Three years ago, Sarah Polley's sensitive and perceptive feature film directing debut, Away from Her, opened to widespread praise. Her second movie, Take This Waltz, which she describes as a romantic drama with a light touch, starts shooting July 12 in Toronto.
In the interim, though, the actor chose to make a monster.
The former Road to Avonlea child star plays a sort of modern-day Madame Frankenstein in Splice, Vincenzo Natali's creepy bio-engineering thriller.
Polley plays Elsa, a brilliant young scientist, who along with partner Clive (Adrien Brody), are engaged in gene-combing experiments. Frustrated when their corporate sponsor puts the brakes on, they secretly go ahead and create a fast-developing animal-human hybrid.
I think my only criteria for choosing a role is if it's in a film I would want to go see.
Naming her Dren (nerd spelled backward), the couple soon develop parental feelings for the strange but compelling creature. But even before Dren, like most children, becomes problematically rebellious, Elsa's darker instincts emerge in tandem with her maternal ones.
"It was the best character I've ever read for a woman, so I was pretty excited about it," says Polley, who is bright and chipper in an emerald green sundress with a wide, pleated skirt, her outfit a marked contrast to her most recent role. "What's great about it is that there is something very human and damaged about Elsa, but she also goes to places where her manipulation and ambition and drive are so overwhelmingly inhuman. That was an amazing thing to try to connect and empathize with and play."
Although they run in the same, relatively small Canadian filmmaking circle, Natali and Polley had only met once before Splice came along. But the Cube director was well acquainted with Polley's preference for the kind of smart, emotionally-demanding parts she played in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, among others.
"I don't think there are many actors out there who could take on this part because, first of all, you had to believe that she was a brilliant geneticist," Natali says. "Secondly, you had to identify with her even when she was doing very transgressive, morally questionable things, and Sarah had that quality as well. Finally, and maybe most importantly, she had to be an actor who was prepared to do this stuff. A lot of performers of her stature wouldn't."
Serious drama types might avoid monster movies, too. But while hardly a genre geek, Polley is drawn to a good sci-fi or horror project - like her biggest commercial hit, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake - that has something to say.
"I think my only criteria for choosing a role is if it's in a film I would want to go see," says Polley, 31. "That's why I do a lot of independent films and every now and then I do a genre movie or something that seems totally out of whack. I think so many sci-fi and horror movies are bad, but the ones that work can talk about things in ways no other kind of movie can."
In Splice, of course, scientific and corporate ethics get good goings over. Although, these days, the often outspoken Polley tries to refrain from commenting on issues she hasn't carefully considered - "I look back at things I've said and am just amazed by the stupidity and lack of insight, and the spontaneous way I answered a question that required a lot more thought," she says with a rueful laugh - sure, she'll go there.
"Scientific exploration and discovery has given the world a lot of great things, and continue to," she says. "It's definitely preferable, from my point of view, if that research takes place in a public system that's regulated. One of the elements I liked about this movie is that a lot of it is being driven by profit, and I always think that when you combine science or art with a corporate culture, things can get muddied in terms of ethics."
At heart, though, Splice remains a monster movie. Some may think it an odd return to acting after the humanistic adult drama of Away from Her. Actually, since her feature directorial debut, Polley has had substantial parts in the American miniseries John Adams and the European production Mr. Nobody, and made a cameo appearance in Bruce McDonald's Trigger.
She says it's not unusual for her to take time off between film projects.
"I think that's necessary for me, not only to make my own films and get some perspective on it, but also to live life so you have something to offer when you are acting," she reckons.
A lot of time has recently gone into writing her first original screenplay ( Away from Her earned an Academy Award nomination for Polley's adaptation of Alice Munro's story The Bear Came Over the Mountain). Take This Waltz, inspired by the Leonard Cohen song, made it onto a list of best unproduced scripts before Polley secured funding, which puzzles her a bit since the money came more easily for this one than it did for her first feature.
She also humbly expresses surprise that her new project attracted an impressively hip cast: Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams, Sarah Silverman, Luke Kirby.
"It bewilders me," she says. "I was so thrilled. In my wildest dreams I couldn't have imagined that I would get those four actors in my film. I think they're all brilliant, and my first choices for every part."
Doesn't seem so unlikely for such a well-respected actor and, now, writer-director. But that's Polley, who has made a number of life choices that help buffer flattery from going to her head. She never moved to Hollywood, and prefers to socialize with family and old friends in Toronto - who remain steadfastly stingy with praise - over industry types. Divorced from film editor David Wharnsby, she's dating a man who isn't involved in the entertainment world.
"Within the context of being in the film industry, I have a life that makes me feel like I have some perspective and at least a semblance of grounding," Polley says. But she's too smart to let it stop there.
"Then again, really ungrounded people always think they're grounded, so I could be totally wrong," she says, chuckling heartily. "As soon as someone says 'This is how I've kept myself grounded,' I always feel like it's the first sign that they're totally un-self aware."
Special to The Globe and Mail