Cover Story: Sarah Gadon

The Alias Grace star share her journey from Claude Watson to working with Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley on this season’s hottest new miniseries


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Courtesy of CBC

The true story of Grace Marks dates back to 1840s Ontario, and Margaret Atwood’s novel, Alias Grace, was first published in 1996. Despite this, the themes and issues the story presents are just as relevant today, if not more so.

In the CBC’s new six-episode adaptation of Alias Grace, Toronto-born actor Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks — the poor Irish immigrant housemaid who is accused of murdering her employer. Equal parts psychological thriller, true crime and romance, the series flashes back and forth between the 1840s and 1850s, when Grace is imprisoned for the murder and working with a progressive, young American doctor to piece together the memory of what really happened.

Complex and mysterious, Grace’s character would be a challenging yet rewarding part to play for almost any actor. Gadon says she was thrilled when writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron called to say she had been chosen for the part.

“I met Sarah and Mary, and I auditioned for them, and the next day, they called me and said, ‘Could you do the scene just one more way?’ I feel like that experience was a telling sign of how the project was going to go because there are endless possibilities for what things mean, how scenes can be played.… Your work is never done,” Gadon says.

Gadon began acting at a young age and her television career took off in her teens with roles in popular series such as Being Erica. She then transitioned to film where she became a muse for Toronto filmmaker David Cronenberg appearing in many of his films, from A Dangerous Method in 2011 to Maps to the Stars in 2014. 

For this miniseries, Gadon and the show’s international cast members had a grand tour of Ontario with filming locations in Toronto, Richmond Hill and Kingston.  

“We shot in farm country, which was beautiful in the summertime, and we did some stuff in Victorian mansions around U of T, and then we were also able to shoot on Lake Ontario, which was amazing,” she says. “We really got a sense of Toronto and the GTA.”

Gadon, a Toronto native who attended local arts schools, such as Claude Watson and Cardinal Carter, acted as a tour guide for her British and Irish co-stars, showing off a few of her favourite foodie destinations in the city.

“I got to host everybody and take them out on weekends,” she says. “We would always go out for dinners to Bar Raval, Bar Isabel, Woodlot, Union, Buca, Snack Bar.”

Although Gadon was able to let loose with her castmates on weekends, during the week, it wasn’t all fun and games. The show paints a picture of what it was like to live as a working-class woman in the Victorian age, and Gadon immersed herself in Grace’s world to embody the role. 

Part of her training included learning how to quilt — a running motif throughout the novel and the series symbolizing the weaving together of memories. 

“I always loved the imagery of quilts in the novel,” she says. “Textiles for women, especially during that time, were about who they were, where they came from, and it was about their ability to weave them into these articles and pieces for practical use in everyday life. These quilts tell stories, and that motif kind of extends into memory.” 

Gadon’s duties didn’t stop at quilting, though. She also had to learn how to speak with a Northern Irish accent, milk cows and perform other manual tasks — all while wearing a corset. She says playing the part of Grace opened her eyes to the hardship of the 1840s and ’50s, and the hot, heavy clothing was just one more layer women had to suffer under. 

“I think, on a large scale, women were trapped, and Grace was furthermore trapped because of her class, being working class,” she says. “In the Victorian era, women weren’t allowed to say how they felt; they weren’t allowed to express desire; they weren’t allowed to express love; they weren’t allowed to express all these different kinds of feelings which we oscillate between so freely now.”

Canadian writer, actor and director Sarah Polley transformed the story of Alias Grace from a novel to a six-episode script for television. She says that although many things have improved for many women around the world since the Victorian era, it’s crucial that stories like Grace Marks’ are continually told for the women whose voices are still so repressed. 

“A woman at that time of that class had so little power and so little agency and their life was so completely dangerous,” she says. “They were prey and they had to think as prey. The life of a woman in that time was terrifying; it was without freedom; it was back-breaking; and sadly, that’s the life of so many women today.”

Polley says there’s still much work to be done for women around the world. The story of the Grace Marks trial may seem distant now, but she says it’s only fairly recently that women have begun to take back their own narratives.

“If you were an alien from outer space, and you landed on planet Earth, and you were shown the timeline of women’s rights, there were millennia of no rights at all and then this tiny little blip toward the end of the 20th century going into the 21st century. You would see nothing about that as permanent,” she says. “In order for it to be something that actually gets held on to, it requires enormous recommitment to fighting for it over and over again.” 

Although themes of feminism, the underdog and the fight towards equality are prevalent in the show, Gadon says Alias Grace has so many more layers and elements that will keep viewers hooked until the very end. 

“It’s this thrilling psychological tale and a whodunit, but at the heart of it is this obsessive love story going on between these two people, this cat and mouse game,” she says. “When I was reading the novel and when I was watching the show, as much as you’re tangled up in Grace’s psychology, you’re also engrossed by her relationship with Dr. Jordan. My hope is that people love that as much as I did.”

Alias Grace airs Monday nights, starting Sept. 25, on CBC.

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