2020 Woman of the Year Q & A

Photo by Samuel Engelking.

Sarah Polley – ACTRA National’s 2020 Woman of the Year

Sarah Polley has shared her personal experiences as a child star when speaking in support of children who work in the entertainment business. She’s also been a leading voice promoting ACTRA’s campaigns to increase Canadian entertainment content.

Sarah’s successful career as a performer, writer, director and producer inspires us all, which is why this year Canadian performers are shining a spotlight on Sarah — our 2020 ACTRA National Woman of the Year.

I’ve never forgotten those gestures of solidarity from my fellow union members… as a result, being part of this union has always brought a feeling of a family for me.

You’ve supported ACTRA’s bargaining teams and made a real difference in the way performers are treated and respected in our country. How did this come about?

I’ve never been at the bargaining table, but I’ve been there to show support in the past and I’ve given some input into protections for child performers. Being a child actor was pretty awful for me overall and, as a child in a vulnerable position on many film sets, I was often protected and nurtured by other ACTRA members. I’ve never forgotten those gestures of solidarity from my fellow union members (Barry Flatman, Cedric Smith, Mag Ruffman and Lynda Mason Greene come to mind, for example) and, as a result, being part of this union has always brought a feeling of a family for me. I feel a very strong affinity to the labour movement and, when I was on ACTRA Toronto Council in my teens, this actually put me at odds with many other Councillors who came from a more conservative background. Over the years, it’s been amazing to see ACTRA become more and more of a progressive union and take real action on issues like protecting child performer’s rights.

Sarah directing. Photo by Michael Gibson. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

I’m happy many women now don’t brush off incidents of harassment as par for the course and that we have a discourse to talk about what is wrong with harassment. It’s something I didn’t have for most of my life. 

Over the past few years, what has – or hasn’t – changed for women working in the entertainment industry?

There is certainly much more awareness now of how women have been harassed and abused in their place of work, which is wonderful, though not much has changed in terms of the players. There is still misogyny everywhere; being experienced by women in various incarnations all the time. Some women I know received heartfelt acknowledgments and apologies from men in the aftermath of the MeToo movement. It would be great to see more of those kinds of acknowledgements of past behaviour so we could really move on to a new chapter. I think some men have learned a lot over the last few years. Many, though, haven’t internalized the information but are at least too afraid to behave as horribly as they did before. To be honest, I’m happy for even this. I’d rather have had everyone change and see things more clearly but I’m also happy our culture has shifted enough at least for them to know their behaviour is unacceptable even if their minds haven’t changed. Hopefully, the next generation has an easier time internalizing this stuff. I’m happy many women now don’t brush off incidents of harassment as par for the course and that we have a discourse to talk about what is wrong with harassment. It’s something I didn’t have for most of my life. I still don’t see enough space for women who don’t present as “feminine enough,” enough space for BIPOC actors, LGBTQ+ actors. Most of the women I know who aren’t straight, white, cis women have seen even less positive change in their workplaces, which sucks.

Sarah Polley on Road to Avonlea. Courtesy of Sullivan Entertainment.

To be recognized [as ACTRA Woman of the Year] is very meaningful when my main job over the last number of years has been raising children.

What does being named ACTRA Woman of the Year mean to you? 

It means a lot. I’ve had such a long history with ACTRA. It’s rare to see big organizations and institutions change in meaningful ways, and I’ve seen the ability of this organization evolve into so many iterations over the years. I’ve also been raising my kids for the most part for the last eight-and-a-half years, which can make people think you have somehow disappeared – I’ll often be chasing two kids along the sidewalk with a toddler in my arms and someone will say, “What the hell have you been DOING lately?!” I’m like… um… I’ve been doing this…) – so to be recognized in this way is very meaningful when my main job over the last number of years has been raising children.

What’s changed in your [professional] life since the COVID-19 lockdown? 

I’ve been writing a book. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s been amazing to finally get to do it. I’ve also reoriented myself towards projects that really mean something to me politically, that have something pressing to say. I haven’t felt interested in art for art’s sake. It’s time to make some noise. 

In 2008, Sarah was honoured with the ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence.

I’d like to direct again in the next few years but work civilized hours that are safe and respectful to everyone’s families.

Your long and successful career has encompassed numerous roles on screen and behind the camera. What’s next for Sarah Polley?

I’m excited to find new modes of collaborating in more democratic ways. I’d like to direct again in the next few years but work civilized hours that are safe and respectful to everyone’s families. I’d also like to do more writing that isn’t film related.

Sarah Polley is an award-winning performer, writer, director and producer whose long and distinguished career has encompassed numerous roles both on screen and behind the camera. Her dramatic features include Away from HerTake This Waltz and Stories We Tell.Sarah’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for CBC and Netflix, which she executive produced, garnered six Canadian Screen Award wins including Best Screenplay, Director, Actress and Limited Series. In 2008, Sara was honoured with the ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence. Sarah’s most recent work, CBC Gem’s Hey Lady!, which she co-directed, debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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