How Sarah Gadon tackles the challenges of doing meaningful work in an era of binge culture
She's been acting since she was 10 — and never losing her passion has been the key to surviving the industry
I Fell Out of Love is a CBC Arts mini interview series where artists untangle the concepts of art, passion, work and money. What follows is a conversation about the philosophies, practices and consumption of art — and the drive to keep making it. Do you need to love what you create? Does seeing art as work make doing what you love impossible? Not always.
In public-facing artistic careers, output is often seen as a marker of success. How many jobs you get, how much you contribute to any given content platform — it's all equated with professional gain and even personal fulfillment. And so you do it all again...and again.
This is why it's refreshing to hear Canadian actor Sarah Gadon grapple so thoughtfully with the nature of her work and artistry. Here, she talks about her careful career choices, how she's balanced them with artistic goals and financial considerations, and this cultural need to keep working and producing. She also touches on a few of acting's unique challenges: the illusion of effortlessness and glamour; how the public aspect can obscure private creative needs; and the impact of emotional labour.
Gadon has worked on a variety of prestigious films and television shows including CBC's Alias Grace, written by Canadian legend Sarah Polley. She's also worked with other celebrated directors and actors, like David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, and, recently, Mahershala Ali on the third season of True Detective. When asked about her approach to acting, she doubles down on the importance of prioritizing integrity in one's work, not losing perspective on a job and holding on to one's creative aspirations.
Gadon also explains how she looks to the careers of certain creatives in film and television as diverse blueprints of success. It's an activity that reminds her to determine success on her own terms — not anyone else's.
Sarah MacDonald: You spent the better part of your childhood training to be a dancer and started acting when you were 10. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue acting?
Sarah Gadon: Sure. I mean, when you're 10 years old, I don't think there's a conscious decision in terms of the greater context of a career. But I really fell in love with performance through dance — that was the entryway and introduction to what performance was. I went to the National Ballet School [of Canada] as a junior associate. When I was there, I was selected by James Kudelka to be in his new reimagining of The Nutcracker. That was the first time I was ever privy to a professional level of production and performance. I was enamoured with it. I remember the rehearsal very clearly now, even though I was probably only seven or eight years old. I remember when he came into our studio for the audition. I remember the fittings. I remember stepping out onto the stage — at the time, it was called the Hummingbird Centre — looking at the darkness of the crowd and loving the sense of routine: going to the stage, getting ready, waiting for the performance. I also loved the sense of community with the other dancers.
So, after that, I heard a girl in my class at school was auditioning for this school called Claude Watson School for the Arts. She explained to me what the school was like, and I went home and asked my parents, "Can I audition for this school? You know, so-and-so is going to this school, auditioning for it, and I want to, too." My parents were kind of surprised, but then they looked into it and signed me up for an audition. Then I got in! I went to this performing arts school when I was 10 years old. At that school, you study half the day and fast-track your academics, and the other half you study visual art, dance, drama, mime, music...And that's when I was introduced to other kids who had agents and were acting. I begged my parents to be able to do that, which they kind of let me do on summer vacations.
But I think during my experience in the ballet world, even as a young girl, I really thrived. I loved the discipline of the ballet world. But I didn't have the same obsession with being a ballerina that my other peers had — I think I always knew that. So transitioning into acting just was more organic.
SM: Do you believe you need to have a passion for the work that you do to succeed or feel creatively fulfilled?
SG: Absolutely. I think that the life of an artist is such a non-traditional path to choose in life. It's such an unstable path to choose — a discipline that I don't think you can pursue unless you have passion. Really, that passion sustains you through the difficult but joyous life of being an artist.
The life of an artist is such a non-traditional path to choose in life. It's such an unstable path to choose — a discipline that I don't think you can pursue unless you have passion.- Sarah Gadon
SM: When was the first time you saw an acting job as a job — something more routine or perhaps mundane in feeling?
SG: My introduction into the professional television and film world was so gradual. My parents both had full-time jobs, and they couldn't take off work to be on set with me when I was underage. I was mostly just auditioning and working in the summertime on indie films or as a guest star on television shows or doing commercials. So the world to me was very special, always. This was something special that I was able to do during a specific time of the year. And I was always just so in love with being on set.
It wasn't until I was a teenager, after I turned 16 — when I was able to be on set alone more and was able to work a little bit more — that I started doing a lot of episodic television. I remember being there and seeing a lot of the adult actors around me feeling kind of powerless in terms of their creative ability to express themselves or powerless in terms of their ability to have control over their characters. And that was the first time I saw what it was like to be a series actor on a network TV show. And I think that really influenced me artistically, and it's one of the reasons I've been so hesitant to sign a six-year option on a TV show.
I saw both sides of it. The glamorous side: the stability and work, knowing you have a job to return to year after year, the accolades and the fans, maybe the monetary stability to go with that. But I also saw creatively, day to day on set, what the trade-off was. And that profoundly impacted me as a young performer.
SM: In a recent interview with Refinery29, you read an email Sarah Polley sent you that said, "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." I think this is a really optimistic, unstressed way to look at your work. But do you ever feel pressure to keep booking jobs for money or status or to keep up a certain momentum? Essentially, do you feel the pressure a lot of us feel to constantly be doing something — to be part of the hustle?
