The Globe and Mail: Alias Sarah

The multi-faceted Sarah Gadon tells Randi Bergman how she tackled a uniquely complex role in the latest Margaret Atwood screen adaptation.

As a Canadian woman, it’s hard not to worship at the altar of Margaret Atwood. But lately, her pre-digital prose has felt like sustenance for a new generation of feminists persisting in a precarious era for women’s rights. Hulu’s television adaption of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has struck a chord, inspiring new dialogue and even protests with its dystopian depiction of womanhood under theocratic rule. The forthcoming Alias Grace, a CBC and Netflix miniseries based on Atwood’s novel of the same name, feels equally timely.

Alias Grace tells the story of a 19th-century maid, Grace Marks, who was convicted and then later pardoned for the double murder of her employer and his mistress. Through Atwood’s interpretation of real-life events, Marks becomes an enigmatic mix of murderer and metaphor for the female experience. Written and produced by Sarah Polley, the series represents a shift for the CBC, whose earlier portrayals of Canadian Victorian life (à la Polley’s pastoral debut in Road to Avonlea) could be considered reductive. Alias Grace, on the other hand, is more nuanced. Case-in-point, its protagonist’s plea in the opening episode: “I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.”

The narrative of a complicated woman seems just what the world needs right now, and actor Sarah Gadon, who portrays Grace Marks in the six-part series that debuts on the CBC on Sept. 25, is ready for the challenge. I meet the 30-year-old on a discreet café patio in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood on a summer Sunday afternoon. Fresh faced and with her hair pulled back, Gadon’s striking, Hollywood-ready beauty explains why she was plucked from relative obscurity to star in an Armani Beauty campaign in 2015. She’s magnetic, inquisitive and palpably excited about Alias Grace and, as she describes it, “the task of trying to crack Grace.”

“I got so wrapped up in whether she did [commit murder] or not and the various layers of preparation, that I’d wind myself up into this ball of anxiety that I would just need to go for a run,” she says of preparing for the role.

“So it just became about chipping away at the versions of this person and trying to understand that. And that’s what I was most interested in while reading the book as well, the different layers of women, coupled with the different identities that are projected on us at various points in our lives.”

Together with director Mary Harron, Gadon developed shorthand for Grace’s many personas, in some cases playing them off each other in the same scene. Getting ready for the role also included dialect training to perfect a challenging Northern Irish accent and visiting Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village to learn how to perform mid-19th-century maid duties. What strikes me the most about the woman in front of me versus her characterization of Grace Marks, however, are her blue eyes. In person, they radiate an easygoing brightness, while on screen they’re impenetrably complex.

“She conveys incredibly subtle shifts of emotion,” says Harron. “There’s a lot going on underneath the still surface.” And Harron should know. The Canadian-born director has a penchant for murder, madness and complicated women, having previously masterminded American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page. “We wanted to embrace that there are multiple Grace Marks because there are multiple accounts of the murders,” says Harron. “Is she this innocent victim? Is she this terrible killer? Is she something else?”

As for her own identity, there’s no question Toronto-born Gadon has always been ready for the spotlight. When she was eight years old, she was cast in the role of a toy lamb in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker while a junior associate at Canada’s National Ballet School. “I remember going to costume fittings and the dress rehearsals and the performances and loving everything about it,” she says. After graduating from high school, Gadon set her sights on Hollywood, only to be immediately rebuffed by her teacher mother and psychologist father, who encouraged her to get a post-secondary education first.

While studying film theory and criticism at the University of Toronto, Gadon was able to act part time, landing a role on CBC’s The Border, then a game-changing turn alongside Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.

The film marked the first time Gadon worked with Cronenberg, and the partnership later continued through the feature films, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. “I realized very early that I was really lucky to work with such an incredible director at the beginning of my career,” she says. Gadon and Cronenberg reunite again, this time on screen, in Alias Grace.

On working with Polley and Harron, Gadon says she’s “never been part of a project where every point of the conception had a female influence. I feel as though the project is really intelligent and gendered in a specific way because of that.” Though Gadon’s resume is stacked with roles both large and small in films such as Belle, Indignation, Enemy and Dracula Untold, it feels as if Alias Grace is something else all together. “It’s been really hard to move on from this project because it was all consuming and deeply fulfilling,” she says.

Despite her Hollywood ascent, Gadon intends on maintaining a home base in Toronto. “I really like how privately you can live your life, which is why I’ve always been drawn to come back here,” she says. “I also think there’s something so fickle about the industry that, for my own sake, coming home to somewhere where I have a history has been really healthy for me.”

Fittingly, Gadon’s next chapter will begin at home when Alias Grace premieres at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. “I have no idea what I’m going to wear. Should I start freaking out about it now?” she asks.

Given Gadon’s fashion track record, she likely has nothing to worry about, having been dressed by labels such as Erdem, Max Mara and Armani, as well as taking on an ambassador role for Swiss watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on actresses to turn it out on the red carpet,” she says. “If a brand wants to help me do that, I’m grateful for it.”

“The first time we had the privilege of meeting Sarah, she visited the studio and locked her gaze on an understated fold-over, one-shoulder dress in a rich coral tone,” says Greta Constantine designer Kirk Pickersgill. “When she stepped out of the change room, there was no question that this was the one. Much like her roles, she transformed what was a pretty dress into something greater – something spectacular.”

Source: The Globe and Mail