By Agatha Krzewinski
Sarah Polley was only 4 years old when she made her first feature film debut, and her parents who were both actors working in show business, persuaded her not to.
“Initially my wife and I both discouraged her from acting,” her father, the late Michael Polley, would later recall in an interview with Macleans in 1997. “She could read at a very young age. She would read all the scripts lying around the house… eventually we gave in.”
She played her first role as a cockney street waif in One Magic Christmas,and then other minor roles such as Sally Salt in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. As well an cockney waif in Kevin Sullivan’s Lantern Hill.
When Polley turned 10 she walked into an audition room for the lead role of Sara Stanley for the series Road to Avonlea, and little did she know that her life would soon change forever.
The 15 million, 13 part series came into fruition after an overwhelming response from the success of Anne of Green Gables. It was backed by the CBC and the Disney channel in the US and had the largest budget ever for a Canadian series at the time.
“I think there’s a (moral) world of L.M .Montgomery that’s been rediscovered because people seem to want to harken back to a time when the world was more black and white. It’s an antidote to our modern world” said director and producer Kevin Sullivan in 1990.
But when all seemed to be going well, tragedy soon hit. Polley’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and her health quickly deteriorated. “I was in adaze, a very happy childhood; daze,” Polley recalled in an interview with The Gaurdian back in 2003. “And basically, I came out of it the second my mother died.”
In one scene while filming the series, Polley was called to weep because of a character that was dying in a particular episode. “The tears came running down. I got through the scene. And afterward I cried some more,” recalled an 11 year-old Polley to People Magazine.
Diane Polley was a veteran actress and casting director. She was standing nearby watching, and few people knew at the time that she was battling liver cancer. Preparing for the worst, Polley confided to a friend on set who had lost his own father to cancer four years prior.
“I said, ‘What do I do? I don’t know what to do.’ And he said, “This is going to sound horrible, and there is no good way to put this, but it’s going to happen,and there is nothing you can do. Try, just try, to make the best of each day.’”
On January 10th 1990, just three days after the premier of Road to Avonlea and just two days after Sarah Polley’s 11th birthday, Diane Polley passed away. A week after Diane’ funeral, Polley returned back to work on the set of Road to Avonlea.
“Sarah is a pro,” Sullivan told People Magazine. “Going back to work the week after her mother died helped take her mind off things. She made it clear she didn’t want people falling all over her.”
Just like her spunky orphan character Sara Stanley in Road to Avonlea, Polley had also lost her mother and had to carry on with life.
Road to Avonlea is an ensemble drama that centres around Sara Stanley; a young rich girl sent to live with her maritime relatives when her businessman father runs into legal troubles As a toddler,Stanley had lost her mother too; but to tuberculosis.
“I know her. She’s stronger because of what happened to her. That is how she works. She is able to deal with things.” And then Polley added softly, “I’ve been there.”
The series ended up garnering a total of 2.527 million views on its premier date,the highest rated original drama for the CBC network at the time. It grabbed 4 Emmy awards, including ‘Best Outstanding Children’s Program’, 14 Emmy nominations, 4 Cable ACE Awards for Best Dramatic Series and attracted an illustrious all-star cast including Christopher Lloyd, Faye Dunaway, Dianne Wiest,Eugene Levy and a young Ryan Gosling. Polley was nominated 3 times for a Gemini Award for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role’. It was clear that this was her ultimate break-out.
Following the six-year production, Polley moved away from the sunny green pastures of Avonlea and into the adult world with more serious roles. She starred in Atom Egoyan’s acclaimed Oscar film The Sweet Hereafter, where she played a paralyzed 15 year old girl who had also lost her mother, and once again had to draw up on her own personal experiences.
The Genie Awards, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the Boston Society of Film Critics, all nominated her for ‘Best Performance by an Actress’. In 1997, Elle Magazine quoted her as one of the top 25 people to watch. Since then, her career has continually sky rocketed. Writing and Directing Away From Her with Julie Christie, as well as the recent Netflix mini series Alias Grace,based on the novel by Margaret Atwood.
You could probably say that Sarah Polley was in fact destined for the part of Sara Stanley in Road to Avonlea, as the actress quoted back at the time when she was just 10 years old: “The day that I got the part my mother was cleaning out the basement and found an 87 year old copy of The Story Girl and it was an original! I think I was destined to get the part.”
For those who don’t know, The Story Girl is the title of one of several books of short stories written by L.M Montgomery, that the series Road to Avonlea is based on.