Sarah Polley stars in Atom Egoyan's new film 'The Sweet Hereafter'

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Tuesday, September 2, 1997

True Sarah strong and free

Polley unaffected by her journey on the road to stardom in Canada

By BRUCE KIRKLAND -- Toronto Sun

Sarah Polley in a hat   Sarah Polley is a star - Canadian style.
 Which means she is busy, talented, attractive and amusingly modest about her status as an exciting young actress, an arc that soared with The Road To Avonlea and her kid role in Terry Gilliam's underrated comic epic, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. She is the offspring of actors.
  "I really feel it's a Canadian thing," the 18-year-old Polley muses. "People really criticize that there is no star system in Canada and that people move (to Hollywood) for that reason and blah, blah, blah. That's the adopted mantra about Canada for actors. But it's my favorite thing about Canada because it makes people like Atom Egoyan."
 The similarly unpretentious Egoyan is the gifted Toronto filmmaker who made The Sweet Hereafter, Thursday's opening gala of the Toronto International Film Festival.
 Polley, who is so radiant and quietly powerful on screen that Egoyan shot her in extreme closeups to enhance the magic, plays one of the film's central characters. She is a teenager who has entered into an incestuous relationship with her father, who is played sympathetically by Tom McCamus.
 "I don't think that's unreasonable," Polley reflects, "in that there are good people who have made huge errors in their lives, even ones that probably ruin other people's lives."
 That's complicated enough, yet her character finds herself traumatized when she is criticially injured in a schoolbus accident that kills many of her fellow students.
 Egoyan was so impressed by the light in Polley's eyes and the obvious brilliance of her performance that he changed his filmmaking style. "I realized I could go closer and closer into her so, by the end of the film, we're right in her face."
 If it wasn't enough that Polley is the heart of The Sweet Hereafter, she also plays key supporting roles in two other major homegrown films in the Film Festival's Perspective Canada series. She is a panhandler working Toronto's mean streets in Clement Virgo's surrealistic drama, The Planet Of Junior Brown. She is the teen version of Kerry Fox's sister role in flashbacks in The Hanging Garden, a Maritime drama about family dysfunction and gender orientation.
 Although she has, in the past, indicated she doesn't dream of being an adult actress and may pursue politics, Polley is now at work on a controversial CBC-TV drama, White Heat, a `secret' project reportedly dealing with skinheads.
 In every case, you find Polley working with real people on gritty issue-oriented films, with Egoyan being her immediate example. "He never places his art or his reputation above the people he is working with and he has a sense of reality," she says in admiration. "This is a cultural thing, just a humility that is natural here but lacking in Hollywood."
 You find that humility in Polley's sense of self, at least as a star. Although she has no problem hitting the barricades to protest against the Mike Harris government in Ontario - a 1996 incident led to a furor about her choice of words in the protest - Polley is aw shucks about movie stuff.
 She was a featured red-carpet guest at Cannes when The Sweet Hereafter made its debut. "It seemed ludicrous to me," she says of the pomp and circumstance, "but when I was walking up I felt kind of tingly."
 Yet she had been plagued by doubts. "I had a recurring nightmare for a week that I would trip and fall flat on my face. As I was walking up, I actually felt the tip of my dress going under my foot and blurted out: `Oh my God, it's happening!' Then I caught myself." And now it's a big joke.