Sarah Gadon embraces ambiguity of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Canadian actress stars in lead role as a teenage Northern Irish domestic worker and immigrant in Canada in 1843, who is sentenced to life in prison for her involvement in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 1:13pm

Sarah Gadon is not your typical young Hollywood star. For starters, she lives in Toronto. She has made her name by starring in the idiosyncratic films of David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). During the interview, she expounds not only on her latest juice cleanse, but also on subjects such as the importance of textiles to a culture and “emblems of female vanity” throughout art history.

Which may be why the 30-year-old is poised to become the latest it girl – make that it woman – of TV’s current feminist streaming wave, joining a club that includes Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale, Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie of GLOW and Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones.

From Friday on Netflix, she can be seen as the enigmatic title character in Alias Grace, adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood. The six-part limited series is led by a team of impressive women, including director Mary Harron (American Psycho) and writer-producer Sarah Polley (Away From Her). Atwood was also involved as a supervising producer.

At the centre of it all is Gadon, who gives a mesmerising performance as Grace Marks, a housemaid and Irish immigrant fending off near-constant abuse in colonial-era Canada. First seen contemplating her own reflection in the mirror, Grace is a mystery to everyone around her – including, possibly, herself.

“When I watch the show, it’s a real exploration of female subjectivity that gets me really excited,” says the actress. “That’s the power of women making images, opening up this discourse and this dialogue about how women are seen.”

Polley’s quest to bring Alias Grace to the screen began two decades ago, when as a teen she first read Atwood’s novel. Her agent rightly sensed that Polley, then a child star known for her role in the series The Road to Avonlea, might want to branch out beyond acting and suggested she try to option the rights.

“Thankfully, I didn’t get them at 17, because I wouldn’t have done a very good job,” says Polley, now an accomplished writer and director.

But the novel, and especially its elusive protagonist, made an impression.

Published in 1996, Alias Grace is inspired by the real-life figure of Grace Marks – something like Canada’s answer to Lizzie Borden. A teenage domestic worker and immigrant from Northern Ireland, she was sentenced to life in prison for involvement in the 1843 murders of her employer, a wealthy Ontario farmer, and his housekeeper.

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In Atwood’s rendering, Grace is alluringly inscrutable and essentially unknowable.

“I’d never read a character that complex, a woman or a man,” says Polley, who was able to snatch up the rights some years later.

But finding an actress who could convincingly play Grace as a teenager, a young woman and in middle age – and do a perfect Northern Irish accent – was no small feat. Harron had directed Gadon in the 2011 horror movie The Moth Diaries, while Polley had acted with her in the 2004 Canadian indie Siblings. Both were impressed by her composure and self-assurance.

“Sarah has this gravity onscreen, which could suggest someone who’s been through a lot,” says Harron. “She has an old-soul quality that we needed for Grace. She can do very delicate shifts of emotion, even when listening or reacting, even when being still. Her face is very emotionally transparent. It’s like water, with little shifts under the surface.”

In addition to capturing Grace’s complexity, Gadon mastered the tricky accent by listening to BBC Radio Ulster and asking friends in Belfast to record portions of the script. The constant manipulation of her jaw gave Gadon “brutal headaches,” she recalls with a wince.

She also had to learn how to cook and clean like a 19th century domestic servant, since Grace is nearly always engaged in some kind of physical labour – sewing, scrubbing the floor, emptying chamber pots, laundering clothes. Harron says it was critical that the series showed, “how these young girls just worked from morning until night.” So Gadon was sent to Black Creek Pioneer Village, a historical re-enactment camp outside Toronto, and studied Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a Victorian housekeeping guide.

Gadon acknowledges that the physical, technical and emotional demands of the role – not to mention the long hours – occasionally took their toll. “I’d get to a point where I was paralysed with anxiety,” she says.

But Harron praises Gadon’s meticulous preparation, likening her to a British theatre actor. Gadon’s discipline may also stem from her training in ballet. She began performing professionally at nine years old in a production of The Nutcracker and eventually segued into acting.

Though Gadon wanted to move to LA once she graduated from high school, her level-headed parents – her mother is a kindergarten teacher and her father a therapist – insisted she go to college instead. Polley attributes Gadon’s “terrifying confidence” to her grounded family life: “Sometimes you meet someone who is that at ease and at peace in their own skin and the only explanation is they are one of the very few people who have two totally stable parents who stayed together and didn’t die.”

At the University of Toronto, she pursued a degree in film theory but also started working with fellow Torontonian Cronenberg, starring as Carl Jung’s wife in A Dangerous Method and Julianne Moore’s dead mother in Maps to the Stars.

Gadon is often described as Cronenberg’s “muse”, a term that seems to offend her Canadian modesty. “It’s so ridiculous,” she says with an eye roll. “He’s such a genius that he doesn’t need me for inspiration at all.”

The director also has a supporting role in Alias Grace as a minister sympathetic to Grace’s plight. At Polley’s request, Gadon told Cronenberg of the offer in an email, jokingly assuring him that he’d have way more lines than Atwood, who makes a cameo. (The series, which is a co-production with the CBC and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, might be the most Canadian thing since Strange Brew.)

Alias Grace arrives less than two months after another long-gestating Atwood adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale, swept the Emmy Awards, and like that series, deals with reproductive rights, social class and women’s sexual exploitation. “It doesn’t feel like a coincidence,” Gadon says of the current Atwood trend.

Particularly as a number of sexual misconduct scandals have brought new attention to women’s lack of power in Hollywood, Gadon describes working on such a female-driven series as a “special moment.”

While her performance in Alias Grace will almost certainly bring more high-profile offers from Hollywood, Gadon has no plans to leave Canada permanently. “I will always view Toronto as my home,” she says.

Eager to generate material that will allow her to stay put north of the border – and inspired by Polley – Gadon has also begun to contemplate roles beyond acting. “Sarah has been really encouraging me to think – what kind of stories do I think need to be told and is there any way I can be instrumental in helping those stories get to the screen?”