Now Toronto: The wonder women behind Alias Grace’s TV adaptation

ALIAS GRACE created by Sarah Polley, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, directed by Mary Harron, with Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Anna Paquin and Paul Gross. Canada/U.S. 90 minutes. Episodes 1 and 2 premiere September 14, 8:30 pm, Winter Garden. (The six-part series begins airing September 25 on CBC TV.)

I meet Sarah Gadon at the Drake Hotel. The first thing I ask the Alias Grace star after we pick a table and order some snacks: “Have you Googled Grace Marks?”

She shoots me an amused “Well, duh” look. Of course she’s Googled the 19th-century Irish-Canadian maid convicted of murder, sparking fierce debate regarding her innocence and pardoned after being incarcerated for nearly three decades.

Google was the basic first step in Gadon’s extensive research on her Alias Grace character, which included reading and re-reading the Margaret Atwood novel that the miniseries is based on; learning how to perform tasks like cooking, cleaning and sewing in the exacting ways a 19th-century housemaid would have performed them; and practicing a Northern Irish accent to the point that it gave her migraines because the “tight-jawed” dialect worked muscles in ways most of us never have to.

Gadon spent many sleepless nights preparing for the role, and would sometimes have to go for a run just to sweat off the anxiety.

But what I meant was: Has she Googled Grace Marks recently?

Gadon whips out her phone and there at the top of the search is the Wikipedia entry for Marks, with an accompanying picture. But the image is not a likeness of a 19th-century Irish maid. Instead, it’s a glamour shot of Gadon with flowing platinum-blond curls.

As far as the Interweb is concerned, Gadon is now the face of Grace Marks, the historical figure consumed by the actor interpreting her in the 21st century. According to Gadon, Grace consumed her, too.

“This role has kind of taken over my life,” says Gadon, who wrapped post-production on the series just a month before our mid-July meeting.

That adds up to about a year spent with the character, and she’s not quite through with Grace yet.

Two episodes of the show are about to premiere at TIFF before airing on CBC September 25 and then dropping on Netflix in November. Now Gadon gets to talk about what is easily the biggest, most complex role she’s ever tackled on a female-powered production arriving at a time when the Canadian screen industry is scrambling for more representation.

Neither by design, nor by accident, the people who have brought Alias Grace to the screen are all women – an intergenerational all-star team of Canada’s most beloved artists. That begins with the novel by Atwood, which was adapted by Sarah Polley, who sought out Noreen Halpern to executive produce and American Psycho’s Mary Harron to direct.

This is our answer to the Marvel universe.

“We are The Avengers of Canadian streaming television,” Gadon muses.

And then there are the executives who green-lit the project: Sally Catto at CBC and Elizabeth Bradley at Netflix. They connected with the material and committed to bring Polley’s vision to the screen. That vision has been a long time coming.

Bringing Grace to screen

Polley first sought the rights to Alias Grace soon after the novel was published in 1996. But, “quite wisely,” as she puts it, Atwood’s agents weren’t about to hand over the project to a 17-year-old actor who hadn’t produced, written or directed anything.

I’m sitting with the former Road To Avonlea star on a Leslieville patio as she recollects how the novel clung to her after that initial disappointment, its ideas about how memory and truth can be slippery and variable etching their way into her films Away From Her and Stories We Tell.

She followed the rights and was even interviewed to write and direct a feature film version when they landed at Working Title. There was a commitment and a promise that a contract was coming, but she was left hanging when the budget never came through.

In 2009, Polley checked on the rights and no one seemed to have noticed that they’d recently lapsed. So she swooped in and asked Atwood’s team to hold on to them while she finished Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell, and then went through her first and second pregnancies.

“It was well worth waiting for,” says Atwood, speaking over the phone on the way home from the photo shoot you see on the cover. “She was absolutely dedicated to it. She was very definite about the fact that she really wanted to make it the best way possible. She said at the outset that if she couldn’t get the budget to make it the right way, she wouldn’t do it.”