SG: Absolutely. I feel that pressure constantly. I think we're at a point right now in our culture, in popular culture specifically, where output is aligned with success. So however many jobs you can book is equated with your success. It doesn't matter if those jobs are good. It doesn't matter if you felt creatively fulfilled. More equals better. I think [this notion] is in direct correlation with how many platforms there are for content and how much content is being consumed at such a rapid rate — binge culture.
All the directors that I love, and all the directors I studied growing up or in film school at U of T — the [Agnès] Vardas of the world, the [Stanley] Kubricks of the world — they were the people that were outwardly known for waiting it out, so their jobs were really aligned with all of the correct elements to make the project they wanted to make. And, back then, that was really power — waiting and crafting and really creating this project or this film the way you wanted to. And that was always equated with success. I think we've noticed this massive shift [since then].
But I think the truth is every artist is different. And getting to know myself creatively, especially as an adult over the past decade, you know, I know I'm not the type of actor that can go back to back to back and just keep churning out work. I like to be really thoughtful about my work. I have a lot of creative and artistic integrity [when it comes to] who I want to work with and the kind of projects I want to do.
The reality of that is you're always playing this waiting game, and you're always kind of trying to wait it out for that one job that you think is going to be special. And then, in between, you're trying to find balance. "What's a good job to do to sustain [myself] economically that aligns with my creative values?" That's a constant struggle. As an artist, I know I will always be dealing with my struggle. That's the job. That's the career.
SM: I'd really like to get your thoughts on the idea that artistry always involves a certain level of emotional labour. For actors, it seems to be on another level — inhabiting characters, discovering or rediscovering emotions, the research involved in preparing for a part...
SG: Yeah, I think that's a totally true statement. I think I'm only still learning about the way my work impacts my life personally. I think that I take jobs and there's a real separation between my work life and my private life. Then, you know, six months after the job is over, I'll look back at my personal life and the choices I've made — the things I was interested in, the way I was coping — and I realize that my work has had a profound on my personal life. That's not necessarily a negative thing; that's just how it is. And that's something I'm still learning about.
You have to really find your coping mechanisms. If you don't, I think it's really easy to get burnt out.- Sarah Gadon
SM: Have you ever fallen out of love with what you do? And if so, how did you find your way back to being in love with it?
SG: I think you can get really frustrated as an actor because you constantly have to put yourself out there. And you're also walking the line between the illusion of it feeling effortless, very glamorous, and, you know, the reality of it — which is pride-swallowing, really challenging and almost like, I feel, a mental Olympics. How do you keep perspective and not lose yourself, and not compare yourself to others when the industry is constantly doing that for you? [laughs]
You have to really find your coping mechanisms. If you don't, I think it's really easy to get burnt out. I'm not saying I never do — I definitely do. Those moments when I do feel really disillusioned or feel like I will never break through to the next level or book another job...I think that's part of the way you mature as an artist, coping with that. I think it's hard, though. I definitely think there are some artists that never figure that out.
SM: I think with most successful Canadian actors, like yourself, there's often a narrative of the actor going off to conquer America or the world and be something for all of us. Does that impact your work at all?
SG: I often look to [the careers of] European actors that I love and respect and admire, like the Penélope Cruzs or the Marion Cotillards of the world, who really grew careers in their countries of origin, and then crossed over and were able to work in America — but then go back and work in their countries, too. I've always thought that was very smart as an actor.
You know, we have such a thriving industry in Canada. Studying film at a young age, I remember realizing and learning that while Hollywood may be the commercial epicentre of the industry, it's not necessarily the artistic heartbeat of film or TV — that other industries that fall outside the system have really rich histories of making content that's very intriguing. I knew that it would be wise to try and foster a career here and in the U.S. If things are drying in the U.S. or, at times, it's not going my way, I can come home and work in Canada — and vice versa. If there are things I'm not getting cast in, then I can look to another market to try and find work. I always thought that was smart, creatively speaking.
SM: My mother-in-law has been an actor for over 50 years. It's a marvel to see how enthusiastic she still is about the work — her excitement about a good script or film, or coaching a student and watching them progress. How do you see yourself working as an actor in the future? What are the things you're excited to do in an artistic sense?
SG: I'm really excited for the next stage in my career. I really want to be in control of the kinds of stories that I want to put out there in the world. As an actor, you have no control over that. I've always tried to track directors and people that I love and find ways to work with them, but then there's this other level of developing your own show or optioning your own material. That's something that I'm actually already doing, and I'm really excited to see how that pans out. The development side of the industry is much slower; it's a long game. It's really exciting to be fostering that side of my career.
SM: My last question is a little out of left field, but it has been bugging me literally since January: when True Detective was airing week to week, were you aware of some of the fan theories out there that your character was the missing little girl all grown up?
SG: I mean, I didn't know anything about anything when I was making True Detective! I only read the scenes that I was in. I had no context for anything that I was saying or what my character meant to the greater story. I think that's part of the way that Nic [Pizzolatto] likes to kind of reveal and conceal plot elements — and maybe foster conspiracy theories. So, all of that was news to me.
SM: From the first episode, I told my partner, "I'm pretty sure it's Sarah Gadon's character. What a crazy twist!" And then right until the end, I was like, "It's going to happen. Someone is going to reveal it. She's the little girl!" It must be fun to have that level of participation from audiences.
SG: [laughs] You know, I'm not a conspiracy theory kind of person to begin with. But I love that people are so invested in this show, and I feel really lucky to have been a part of it. It really struck a chord with so many people, and it's special when you're able to be part of a project like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.