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Sarah Gadon is no one’s manic pixie dream girl

Actress Sarah Gadon poses for photographers during a photo call to present the movie "Dracula Untold", in Rome, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

When does an actor know she's made it? For Toronto-born Sarah Gadon, 28, that moment could be now.

She stars alongside Jamie Dornan in the thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax, due out this year. She's a brand ambassador for Giorgio Armani cosmetics and the luxury Swiss watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre. And she plays Sadie, James Franco's spunky love interest, in the miniseries 11.22.63, from J. J. Abrams. Based on Stephen King's novel about a man who tries to stop the JFK assassination, it begins airing on Hulu Feb. 15 – President's Day – and arrives on Canada's Super Channel Feb. 17.

Gadon (it rhymes with madden) also stars as Olivia, a co-ed with a strong resemblance to Sylvia Plath, opposite Logan Lerman in Indignation, based on Philip Roth's novel. The directorial debut of renowned screenwriter James Schamus, it was bought by Lionsgate for $2.5-million (U.S.) hours after its premiere at last month's Sundance Film Festival. This week it's at the Berlin Film Festival.

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As well, on Feb. 20, Gadon will receive ACTRA Toronto's annual Award of Excellence for her work behind the camera: She advocated for the Canadian film industry at Heritage Committee hearings on Parliament Hill, and served on the ACTRA bargaining team to secure actors' rights for digital content. (Previous winners include Sarah Polley, Wendy Crewson and R.H. Thomson.)

"Sarah's fantastic: enthusiastic, directed, driven," says David Sparrow, president of ACTRA Toronto. "Never underestimate what she can do – she will give you more than you expect. She's unafraid and unabashed to throw her weight behind our causes. And even though her career is at a pinnacle, she fights for those at the beginning of theirs."

That sure sounds like making it. But when I mention that to Gadon during our recent interview, she gives me a get-real look. "It doesn't feel like it," she says wryly. "It feels like a slow, long upward climb."

Oh, she can rattle off highlights: "When I booked A Dangerous Method [for director David Cronenberg]. The first time I went to Venice and Cannes for the film festivals. When I had my first full-on studio screen test [for Snow White and the Huntsman; Kristen Stewart got the part]. When I won the Canadian Screen Award" – best supporting actress, for Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve and co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But she would never claim she's made it.

"I think about work all the time," she says. "I was in my bathroom yesterday and thought, 'I could never work again.' I don't have a job lined up right now – what if I never get another one?" She mock-shudders – but she means it. "Let's stop talking about this!"

Onscreen, Gadon can be warm or icy cool; her china-doll features work equally well in contemporary pieces (Enemy) and period (Belle). In fitted suits and dresses for 11.22.63, she looks so much like Tippi Hedren you may gasp.

In person, she's like a laser pointer come to life – sleek, focused, wised-up, sardonic. She's drinking mint tea, because she wants to be in fighting form for her upcoming week: flying to New York to sit for photos for a book, Persona, by cosmetics entrepreneur and photographer François Nars; then to Los Angeles for the premiere of 11.22.63; then to Berlin to walk the red carpet for Indignation. Really, though, she's been building up to this since she started working at age 10.

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A proud product of public arts education, Gadon was always precocious. Her mother and father – an early childhood educator and a psychologist, respectively – were "into self-directed exploration," which Gadon embraced with a vengeance. She got herself into the National Ballet School, the arts school Claude Watson, and acting jobs. Only when she declared that she was moving to L.A. after high school did her parents say no; instead she got a degree in cinema studies from the University of Toronto, and is glad she did.

She approaches career-building with similar zeal. Realizing she should make a splash on her first Toronto International Film Festival red carpet, Gadon established a relationship with Nicholas Mellamphy, director of the Bay's couture arm the Room, which continues to this day. She was thrilled to land her 18-month Armani deal "because brands have stepped in to help package artists, the way studios once did," flying stars to festivals, dressing them for events, grooming their public images. "It's as strategic a relationship for them as for you."

For all her ambition, Gadon is committed to keeping Toronto her home base. "I feel a freedom here that I don't feel in L.A.," she says. "I was studying film theory and criticism, and the idea of being a manic pixie dream girl was not enticing to me. Whereas here, I could work with fantastic filmmakers like Cronenberg and Villeneuve, and play complex, dark, smart women."

Having distance and objectivity from the American industry, Gadon continues, has given her "the career I want, and actively have sought out. I'm part of a generation that's saying, 'I don't want to do just one thing, and I'm going to do things the way I want.'" Last month at Sundance, when yet another person asked Gadon when she was going to move out of Toronto, she replied, "Do I have to? I'm here, after all."

Gadon's not blind to the downsides of working in Canada – "Should 50 per cent of Telefilm's projects be helmed, produced or written by women? I think so," she says – but she maintains that "the things that are frustrating about the Canadian industry also fuel me. The lack of available, good work inspires a lot of people to be self-creating."

And when a project shoots here, as 11.22.63 did, she's an advocate for Canadian crews, too. She landed the gig after taping an audition on her iPhone, in a hotel bed. She learned to lindy hop; ran through Dallas in heels ("James would start to tell me how out of breath he was, then he'd look at my shoes," Gadon says, grinning); and spent two days wearing a rig in her hair to simulate a head wound.

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"I was so bloody at the end of those days," she says. "I bled through my dress, my girdle and my underwear. The three wonderful wardrobe ladies who cleaned me up with baby wipes got to know me real well."

Gadon knows she's lucky. "But there are so many things I still want, so many goals I'd like to reach," she says. "I don't think I'll ever feel I've made it."

She works our conversation to the final sentence. As we wrap up, I mention that I admire the idea behind 11.22.63 – that any moment can be the one you seize to make your life. "I wish I had said that and not you," Gadon says flatly. She laughs. But she means it.

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