to fill whatever void there is among actors who do too much." The Sweet Hereafter, she adds, is the first time she has taken acting seriously. "I've given myself a very good suit of armor by saying this isn't what I want to do anyway, and it's just for fun. This was a real job all of a sudden." Polley had played a small role, as a babysitter, in Egoyan's previous movie, Exotica, but says she was "completely terrified" by the challenge of The Sweet Hereafter: "I looked at the cast and I looked at the script and I thought, 'I'm the only person who can f - - k this movie up.' "

Based on the powerful 1991 novel by American author Russell Banks, the story revolves around a big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) who cajoles residents of a small rural community into suing after a school-bus crash kills 14 children. The drama unearths several family intrigues, principally an incestuous relationship between Polley's character, Nicole, who is injured in the crash, and her father, Sam (Tom McCamus).

In portraying Nicole, who finds a redemptive clarity in personal trauma, Polley drew on her own experience of losing her mother to cancer when she was 11. "I was in a daze, a very happy childhood daze," she recalls, "and basically I came out of it the second my mother died. I didn't really experience a standard grief. All of a sudden people became fascinating to me. I became very aware of people being three-dimensional, and having motives and angles. Things became very clear and logical, which is what happens to Nicole. Somehow my mother's death brought me a kind of joy, a kind of hope. And that confused a lot of people." Polley hastens to add that she loved her mother, but "never really reached the age where I got to know her as a person."

The youngest of five children, Polley grew up in a show-business family. Her British-born father, Michael Polley, was a stage actor who moved to Canada and married her mother, Diane, an actress and casting director from Kingston, Ont. "She was a very precocious little child," recalls Michael, now 64 and retired from his second career in insurance. "She could read at a very young age. She would read all the scripts lying around the house. Initially, my wife and I both discouraged her from acting, but she was so keen we eventually gave in."

Sarah's brother Mark acted on and off as a child. But the youngest Polley is the only one who stuck with it. At 4, Sarah landed her first role, a bit part in Phillip Borsos's One Magic Christmas (1985). That led to TV work, and at 8 she starred in Ramona, a PBS series based on the books by Beverly Cleary. "That is when I became a thorough brat," she recalls. The same year, she landed the lead in Munchausen, British director Terry Gilliam's epic fantasy. Shooting stretched over seven months. Gilliam, recalls Polley, "was just insane. I think he probably wanted his own daughter to play the part but wasn't willing to put her through 20-hour days, and explosions going off beside her head, and being in freezing cold water all day. I didn't have a good time."

After Munchausen, Polley swore that she would "never go to the States or do another big-studio picture." And she has strong views about children going into show business. "I don't blame my parents, because they did everything they could to discourage me," she says. "But my kids won't do this, ever. It's not that it makes you grow up too fast. It stunts your growth. Because you're in a really foolish, false world with completely screwed-up people trying to get ahead. I don't know if it's any place for an adult, let alone a kid."

But at the time, as her father recalls, Sarah was a trouper. "She was so excited she didn't complain very much," he says. "It was only much later that we learned she shouldn't have been worked so hard." After the ordeal of Munchausen, Polley found a safe haven in family TV fare produced by Toronto's Sullivan Entertainment with the CBC and the Disney Channel. At 10, she delivered a Gemini-winning performance as a Cockney orphan in the TV movie Lantern Hill. And she began her six-year stint as Sara Stanley, the spirited heroine of Road to Avonlea.

Polley was a bit too spirited for Disney. During the Gulf War, she wore a peace symbol around her neck at an awards ceremony for children's television in Washington. Disney officials at her table told her to take it off, and the 12-year-old Polley firmly refused. After that, she says, Disney never called again, although she had previously gotten several auditions a year from the company. "And I told them if they wanted me to do publicity, I was going to say what I want. So that was the end of that. Just as well. I didn't really want to stand in Disney World and meet everybody."

As she grew into her teens, Polley began to feel stifled by the cozy confines of Avonlea. She was like a small-town kid longing for the action of the city. "I wasn't involved in the show mentally or emotionally," she recalls. "It was not the kind of thing I would watch. And the last couple of years I didn't really want to be there." But she stayed on because of contractual obligations. "I can't believe that they have kids signed to contracts when they are nine years old," she says. "I don't think a decision that you make when you're 9 should hold when you're 14."

In 1994, Polley finally broke out of her TV niche to act in Exotica and star in the Stratford Festival's Alice Through the Looking Glass, winning acclaim for her first stage role. For a time, she also got serious about school and dreamt of going to Oxford. But Polley left Toronto's Earl Haig Secondary School before graduating to plunge into politics. After flirting with various splinter groups, she worked for successful NDP candidate Peter Kormos in the 1995 provincial election, and for defeated NDP candidate Mel Watkins in the recent federal election. She has volunteered with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and delivered sandwiches to street kids wintering on Yonge Street. But she has tempered her stridency. "The biggest mistake I made," says Polley, "was talking to the press about politics, because it confirmed my worst fears. I'm paranoid about people thinking I'm doing it for my career - although it's ridiculous to be involved in left-wing politics for your career."

Seduced back into acting by scripts that she found hard to resist, Polley has now begun to discover herself through her work. "Basically," she says, "every character who I've played in the past two years has been exactly who I've been at that moment." Last year, as a vampish "Goth" girl in the CBC series Straight Up, she had the pleasure of burying the sweet blond image from Avonlea in black lipstick, heavy eyeliner and raven wig. And she played her first adult lead in the movie Joe's So Mean to Josephine, a slight but affecting tale of class-crossed lovers by Peter Wellington, a novice director based in Toronto. "I'd never heard of her," says Wellington, "and I'd never seen her show. I think she got wind of the script and was anxious to play a grown-up. She's really smart. For somebody who's been as successful as she is, she's without a hint of being spoiled and she's unfailingly pleasant."

