Sarah Gadon on How Margaret Atwood's Work Resonates in Hollywood’s Truth-Telling Climate (Exclusive)
By Joyce Chen
Maarten de Boer / Getty Images
In light of the recently amplified conversation surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault in Hollywood, Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, Alias Grace, feels at once timely and timeless. The new six-part Netflix miniseries, set in 19th-century Canada, tussles with a lot of the same themes that are making headlines today: female agency, abortion, immigrant rights and class tensions.
Adapted by Sarah Polley for the screen, Alias Grace weaves in and out of the life of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant and servant girl who finds herself thrust into the public spotlight as a “celebrated murderess” after her master and his mistress are brutally killed at their farm. Grace and stableman James McDermott are both convicted of the crime. But while McDermott (Kerr Logan) is hanged, Grace is sentenced to life imprisonment. A church committee sets out to prove her innocence, citing hysteria or psychological issues (Grace cannot recall committing the murders), enlisting the help of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a physician interested in studying the intricacy of his patients’ -- and Grace’s -- mind.
Sarah Gadon, the Canadian-born actress and rising star of Indignation and Hulu’s 11.22.63 who plays the titular role of Grace as well as narrates a new Audible version of the book, tells ET that the current climate of truth-telling in the entertainment industry has definitely given a new weight to her role and to the series.
“I think in light of all the discourse about sexual harassment, there’s something really important about the story we’re telling,” she says. “It’s funny, because I was an English minor and I remember reading Margaret Atwood in school and thinking, ‘This is too aggressive, we’re beyond this.’ But then I started to work, and I heard Margaret’s voice in my head and she was right. There are still so many issues that women face in society that get covered up or go un-talked about.”
Though Gadon has read Atwood’s other works, she hadn’t read Alias Grace until she was given the role, at which point she “devoured it.”
“I became very analytical about Grace,” she explains. “I read the book a number of times. I read it and compared the differences between the novel and the script -- what was dropped, what was kept. I really wanted to honor her because even though it’s historical fiction, it’s about a real person and the real events that happened in her lifetime. So I sat with Margaret and we talked about how important it was to keep the ambiguity. Did she do it? Did she not? And that conversation weighed heavily on how I ended up portraying Grace for the show.”
For the very first scene in the very first episode, Gadon (as Grace) stares calmly into the camera as though gazing into a mirror, contorting her face into a number of different expressions based on different assumptions that have been projected onto her by the townspeople, by the committee, by everyone but herself. The scene is arresting and sets the tone for the oft-gritty period piece.
“It’s really interesting that that [scene] has resonated with so many people,” she says. “The way that it was written -- that I’m supposed to look in the mirror, say all these things, and change into these different personas -- I thought it was so corny. I thought, ‘Am I gonna become a demon too?’ I was so daunted by it because it was so absurd, but then I realized that as I was doing it, we all have those moments when we’re looking at ourselves and playing with our own identities. What I love so much is that it undercuts the trope in cinema of women looking at themselves in the mirror. And I think that’s the whole point of female subjectivity in film and television, to challenge tropes.”
“I was a huge fan of hers since I was a kid,” Gadon said of Polley, who has transitioned from a child actor in Disney Channel’s Road to Avonlea to a director of indie films like Away From Her and Take This Waltz. “I always hoped I would be able to work with her one day -- that I would be so lucky -- and I feel lucky to have been able to. Both she and Mary were such huge support systems throughout the process. I was so moved by how poetic they were, and how intelligent in bringing the story to life -- how unapologetic.”
The actress says that the two women “set the bar high for what they wanted me to achieve in terms of this character,” while lauding Polley, in particular, for her "bravery" in tackling the script and "lifting up other women's voices" in the process of making Alias Grace. “The team of women behind this project was so intelligent, and the material was so complex, that they’ve set a high bar for what I work on next,” Gadon acknowledges.
Her connection to the story has extended beyond the screen, too: the actress performed a version for the audiobook, spending eight hours a day in a studio reading the novel aloud -- a stark contrast to the busy cast-filled set.
“I kind of feel like Alias Grace is the job that never ends,” she says with a laugh. “The workload surpasses your expectation of how much workload you can handle, and the dialogue is so intricate and so challenging, and about halfway through I found myself laughing at myself. Of course it’s really hard. I really enjoyed doing the book. It was challenging, but a whole other skill set I felt like I was bringing to the table as a voice actor. I did voice acting for cartoons as a kid, so there’s that whole other side of myself that exists.”
With the audiobook set for release on Nov. 2, one day ahead of the debut of Alias Grace on Netflix, Gadon is ready to turn a character that’s consumed “my entire life for the past two years” over to fans.
“I can see why people are drawn to Margaret’s work during this period of time,” she says. “I thought with Handmaid’s Tale being so successful and well-received, people would feel like they were oversaturated with these topics, but fans want more, we want more of this -- and for me, that’s a positive, and it’s a hopeful thing to hang onto in the middle of all this.”