On Movies by Steven Rea

Sarah Polley, director of "Take This Waltz." When she met Michelle Williams, it was "just so obvious" she would star.
Sarah Polley, director of "Take This Waltz." When she met Michelle Williams, it was "just so obvious" she would star.
Posted: July 08, 2012

Sarah Polley has won awards and recognition for her work as an actress (for Go, for The Sweet Hereafter, and for John Adams), for her writing (an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Away from Her) and for directing (again, Away From Her).

Which makes her eminently qualified to talk about, yes, acting, writing, and directing. On her second feature behind the camera, Take This Waltz — opening Friday at the Ritz Five — Polley delivers a beautifully wistful portrait of a woman who tumbles head-over-heels for a soulful, handsome artist.

And that would all be fine, if she weren't already married, and in love.

Polley doesn't appear in Take This Waltz. Instead, she has cast Michelle Williams as Margot, a freelance writer who lives on a sunny Toronto street with her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), a chef busy on an all-chicken-recipes cookbook.

On a trip to Nova Scotia, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), who turns out to live on the same street she does. And who turns out to make her heart beat just a little faster. He responds in similar ways to her.

"It's a film about desire," Polley says, on the phone from her Toronto home. "How it feels, in all its deliciousness, but also, you know, its difficulties, its despair."

Polley's screenplay, which takes its title from a Leonard Cohen song, was on the celebrated Black List — an annual roundup of Hollywood's most-buzzed unproduced screenplays — in 2009. Williams was among the people who read it, and loved it.

Then the actress drove to Toronto to discuss the project with Polley, and that was that.

"I knew of her, of course — I was a huge fan — and she knew about me, but we'd never actually met in person," Polley says. "And I felt, after meeting her, that I finally knew who the character was. Margot was always a bit of a mystery to me — I understood the other characters a lot better. But meeting Michelle, she really fleshed the character out for me, and she just brought so much to it that wasn't in the script.?…

“It was just so obvious: That's who's going to play the part. I can't imagine the film having worked with anybody else."

Polley, who is 33 and began her acting career when she was 5, was struck by Williams' insights, and enthusiasm, but also by her total lack of movie star affect.

"Michelle drove herself from New York to Toronto and then drove herself back the same day," she recalls. "I'm thinking, Don't you get it? You're allowed to make so many demands. You're a movie star. Like, you can be really obnoxious.

“It seemed like a very different mentality than that '80s movie star attitude — these people with all their stuff."

Polley laughs. ”It's funny, because I really think there's like a generation of actor that's way lower-maintenance than the one before or after, and Michelle is right in there.?… She's so self-sufficient.”

She is also, Polley says, self-deprecating.

It's the same thing Polley saw in Julie Christie, whose performance as a woman falling into the heartbreaking blur of Alzheimer's earned the British actress an Academy Award nomination in 2008.

"I think there's a kind of magic about both of them which is a bit indescribable, that which will all of a sudden come out," Polley says of her Away From Her and Take This Waltz stars. "They're both really smart, intellectually, and that shines through.?... And I think they're both fearless. Julie wouldn't describe herself as fearless — she thinks she's terrified — but she'll try anything.?...

“And Michelle's the same. She doesn't have a lot of fear of falling on her face, or inhibition. She'll just go places I think most actresses wouldn't go.

“So, in terms of their process, they're both very, very similar. And they're both kind of crazily self-deprecating, and unsure of their own talent. And both so wrong in that self-perception!"

Polley, who has a baby girl with her husband, law clerk David Sandomierski, has been working on another project for a while. Well, in her head, anyway. Since she was 17, having already starred in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Atom Egoyan's Exotica, and The Sweet Hereafter, Polley has dreamed of filming Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.

Sometime this winter, her new role as mother allowing, she plans to finish the screenplay and get the production rolling.

"It's one of the most fun novels you'll ever read in your life," she says. "It's the story of Grace Marks, who's this incredibly famous, celebrated murderess in Canada, in the 1840s. She was an Irish immigrant, and she was 16, and she murdered her employer, who was this rich farmer, and his housekeeper. She was in the Kingston [Ontario] penitentiary for many years, and there was always a lot of debate over whether or not she did it, or was she just an accomplice, and there are many different accounts. Was she mad? Was she completely innocent? Was she a cold-blooded killer?

“And it's about her relationship with this doctor who comes to assess her in the prison, who is trying to get to the bottom of what her role was, and who uses these new psychoanalyis-type techniques to talk to her.

“But it's just a really gripping, chilling, beautiful novel. You can't put it down."

At one point, Polley thought she might cast herself as Grace. Now, she'll have to find an actress who can convincingly play 16, and play 40. Nevertheless, Polley hasn't quit acting altogether — she was in Splice, and Mr. Nobody, and John Adams after directing and promoting Away From Her — but she says writing and directing are her priorities now.

"The difficulty with acting is you have to have so much faith and trust in the filmmaker, and if the filmmaker is generous and empathetic, the experience is fantastic.

“But it's scary to give so much of yourself emotionally and physically to someone, and it's a gamble, right? Most of the time it's worth it. Most of the time that's a risk worth taking," she says. And then Polley laughs again.

"But when it's bad, it's really bad.?... Things can go sideways in ways that leave real scars. I kind of can't believe anybody does this for a living full time!"

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies

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