Since breaking out as the unofficial muse of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, Sarah Gadon has done a little bit of everything — multiple Canadian indies, a Spiderman movie, and last year’s critically acclaimed Alias Gracemini series, which nabbed her a Canadian Screen Award for best performance. Up next, the Toronto-born 31-year-old will appear in the new season of True Detective (beginning January 13), playing a true crime reporter opposite Mahershala Ali. It’s yet another interesting career move from an actor who isn’t up for the typical “pretty girl” roles. In advance of the show’s premiere, Gadon spoke with Refinery29 about how True Detective changed TV, her wack New Year’s Eve wellness ritual, and why even celebrities suffer from Insta-envy.
I follow you on Instagram, so first thing’s first: Can you explain why you spent NYE in an ottoman?
Ha! We were at a dinner party at a friend’s place in Vancouver. It was actually his parent’s house, and he told us about this game that he played growing up where everyone in his family would get into the ottoman. So we decided to do it, but with a New Year’s theme, so you had to get in, we closed the ottoman for 10 seconds, and then you had to burst out and yell what your focus of the new year was going to be.
That’s some X-treme wellness. As a Toronto person, I have to say it sounds very Vancouver.
It is totally the most Vancouver thing you could ever do. It was like a re-birth. It was actually really fun.
What did you yell out?
“Year of the breath: never shallow, always deep.” That was my tagline. I’ve been focusing on breath in my work for the past year, so this is about carrying it into my life.
Meaning like, slow down, take time to breath?
In a personal context, yes. In work, I started studying with Lindy Davies a couple of years ago who is an acting coach. She does a lot of breath work. I trained as a dancer for most of my life and the breathing in dancing is completely different than with acting, so I basically had to retrain my body to breath from my diaphragm. It helps you to remain present and manage emotion.
Speaking of staying present, you’re also on a 30-day digital detox. What prompted that?
I actually did it last January and it was so great. It started because the year before last people kept recommending all of these books to me and I found that when I would sit down to read, I didn’t have the attention span. That’s an embarrassing thing to admit. I would start reading a book and become anxious, so I decided to delete Instagram and Twitter on my phone and just see what happened.
I started reading and it had this profound impact on my year. I was so much happier because I wasn’t looking at everyone’s awesome vacation videos. I was almost looking forward to it this year. I love Instagram, but it got to a point in December where I would sit and watch videos of people decorating cookies for hours.
It’s kind of nice to know that even celebrities suffer from Insta-envy.
All the time. When you’re in a profession like acting or directing or writing or any kind of freelance job, it a challenge not to compare yourself to others period. Never mind when you have this device that gives you the impression that everyone is constantly working. The mind games are so unhealthy.
What will you do with all of that time you don’t spend creeping old crushes?
Reading is the biggest one. Last year when I was off social media, I started feeling really self-conscious around people in social situations because my friends would still be on their phones all the time — it’s no longer rude, we’ve passed that. I almost felt naked, so I downloaded the New York Times app and whenever I’m killing time or other people are on their phones I’ll just read the news. It’s so great. When do you ever close Instagram feeling more informed?
Avoiding Twitter on the same month that your extremely buzzy TV show premiers. Co-incidence or coping strategy?
It’s funny, I don’t think I realized the following that the show has before I booked the job. And then the press release came out and I got more emails of congratulations than any other job I’ve booked in my life. I realized people really care about this show. I think it has played a big part in the massive evolution of television. It was one of the first to break so many rules about how TV is made, who TV is made with. Cary [Fukunaga] directing all of the episodes of the first season really changed how people see television. If he hadn’t done that I don’t think Mary Harron would have directed all of the episodes of Alias Grace. It really made television an auteur’s medium.
What attracted you to the project?
I’m really excited because this is the first show that Mahershala [Ali] has ever carried. Maybe people don’t realize that because he’s a successful Oscar winner, but this is his piece. One of the reasons I took the job was to watch someone like him work.
