If it feels like we’ve known Sarah Polley her whole life, in a way, we have. The actor-turned-filmmaker, now 43, grew up in the spotlight of the cameras before retreating from the glare of public scrutiny for a more private life. But in her new book, Run Towards the DangerPolley is unsparingly honest about how her early years in the industry affected her in ways that would reverberate for decades.
Acting since the age of 4, by 8 Polley was bringing kid-lit icon Ramona Quimby to life on TV and starring in Terry Gilliam’s epic (but fraught) the Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But most Canadians of a certain age remember Polley as the befrocked Sara Stanley in the saccharine CBC series Road to Avonlea. Polley carried the show for six years before she was written out in 1996 at age 14, chafing against the demands and constraints of child stardom.
“As a kid, I felt very scared and exploited,” Polley says from her home in Toronto. “But I also was lucky enough to have experiences in adulthood in similar environments where I did have agency, where I did feel protected and surrounded by good people.” As an adult, Polley’s roles for her included exquisite performances in films like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me. “So those scars don’t feel as deep for me anymore because they were sort of healed through present experiences.”
“But most child actors aren’t as lucky as I was,” she continues. “I think that people get left really shattered by this experience. I have met the occasional child actor where this wasn’t the case, but it’s pretty rare.”
I think the first versions of some of these essays, some of which were written 20 years ago, were solely therapy.
A collection of autobiographical essays, Run Towards the Danger traces “the most dangerous stories” of Polley’s life—“the ones I have avoided, the ones I haven’t told, the ones that have kept me awake on countless nights,” she writes. As someone who has always valued her privacy de ella, Polley was initially reluctant to delve into memoir territory, but ella soon recognized she’d slowly been writing her own story over many years. “I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t finish or publish these essays until I’d done a lot of the work in therapy,” Polley notes. “I think the first versions of some of these essays, some of which were written 20 years ago, were solely therapy. I needed them to move beyond that to feel like they were worth sharing.”
One essay in particular immediately attracted media attention, in which Polley reveals a violent encounter with former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi when she was only 16. In the piece, she examines her reasons for not coming forward when Ghomeshi was arrested for sexual assault in 2015, and in the process deftly lays out why so many women ultimately stay quiet. “There’s no such thing as the perfect victim. Trauma does things to your memory that don’t make sense to someone who hasn’t lived or studied it,” she says. “I guess what I wanted to offer up was my own mess, and hope that in looking at that, people would get a better sense of how common this is, and how tangled up those kinds of inconsistencies are with an experience like this.”
While the headlines over Polley’s Ghomeshi essay threatened to overshadow the book’s much wider themes, Polley was heartened by the response, and received plenty of positive messages from people sharing their own experiences. “That’s not to say that there aren’t trolls that come out—of course there are. I just thought there would be more, and I thought they’d be smarter,” she quips.
Polley explores trauma and the body in multiple ways in the book, from her scoliosis surgery as a teenager to dealing with endometriosis and a high-risk childbirth. Even the book’s title is taken from medical advice Polley received following months of suffering post-concussion symptoms after a fire extinguisher fell on her head de ella at a community centre. Instead of avoiding the everyday things that were apparently causing her discomfort, the doctor told her, she needed to push through and do them.
“I think my relationship to my body was one of dissociation for a long time, because it was a source of pain and had failed me at various points,” Polley says. “But I don’t think I realized the scope of what I had been through until other people started reading the book and commenting on it. I think I thought I was a big suck for complaining. To have people go, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve been through a lot,’ it’s something of an adjustment for me,” she admits. “The truth is, as women in general, we do go through a lot, and we don’t make a big deal of it. But this is relatively new, these conversations we’re having publicly about our bodies.”
Polley also has a nuanced perspective on what it means to be a woman in the public eye. Today, you’re unlikely to see her on the red carpet in a designer gown, but she recalls the pressures of her to present a certain way during her acting days. “When I was 19 or 20 and having that moment of a lot of exposure, it was really expected that you would be a model as well—you were going to be selling clothing. And I was a socialist, and I didn’t believe in selling anything for anybody,” she says wryly. Red-carpet glam also never sat well with her. “Why would I want to contribute to an idea of femininity that I don’t subscribe to myself?” she says. “That was often what was expected, like, ‘Let’s put you in these high-heeled shoes; let’s choose this mini skirt.’ If that’s your jam, that’s awesome. It just wasn’t how I dress.”
Polley recalls agreeing to appear in Vanity Fair‘s annual Hollywood issue in 1999, on one condition: She’d wear no makeup and her own clothes.
She recalls agreeing to appear in Vanity Fair‘s annual Hollywood issue in 1999, on one condition: She’d wear no makeup and her own clothes. Surprisingly, the magazine went for it, and Polley ended up on the cover dressed casually in a black top and coat, alongside then-upcoming stars including Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson. “We’ve come so far—now you do see people come to the Oscars in their sneakers, or not wear any makeup—but in those days, it was insane. You seemed crazy,” Polley points out.
Time and distance from the Hollywood machine has brought a new perspective on the merits of style. “I think I have more appreciation now for fashion as an art form, which I didn’t at all in those days. To me, it was all superficial,” she says. “And I have more appreciation now for what it means to have a sense of the aesthetic. But it’s just not me. I’m just never going to be somebody who takes more than 30 seconds to get dressed in the morning. When I put the tiniest bit of makeup on, I feel like I’m wearing a mask. I can’t wear high heels because I’ll have pain for days,” she adds. “I am just not made to be in that world, but I’m way less judge-y now of people who do enjoy it. Now, I actually feel like I was a serious killjoy about it all, but I also don’t judge myself for not wanting to advertise for people.”
While she hasn’t worked in front of the camera in more than a decade (though she says she’d be more open to it now if the right opportunity came along), Polley is back in the spotlight—this time on her own terms. . She’s already working on her next book (a novel) and recently wrote and directed her first film in 10 years. Due out this fall, the adaptation of Canadian author Miriam Toews’s novel Women Talking, set in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia, features a high-profile cast that includes Rooney Mara and Frances McDormand. “It tackles some of the really sticky, difficult stuff that as a culture we’ve been trying to reckon with—violence, and violence against women,” Polley says.
While she was apprehensive about returning to a film set post-injury and amid the pandemic, she found that the counsel that lends her book its title had become her guiding ethos. “It’s very easy to back away from things if you feel anxious,” she explains. “If I’m not doing something because it’s going to present a challenge, if that’s a danger, I need to actually run towards it.”
Photo: Luc Montpellier