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July 8, 1999
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SJP


Sarah Polley grips stardom
By PAT LEE


How is it possible that Sarah Polley is only 20 years old?

She grew up before our eyes over five seasons on the candy-floss TV series Road to Avonlea. She's become Atom Egoyan's screen queen and this year has appeared in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, the hip indy flick Go and opposite Stephen Rea in the upcoming Guinevere. She's been a Vanity Fair cover girl, was recently dubbed Entertainment Weekly's "it" actress in the magazine's annual list of the hippest and most creative people in the entertainment biz and is an ardent social activist (even getting a couple of teeth bashed in during a protest a few years back).

But there it is, born in 1979. It's enough to make you weep.

Despite the impressive resume and history of good works, in person, Polley is a polite, engaging young woman who has seemingly not let fame - particularly her most recent south-of-the-border recognition - go to her head.

She was in Halifax this week to shoot a guest appearance as a muslin-swathed cult member on Rick Mercer's Made in Canada comedy series, her first trip back to the province since working on Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden.

Chatting after completing her scenes for Made in Canada, the otherwise calm and collected Polley was a tad rattled at the prospect of an upcoming visit with British legend Vanessa Redgrave, who's currently in Nova Scotia filming A Rumor of Angels.

Considering that Redgrave is the grand dame of mixing controversial politics with a long acting career, it's not surprising to learn she's Polley's role model.

"I always imagined there would be a moment in my life where I'd be ready to talk to her, like I'd know what questions to ask, because she is definitely my biggest hero," the young actress said of the meeting, which was arranged by others as a surprise.

"I'm writing an article right now for Premiere magazine about women who are political activists, so it's like this insane coincidence that she happened to be, like, within a couple of miles. But she really was the only English-speaking actress that I think completely didn't sell out and still politics is a big part of her life. She's editing this incredible paper - Marxism Today - and she's never, ever placed her career above her political beliefs."

Polley, a card-carrying and very left-wing member of the NDP, is also trying to balance a strong commitment to social causes and a career that sometimes finds her rubbing elbows with Hollywood's who's who.

While Redgrave was once considered a threat because of her strong political views, Polley is miffed that many people, particularly Americans, don't take her activist stance all that seriously.

"What I thought would happen is that there would be this awful reaction when I was in Hollywood over my political beliefs," said Polley, relaxing in jeans and a T-shirt backstage at Electropolis sound stage on the Halifax waterfront.

"Instead, they've sort of adopted it as this cute little gimmick. I just think they don't take it very seriously and they make it part of the story. 'Oh, isn't that cute? She got a couple of teeth knocked out.' Now the threat isn't as real and the Cold War isn't on anymore, so it can be just like an interesting little interview piece, which is almost worse.

"It's very insulting because it's not a gimmick. Obviously, I'd pick a more marketable one if it was," Polley said, laughing.

Interested in issues surrounding homelessness, poverty, health care and labour, the petite actress has been careful, though, not to let the publicity machinery oversell her involvement with these causes or overshadow the day-to-day work done in the trenches.

She said there have been times when the director of some gritty, urban film has tried to exaggerate her street smarts, as in, " 'You know, she knows about the streets.' No I don't . . . I've been to a couple of demonstrations."

The publicity surrounding her participation in one messy demonstration against the Ontario government four years ago - resulting in the aforementioned teeth incident - also still riles the actress, who called the media attention "offensive."

"The reason it's offensive is because I was the least hurt of anyone. There were single mothers who have to be there, on welfare, with, like, their heads gashed in and nine stitches and they're talking about this little 16-year-old with a couple of broken teeth. It then becomes this big sob story that everyone can glom onto, when the real issue is that there's, like, poor people and homeless people there getting their heads kicked in."

The reason the incident likely got so much attention was that her public involvement in politics came on the heels of leaving the exceptionally bucolic Road to Avonlea, in which she starred as Sara Stanley.

Typical teenager that she was, Polley was not a happy camper when she left the series but now looks back on the show with few hard feelings.

"In truth, it was a Canadian show with really high production values, and a lot of families really liked it, and a lot of little kids liked it," said Polley. "I think my disdain for it came from the fact that I got caught in a six- or seven-year contract . . . so at 15 (years of age) I was obligated to the same thing I chose to do at nine. I think it should be illegal, that kids shouldn't be allowed to sign contracts."

When she left Road to Avonlea, Polley was so fed up with show business she quit acting and threw herself into school and political interests.

Then came Atom Egoyan. The eclectic Canadian director offered her a small part in 1994's Exotica, followed a few years later by the star-making role in his Academy Award-nominated The Sweet Hereafter. The rest, as they say, is history. The Sweet Hereafter "was the first adult role that I did. That experience inspired me to want to be an actor and want to be a different kind of actor than I had been on television."

Since then, she's also appeared in several non-mainstream TV movies, like The Planet of Junior Brown, in which she plays the streetwise girlfriend of a homeless teen, and White Lies, a film about a hate group.

Other than meeting Vanessa Redgrave, the only other topic that flustered Polley was mention of two short films she's written and directed.

"They're first-time things and there are already problems with them that I'm not crazy about, but I'm going to submit one of them to the (Toronto) Film Festival and see that happens," she said, obviously not quite ready to blow her own directorial horn.

Despite growing fame in the U.S., Polley has no plans to leave Canada anytime soon and wants to work at home as often as possible.

She's also happy to be appearing in Made in Canada, Salter Street's snide look at the Canadian film and television industry, because the satirical show represents for her what's best about the country.

"What I think is really great is our national sense of self-deprecation. That's often brought up as a bad thing, but it's what makes us different than the States.

"That's a weird kind of paradox, where I'm completely nationalist about not being nationalist. I'm so proud of this country for not being proud of ourselves."


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