Sarah Polley, OC, actor, director, writer, producer (born 8 January 1979 in Toronto, ON). Sarah Polley is an acclaimed director and screenwriter and one of Canada's most talented and well-known actors. Her work as a child actor in such TV series as CBC’s Road to Avonlea (1990–96) and in such films as Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997) established her as a rising star. She later embarked on a highly successful career as a writer-director with such award-winning films as Away from Her (2006), Take This Waltz (2011), Stories We Tell (2012), and Women Talking (2022), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. She has won multiple Genie and Gemini Awards and was the first woman to receive a Genie Award for best director. She is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Childhood Acting Career
The daughter of casting director and actress Diane Polley and British-born actor-turned insurance-salesman Michael Polley, Sarah Polley is the youngest of five children. She began acting at age four and made her film debut in Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas (1985). She then appeared in several films and television series before scoring leading roles in Terry Gilliam’s epic fantasy The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), starring John Neville, and the PBS children’s series Ramona (1988), for which she earned her first Gemini Award nomination. While filming Baron Munchausen, she worked 18-hour days for weeks on end, had an explosion go off near her head, and suffered from hypothermia after shooting a scene in cold water. She has said that the experience “really defined me in terms of never really wanting to be on huge films ever, and really focusing on independent films.”
Polley won a best supporting actress Gemini for her role in the TV movie Lantern Hill (1990) and landed the starring role of Sara Stanley in the widely-seen CBC TV series Road to Avonlea (1990–96), which earned her three Gemini nominations. When she wasn’t being tutored onset, Polley attended the Claude Watson Arts Program at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto. Despite her success, she was “not really that interested in being an actor in the future” (she once called acting “a frivolous thing to do with your life”) and became increasingly involved in political activism. After delivering memorable performances in Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994) and an episode of the children's series Straight Up (1996), which earned her a second Gemini Award, she dropped out of school and left acting altogether at age 17 to devote herself to left-wing activism.
She accepted a key role in Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) thinking it would be a break from her activist work. “It seemed like a nice little ending to my acting career to work with Atom,” she has said. “And then it ended up sort of being the beginning of it.” In addition to bringing her international attention and Genie nominations for best actress and best original song, the award-winning, Oscar-nominated film made Polley realize that acting could be significant and socially relevant, and marked a clear transition in her career from child actor to adult star.
Adult Acting Career
In 1997, Polley was named one of Elle magazine’s 25 people to watch. She contributed supporting performances to a number of significant films by prominent Canadian directors, such as Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden (1997), Clement Virgo’s The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). She seemed poised for stardom in the US after her work in Doug Liman’s Go (1999) and Audrey Wells’ Guinevere (1999) earned her rave reviews and major industry buzz. She was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 1999 “Hollywood Issue” alongside Adrien Brody and Reese Witherspoon. Yet she reaffirmed her aversion to fame (“I’m not designed to be famous — my personality is completely wrong for it”) and allegiance to the Canadian film industry when she backed out of the star-making role of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Oscar-winning Almost Famous (2000) to star in John Greyson’s cryptic The Law of Enclosures (2000).
She continued to star in unconventional independent films, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water (2000), Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000) and Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing (2001). She turned down the female lead in Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002) and won a Genie Award for her lead performance in Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003), opposite fellow Earl Haig alumnus Scott Speedman. After starring in Zack Snyder’s hit zombie movie Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (2005), she co-starred with Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgård in Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2006).
She appeared with her father in the critically acclaimed Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows (2006), opposite Paul Giamatti in the award-winning HBO mini-series John Adams (2008), and with Jared Leto and Diane Kruger in Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009). She co-starred opposite Adrien Brody in Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi thriller Splice (2009) and appeared with Molly Parker, Tracy Wright and Daniel McIvor in Bruce McDonald’s Trigger (2010).
At age 20, Polley wrote and directed her first short film, Don’t Think Twice (1999), a black comedy about a man (Tom McCamus) who is forced to choose between his lover and his family. In 2001, she attended the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab. Her second short, I Shout Love (2001), won a Genie Award for Best Live Action Short Drama. She then wrote and directed “The Harp,” an adaptation of a Carol Shields short story produced for the W Network miniseries The Shields Stories (2004).
Her next literary adaptation — of Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” — earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie as a married couple coping with Alzheimer's disease and a lingering history of infidelity, Away from Her (2006) won six major Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Achievement in Direction — making Polley the first woman to win that award. Away from Her also earned Polley the prestigious Award for Best First Feature and picked up dozens of international honours.
