From child actor to award-winning filmmaker: Sarah Polley tells her own story in her hard-hitting new book

Writing a book is “the thing I’ve wanted to do the most”.

This may seem surprising coming from Sarah Polley, who at 43 has already made a remarkable career as an actress, screenwriter and director. But from her beginnings as a young performer to becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker herself, she has made bold and unusual choices in her work. Today, she has published a powerful collection of personal, courageous and invigoratingly honest essays, titled Run towards danger. They explore some of the most difficult experiences she has faced, professionally, as a woman, a daughter and now a mother herself.

Polley was hailed as ‘Canada’s sweetheart’ for her lead role in the feature film Road to Avonlea TV shows. As an actress she has worked with top directors from Terry Gilliam to Wim Wenders, Kathryn Bigelow and Atom Egoyan. His first feature film, away from her — which she wrote and directed when she was 27 — has won numerous awards. His personal documentary, Stories About us To saywas included in the top ten Canadian films of all time.

Polley spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Toronto.

Run towards danger

“I had a giant fire extinguisher fall on my head at a community centre. I had a concussion which was severe the first year and then intermittently quite limiting for about three and a half years. I would go through better stages, but I always had these limits on how much stimulation I could have, how much noise or light I could expose myself to without having an overwhelming headache or intense brain fog .

“After researching every type of treatment under the sun, I ended up at the concussion clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with a doctor named Dr. Micky Collins. His advice for me was different. Instead to exercise or participate in an activity until I feel symptoms go – at which point I would go to bed, rest or walk away from the activity – his advice was basically, “Your brain gets weaker from what you avoid, so your brain actually needs more exposure to the things that trigger the symptoms. Symptoms are actually opportunities to strengthen your brain, for example.” opposition to signs of retreat and retreat.

I had become very risk averse when it came to doing anything that would hurt my brain.

“It was, by the way, scaffolded with a lot of exercises, physical vestibular exercises. Every treatment he gives is different. I think it’s really important to see a professional doctor.

“In my case, I had become very skittish when it came to doing anything that would hurt my brain. This idea that heading towards the things that caused me the most discomfort was going to be the thing that made me stronger. – it was inevitably leading to a paradigm shift in the rest of my life.

All those stories that I had left half-thought, half-written, bleeding somewhere, that I turned away from, that I ran away from, were things that I found myself organically turned towards.

“All those stories that I had left half-thought, half-written, bleeding somewhere, that I turned away from, that I ran from, were things that I found myself organically turning to – and question me and not walk away just because they made me feel uncomfortable or hurt me.

“I wasn’t running into trauma that I couldn’t handle yet. I was dipping one toe in, then dipping another toe; I was going deeper and deeper watching these stories and writing these essays.”

Books instead of movies

“I have always written something other than films, it has been a constant in my life since I was seven years old. I have never shared it with anyone. Books have always been a refuge for me. I find still puzzled that i’m done i love making movies i found a way to express myself through movies i’m grateful for the work i have and the work i have to do but I like books way more than movies as a medium I don’t know if I should say this but I’m saying it, I feel like it’s a job for me to watch a movie.

Books have always been a refuge for me.

“The thing I would choose to do first and foremost would be read a book. Writing is the thing I think I’ve wanted to do the most. I just don’t think I ever thought I could actually do it. . seemed strange when I had this ability to tell stories in this other medium, and other people were interested in me doing this. There was room for me to do this. I just didn’t know not if I would ever have the courage to see if I could tell stories or express myself in this medium that meant more to me than anything else.”

Manufacturing Stories we tell

“I think the thing that made me want to do Stories we tell wasn’t finding out I had a different biological father, which, while a huge event in my life, wasn’t a new story. As soon as it happened, people said, “You should make a movie out of it. And I thought, ‘Why?’

“What was new to me, however, was when I saw my father’s response to the discovery of this information. I had hidden the secret of this discovery from him for about a year and I was really afraid of tell him – really scared of how he was hurt. maybe and maybe even how angry he might be. But I remember telling him, and his response was so generous. He started to write this long email to his siblings in England, where he wrote the whole story of his arrival in Canada, his relationship with my mother, them getting married and having children.

I was so interested in the kindness and generosity of his response, which struck me as new.

“My dad was a great writer and this story was about 40 or 50 pages long. His siblings, when they got this email in England, thought it was just this very beautiful account of his life in Canada with my mother and were reading it. It was only at the very end that he came to the role: “And then Sarah came and told me that she had done a DNA test and that I didn’t wasn’t his biological father.” That’s how he revealed it to his siblings, it was in this incredible, long, almost like short story about his life, with this giant bombshell dropped at the end .

“I was so interested in the writing he had done. I was so interested in the kindness and generosity of his response, which struck me as new. I had never heard anyone’s story before. ‘un answer this way before.”

Become a filmmaker

“The first pivotal experience for me was working with Atom Egoyan because it was my first time working on something that I thought meant something or had a purpose in the world. At the time, I just got out of Road to Avonlea. I was a full-time political activist. I just thought doing movies and TV was the most frivolous thing you could do with your life.

Director Isabel Coixet, left, and Sarah Polley, right attend a photocall to announce the filming of ‘The Secret Life of Words’ at the Palacio del Retiro hotel November 13, 2004 in Madrid. (Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

“There were such terrible injustices in the world and that’s where all our energy should be. Why would we do TV shows that I had contempt for?

“Working with Atom was the first time I saw someone do something that I thought was worthwhile. This process was not only creatively challenging and amazing to see this master filmmaker at work, but also it did it with so much humanity and respect. I realized, ‘Oh, is that an option? You can make a movie and still have your humanity?’ I hadn’t seen many examples of it, so that would have been the first idea I had that film was an interesting thing to dedicate a part of your life to.

“I think working with female directors was extremely important to my trajectory of becoming a filmmaker myself. I think having role models is extremely important. Working with Isabel Coixet and Kathryn Bigelow, seeing women in those positions was something that a lot of actors of my generation didn’t take advantage of it. It’s very hard to see yourself doing something that you don’t see anyone like you doing, so that was huge.

I think working with female directors was extremely important to my trajectory of becoming a filmmaker myself.

“These two women, Isabel and Kathryn, as soon as they heard that I was interested in making short films, took a very intense interest in what I was doing, pushing me forward and encouraging me; wanting to pull someone through the ranks because they knew how difficult it had been for them to get there on their own.I felt very framed and supported.

Sarah Polley’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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