Sarah Polley has managed to pull off the impossible in her career as an actor – successfully alternating between commercial and indie projects while establishing a reputation as one of her generation's fiercest talents. She's no stranger to horror films either, having starred in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, as well as the premiere episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. I caught up with Polley last week in Los Angeles, where she spoke about the challenges of playing genetics genius Elsa, the creature Dren's domineering "mother" in Splice; whether or not she'd be up for a sequel; and her thoughts on the horror genre in general. Hit the jump now to read our conversation.
On Elsa being an actor's dream role:
It was the best character I've ever read for a woman. I've never wanted to play a part that badly. What's great about her is there is something very human and damaged about her, but she also just goes to places where her sense of ambition and manipulation and drive is so overwhelmingly human. I think that's such an amazing thing to have to try and connect with and empathize with and play. It was a pretty amazing experience.
On playing an unsympathetic character:
I think that there aren't enough unsympathetic characters to play in movies generally. I think that there's this huge pressure – "How can we make what she does sympathetic?" Whenever you're making a film, the script notes are always about how to make people more sympathetic. But I think ultimately we all run into people in our lives that aren't at all. It's interesting to get to know why, but it's not necessarily interesting to make them likable. So I think we can understand why Elsa is the way she is. She's had a pretty neglectful, isolating childhood that she never dealt with, and instead, like many people do, she just tried to zoom out of it and make it go away by drowning it in ambition and achievement and accomplishment, and living life too fast. I think we can understand how she gets where she gets. But I don't think we have to like her all the time. [Laughs.]
On grounding her performance in a larger-than-life film:
I just think you have to believe everything. I think you have to never feel like you're playing a part. This film in so many ways is a kind of fairy tale, and as long as you don't think of it that way, it's important to keep grounded in the reality of where the character's coming from, and why she's doing what she's doing.
On Elsa's wanting to have a child (in Dren) when her partner, Clive, does not:
It's a weird thing, because in life he wants to have a child and she doesn't at all. But in terms of this creature I think also that has to do with being somewhat obsessed and needing control all the time. She doesn't want to have a real child. I think he sort of says that at the end. With this she feels it's a way of keeping it in the realm of experiment where she can have a certain degree of distance and control, but of course that doesn't work. And as soon as the child isn't giving unconditional love and being cute all the time, like many parents she finds it very difficult to deal with. But she's less equipped than some.
On preparing to play a "mother":
I don't have children of my own, but I have lots of friends who do have kids. And I know that's always a tricky moment when the "no" face begins, at two or three. Then the teenage phase is very often really challenging. Elsa goes through that with her child in the course of weeks, so there's no time to adjust to any of it. And she's kind of ill-equipped to be compassionate anyway. So I think that completely spins her out of control.
On whether or not she'd return for a sequel:
Possibly, yeah. I've talked to nobody about a sequel at this point, so I have no idea if that's something that's real or something that people are talking about. For the next year and a half to two years I'm making my own film, and then I have a documentary I'm working on, so I'm not sure if timing-wise it would work out. But obviously it's something I'd be open to talking about.
On her views of the film's genetic manipulation issue:
I tend to feel like scientific exploration and discovery has given the world a lot of great things and continues to. There's a lot of hope in what scientists do. I think that it's definitely preferable if that research takes place in a public system that's regulated, as opposed to private companies who are driven by profit. I don't think this would be happening even in a company that was private, because I think things are so closely monitored, and there is such scrutiny of what scientists do. I don't think that the science is completely crazy in this movie, but the idea that people could get away with it… I don't think we're at that point. Generally I'm someone who's supportive of stem-cell research and exploration and innovation and science. And I think that scientists by and large follow a pretty strict ethical code that's self-imposed as well as imposed by the outside world. But one of the elements I like in this movie is a lot of it is being driven by profit in a corporate culture; and I always think when you combine science or art with a corporate culture, things can get kind of muddied in terms of ethics and quality. [Laughs.]
On playing the type of part that would have been typically been written for a man:
The thing that was also thrilling about this role is it's always the guy who gets to be the mad, out-of-control scientist. In a way, when women are written as ambitious and manipulative and driven, it's always in this sort of Lady MacBeth sort of thing, where they're driving the guy to do something, as opposed to doing it themselves, and being slightly off-kilter and psychotic and ambitious and driven themselves. That's incredibly fun to play, and again very untraditional for a woman, especially in genre [or] sci-fi movies.