In 2007, Polley served on juries at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. She was also named “one of 10 directors to watch” by Variety and ranked No. 49 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the “50 smartest people in Hollywood.” In a New York Times interview that year, she stated, “For a long time, I felt extremely judgmental of the environment I was working in and the people I was working with. I don’t feel like my politics have softened, but I don’t feel like every single thing I do professionally defines me anymore. It’s all experience. At this point, I’m open to anything. Even Hollywood doesn’t scare me anymore.”
Her 2011 feature film, Take This Waltz, which she wrote and directed, stars Michelle Williams as a young wife struggling to keep the passion alive with her husband (Seth Rogen) as she becomes increasingly attracted to a neighbour (Luke Kirby). It was named one of Canada’s Top Ten features of the year by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as was her next film, the highly personal documentary Stories We Tell (2012), which explores the nuances of her family’s history to determine the identity of her biological father. In addition to winning the Genie Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, it was named best documentary of the year by numerous organizations including the Directors Guild of Canada, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the US National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Toronto Film Critics Association, which also awarded it the $100,000 Best Canadian Film prize. Stories We Tell was also named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by TIFF in 2015.
In 2012, it was announced that Polley had received funding from Astral Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund to option and adapt Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace into a screenplay. The six-hour miniseries, starring Sarah Gadon and directed by Mary Harron, with Polley serving as an executive producer, was scheduled to begin production in August 2016. It is slated to air in Canada on CBC TV and stream globally on Netflix.
In June 2014, Paramount Pictures confirmed that Polley had been hired to write a screenplay adaptation of John Greene’s debut novel, Looking for Alaska. However, Polley’s next screenplay to be produced was an adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel Women Talking (2022), which Polley also directed. Starring Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Sheila McCarthy, the film follows a group of Mennonite women as they discover they are being drugged and sexually assaulted by men in their community. The film was a critical smash hit. Polley’s adapted screenplay won numerous critics’ awards, as well as the award for best adapted screenplay from the Writers Guild of America, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and the Academy Awards.
Polley was profoundly affected by the death of her mother from cancer when she was 11 years old. “I didn’t really experience the standard grief,” she has said. “All of a sudden people became fascinating to me. I became very aware of people being three-dimensional, and having motives and angles. Things became very clear and logical… Somehow my mother’s death brought me a kind of joy, a kind of hope. And that confused a lot of people.” Also at age 11, she developed scoliosis and was forced to wear a fibreglass brace for several years. In 1994, at age 15, she had a metal rod inserted into her spine to correct the condition, and moved away from home to live with her boyfriend in downtown Toronto.
She was married to film editor David Wharnsby (The Saddest Music in the World, Away from Her, Passchendaele) from 2003 to 2008, and married lawyer David Sandomierski in 2011. In her acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell, she reveals that her biological father is in fact film producer and administrator Harry Gulkin, due to an affair he had with her mother after they met in Montréal in 1978.
Political and Social Activism
Polley has been politically active from a young age. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, she wore a peace symbol to an event where she was seated with executives from the Disney Channel, which broadcast Road to Avonlea in the US under the title Avonlea. The executives asked her to remove the symbol and she refused. The incident permanently soured her relationship with Disney and contributed to her request to be written off the show in 1994 (she appeared in one episode in 1995 and the finale in 1996). In 1995, she contributed to NDP candidate Peter Kormos’ successful campaign in the Ontario election. Later that year, she had two back teeth knocked out by a policeman after a protest against the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris at Toronto’s Queen’s Park escalated into a riot.
She left acting altogether at age 17 to devote herself to left-wing activism, and worked as part of NDP candidate Mel Watkin’s unsuccessful 1997 federal election campaign. She also volunteered for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the anti-nuclear organizations Canadian Peace Alliance and Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament. Her activist work slowed after she returned to acting in the late 1990s, although in 2003, Toronto mayor David Miller appointed her to his transition advisory team.
Polley has also been an outspoken supporter of the Canadian film industry. In 2005, she and Don McKellar lobbied the federal government to change the way it supports Canadian films, recommending that theatres be forced to devote more screen time to Canadian films and their trailers, and to require broadcasters to air and advertise Canadian films. She is also an advocate for child actors.
