In 1843, Grace Marks was convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in Upper Canada. She was just 16 years old. In the first episode of Alias Grace, the new Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel, Grace, who is played by Sarah Gadon and acts as the protagonist and narrator, peers at herself in the mirror. Her expression transforms as she narrates the scene, echoing the same sentiment as the Emily Dickinson poem that serves as an epigraph for the show—that below one version of a person lies another, and another, and another. “I think of all the things that have been written about me,” she says. She has been called “inhuman female demon,” “innocent victim,” “quarrelsome,” “a good girl with a pliable nature,” “soft in the head.” And she wonders: “How can I be all these different things at once?”
The new miniseries Alias Grace, written by Sarah Polley of Stories We Tell and directed by Mary Harron of American Psycho and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, wrestles with this dynamic both internally and externally. It examines how trauma—and especially sexual violence—impacts the psyche, and how that is projected onto one woman’s interactions with those around her, especially men. The series plays out through a series of interviews between Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist whose insights could exonerate Grace.
As Grace recounts the events leading up to the murders, it becomes increasingly unclear to what extent she is obfuscating (“‘And so forth’ is all you are entitled to,” she says at one point, refusing to elucidate further about her daily chores), versus what she truly cannot remember. In some ways, watching Alias Grace is like staring into a void: As it unfolds, it becomes clear the show, and the interviews between Grace and Dr. Jordan, will never reach a satisfying conclusion.
As Grace, Sarah Gadon, the 30-year-old Canadian actress best known for her work with David Cronenberg (who also has a small but memorable part in the series), executes a crisp northern Irish accent, performs the household chores (milking the cows, mending garments, collecting eggs, scrubbing the floors) expected of a housemaid, and balances Grace’s competing personae all at once. “It’s the hardest job I ever had,” Gadon admitted recently on the phone from Toronto. We discussed the grueling four-month-long shoot and the extensive preparations that went into it, Alias Grace’s renewed political relevance, and why it’s proved a tough project to follow.
How did you get the part?
I heard Sarah [Polley] was doing the adaptation and had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah and Mary [Harron] and talk about the project. I asked Sarah, “Why did you want to adapt this book?” And she said, “I read it when I was 17 and I tried to get the rights then, and it’s something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I think it’s somehow informed everything I’ve ever done.” The following day, we met and I auditioned. We did three scenes a number of different ways, and when I left, I flew to LA, and when I landed, I got a call saying, “You know, Sarah and Mary really want you to do one of the scenes one other way.” I thought, ‘Really?’ We worked on it for so long. But it was, I think, an introduction to what playing this part would be—having to go back and do that additional scene just one more time fit the notion that playing Grace was this endless, bottomless pit of discovery, and that my work would never really be done.
What scene was it?
It was the opening scene with Dr. Jordan, Simon, when he gives her the apple. We’d done it a number of different ways, and they just said, we want to do one that’s completely innocent and completely, and I thought, okay, yeah, sure, so I did it and then I got the part, which was great.
Speaking of apples, how many were sacrificed to get that scene with Mary Whitney in Episode 2 right?
[Laughs] Not that many, actually. I think it was only eight or nine apples. I think it was four apples in the scene, and we only did it a couple of times. So yeah, it wasn’t that—not many apples were harmed in the making of that scene.
How did you discuss the project with Margaret Atwood once you had signed on?
I was really intimidated to meet Margaret. The most important thing that Margaret imparted to me was that the most important thing was to maintain her ambiguity. That was the most important thing in terms of honoring her memory and the book, really, so that was something that really informed the way that Mary and I created Grace.
How did you unravel all of that? Grace is such an unreliable narrator, and in the end we really come away still unsure whether she did it or what role she even played in the murders at all. Did you have to construct for yourself what was true or untrue? Or was it totally ambiguous for you?
No, it wasn’t. In terms of tackling the ambiguity, in the interview sequences between Simon and Grace, for example, we decided to come up with several different versions of Grace. When we shot each scene, we did a take of each of those versions so that Mary could then have room in the edits to piece together an ambiguous character. That was a really interesting way to work because obviously you have to have a lot of trust. But then, of course, in the flashbacks, I’m not really playing an ambiguous person. Everything up until the murder, I feel as if I’m playing all the actions truthfully. Her relationship with Mary—it’s a very honest, real relationship. The way she interacts with Nancy is very real and grounded, and same with Kinnear, so I think there are moments where I wasn’t playing those different versions.
It’s meta, because those really honest interactions are refracted through the present Grace recounting them. Who were the different versions of Grace?
[Laughs.] Mary and I joke around because she would, she liked to call them Good Grace, Bad Grace, and Neutral Grace. Obviously, our Bad Grace was guilty, our Good Grace was innocent, and our Neutral Grace was this character that Mary and I had talked about—the idea of playing her as somebody who’s already dead, as if she’s speaking almost posthumously, which is kind of something that happens to people who have been through the ringer where their identity is almost taken from them. It’s almost as if they’re the walking dead.
