While The Handmaid’s Tale is deservedly riding high on everybody’s end-of-year lists, don’t sleep on 2017’s other stellar streaming Margaret Atwood adaptation. Based on her 1996 novel, Alias Grace, the Netflix drama pivots on an extraordinary performance from Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks, who in 1843 was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper.
The driving ambiguity of the show comes not just from the question of whether Grace is guilty, but from Grace’s entire identity, and how she is presented and perceived. Episode one begins with a striking powerhouse moment for Gadon in which Grace looks at herself in the mirror, considering all the facets of her that have been written about since her conviction. “That I am an inhuman female demon…that I am a good girl with a pliable nature, and no harm is told of me; that I am cunning and devious; that I am soft in the head, and little better than an idiot. And I wonder: How can I be all these different things at once?”
Gadon spoke with ELLE.com about the show’s opening monologue, the inevitable Handmaid’s comparison, and the quiet rage at the heart of Alias Grace.
GRACE IS SUCH AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, AND IT’S OFTEN UNCLEAR WHO SHE’S SPEAKING TO, AND WHICH VERSION OF HERSELF SHE’S PRESENTING AND WHY. HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE CHALLENGE OF THAT?
As an actor, there are so many identities that are projected on to you, and you feel as though there are many different versions of yourself that co-exist in the same being, and you’re highly conscious of that. Sometimes I go into a meeting, and people will assume because of the way I look that I’m young and naive, and then when I’m able to speak about the project in an objective, intelligent way, I leave the meeting and get a note saying, “I don’t know if she can be innocent enough.” Things like that, you’re just very aware of how people are perceiving you. Sarah [Polley, who wrote the screenplay] and I talked about that a lot in relation to Grace.
Mary [Harron, director] and I sat together in prep and meticulously combed through the script and decided which version of Grace was the most compelling, and then when we went to camera, we shot all of those colors. So rather than just playing a scene one way, we played it both ways, so you can achieve all of those colors of Grace and you’re able to play with them in the edit.
ONE OF THE IDEAS ALIAS GRACE EXPLORES REALLY POWERFULLY IS FEMALE LABOR—HOW WOMEN ARE TAKEN FOR GRANTED IN THE DOMESTIC SPHERE, AND THE KIND OF QUIET RAGE THAT COMES OUT OF THAT.
Grace Marks immigrated from Northern Ireland to Canada during the Victorian era, which was an extremely oppressive time for women, and she was subjected to a British colonialist class system, as Canada was at the time. So in preparation, I read a lot of women writing during that time period. I read Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings, I read Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and it’s so important to go to the source material when you’re doing a historical piece.
It’s so important to read women who were actually able to write at that time, because their writing is so apologetic, and angry, and repressed. In Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, for example, she’s always apologizing for writing about the structure of a household and expressing her opinion, even though she’s very well versed in that. You realize just how complicated it was for women at that time because even having the authority or knowing what it was like to be a housemaid—you still have to apologize for having that knowledge. So Grace isn’t just this murderer or just this innocent victim, she’s a real girl at this time working as a housemaid, and that meant she was subjected to oppression constantly, and subjected to patriarchal authority constantly.
MARGARET ATWOOD WAS HEAVILY INVOLVED IN THE ADAPTATION, AND EVEN HAS A CAMEO. HOW WAS IT TO HAVE THE AUTHOR ON SET?
It was really advantageous to have her around. She has a very close relationship with Sarah Polley, and read every draft of the script, and watched everybody’s audition tapes and came in and saw all the production designs. When I sat down with her, I had so many questions about Grace, and why she chose to write Grace in this way. I think the thing that resonated with me the most was how much she wanted me to hold on to the ambiguity, and how much the ambiguity was important in terms of honoring Grace’s memory, because she was a real person. I really hung on to that throughout the show.
THE DYNAMIC BETWEEN GRACE AND DR. SIMON JORDAN IS VERY HARD TO PARSE, EARLY ON, AND THE POWER DIFFERENTIAL MAKES HIS INTEREST IN HER A LITTLE SUSPECT. HOW DID YOU AND EDWARD HOLCROFT TEASE OUT THAT AMBIGUITY?
It was so much fun, playing this cat and mouse game. I was so captivated by the power dynamics between these two people in the novel, these two people who in many ways are both repressed by their positions and by the social etiquette of the time. It’s a tennis match of subtleties. Edward is naturally a really good listener as an actor, and so much of what Simon does is listen. He has such a compelling face, so he could just sit in this really wonderful calm, cerebral place and I got to kind of dance around him. It was great.
GIVEN THE HUGE SUCCESS OF THE HANDMAID’S TALE FOR HULU, PEOPLE WILL INEVITABLY BE COMPARING THE TWO SHOWS AS MARGARET ATWOOD ADAPTATIONS, EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE VERY DIFFERENT. HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THEM?
I think Handmaid’s Tale is this kind of dystopian, cautionary tale of where we could go if we remain on the path that we’re on, and Alias Grace is really about looking back at where we’ve come from in order to place ourselves today. When I think about both projects and about Margaret’s writing in both books, that’s the answer that makes the most sense for me.
THE SEQUENCE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FIRST EPISODE, WHERE GRACE IS LOOKING AT HERSELF IN THE MIRROR, IS SUCH A POWERFUL, LOADED MOMENT. IT’S ALSO INCREDIBLY INTERNAL—WHAT WAS THAT LIKE TO ACT?
I love that scene so much, because I think of the motif of women looking in the mirror through art history and film and photography and all of these visual mediums. What I love about our show is that it’s an exploration of female subjectivity, and in that moment when Grace looks in the mirror, she’s kind of subverting that motif by comfortably sitting in all these different projections of herself—“an inhuman female demon, an innocent victim, a good girl, ignorant, cunning.” And not necessarily giving you any resolution about any of them. It’s almost unnerving when you watch it.
It was really daunting initially, because the way that Sarah had written it in the script was that Grace kind of transforms into all these ideas and I just thought, there’s no way I can do that. That’s a writing device, it’s not something somebody can actually do. But then the more that we talked about it, Mary and Sarah told me, “No, it’s the idea of when you look in the mirror…you’re playing with all the things that you hate about yourself and all the things that you love about yourself.” It has to be quiet and subtle and not big and theatrical.