In 2009, Polley withdrew her name from a two-minute short film she had directed for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada after learning that it was part of a marketing campaign for Becel margarine. She stated that she had “never actively promoted any corporate brand, and cannot do so now.” In 2012, she endorsed Toronto MP Peggy Nash to succeed Jack Layton as the leader of the NDP. In September 2013, she spearheaded a campaign, which also included Micahel Ondaatje and Atom Egoyan, calling for the “immediate release” of filmmaker John Greyson and emergency medicine professor Tarek Loubani after they were jailed in Egypt.
In addition to the dozens of awards Polley has won for her work as an actor and director, she has also received the ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence (2006) and an honorary doctor of laws degree from Trent University (2009). She was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2010 and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013. Also that year, she was awarded the National Arts Centre Award at the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for exceptional achievement over the past year.
See also: Sarah Polley (Profile)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Lantern Hill) (1992)
- Best Performance in a Children’s or Youth Program or Series (Straight Up) (1998)
- Best Live Action Short Drama (I Shout Love) (2002)
- Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (My Life Without Me) (2003)
- Achievement in Direction (Away From Her) (2007)
- Adapted Screenplay (Away From Her) (2007)
- Best First Feature (Away From Her) (2007)
Canadian Screen Awards
- Best Feature Length Documentary (Stories We Tell) (2013)
- Best Writing, Drama Program or Limited Series (Alias Grace) (2018)
- Best Limited Series or Program (Alias Grace) (2018)
- Best Direction, Web Program or Series (Hey Lady!) (2021)
Directors Guild of Canada
- DGC Craft Award, Direction, Feature Film (Away From Her) (2007)
- DGC Team Award, Feature Film (Away From Her) (2007)
- DGC Team Award, Allan King Award for Excellence in a Documentary (Stories We Tell) (2013)
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards
- Best First Feature (Away From Her) (2007)
- Best Canadian Film (Stories We Tell) (2013)
- Allan King Documentary Award (Stories We Tell) (2013)
- Best Canadian Film (Stories We Tell) (2013)
Alliance of Women Film Journalists
- Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Away From Her) (2006)
- EDA Special Mention Award, Best Leap from Actress to Director (Away From Her) (2006)
- EDA Female Focus Award, Best Woman Director (Away From Her) (2006)
- EDA Female Focus Award, Women’s Image Award (Away From Her) (2006)
- Best Documentary Feature Film (Stories We Tell) (2012)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking) (2023)
- Best Woman Screenwriter (Women Talking) (2023)
- Best Director (Women Talking) (2023)
- Best Supporting Actress (The Sweet Hereafter), Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1997)
- Best Acting by an Ensemble (The Sweet Hereafter), US National Board of Review (1997)
- Film Performance, Female (Go), Canadian Comedy Awards (2000)
- Best Actress, Canadian Film (My Life Without Me), Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards (2004)
- ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence, ACTRA Toronto (2006)
- Best Canadian First Feature (Away From Her), Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival (2006)
- New Generation Award (Away From Her), Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (2007)
- Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film (Stories We Tell), Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (2007)
- Best First Film (Away From Her), New York Film Critics Circle Awards (2007)
- Breakthrough Behind the Camera (Away From Her), Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards (2007)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Away From Her), San Francisco Film Critics Circle (2007)
- Best First Feature (Away From Her), Online Film and Television Association (2008)
- Honorary Degree, LL.D., Trent University (2009)
- Grand Prix, Feature Film (Stories We Tell), Festival du nouveau cinema, Montréal (2012)
- Best Documentary (Stories We Tell), International Film Festival Bratislava (2013)
- National Arts Centre Award, Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards (2013)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2013)
- Best Documentary, International Competition (Stories We Tell), CinEuphoria Awards (2014)
- Best Documentary Screenplay (Stories We Tell), Writers Guild of America (2014)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Satellite Awards (2023)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Critics Choice Awards (2023)
- Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Gold Derby Awards (2023)
- Best Movie by a Woman (Women Talking), Women Film Critics Circle Awards (2023)
- Best Woman Storyteller (Women Talking), Women Film Critics Circle Awards (2023)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Hollywood Critics Association (2023)
- Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Writers Guild of America (2023)
- Director of the Year Award (Women Talking), Palm Springs International Film Festival (2023)
- Robert Altman Award (Women Talking), Film Independent Spirit Awards (2023)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Women Talking), Academy Awards (2023)