In the strangely sexy thriller Splice, Sarah Polley plays Elsa, a brilliant scientist whose intelligence is matched only by her ambition. Together, these attributes lead her to defy her partner and lover, Clive (played by Adrien Brody), by secretly adding her own DNA to the human-animal embryo they were developing together. The result is a bizarrely beautiful creature named Dren, who quickly blossoms from scientific curiosity into a humanoid monster with thoughts—and a libido—of her own. It’s a case of science run amok, a cautionary tale that, from Polley’s perspective, does not ring true in today’s world. “I have quite a bit of faith in the scientific community,” says the 31-year-old Canadian actress and filmmaker. “They are pushing boundaries and experimenting with things that could lead to disastrous consequences. But I do believe that most scientists are people who have invested that time and energy for the good of humanity, and not for their own personal gain.”
It’s a strikingly optimistic, some might argue naïve, position for a fiercely independent artist who has spent the better part of her life questioning and opposing the status quo. But Polley has mellowed since her earlier days of hard-core political activism.
Though she had risen to fame as a child actor on the hit Canadian series Road to Avonlea, Polley chose to abandon her budding career. She dropped out of high school and rallied against the newly elected right-wing government in Ontario, and while on the front lines of a protest in 1995, had two teeth knocked out by a riot cop. “I was just responding to the world around me,” Polley says. “I felt like it wasn’t an option to not become politically active. It’s ultimately unethical to not be proactive about voicing discontent and trying to organize around it. How can you sleep at night if you’re not doing everything in your power, every day, to fight against injustice: social services getting decimated, people being forced to live on an unlivable welfare diet and seeing the homeless rate skyrocket?”
Amy Millan, lead vocalist for indie rock group Stars, felt the same way. Along with Metric singer Emily Haines, she founded a disarmament group, which Polley joined. “She was at the youth rally I started, and she got up and spoke when she was just 12,” says Millan, still visibly amazed. “She knew exactly what she wanted, what she believed in and what she stood for.”
What Polley didn’t want was a career in Hollywood. Her portrayal of a school bus accident survivor in Atom Egoyan’s acclaimed Canadian indie, The Sweet Hereafter, not only earned raves, but also transitioned her from juvenile parts to more mature roles. But even after her return to acting, Polley turned down what, for Kate Hudson, became a career-making role. Poised to star in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous as super-groupie Penny Lane, Polley quit after months of rehearsal. As if the title of the film was prophetic, she cites the grandiosity of the production and distaste for the fate of whoever played Penny as reasons for exiting the film. (Indeed, Hudson’s considerable talents are often squandered on bland romantic comedies.)
“I do think you can make really good movies that end up being commercial, but it’s hard to set out making a commercial film and have it end up being good. So, generally, I gravitate toward independent films,” she says. As it turns out, Almost Famous was a critical success and fan favorite, but her decision to turn down the movie nevertheless set the tone for the rest of her career. Polley christened herself an actress who would have complete control over the choices she made, and that meant a zealous loyalty to small-scale filmmaking, as well as complex and compelling stories. With the exception of the zombie remake, Dawn of the Dead, Polley’s films don’t play at a theater near you. “The less market interference, the more likely it is that a movie will have some kind of merit or quality,” she says.
In 2006, Polley put her philosophy to the test with her feature directorial debut, Away from Her, based on a short story by Alice Munro. In it, she explores an elderly couple’s struggles with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. “In my imagined best-case scenario, the film was going to play in one theater in Toronto for a week,” she says. “I would have been happy with that, as long as I was happy with the film.” Instead, Away from Her garnered Oscar nominations for its star, Julie Christie, and for Polley’s screenplay.
Suddenly, she found herself on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, surrounded by box office powerhouses, armies of handlers and a tidal wave of screaming fans—the kind of Hollywood maelstrom she once tried to avoid. This time, however, she was there on her own terms. “It was thrilling,” she says. “One good thing about not needing or expecting a great response is that if it does come, you can just have a ball with it and treat it like a shiny new toy. Who wouldn’t have a lot of fun at the Oscars? I’m really relaxed about all that stuff at this point. I don’t take it too seriously.”
This summer in Toronto Polley will begin shooting the dark comedy Take This Waltz (named after a Leonard Cohen song), starring Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman. The script she wrote, which centers on a love triangle, made the 2009 Black List, studio executive Franklin Leonard’s annual compendium of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Polley, who was wracked with self-doubt while shooting Away from Her, is approaching this project with the confidence of an auteur. “I know what to expect now. There’s a lot to think about, certainly, but I realize now that it’s just part of the process. It’s not because I don’t know what I’m doing, which is what I thought before.”
Her newfound authorial confidence has filled the void left behind from her days as an activist, but sometimes Polley wonders if it’s enough. “I’m perfectly able to live a life outside of political activism,” she insists, “but I feel nostalgic for the clear-headedness I had then. I don’t think my politics have mellowed at all, but my activism certainly has. I constantly ask myself, Is what I’m doing now enough? That’s the thing about any kind of activism, and it’s also the thing about making art: you can’t ever measure the difference you’re making. You might be making none, but it’s better to do something rather than nothing—to have a little bit of faith that even one percent of what you do makes a tiny difference. That’s enough.”