Had you met him before you started shooting?
I hadn’t, but his reputation precedes him. Everyone I know who has worked with him said he is so wonderful.
And how did real thing measure up?
He’s such an incredible actor and he’s also my favourite kind of actor: He’s not an overnight sensation; he’s been a working actor for so long and he’s having this beautiful, entirely deserved moment. Watching him work was so great for me. Talk about breath. He is so centred and he takes his space and his time in a way that is really generous, which is pretty rare to see in this business. It was a reminder for me that it’s okay to ask for what you need and that you can do it in a gracious way.
Do you think asking for what you need can be more difficult for women?
Yes. Yes. I think because women don’t often get to be leaders, when that opportunity arises you’re just trying to take the productions forward and be the workhorse and the champion. But as an actor, there are times when you need to be more selfish, be it another take or more time with something. When I’ve been in that position, it’s not that you’re afraid to ask for it, but you almost don’t want to because you want to be a team player, but at the same time, the stuff you do that’s on camera is what stays forever.
I interviewed you a few years ago, right after you got the part in Spiderman 2. At that time I thought, oh, here’s another talented Canadian off to conquer the world of American blockbusters, but your career has been a bit different — a lot of indie and auteur-driven projects and less standard Hollywood fare. Has that been by design or are you just waiting for your Marvel franchise moment?
I’d totally don a cape. I had the chance to indulge in some action this past summer while shooting Vampires Vs. the Bronx. I found the physical aspect of the character thrilling. I think with the roles I have played, it’s not so much strategic as just always want to work with smart, likeminded people. I think I’m curious about people and stories that are outside of the mainstream.
And yet you have the look of your classic Hollywood rom-com leading lady. Have those parts come your way?
They have. When a job comes in, I look at it in terms of the context of the world that we live in. When I started working in the film industry, I was lucky to work with artists who had the most incredible amount of integrity — someone like David Cronenberg — and that really stuck with me. And then when I worked with Sarah Polley and she is just so amazing. I remember I was asking her about this job that I thought maybe I should take and she said something to me…I wonder if I can pull up the email she sent me. One sec. Okay, here it is:
“If you think it’s a great role and really love the script then go for it. But at this point when you have so many interesting projects coming out soon, I think you should be clear that you are a lead actress unless it’s a great film or a great person that you want to work with…if you have any hesitation, don’t do it. I think you’re about to be able to pick and choose between so many incredible parts and any time off in between is life lived to bring to roles that you love.”
That last line has been such a guiding light to me in terms of how I look at work. Publicists and agencies have created this illusion that actors who are “hot” are working constantly. To have someone that you respect so deeply tell you that your life is more precious than the work you will ever do and that that is the space you need to protect.
It’s good advice, but maybe easier said than done for actors just trying to make rent.
Definitely. My goal in the beginning of my career was to become a working actor. That was my main priority and there was a lot of strength and creativity in that. When I moved further along, I allowed my goals to evolve as I did. That’s when I started to ask: Who do I want to work with? What characters do I want to chase?
It strikes me that you might have the perfect level of celebrity: successful and well known, but nobody’s rooting through your trash to see what you ate for breakfast. Is that something you have consciously cultivated?
I think so. The first big job I ever had was A Dangerous Method with Keira Knightley who was a household name and had to have security sleeping in the room next to her because she had so many stalkers. When you’re close up to that, it’s not glamourous. I’m really grateful to have a normal life, fee life where I can mostly do whatever I want.
But you can still borrow a really great designer dress.
And you’ve worked with some of the hottest leading men of our time—
It’s a really particular celebrity, that kind of heartthrob space in pop culture that men occupy and I have worked with so many of them: from Rob [Pattinson] to Michael [Fassbender] to Jake [Gyllenhaal] to James Franco, Jamie Dornan…
If I were a different kind of person, I would ask you who the best kisser is. And you would say…
I don’t kiss and tell.