The movie, which faded quickly at the box office, drew some warm reviews, despite carping from one Toronto critic who accused Polley of swiping Diane Keaton's trademark stammer. As Josephine, a flighty campus intellectual who has a dangerous fling with a blue-collar criminal, Polley was playing someone older than herself for the first time. And it is easy to see how, as a privileged actor seeking to connect with the dispossessed, she could identify with the character.

In The Planet of Junior Brown there is a similar dynamic. She plays Butter, a panhandling street kid who talks tough but is still hanging by a tether to her middle-class parents. It is her most hard-edged character to date. Like everyone else, the film's writer-director, Toronto's Clement Virgo (Rude), has nothing but praise for her. "Sarah has great actor instincts," he says. "With her I don't have to explain a lot, because she comes with her own work. And she's got a very workmanlike approach. Once you say 'Action,' she's in the moment. Once you say, 'Cut,' she's out of the moment." Adds Virgo: "She likes accidents. She doesn't get flustered by them. She goes with them and makes them part of the scene."

During the shooting, says Virgo, as he was trying to fix a patch of dialogue, Polley slipped off for a few minutes and dreamt up a vignette that solved the problem. The story, which became part of the scene, involves her character relating a childhood memory of going downstairs to sneak sugar from the bowl and finding her father in a compromising position. "Do you know what a hard-on looks like to a five-year-old kid?" she asks. "It's as big as your arm."

The story, which Polley says is not autobiographical, illustrates her gift for improvisation - and a subversive wit. It also touches on the disturbing issue of child-parent sexuality, which is so integral to her role in The Sweet Hereafter. While stressing that she has never suffered any abuse in her own family, Polley says she identified profoundly with her character in Egoyan's film. "Nicole is who I am internally in a lot of ways. Girls of 11 or 12, so many of them have that Daddy's-little-girl thing about them. They don't understand it. All they know is there's some tension there and it gives them a feeling of empowerment." Then she adds: "I never acted that out with my dad, because I was always working. I probably acted it out a lot more with men on the set, when I realized that crawling into their laps had a certain gravity to it."

The incest in the film version of The Sweet Hereafter is presented as a romance - sweetly, if creepily, consensual. "I'm not sure if you can use the word 'consensual' when it's a father and daughter," says Polley. "But it's seen that Nicole somehow likes it. She's a sexual being. I think what's really damaging is our inability to talk about things like that. Because people then go around feeling like freaks their whole lives because they were incested by their fathers." Then she adds: "I've talked to daughters who did feel pleasure, and of course they are livid and angry and feel completely destroyed by it. But they don't deny the physical pleasure."

Polley's relationship with her own father, she says, is unorthodox but unusually healthy. "We're like best friends," she explains. "I don't think he's ever fallen into the role of traditional parenting, and I've never fallen into the role of being a daughter. Every time I have a decision to make, he's the one whose advice I seek, perhaps because he refuses to give it. He's got kind of a godlike presence in my family." Michael Polley, in fact, is about to shorten the distance. This month, he will move from his country house in Aurora, Ont., to downtown Toronto - just two blocks from the Victorian house that Polley shares with her writer boyfriend. But Michael voices none of the anxiety one might expect from the sole parent of a child who left home at 15, dropped out of school and tested her slender physique against riot police. "I always felt that she was at her best when she was out of kilter with society in some way," he says. "The thing I've really liked about her is the way she's resisted all attempts to turn her into a so-called star. She doesn't too often get caught up in the bullshit."

Sarah's father recalls working on a play in 1956 with actor Albert Finney. "I remember him telling me at one point," he says, slipping into a British working-class brogue, " 'We're nothin' bloody special, mac, we're just doin' a bloody job like anyone else, like someone in a factory, except we got longer hours.' It's that kind of feeling that I've always had about Sarah. She just saw it as a job to be done, and not some great and glamorous role." As for Sarah's politics, Michael says: "That's delightful, although she may never make it big in the States because she'll probably say something to put her foot in it."

Polley is now approaching the celebrity crossroads. U.S. magazines have begun to notice her. Elle included her in its fall list of 25 people to watch. And The Sweet Hereafter's U.S. distributor has postponed the movie's release until December, hoping to capitalize on possible Oscar nominations. Polley, however, is doing her best to remain steadfastly unfazed by it all. "There have been a whole bunch of phone calls," she says. "Things that might or might not happen. But a lot of Canadian actors have big things happen to them and then they just go back to doing what they did before. I don't want to care enough that it would screw me up."

At The Sweet Hereafter's première in Cannes, Polley got a taste of glamor. One day, she was a socialist in the thick of campaigning for Mel Watkins, and the next she was riding a limousine in Babylon-on-the-Riviera. "Cannes was weird for me," she recalls. "There's an element of real magic to it, and you get really swept up. You can become consumed by the adrenaline - I wasn't immune to it. But you wake up the next morning and have to live with who you really are. And you're not a really big movie star. You're just like anyone else."

Guiltily, Polley bought a dress for the Cannes première, a no-nonsense pearl gown. So what will she wear for The Sweet Hereafter's opening night screening at the Toronto festival. "Oh, probably the same dress as in Cannes," she sighs. "I'm not one of these people who has to buy something new for every function. When I bought the dress, I figured I could wear it for at least three years."

Maclean's September 8, 1997