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Interview: Sarah Polley

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: “The Secret Life of Words,” Strand Releasing, 2006]

If Sarah Polley isn’t a household name by now, it surely isn’t for a lack of talent, critical acclaim or exposure. Since she was a little girl, the expressive-faced Canadian actress’ projects have been carefully chosen for their integrity and sociopolitical awareness (that “Dawn of the Dead” remake is totally justified!), which has allowed her to shine in collaborations with notable filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, Wim Wenders, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Winterbottom and David Cronenberg. In “The Secret Life of Words,” her second collaboration with Spanish director Isabel Coixet (after 2003’s “My Life Without Me”), Polley plays a hearing-impaired factory worker named Hanna, an enigmatic loner who finds herself literally adrift after a forced vacation sees her venturing out on an oil rig to nurse a burn victim with temporary blindness (Tim Robbins). As the story unfolds, Polley’s character slowly transforms from a complete stranger to someone profoundly troubled, yet another impressive notch in the filmography of a woman who won’t even turn 28 until January… the same month that her directorial feature debut “Away from Her” (adapted from Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) screens at the Sundance Film Festival. As busy as she is gifted, Polley still had time to call me from her home in Toronto.

Why did you want to work with Isabel Coixet again?

To be honest with you, I think it was by far my best experience as an actress. She has such a distinct, original voice and I really wanted to be part of that again. I feel like we have a kind of shorthand at this point, like we don’t need to talk that much anymore. I can understand just from her body language what she’s looking for; we have this oddly telepathic communication. It’s an incredible thing to walk into a project knowing that you have that with a filmmaker.

For most of the film, Hanna is so guarded that she’s nearly unknowable. How did you approach making your portrayal believable and compelling without being allowed to reveal what drives her personality?

Well, that was definitely the daunting part, the idea that you’re in every frame of the film and the audience doesn’t know anything about you until the very end. There’s a sense in the story of a relationship, a connection between two people, and how unbelievably healing that can be. You can feel them knowing each other without really knowing anything about each other. But it was really, really terrifying to figure out how to stay in that place where you’re still engaging. At some point, it was about trusting Isabel. I felt like she was going to create so much about the character through composition and the way things were constructed that I trusted that that would be taken care of in some way.

Most of the film takes place on an oil rig. You weren’t that far out at sea, were you?

Yeah, the one that we were on was right by the dock. The fact is we were never ever in the middle of the ocean, which part of me was really happy about, part of me kind of regrets. I think I would have loved it, but it would be a nightmare for production. It’s a really specific place, its own kind of completely bizarre and very cinematic world.

Tim Robbins’ character is a mess, but his coping mechanism is a wonderfully playful sense of humor. Was he ever too funny that it caught you off guard?

He’s one of the funniest people that I know, generally, so I don’t know if I ever laughed that hard in my life. If I look back on the films I’ve done, the ones that are the saddest and involve the most damaged characters were the most uproariously funny and hysterical. I think that must just be a way of getting through it.

Late in the film, there’s a heartbreaking scene that requires you to be topless in candid close-up. Was that hard for you, in terms of modesty or the gravity of the moment?

It was really difficult in terms of how emotionally draining it is. It’s weird because I’ve never done nudity, but in the context of that scene, it was the least of my worries or what caused me discomfort. It was such an intense experience, I don’t know if I even noticed there was nudity going on.

“The Secret Life of Words” costars Julie Christie, with whom you also worked on Hal Hartley’s “No Such Thing.” What makes her special to you, enough so that you then cast her in “Away from Her”?

I think she’s just one of the most compelling people I’ve ever met. There’s something kind of magical about her and not of this earth. She’s been a huge influence on me in every aspect since I met her at 21. Just talking with her is one of the great joys of my life, so I really wanted that to continue. Then when I read this short story by Alice Munro, it was obvious to me that she should play this part. She was really one of the main motivations for me adapting the story.

Now that you’ve finished your first feature, can you think of any tricks or techniques that you’ve picked up from some of the incredible filmmakers you’ve worked with?

In the last few years, since I started making short films, I’ve treated going to work as an actor as a kind of film school. With Atom [Egoyan], I learned about having a sense of where you’re going, and the organization and preparation that goes into something very constructed. Then someone like Isabel, you learn to let go; she’s interested in letting things happen and learning things about the story as it goes along. So I’m picking up small things from all these disparate voices, and they come together, but I’m not sure in what way they end up in my films. But I’ve obviously learned everything I know from these people.

What made you decide you wanted to direct?

I sort of found out by doing it. I always wanted to write, but not screenplays. I had an idea for a short when I was 20, and I made it, sort of just as something to do. And in the process, I just discovered how much I loved it. It wasn’t the realization of some lifelong ambition.

Now that you know this about yourself, would you rather direct or act more?

I think I’d like to keep a pretty equal balance. I learn so much from one about the other that it would be crazy to not keep my hand equally in both. And I love the fact that it uses such completely different parts of my brain and personality. Because I’m so new to it and have so much to learn, I think a lot more of my energy will be focused on writing and directing in the next two years, but I’d like it to even out.

Are you working on a new project already? Is “Itchy,” about your experiences as a child actor, still a possibility?

I do have something that I’m at the beginning stages of writing. If I manage to make a couple more films, “Itchy” might end up as something I’d like to do down the road. I went through a very different few years trying to get that film made and got beaten up quite badly, so before I return to that, I’d like to have a lot more confidence.

“The Secret Life of Words” opens in New York on December 15th ((official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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