Lead Actress: 'Away From Her'

British acting icon Julie Christie has been mesmerizing filmgoers for decades — from “Doctor Zhivago” to “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Shampoo” — but it doesn’t mean she takes the tackling of a role for granted.

“What I like most in life is learning,” says the Oscar winner (for 1965’s “Darling”). “Each film is a learning experience. It’s always a leap off a cliff, and every time you do it, it’s like starting from scratch.”

The challenge with “Away From Her,” Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” was to avoid sentimentality in the portrait of a married woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“I’m not interested in ‘ill’ films,” says Christie. “I’ve turned down enough cancer films. This film is about being alive, and being alive means many things. Like illness and love. The film is really about love enduring through immense difficulty, and a bond that persists despite mammoth negative oppositional forces.”

Christie has been known to pop up lately in the occasional supporting or cameo role — “Troy” and “Finding Neverland,” for example — but admits, “I think I work, actually work, every 10 years.”

What convinced her to play another lead was Polley, making her feature directing and writing debut.

“Sarah is subtle. She observes slyly with a sting in the tail,” according to Christie, who says the rich nuances behind every line in Polley’s dialogue reminded her of Harold Pinter’s “The Go-Between” script. “I can’t predict what will make a good director. However, somehow, without any of us seeing what she was doing, she pushed us quite far. When I saw the film, I knew she was a real director and a really good director of actors.”

On the question of whether she still enjoys acting, Christie repositions the issue.

“It’s not so much a question of enjoying acting as being able to do it without stress. You’re entering into this new life without knowing what it’s going to be like. You’re depending on the director, atmosphere, script, crew and the country you’re in.”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: Recently, the Turkish film “Climates” and Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” (“Nobody else could have made that film.”)

Young actor you admire: Sarah Polley, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mark Rylance

Vice: (Laughing) “Oh dear, I don’t know. Um … just say torturing my cat?”

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