On how she picks here roles:
I think if it's a film I would go and see, then I want to be a part of it. That's my only criteria. Which is why a lot of the time I do independent films and then every now and then I do a genre movie or something that seems totally out of whack. It's because the only criteria I'm going by is, "Would I go and see it?" Not "I want to cast myself as this kind of actor in this kind of movie." I don't have any career plan ever. I just want to be in films that I think I would go and see.
On whether she has a special attraction to the horror genre:
Not at all. All I would say is I think when sci-fi movies or horror movies are good, they are transcendentally great. I think there are so many that are bad, and so generally it's not a genre that I gravitate towards. But the ones that work can talk about things in a way no other kind of film can. That's what's thrilling and exciting. So when I see a sci-fi movie or horror movie that's dealing with complex issues and is interesting and makes people talk, I absolutely want to be part of that. But as a genre, I think it falls short too often. I don't think people push themselves hard enough. Too often they're made in a commercial system where the primary goal is to be commercial, not interesting and good. I think ultimately, sci-fi and horror, if it works, it's got to be daring and bold and do things that people are very uncomfortable with when they're putting money into it. You're not necessarily always gonna get that made by a studio. That's what's great about this film – it was made independently, and didn't have a lot of fear and interfering around it, so it can push boundaries. Again, when these kinds of movies are great they're incredible. It's very rare that I want to be involved in one, but if I do I get probably more excited about it than anything else.
On the problem she sees with horror films:
The thing about horror movies is generally they're cheap to make. You don't have to have really interesting actors to sell them. People will go and see them. So it's kind of like the Toronto Maple Leafs – they're never a good team, because they're always sold out. People will have season tickets for the next five to fifty years if they never make it to the playoffs again. So what's the point in having a great team, right? [Laughs.] I think that horror films and sci-fi films get sold down the river in the same way that I do as a Leafs fan. People are always gonna buy tickets so why make them good? And I think that's really disrespectful to the audience. That's what I love about this film – it doesn't stop short and it puts a lot of intelligence into it, and it's not just riding on the fact that it's gonna be commercial. Which hopefully will make it more commercial… I read this great quote once, this film critic in Canada was saying, "It's possible to make a good movie that ends up being commercial. But if you make a movie and set out to be commercial, it's never gonna just happen to be good." Apocalypse Now is a movie that set out to be good, and it happened to be commercial. But there's too many movies now where it's the cart before the horse, trying to be commercial before interesting. Ultimately you might end up with a commercial film, but you're not gonna end up with a good film that way.
On the lines that Splice crosses:
My experience reading the script, every time I thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be so psychotic if they crossed that boundary. But they never will, because it's a movie" – ten pages later they did. It was like, "What it going on? Are they crazy?" Watching it at Sundance, it was funny watching a whole audience have the same response, literally gasping and gasping and gasping. And not just the gross-out shrieking, but really being astonished at where it was going. It's pretty hard to compute. I still can't compute what happens. It's a kind of weird denial. [Laughs.]
On the similarities she's noticed between director Vincenzo Natali and David Cronenberg, with whom she's also worked:
I think that, while Splice is totally its own movie and Vincenzo's creation and totally unique, I do think that he is following in the footsteps of David Cronenberg in a certain way in that they're both really interesting artists who are talking about things in a way that a lot of filmmakers aren't. And the style is so specific and so strange and innovative. Again, Cronenberg is someone I would point to as constantly pushing the envelope and taking things where you don't expect them to go; and who seems to be more concerned with making good films than commercial films, and some of them really work.
On the film's willingness to open itself up to misogyny charges in portraying a woman responsible for a man's downfall, and how that may be more permissible in an indie than in a mainstream Hollywood film:
It's interesting because someone brought that up about an hour ago. Someone said something about "Is it an anti-feminist film because the woman gets so out of control?" It's an interesting way of seeing it because I'd never thought of that before, and I think there is something valid to that, but at the same time I feel like we've seen many evil CEO's, like the one is this film, who happens to be female, and many out-of-control mad scientists who are like Elsa and just happen to be male. Maybe there's a certain liberation from thinking about those stereotypes – it happens to be a woman, and there's no stigma or comment on that. But it's interesting. I literally never thought about it, and I wonder why.