Sarah Gadon Calls ‘Alias Grace’ the ‘Most Complicated, Intelligent’ Job She’s Ever Had

Sarah Gadon Variety Facetime Conversation
Weston Wells for Variety

Toronto-born actress Sarah Gadon has been working in the entertainment industry since she was in elementary school, but she considers her role in Netflix’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” the first chance she’s had to truly express her range as a performer. “When I read this, I said ‘This is the most complicated, intelligent, difficult job I have ever been presented with, so I should chase it!’ Gadon says. “I’m really grateful for that opportunity because I know they’re few and far between.”

What was the biggest allure of the project for you? Were you a fan of the novel?

“Alias Grace” was not an Atwood book that I studied in school, so I actually hadn’t read it before I read the scripts. What drew me immediately to the project was Sarah Polley. I was a huge fan of hers both as an actor and as a writer/director. She has been a bit quiet for the past couple of years, and I knew she was going to come back with something amazing that she had been simmering with, and so as soon as I got the call that this was Sarah’s brainchild, I was like “Oh my god, yes yes yes!” She’s so smart and special, and I’ve kind of always felt this weird secret kinship to her because she also grew up in Toronto and came up in the landscape of Canadian filmmaking like me.

What was your first introduction to Atwood’s work?

I read “Oryx and Crake” in school, but a lot of what I read of hers were her more sci-fi books and writings. I wasn’t as familiar with this side of her, so this was almost like unearthing this whole other side of an author I thought I knew.

Did you end up reading the novel version of “Alias Grace” before or after getting the part?

I read the book because I had the audition, and I was preparing for it, and I ended up reading the whole thing because I was just completely taken with the story and with Grace. It just seemed like one of those projects where the stars kind of aligned. I was just enthralled.

Did the ambiguity of Grace’s character add to the appeal?

As a character study, she’s fascinating. The way that Margaret writes her is very multi-dimensional. She doesn’t really commit to one narrative of the murder, and the show is trying to unwind her story. When I read the book I oscillated between all of these different ideas of who Grace was and what she was capable of doing, but I didn’t feel resolved in any of those. For me, what I think is really compelling about the piece is that it doesn’t commit to any one version of Grace but at the same time fully explores all of them. I felt really excited and overwhelmed at how to do that.

So how did you decide what her truth was?

I hesitate to even say it because I really want people to come to the piece and digest it and experience whatever they’re going to feel about Grace. I don’t think when people watch the show they’ll all feel the same way about her, and I think that’s part of the beauty. But for us to create a really compelling character, we had to stick to three or four of the versions of the story that Margaret writes about. So while I was playing out each version of the story, I would commit to a certain action or motivation within Grace.

What was one of the more unique ways you prepared for this role?

My dad’s a psychologist and he studied hypnosis, and when he was in grad school he would hypnotize people at parties and stuff, so I asked him if he could hypnotize me so I could film it and know what happens so I know how to act [in the scene in which Grace is hypnotized to get to the bottom of . And he did, and it was so fascinating to watch the video back. It’s a highly, highly suggested thing, and human beings are highly suggested. It’s just like how advertising works. It was super relaxing, and my experience was actually like what we’d call a guided meditation. All of the body language that happened to me I used in the show because I filmed it and I was able to look back.

Last year you starred in “11/22/63” for Hulu. Is there something specific about adaptations that keeps drawing you in?

It’s really more about the director and the character. For this role in particular, I was really looking for a role. I had just done “Indignation” with James Schamus, and I was in his office right around the time I read this, and I was talking to him about my work and what I should do next, and he said, “All you young actors, all you do is chase directors because you think that’s the cool thing to do, but you should be chasing roles – especially at this point in your career.” And there was something about that that really struck me. I had studied cinema studies at university, and I loved auteur filmmaking – my greatest experiences as an actor came from working with people like David Croenenberg, so I was very much from that school of thought. But what he said struck me, and when I read this, I said, “This is the role. This is the most complicated, intelligent, difficult job I have ever been presented with, so I should chase it!”

And this one is definitely topical, too. 

I don’t really peruse current events when I’m choosing my work, but I do think there’s a reason why certain projects and certain characters and certain themes resonate with you. I feel like we are very much at a time in Canada – and around the world – where we are renegotiating how we treat immigrants. And then also, in terms of the gender politics of “Alias Grace,” that resonated with me because of our current political situation but also because as an actress working in the industry, so often people project onto you, and this idea of Grace being this young woman whose identity is completely ripped from her and turned into something else is something I know Sarah really connected with, and it’s definitely something I connected with when I read it as well.

When you look back on some of your earlier works, what is something you learned then that you’ve carried through your whole career to today?

I would say that working with David Croenenberg changed the trajectory of my career and set it on a very specific path. [Gadon first appeared in the 2011 feature “A Dangerous Method” from Croenenberg but then worked with him again a year later in “Cosmopolis.”] The way David conducts himself as an artist in this industry really affected me because I started working with him at the beginning of my career as an adult, and I was getting a lot of pressure to move to LA and go out for certain types of roles, but it was a whole lifestyle I didn’t really connect with. I wanted to finish my degree and make meaningful films that would stand the test of time and maybe be studied decades from [then]. I was getting pressure to move in a certain direction, and David lives in Toronto, he’s very much outside the system, but he’s been able to touch and affect so many people – his work is celebrated all over the world – and he really adheres to this artistic integrity and lives his life the way he wants to. That was really important for me to see at a young age, that I could have the career I wanted and do it the way that I wanted.

Do you have plans to further take your career into your own hands behind the camera as a producer and/or a director?

At the moment something I’m drawn to more is producing. I’m trying to create more opportunities within the industry for more dynamic female-driven stories to be told. So I’m looking for material and trying to option things. I just produced a short. It’s really more that side that I’m focusing on purely because I don’t think I could focus on building both an acting and directing career at the same time.

Are there any philanthropic causes you feel personally passionate about these days?

There’s an organization called POV, and it gives kids the opportunity to gain skills and experience in filmmaking and media. It’s an organization that functions out of Toronto that I sometimes work with.