There's a photograph of Sarah Polleyfrom the Disney movie One Magic Christmas. The still is enormously endearing, less because the Canadian 4-year-old looks adorable in blond bangs and a woolly cap than because her lower lip is stuck out in an attitude of mutinous pugnacity that foretells not only Polley's testy subsequent relationship with the studio, but also her wild years as a high-school dropout and a rebel with many a good activist cause.
Polley blossomed into a pretty blue-eyed blonde whose ethereal, slightly off-kilter face got her repeatedly cast as someone to whom bad things happen. But you can't sustain yourself as Hollywood's Next Big Thing by pulling out of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous in order to star in a low-budget Canadian feature, The Law of Enclosures, which tanked on arrival.
There's nothing remotely pugnacious, ethereal or wounded about the poised, cheerful young woman who shows up at a West Hollywood hotel to talk about Away From Her, her assured first feature as a director, which she also adapted from a short story by Canadian writer Alice Munro. Polley had read Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" in The New Yorker shortly after co-starring with Julie Christie in Hal Hartley's No Such Thing. "When I picked up this story, I couldn't stop seeing Julie's face," says Polley. It was a long slog to get Christie to commit. But Polley ground her down, and the result is a transcendently quicksilver rendition of a woman who, as her character ruefully says in the movie, is "beginning to disappear" but will brook no pity.
Polley, who after a tumultuous early love life is now contentedly married to Toronto-based film editor David Wharnsby, has a precociously mature understanding of Munro's austere, inward, yet intensely physical account of this enduring but troubled union. "I don't think there can be a simple love story when two people know each other for that long," she says. "The relationship is full of failures and heartbreak and betrayal and moments of redemption. This was uncharted territory for me, but it felt so obviously cinematic."
Away From Her has been getting rapturous advance notices in North America, but it's the Canadian reviews Polley is nervous about because that's where her funding comes from; she is already hard at work pursuing the rights to Alias Grace, a novel by Margaret Atwood. Polley wants to maintain a dual career but says that acting was of little help once she settled into the director's chair. "Everything I learned about filmmaking," she says, "was not from being an actor but from making my five shorts." Polley has a couple of acting projects coming up, but she finds herself far more open to a Hollywood offer to direct. "It's funny how much more tempting that is as a director than as an actor. I feel as though I've been so immune to Hollywood as an actor, but if I was offered a great film to direct and a decent budget, it would be hard to say no. Especially after having gone through four or five years trying to get movies made." Certainly, it never occurred to her to direct herself in Away From Her. "You want people to fall in love with the actors," she says, "and I don't think I could fall in love with myself." If that makes her the right person in the wrong town, so be it.