Q&A: Sarah Gadon, the star of CBC’s new Atwood adaptation, Alias Grace
In the new CBC/Netflix series Alias Grace, Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks, a real-life 19th-century housemaid who was convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress, spent almost three decades in the Kingston Penitentiary and eventually received a pardon. The six-part series is based on the 1997 historical novel by Margaret Atwood (maybe you’ve heard of her) and came together under producer Sarah Polley, who also wrote the screenplay. We spoke to Gadon—a former TIFF Rising Star and unofficial David Cronenberg muse—about what it was like to play an infamous murderess, how she handles selfie-seeking fans and why Margaret Atwood doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to sex.
How did you get involved with the project?
My agent sent me the script. When I saw it was a Sarah Polley project, I flipped out. Growing up in Toronto, I had always looked up to her as an actress, and I’ve watched her evolve into a director, producer and writer. I’ve always carried around a secret dream that maybe one day I might get to work with her. When I read the script, I instantly knew this was going to be really special and smart because Sarah is those two things.
Did you have to audition?
Yes. I met Sarah and Mary [Harron, the director,] the next day for lunch. Sarah told me how she had read the book when she was 17 and how it was the most important piece of literature in her life. She said, “I feel like this book has informed everything I have done since I read it.” And I thought, Oh God.
No pressure, right?
Yeah. The next day, I met with them to workshop a bunch of scenes. Sarah actually read with me, which wasn’t intimidating at all, hah. I left for L.A. the next day and got a call from Mary saying, “You did a really great job yesterday, but there’s just one more scene we need you to do, and we need you to play it in this way.” I thought, Really? We worked the crap out of these scenes and you need this extra thing? I did it, I sent my tape back and then they offered me the role. That experience was a real window into how this project would be—relentless, never-ending and hard.
You mentioned being a fan of Sarah’s. Did you watch Road to Avonlea as a kid?
Absolutely. And that’s kind of a wonderful thing: Sarah grew up on the CBC, on a TV show that portrayed this very idyllic idea of what it was like to be a Victorian woman in Canada. And now she’s come full circle as an adult. She’s taking the opportunity to show a much more real, violent, heavy and complicated story about what it was like to be a woman during that period.
It’s the E! True Hollywood Story version.
Were you an Atwood fan before this project?
I was, but I hadn’t read Alias Grace, which has since become my favourite Atwood novel. As soon as I read it, I understood why it struck a chord with Sarah. Margaret has this way of giving a voice to our deep unconscious. It’s a book that gets into your bones in a way you can’t shake.
What was it like meeting such a major icon for the first time? Were you nervous?
I was super intimidated, but she’s very disarming. The first time we met, I asked her a question about the book—”Do you think there was something ‘going on’ between Grace and Kinnear [her employer]?” I was kind of dancing around it. And she looked at me and said, “If you’re asking if I think Grace had sex with Mr. Kinnear…” She’s very direct.
Is it true you went to Black Creek Pioneer Village for research?
Yes. I learned all about the different tasks associated with being a housemaid during the Victorian era.
Did anything strike you as particularly surprising?
The undergarments that women wore when they had their periods. I guess it’s kind of like a female jock strap–type situation. I did not expect that.
In Atwood’s novel—and in real life—there is a lot of ambiguity around whether Grace Marks was guilty. What do you think?
I think ambiguity is really important to the book and to the show, but of course as an actor, you can’t just suspend yourself in a state of ambiguity. I had to make choices about whether I thought she was innocent. I think it’s everybody’s journey in the show to watch and make their own decisions.
Meaning you’re not going to give us your take?
Margaret gave us all our marching orders before we started press. She said, “You cannot tell, you cannot ruin it.”
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace is surprisingly relevant today in its themes around female identity. Discuss.
What’s so powerful about Margaret’s writing about women at that time is the sense of being trapped in a social, economic and political structure that is not of our own design. Grace is trapped as a working-class person, she’s trapped as a new immigrant in Canada. Victorian women were never allowed to say what they felt, which is part of the tension of the show. Today, women are still trapped. We’re always having to censor ourselves and think about how we will be perceived.
You’ve been to TIFF many times in the last few years. How has it changed?
Every year, it just gets bigger and bigger, and it changes with the industry. Who would have thought I’d be premiering a TV show at TIFF? My career has really been made by this festival, so I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Where do you stand on fan selfies?
I like it. I’m from a very image-conscious generation. I appreciate it and I’m humbled that someone wants to take a photo with me. It’s really meaningful to me that someone is taking time out of their day to come down and support my work. Yesterday, there was a girl [who came to the Alias Grace press conference] and she showed me a selfie of me and her from when I was here for Cosmopolis [in 2012]. That was so awesome.
Alias Grace premieres September 28 on CBC.