Writers & Company

From child actor to award-winning filmmaker: Sarah Polley tells her own story in her powerful new book

Writing a book is "the thing I've most wanted to do," the Canadian actor, director and writer said to CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. Polley's debut book is a collection of personal essays called Run Towards the Danger.
Actor, filmmaker and author Sarah Polley, left, with CBC's Eleanor Wachtel, right. (Sherry Simon)

Writing a book is "the thing I've most wanted to do."   

That might sound surprising coming from Sarah Polley, who at 43 has already made a remarkable career as an actor, screenwriter and director. But from her beginnings as a young performer, to becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker herself, she's made bold, unusual choices in her work. Now she's published a powerful collection of personal essays, brave and bracingly honest, called Run Towards the Danger. They probe some of the most difficult experiences she has faced, professionally, as a woman, a daughter and now a mother herself.

Polley was hailed as "Canada's sweetheart" for her lead role in the long-running Road to Avonlea television series. As an actor, she's worked with leading directors from Terry Gilliam to Wim Wenders, Kathryn Bigelow and Atom Egoyan. Her first feature film, Away from Her — which she wrote and directed at 27 — won numerous awards. Her personal documentary, Stories We Tell, was included in the Top Ten Canadian Films of All Time.

Polley spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Toronto.

Running toward danger

"I had a giant fire extinguisher fall on my head at a community centre. I had a concussion that was severe for the first year, and then, on and off, pretty limiting for about three and a half years. I'd go through better stages, but always had these limits on how much stimulation I could have, how much noise or light I could expose myself to without getting a crushing headache or intense brain fog.

"After seeking every kind of treatment under the sun, I ended up at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion clinic with a doctor named Dr. Micky Collins. His advice to me was different. Instead of exercising or partaking in activity until I felt symptoms come on — at which point I'd go to bed or take a rest or walk away from the activity — his advice was basically, 'Your brain is getting weaker at what you're avoiding, so your brain actually needs more exposure to the things that are triggering the symptoms. The symptoms are actually opportunities to strengthen your brain, as opposed to signs to back off and retreat.'

I had become really risk-averse when it came to doing anything that would hurt my brain.

"This was, by the way, scaffolded with a lot of exercises, vestibular physical exercises. Every treatment he gives is different. I think it's really important to seek professional medical advice. 

"In my case, I had become really risk-averse when it came to doing anything that would hurt my brain. This notion that moving toward the things that were causing me the most discomfort was going to be the thing that strengthened me — it inevitably led to a paradigm shift in the rest of my life.

All of these stories that I had left half-thought of, half-written, bleeding somewhere, turned away from, run away from, were things I just found myself organically turning toward.

"All of these stories that I had left half-thought of, half-written, bleeding somewhere, turned away from, run away from, were things I just found myself organically turning toward — and wondering about and not retreating away from just because they made me feel uncomfortable or pained.

"I wasn't running into trauma I couldn't handle yet. I would dip a toe in and then I'd dip another toe; I would get deeper and deeper into looking at these stories and writing these essays."

Books over films

"I've always been writing things other than films, that's been the constant in my life since I was seven years old. I just never shared it with anybody. Books were always a refuge for me. I always find it perplexing that I ended up in film. I love making films. I've found a way to express myself through film. I'm grateful for the job I have and the work I get to do. But I like books so much more than films as a medium. I don't know if I should say that, but I do. I feel like it's work for me to watch a movie.

Books were always a refuge for me.

"The thing I would choose to do before anything would be to read a book. Writing is the thing I think I've most wanted to do. I just don't think I ever thought I would actually get around to doing it. It seemed strange when I had this ability to tell stories in this other medium, and other people were interested in me doing that. There was space made for me to do that. I just didn't know if I would ever work up the courage to see if I could tell stories or express myself in this medium that actually meant more to me than anything."

Making Stories We Tell

"I think the thing that made me want to make Stories We Tell was not finding out that I had a different biological father, which, even though it was a huge event in my life, wasn't a new story. Immediately when it happened people would say, 'You should make a film of this.' And I thought, 'Why?'

"What was new for me, though, was when I saw my dad's response to finding out this information. I had kept the secret from him of this discovery for about a year and was really scared to tell him — really scared of how hurt he might be and maybe even how angry he might be. But I remember telling him, and his response was so generous. He started to write this long email to his siblings in England, where he wrote the entire story of his coming to Canada, of his relationship to my mom, of them getting married and having children.

I was so interested in the graciousness and generosity of his response, which did feel new to me.

"My dad was a great writer and this story went on for about 40 or 50 pages. His siblings, when they got this email in England, thought it was just this really beautiful recounting of his life in Canada with my mother and were reading it avidly. It wasn't until the very end where he got to the part, 'And then, Sarah came over and told me she'd done a DNA test and I wasn't her biological father.' This was the way he revealed it to his siblings. It was in this amazing, long, almost like a novella about his life, with this giant bomb dropped at the end.

"I was so interested in the writing he had been doing. I was so interested in the graciousness and generosity of his response, which did feel new to me. I hadn't heard the story of someone responding in that way before."

Becoming a filmmaker

"The first pivotal experience for me was working with Atom Egoyan because it was the first time I'd worked on something that I felt meant something, or had some purpose in the world. At the time, I was just coming off of Road to Avonlea. I was a full-time political activist. I just thought making films and television was the most frivolous thing you could possibly do with your life.

Director Isabel Coixet, left, and Sarah Polley, right, attend a photocall to announce the filming of "The Secret Life of Words" at the Hotel Palacio del Retiro on November 13, 2004 in Madrid. (Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

"There were such terrible injustices in the world and that's where all of our energy should be. Why would we be making TV shows that I had disdain for?

"Working with Atom was the first time where I saw somebody making something that I thought was worthwhile. This process was not just stimulating creatively and amazing to watch this master filmmaker at work, but also he did it so humanely and with such respect. I realized, 'Oh, that's that's an option? You can make a film and retain your humanity?' I hadn't seen many examples of that, so that would have been the first inkling I had that film was a worthwhile thing to dedicate some of your life to.

"I think working with female filmmakers was hugely important to my trajectory of becoming a filmmaker myself. I think having models is so hugely important. To get to work with Isabel Coixet and Kathryn Bigelow, to get to see women in those positions was something that a lot of actors of my generation didn't get the benefit of. It's very hard to see yourself doing something that you don't see anyone like you doing, so that was huge.

I think working with female filmmakers was hugely important to my trajectory of becoming a filmmaker myself.

"Both of those two women, Isabel and Kathryn, as soon as they got wind that I was interested making short films, took a very intense interest in what I was doing, pushing me forward and encouraging me; wanting to pull someone up through the ranks because they knew how hard it had been for them to get there themselves. I felt very mentored and supported."

Sarah Polley's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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