TORONTO – About halfway through Sarah Polley’s essay collection “Run Towards the Danger,” she notes that she spent much of her 20s “mostly limiting my acting roles to ones in which I could express a lot of pain.”
It offered a great “catharsis,” the 43-year-old writer and director says in a recent interview from her home in Toronto, because off-screen, her life was plagued by personal and professional pains.
During these years she was living with a severe case of endometriosis. Well into an acting career that started at age four, she had also begun to resent the demands it placed on her, even as a child.
She writes that she was 11 and working on the CBC series “Road to Avonlea” in the southern Ontario town of Uxbridge when her mother died of cancer back home in Toronto.
“The idea of playing a light character that’s happy and giggling all the time was a real stretch for me,” Polley says.
“If I saw crying on the call sheet, it was really not a problem. (But) from the age of 17 to 32, when I was diagnosed, I was frequently in debilitating pain. That of course informed a lot of the choices I made and who I was.”
“Run Towards the Danger,” out Tuesday, retraces a difficult childhood lacking parental figures, a film career marked by blistering male figures, a high-risk pregnancy and a concussion that kept Polley from working for several years.
One essay describes a sexual encounter with former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi that allegedly turned violent when she was 16 and he was 28.
Polley says she considered coming forward in 2014 when Ghomeshi was charged with several sex-related charges involving multiple women. A trial ended in his acquittal in 2016.
But she writes that friends, family and lawyers advised against sharing her story, and warned that her account may not be believed because she continued to correspond with Ghomeshi in the years that followed.
“It was the hardest to put out there,” Polley says of the essay.
“I will be happy to have put it out there if it starts a conversation about how difficult a decision this is for so many women to make.
“What I hope is that this particular essay shines a light on what that process looks like, how difficult it is and what the obstacles are for people making that decision.”
The Canadian Press sent Ghomeshi a request for comment Tuesday through Roqe Media, where he’s the host, CEO and executive producer of an online interview program focused on the Iranian diaspora. Another request was sent to lawyer Marie Henein who defended Ghomeshi in the 2016 trial. Both requests were unanswered Tuesday afternoon.
In “Alice, Collapsing,” Polley dives into her time as the lead in a Stratford Festival production of “Alice Through the Looking-Glass.”
She was just 15 at the time, splitting her days between Toronto where she lived with a new boyfriend and work in Stratford, Ont. while struggling with the brutal pain of scoliosis.
As she writes it, “I was growing and shrinking, growing and shrinking,” much like her famous character, who Polley associated less with her signature innocence, and more with the predatory relationship the real-life inspiration, Alice Liddell, had with author Lewis Carroll.
“She’s this little girl lost in this completely absurd world and she’s being spoken to in ways that don’t allow for her youth, her innocence or her lack of knowledge,” Polley adds in an interview.
“That was really resonant to me as someone who was living in an adult world when I was very young. My youth wasn’t accounted for a lot of the time.
“There were so many echoes in that story for me then and now, it feels like an artery for me.”
Polley, who also explored memory in her 2012 documentary “Stories We Tell” and her film “Away From Her,” says she’s unsure why she’s so fascinated by it.
“I’m interested in how narrow our view of memory can be, and also how our relationship to those memories change over the years based on how present life goes.”
Today, she is mother to three daughters and assumes each will have three entirely different memories of who she was as a mother.
She is also three years recovered from a concussion that, from 2015 to 2019, left her unable to write and with little control over her body. Polley says her doctor suggested the book’s title when he advised her that the “cure” was to meet challenges head on.
“I (realized) that the only way that my brain was going to get better was by doing the things that were hard for it, that caused the most discomfort,” she says.
“Seeing that work in a physical sense really made me map that template onto the rest of my life and my relationship with my memories.
“Most of these essays were just left half done and bleeding somewhere, I didn’t want to touch them, they just made me sick. I didn’t know why I kept writing them. But I went in guns a-blazing after that concussion treatment.”
Still, Polley says she doesn’t feel like the person she was before the concussion. Which isn’t at all a bad thing, she adds.
“I feel stronger, I’m able to handle 100 times more. I feel like I have agency now.
“As a kid, I had all the expectations of being an adult, but none of the agency, and I think people forget that even in an average childhood how frustrating that lack of being able to direct your own life is.
“The older I get, the more fun and carefree life becomes, it doesn’t matter that I have kids or responsibilities; I feel increasingly light as the years go on.”
The new Polley is also no longer opposed to returning to acting, though she says it’s unlikely to ever become “some hungry ambition.”
The change of heart, she explains, is thanks to having “put stories in the past where they belong” with this essay collection.
“I interrogate the limits that I put on myself really carefully now and put myself in more challenging situations,” she says.
“So far, that’s been an exhilarating thing. I imagine that, along the way, there’ll be moments where I fall flat on my face.
“But I think that’s just part of the bargain you make if you decide to take risks. At least for now, it all feels worth it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2022.