“Doing it right” meant paying close attention to period details. Atwood describes the research team’s extraordinary effort to get accurate clothing, lamps, furniture, shoes and wallpaper that reflected the era. They even went as far as making actual preserves to be placed in the cellar, which was sealed with wet pigskin, an approach accurate to the times.

Of course, Atwood did extensive research into Grace Marks before writing the novel, but hers was a very different process.

“I could say ‘Doctor Jordan [a fictional character] got on the train.’ [The show’s research team] had to know what kind of train he got on to and what it looked like inside.”

A big sticking point when it came to accuracy involved the boat that brought Grace Marks across the Atlantic as a young Irish immigrant. Polley knew that sequence would be the first and most logical choice for a cut because it involved importing a ship from Europe as well as building an expensive interior set that could rock on a gimbal – all for just a few minutes of screen time.

Polley has her reasons for adamantly sticking by the boat, stating from the start that she would walk away from the project without it. Around the time that she finally landed the rights to the novel, rusty cargo ships the MV Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea arrived off the BC coast carrying Tamil refugees escaping a massacre that killed somewhere between 40,000 to 70,000 people.

“I remember being very affected by those images,” says Polley. “And really horrified by the coldness and the iciness with which Canada was responding to these people.”

The refugees were kept in prisons for months. Several were deported while others were left in limbo for years. The Harper government set out to make an example of them to deter others from arriving in Canada unannounced.

Polley immediately connected the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea voyages to the passages in Atwood’s novel detailing Grace’s emotional, treacherous journey searching for a new home. She fought for the boat scene in order to make the parallel visceral to Canadians whose grandparents or great-grandparents arrived under similar circumstances.

“A lot of them came under duress, a lot of them came fleeing, a lot of them came starving, a lot of them came in abject squalor.”

On set

When I visit the Alias Grace set at Revival Studios on the final production day in November, the boat interior and rig have already been torn down. I check out the empty stage, trying to imagine it before returning to the video village where Polley’s watching over the final scenes.

The mood on set is tired but celebratory. Netflix has sent over a churros truck to congratulate the crew on surviving the 65-day shoot. They enjoy the food quickly and hurry back to work. I’m told they usually shoot about three script pages a day. Today they’re gunning to complete nine.

Everyone is hovering around an interior set, a rustic kitchen that looks like it’s straight out of Pioneer Village. Gadon is inside, donning Grace’s blue prison dress with a white apron on top.

Actor Diane Flacks is in the scene at the kitchen table. Her character, a fellow maid named Dora, is cooking up some fierce words, chastising Grace for being “a celebrated murderess” who should be “cut into slabs.”

After a couple takes, director Harron gives Flacks instructions to look at Grace a bit more. Harron pays particular attention to eyes and their direction.

After another take, Harron calls “cut.” She looks over to director of photography Brendan Steacy and asks what he thinks. He nods approval, so they move on to set up the next shot while Gadon walks over to me in the video village.

“Wasn’t I great?”

She’s referring to a shot where her character remains silent and only the back of her shoulder is in frame.

“It’s my best side,” she jokes.

These takes equate to down-time for Gadon, though she’s lugging around a script the size of a textbook and the focus is almost always on Grace. Her performance is thrilling, most obvious in the notes she adds to Atwood’s dense, almost musical dialogue – it’s a verbal decathlon so rich it rewards repeat viewings.

The framing narrative has Grace worn down after more than a decade in prison and perceptive to the way people judge her. She’s being interviewed by Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). He probes traumatic memories, trying to nail down whether she is an innocent pawn forced to be an accomplice against her will or an evil seductress who orchestrated the murders of her employer (Paul Gross) and his mistress (Anna Paquin). That is how the headlines played Grace.

“She had all these identities projected onto her by the men and the press at that time,” says Gadon, who had to untangle all the adjectives written by revisionist history and figure out a character who in many ways was forced to conceal her true self.

