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Sheila McCarthy stars in Cardinals as a mother of two daughters who returns home after spending time in prison.

It has been more than two decades since Oscar-winner Sally Field gave Toronto's Sheila McCarthy some advice she's never forgotten.

The two women were in Houston in early 1995. It was August, and so beastly hot that the old-age prosthetics they were wearing (to age from 18 to 85) kept falling off. McCarthy, who was playing Field's best friend in the miniseries A Woman of Independent Means, remembers Field telling her "an actor must reinvent themselves every five years."

McCarthy, 61, took that advice to heart – and it partly explains why she opted to spend a few weeks in May, 2016, camped out in Barrie, Ont., with an enthusiastic and very young film crew, for the micro-budget indie feature Cardinals, which has its world premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. The noir mystery drama marks another abrupt U-turn in McCarthy's 40-year career, which includes everything from stage productions at Stratford, Gemini-winning TV roles (Emily of New Moon); Dora Mavor Moore winning work (Really Rosie), and guest spots in acclaimed series such as Orphan Black.

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"I've had fallow times and crazed times. I have lost more jobs than I could count. An actor spends most of their time either looking for work or unemployed. There's no order to it, or sense really. But I love what I do. And that helps."

Cardinals is about a very ordinary family, that faces an extraordinary situation when their lives are upended by a terrible tragedy," says the actress, sipping tea from dainty china alongside co-stars Katie Boland and Grace Glowicki. "The beauty of Cardinals is that a lot of stuff [happens that] is not filled in, so it's left up to the audience to figure out a lot of [the storyline]. Too often in film, everything is over-explained. There are no secrets."

McCarthy plays Valerie Walker, once an average, working-class mom, with a loving husband and two beautiful daughters. The audience, however, never meets her. Instead, we're introduced to a closed, silent woman who has no idea what reality is supposed to be after getting out of prison. She is still imprisoned in lies, and so are her daughters. One of whom is complicit. The other, not.

The script, McCarthy says, appealed to her because it is "not a politically correct movie. It's a flawed family, butting up against circumstances that are out of their control. There is no redemption here," adds the actor, who has two grown daughters, Mackenzie and Drew, with actor-husband Peter Donaldson, who died in 2011.

Directed by Ryerson University film graduates Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley, Cardinals was written for McCarthy as the lead. The actor says she was "flattered, honoured," but still asked Moore (who wrote the film) to make a significant change.

"I read the original script and thought, 'I don't think a mother would protect her children … and go passionately out on a limb and commit her own crime, unless [the tragedy] was something far more harrowing and personal.' They went away and came back with the changes [I'd asked for]."

Age, she quips, has its perks.

"When I was young, I just took everything that came along," says McCarthy, who started acting at the age of 9 as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz at The Charlottetown Festival. "I look for meaty parts now, if I am given the chance. I want to play complicated women and work with actors and directors who I know and admire, and can have fun with. I don't want to take it all too seriously. Life is too short for all that worry I once felt as a young actor."

Boland, 29, who plays Valerie Walker's eldest daughter, Eleanor, says working with McCarthy was an education. "I learned that a performance can be conflicted – that you can tangle many feelings together at once," says Boland (Daydream Nation, Dancing Trees), who was a 2011 recipient of TIFF's inaugural Rising Stars program, which shines a light on four emerging Canadian actors. "Sheila's work is so layered, it's like looking at a complex piece of art. At first it appears to be one thing. Then, the more you look at it, the more you see different colours, shapes and it becomes something different."

Where some actors rage against time, McCarthy says she's never minded getting older.

"The business is always changing and I know roles are harder to get as actors get older," she says. "But I've always stayed positive about it all. These days, the business has finally decided to be open-minded about diverse casting, gender bending and it's slightly better about casting aging actors.

"I'm 61 and playing grandmas," she laughs. "I guess it's only fitting, having started as the wicked witch all those years ago."

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Cardinals plays TIFF on Friday, 9:30 p.m., Scotiabank; Saturday, 12 p.m., Lightbox; Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m., Scotiabank; and Sept. 17, 10 a.m., Jackman Hall.

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