Sarah Polley: ‘I didn’t care about pleasing a slug like Weinstein’
“You know what somebody asked me today? They asked if I was worried that men wouldn’t want to see a film called Women Talking.” Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley throws up her palms. “My entire life I’ve been going to see movies about men talking. Some great films: Glengarry Glen Ross, 12 Angry Men… Nobody ever asked if women like me wouldn’t be interested because they were about men!”
Women Talking – which is in the running for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at next month’s Oscars – is the first film that Polley has directed in over a decade. It is adapted from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name, which in turn was based on a shocking series of real-life crimes. In 2009 in the Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia, a group of nine men were charged with the rape and sexual assault of 151 women and girls. The victims had been drugged with cattle tranquilliser sprayed through their windows at night; they awoke in pain, underwear missing, sheets soaked in blood. Within this conservative Christian group, victims who tried to speak out were told they’d invited the Devil into their homes with their “wild female imagination”. It was only when one young man was caught inside another family’s home (and subsequently shopped his accomplices) that the sheer scale of the violence came to light.
Carried by a powerhouse cast including Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley, Women Talking is set in the tense 24-hour period following the perpetrators’ arrests. The Mennonite elders have not only gone to bail the men out, but have given the victims an ultimatum: stay and forgive, or leave and accept eternal damnation. Yet the women come up with a third possibility – stay and fight. Up in a hayloft, they discuss their options over the course of the film.
“I was drawn more and more into the idea of this group of women in conversation,” says Polley, “being given a very short period of time to figure out their entire world.”
In person, Polley has a watchful presence. Hands folded in her lap, she meets my eye levelly, and lets silences settle between us. “I’m an introvert,” she says. “I’m shy. I don’t think I’d ever have gone into performance if I didn’t have actor parents who encouraged me.”
In Run Towards the Danger, a collection of autobiographical essays published last year, Polley revealed how traumatic her early years in showbusiness had been. Born in Toronto in 1979, she first appeared on screen in the 1985 Disney film One Magic Christmas. Her mother, Diane, was an actress and casting director. Her father, Michael, a British-born actor and a Monty Python fan, was thrilled when Sarah was cast as plucky Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Yet Gilliam turned out to be exactly the kind of director against which Polley is now defining herself. She recalls the hyena peals of his laughter ringing out across the “unsafe” Munchausen set, on which she was required to run under burning logs, spend hours shivering in cold water tanks, and ended up in an ambulance with temporary hearing loss after an explosion went awry.
When Polley contacted Gilliam in her mid-20s to seek assurance that children were no longer being put in danger on his sets, he apologised for any residual stress but denied she had ever been at risk. After she went public with her accusations, her Munchausen co-star Eric Idle backed her version of events. “She was in danger,” he tweeted. “Many times. It was amazing we never lost anyone.”
Polley now feels that although Gilliam “was magical and brilliant and made images and stories that will live for a long, long time, it’s hard to calculate whether they were worth the price of the hell that so many went through over the years to help him make them”. But, she adds, “we’re so used to the idea of the dictatorial auteur that I wonder if we can still take [a filmmaker] seriously if they don’t carry themselves that way. Maybe – but it’s a hard mould to break.”
Soon after the filming of Munchausen, Polley’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and in the week Sarah turned 11, Diane died. “You’re so adaptable as a kid,” Polley recalls. “Everything keeps moving. It took me many years to realise how big that loss was… and how much it impacted me.”
By then, she was known as “Canada’s sweetheart”, and was the star of a successful Disney TV series, Road to Avonlea. But her political activism lost her the favour of Disney executives – in protest against the first Iraq War, she wore a CND badge at a press event – and her life became unstable. She left home at 14, and moved in with a boyfriend the following year. At 16, she alleges she was hurt during a sexual encounter with Canadian radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, then 28. (Ghomeshi was acquitted of several alleged sexual assaults in 2014; he has not responded to Polley’s allegations.) Then, at 18, she learned that Michael Polley wasn’t her biological father: a DNA test proved that Sarah was the daughter of Harry Gulkin, a film producer with whom her mother had had a brief affair.
Family members had different recollections of the events surrounding the affair, and this sparked what Polley today calls her “general fixation on the process of memory”. Her 2008 directorial debut, Away from Her, was about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; Julie Christie was Oscar-nominated for her lead performance, as was Polley for her screenplay. Four years later, she tackled family history in the playful documentary Stories We Tell, which included interviews with both Gulkin and Michael Polley, and combined ersatz and genuine home video footage to show how we use stories to rationalise or repress the truth.
Polley then took time away from film to raise her three children with her second husband, law professor David Sandomierski, but, in the intervening years, she spoke out about #MeToo. In 2017, she wrote in The New York Times about being summoned in the late 1990s, at the age of 19, to meet producer Harvey Weinstein (who would be convicted of rape in 2020 and sentenced to 23 years in prison).
“He told me,” she wrote, “that a famous star, a few years my senior, had once sat across from him in the chair I was in now. Because of his ‘very close relationship’ with this actress, she had gone on to play leading roles and win awards… ‘That’s how it works,’ I remember him telling me. The implication wasn’t subtle. I replied that I wasn’t very ambitious or interested in acting, which was true.”
To me, she repeats the line about her lack of ambition, but adds: “I wasn’t completely free of the need to please, to not rock the boat in certain situations. So, while I didn’t care about pleasing a slug like Weinstein, I was still in many compromised positions with many other people.”
On the set of Women Talking, she says, “the cast and crew were generous in sharing their own stories, which were then woven into the film”. Listening to them, Polley became increasingly aware of how “women turn past trauma into funny stories, and live with them that way for years, until we realise: ‘Oh, that wasn’t that funny after all.’
“The laughter and dismissal,” she goes on, “are ways of coping, of not addressing how sticky and uncomfortable things were. But laughter can save your life. In the hardest times, the bleakest, most tragic and horrifying times, the ability to laugh, to let the humour seep in, is what allows people to survive.”
Polley says the group spent a lot of time discussing forgiveness, how “when the harm is ongoing, then forgiveness becomes problematic. It can lead to more harm. For me, forgiveness is a bit of a North Star. But it isn’t for everybody. And it shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be a linear thing, either. Forgiveness can come and go. You might forgive for a while, then… not.”
One of the most beautiful moments in Women Talking is a sequence showing teenage boys in the Mennonite community. Focusing on their soft, freckled faces, the camera asks: which of these children already feel entitled to abuse women? Can they be taught to think differently? Is there hope?
“Women Talking is about men, too,” Polley says. “Hierarchical systems of power hurt everyone; the men don’t get off unscathed, y’know? Those boys are not yet formed – [have] not yet been taught all these insidious lessons about what it means to be a man, or what it means to be a woman.”
But, Polley adds, “I have a sense there could be a newness to the way we look at these things.” She smiles. “Yes, I am hopeful. I think it’s a hopeful film.”
Women Talking is out on February 10