How did you film the hypnotism scene at the end?
It was something that I was really scared about because it was like a 20-page sequence. It cuts back and forth between the Kinnear farmhouse and the present where the actual hypnotism is going on. I asked Mary and Sarah, “Are we going to shoot up until a certain point in the flashback and then cut? Will I have time to reset and prepare for the next chunk?” And they said, “No, we want to shoot it all, including the voice-over, as one long scene.” I thought that was just terrifying because I was going to be under a veil talking for 20 pages in a different voice. I said, “Are you sure it’s a good idea that I go into Mary Whitney’s voice?” Sarah called Margaret, and it was Margaret who confirmed that it was really important that Grace was speaking in Mary Whitney’s voice. So then I had to prepare the scene, really, as Mary Whitney [Grace’s best friend, who dies early in the series]. I listened to Rebecca [Liddiard, who plays Mary] and played around with my dialect coach to help access the voice. I practiced and practiced and practiced to be able to shoot it almost like it was a play.
What sort of research did you do, especially in terms of the physical stuff? I read that you had to actually milk a cow and do the sewing and all that kind of stuff.
It was really important to Mary that I did everything for real because Margaret is so descriptive about everything that a housemaid did at that time. Mary and I both read Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which is this fantastic book from the era about different positions of the house and what each housemaid did. Then, I went to a pioneer reenactment camp called Black Creek Pioneer Village just outside of Toronto. I learned how to navigate a Victorian kitchen; I learned how to milk a cow and light a hearth fire and churn butter and pluck chickens. It’s just brutal, because you have to do all this physical labor in all of this confining clothing. I had to learn to sew by hand because Grace is making a quilt throughout her interviews with Simon. I also read Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, which Margaret quotes a few times in the actual book.
A lot of the conversation around this show, obviously like that around The Handmaid’s Tale, has been about its political relevance—here, how little has changed in terms of gender relations since the mid-19th century, even in very subtle ways. I was wondering if you were thinking about that contemporary resonance as you were making the series and as you were inhabiting this world?
I certainly don’t think I could have predicted everything that’s happening right now, but we were shooting when the election was happening and we were shooting when Trump was elected, so absolutely—those kinds of things were definitely on our minds while we were making the show. I think that one of the things that I find so interesting about our show is that as much as it is an exploration of what it does to the psyche when you are repressed as a woman, it also explores what it does when you are a man, to be repressed by the expectations of your time. That’s explored through Dr. Simon Jordan and everything that he’s experiencing—the whole storyline of him having these sexual feelings for Grace, not being allowed to explore them, but then being allowed to take them out on his housekeeper Mrs. Humphrey and the way he uses her because she’s a woman. Their dynamic is, it’s okay for him to abuse her. It’s a really interesting thing that I think speaks to what is happening, this hierarchy of women and who we are allowed to treat in certain ways and who we aren’t.
Now, having filmed it during the election, both politically and in light of the various allegations of sexual misconduct pouring out of Hollywood right now, has that changed how you view the role of the series and its prescience?
The whole notion of exploring this woman who’s very repressed and everything that’s going on in her life has this kind of resonance because people aren’t thinking about their own repression or their own experiences with abuse and harassment privately—we’re thinking about women with this massive collective consciousness right now. It’s amplified the meaning of the show and I think it really is starting to strike a chord with people that goes beyond Grace’s story. It connects to their own story.
You’ve got The Death and Life of John F. Donovan coming up. Can you tell me about your role in that?
Xavier [Dolan] is obsessed with Roswell, and the film revolves around this man who has become famous for being on this Roswell-esque show. I play one of the girls from that show, and it was a hilarious, fun time to make that film. We actually re-shot the opening sequence to Roswell. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Roswell, it’s pretty hilarious. I really loved working with Xavier. I think because he was an actor, he is so cognizant of the tone that’s created on set. He’s always walking around with a boom box playing music, and he’s so involved in the scenes it almost feels like he’s in them. So it was really cool.
What were the main boom box tracks?
You won’t even believe it, but he loves Titanic, and he loves with Celine Dion, so during a lot of the scenes, he’s playing “My Heart Will Go On.” And for the opening of our Roswell, he played the opening credit music to Roswell, and then, because it kind of takes place in the early-’00s, he would always play Blink-182 and all this music from the early-’00s.
What else are you working on? What are you looking to do moving forward?
I’m not sure. I feel like this character has really just consumed my life for the past two years. I haven’t been able to shake it. The experience [of Alias Grace] was so unique and challenging and incredible that it’s been tough to move on and accept something that’s going to be anything less. So I’m trying to be patient and wait for the next thing that’s going to be special. Sarah Polley has become a wonderful mentor to me, and she is always telling me there’s so much power in saying no to things. So I’m trying to say no to things that aren’t going to be incredible.
Anna Paquin, Sarah Gadon, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Polley on the set of Alias Grace, 2017.