By Aaron Hillis
[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).