Key to Gadon’s work is her eyes: where and how they look. That’s something Harron homes in on. Dancing between male and female perspectives, and between decorum and guts spilling on the floor, is something I like to call the Mary Harron special. She famously wielded the female gaze to cut down the male ego in American Psycho, an ultra-violent film Gadon remembers sneaking in to see when she was 14.

In Alias Grace, you always sense that the alleged “murderess” is reading her audience and thinking about what they need to see in her. Just look at the show’s chilling cold open, where Gadon’s Grace sees herself in a mirror, adjusting her own gaze ever so slightly but dramatically, trying on prescribed personalities between “inhuman female demon” to “good girl with a pliable nature.”

In a way, Alias Grace is the story of the male gaze directing a woman’s performance. But its power lies in how the female gaze looks back.

Everything from a female perspective

“Everything on this job was from a female perspective,” says Gadon, spelling out how Alias Grace is that extremely rare case where all the main creatives – from the author to the executive producers – are women. That made for a unique production experience.

“It was really inclusive in a way that I have never experienced.”

She’s not just talking about the collaborative nature of the work, but also the way Polley, Harron and Halpern would accommodate their schedules according to family life or bring those families to set, whether to observe or to hang out in the play area that Polley had set up in the production office.

“It was really special and a reminder that you can be in positions of power and work and have families at the same time,” says Gadon, noting that her experience on male-driven sets adhered to the more traditional approach of going to work, leaving the family at home and keeping them in the background.

On Alias Grace, the atmosphere had a ripple effect, with even the men bringing their families around.

“Why can’t you create a work environment that’s a little bit more accepting of the fact that we have families?” says Halpern when I follow up with her some weeks later.

She goes on to elaborate that it wasn’t just about accommodating cast and crew with kids, but accommodating a work-life balance for everyone enduring the gruelling production schedule.

“We wanted to make this a place where everyone worked really, really hard but where there wasn’t a complete and total separation between who we are in our ‘at home’ personal life and who we are in our work life.”

In conversations with Gadon and other female filmmakers last year, they recounted experiences on productions where women’s decisions and talents were constantly doubted. Polley echoes those sentiments, describing similar experiences whenever she worked for a woman.

“There was a complete lack of confidence from the crew, non-stop second-guessing and sabotage,” says Polley. She remembers the production for The Weight Of Water, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whom she credits as a role model who helped her envision her own future as a filmmaker.

“I saw on that film how every male in a key position talked openly with the cast and with everyone else about what an idiot [Bigelow] was, and how she had no idea what she was doing, and how she had no idea what directing was. It was so overt. As it turned out, Kathryn Bigelow did know what she was doing. We can all acknowledge now that the lady knows what she’s doing.”

Perceptive to how men react to women on set, Polley remembers how she tempered her own direction on earlier work to accommodate structured sexism. She quotes a female actor friend who put it best: “I’m just waiting for the moment where I don’t have to act so fucking grateful all the time.”

“That’s how I functioned through those years where no one had faith because of my gender or age,” says Polley, who is quick to point out that she was indeed grateful for the opportunities.

“But I was also very aware that people needed me to be grateful in order to be okay with me in that position. By my second film, where I was still very grateful but also expressing more clarity and honesty and sense of direction about what I wanted, people noted that change in me.

“Directness in a male director is what everybody is looking for,” she adds. “Directness in a female director? There’s a sense that you’re owning a voice that you should be more careful with.”

She isn’t talking about all men, of course. This deep in the game, Polley has been able to outfit her crews with the men and women she knows she can work with. And let’s be clear, just because Alias Grace is led by women doesn’t mean the production was smooth-going.

“Of course there’s still conflict,” says Gadon.

“But the conflict was different. Sometimes there can be this idea that conflict needs to be aggressive. Some people thrive off that energy – on sets or in any workplace – that aggressive, combative, authoritarian approach.

“That was not our set at all. That’s not how Sarah Polley works. And Sarah Polley always gets her way.”

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