Last year was a huge one for the 44-year-old Toronto-based writer and director. She published a bestselling book of essays called Run Towards the Danger and directed the critically acclaimed film Women Talking, which went on to win her the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Polley’s transformation from unwilling childhood sweetheart to Hollywood A-lister offers plenty of inspiration for leaders.
As a kid, Polley was best known for playing the precocious Sara Stanley on Road to Avonlea. Her early acting career was so loaded with trauma (including a literally death-defying role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) that she quit altogether, eventually finding her place behind the camera. Just because you’ve built your rep as one thing doesn’t mean you can’t successfully pivot—and possibly even find your true purpose.
There’s no such thing as bad luck
Polley was in the midst of adapting Little Women for Sony in 2015 when she suffered a severe concussion that forced her to give up what must’ve seemed like the project of a lifetime. (Greta Gerwig’s adaptation was later nominated for an Oscar.) But then producers Frances McDormand and Dede Gardner hired Polley to take on Women Talking, and now she’s an Oscar winner.
Run towards the danger
There’s a reason this is the title of Polley’s shocking/tragic/hopeful collection of essays. In search of relief from her debilitating concussion symptoms, a celebrated brain-trauma specialist in the U.S. advised her to stop coddling her noggin and start doing all the things she’d been avoiding—the ones that seemed hardest. Spoiler: It worked.
Vulnerability is not weakness
First Polley opened up about her own family history in her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, which revealed that the man she thought was her father wasn’t. “Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she told the CBC at the time. Then, in Run Towards the Danger, she delved into her mother’s death when Polley was 11, her painful scoliosis, her paralyzing stage fright and her assault by disgraced former CBCer Jian Ghomeshi as a teen. But Polley understands that negative experiences help build empathy, and being open about your struggles can inspire and bolster others, whether they’re complete strangers or colleagues in the office next to you.
Be a force for good
Women Talking is all about, well, women. And Polley—who spent the better part of a decade focused on raising her three daughters—wanted to ensure the almost entirely female cast could balance work and home life. Shoot days were limited to 10 hours versus the typical 16 so everyone could get home to their families. Polley also had a deep fear of subjecting the many children who appear in the film to the same agony she’d endured. “We had a policy on set where if a kid got bored or uncomfortable in any way,” she has said, “we just stopped.” Proving that excellence doesn’t have to equal misery.
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