Not a lot of actors have a background in film academia. Sarah Gadon does. She completed her Cinema Studies Master’s at the University of Toronto last year, and she admits to just finally getting around to watching “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” from French New Wave god Jacques Demy.
“I’m having a real Catherine Deneuve moment,” Gadon tells us. Of more recent fare, she recommends “James White” and the Hassidic-centered “Felix and Meira,” both in part because of the excellent cinematography. Her new film, “A Royal Night Out,” has excellent cinematography too, she points out, though she wishes it could have been shot on film, especially because it’s set in 1945.
“It’s tough to do period on digital, because it’s not film. We’re used to seeing that era shot on film,’” she says. Of course, digital can now sometimes pass for film, though not always. “When you shoot things in super-wide deep focus, it still looks really odd. That’s why a lot of period films shot digitally tend to look the same.”
“A Royal Night Out” is, on the surface, slightly fluffier fare than Gadon is used to, considering her CV includes Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy,” three with David Cronenberg (“A Dangerous Method,” “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars”) and one (“Antiviral”) with Cronenberg’s son, Brandon. “A Royal Night Out” tells a fictitious account of a true tall tale: when then-Princess Elizabeth (played by Gadon) and Margaret (Bel Powley) were allowed out of the Royal Palace to celebrate V.E. Day. It shows a fictionalized version of how they slipped incognito into the partying masses.
“When I was doing my degree I was so dogmatic about working with auteur filmmakers,” Gadon recalls. When she went to Cannes with ‘Cosmopolis’ and ‘Antiviral,’ she brought her mom. “She turned to me and said, ‘You should really make a movie that I would enjoy watching.’” It’s why she did “Belle,” about the mixed-race member of an 18th century aristocratic English family. And it was a big reason she did “A Royal Night Out” as well.
The other big reason is her lineage. Her dad’s side of the family is British and her grandparents met during World War II, when she was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and he in the British Royal Navy. They were even in Trafalgar Square on V.E. Night. Though they never spoke to her about the war, Gadon describes her work in the film as a love letter to them.
“There was so much I learned about my grandmother while I was researching Elizabeth. It was learning about her by way of Elizabeth,” Gadon says. “Elizabeth represented, for so many women, the first major public woman to have this full-time position, and to be a mother and a wife and managing these worlds at a time in feminism when that was a prominent issue in people’s minds. Elizabeth was a big reason why my own grandmother wanted to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and become a part of the war effort. She influenced a lot of women.”
It was also a chance to humanize a figure often seen as stuffy, if not inhuman. “Often these great women of the past are frozen in their icon status,” she says. “What was interesting to me was being able to ask how she was coming of age in this context in a real way. As much of what was shown was a total fictionalization, the feelings and emotions were very real.”
Gadon’s methods for getting into the past aren’t different from what she does with any other kind of film. For one thing she watches a lot of movies on set. “I’m not one of those people who can’t watch movies while we work. I love to find movies for films and periods,” she explains. A big film for every actor was David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” Gadon says, “for the pacing and the feeling and the accent.” “Roman Holiday” was on the roster too, as well as a lot of romantic comedies.
Music helps her as well. “I like to listen to music while I work,” she says. “I used to dance. I originally started out at the National Ballet School of Canada. I feel like a lot of my emotional responses are musical. It’s a very easy way to transport myself into a feeling or a memory or a state of mind.”
Gadon also loves deep-diving into research. Sally Bedell Smith’s biography on Elizabeth, in which she speaks a lot about the princesses growing up as children, was a big help. “One thing they taught you was if you fall you don’t make a face. You don’t show people what you’re feeling,” Gadon says. “That’s the antithesis of how I was raised. My father is a psychologist and my mom’s a teacher. Everything for us was, ‘How does that make you feel? How can you express that?’”
“A Royal Night Out” arrives at a time when there’s growing awareness of the paucity of strong female roles, and especially of films centered around female protagonists. Gadon, whose experiences with Hollywood are limited (her only big-time live-action role so far is in last year’s “Dracula Untold”), admits to being slightly out of the loop.
“As actors we’re so isolated. It’s so rare for us to talk about our collective experiences,” she explains. “At the same time it’s important to acknowledge the collective experiences and realize there are all these things we’re bumping up against. That’s a lot of relevant issues to talk about in terms of pay inequality, and even substance of characters.”
At the same time she worries about men too. “I see so many young male co-stars and actors who come up against the same struggles in terms of finding roles that are meaningful and are more than beefcake roles,” Gadon says. “When I did ‘Dracula Untold,’ I was working with Luke Evans, who had to work out like crazy for the part. He had to take off his shirt in every other scene. I was like, ‘This is weird, shouldn’t I be the one being pressured to lose weight and take my shirt off?’”
Gadon remembers taking a feminist film course in school that briefly focused on the male body as represented in action film. “What male action stars have to do is insane to me,” she says. “Everybody faces their own struggles. In my experience it’s a crapshoot of hardness for everyone.”
Still, she’s optimistic. She cites a Vanity Fair piece on Robin Wright where Wright talked about feeling like she’s coming into her own at an age when women have historically been ignored. “I think I’m in this great period in Hollywood when women in their 40s are experiencing more careers success than ever before,” she says. Still, there’s still much to fight against. “It’s such a massive issue that it’s hard to speak candidly in sound bytes about it. But it’s something at the forefront of my mind and in my email inbox.”
For now Gadon says she wants to take a break from lighter movies like “A Royal Night Out,” fun and fulfilling as they are, and work with auteurs again. She’s already completed “Indignation,” from longtime Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus, and she did the forthcoming Hulu show “11.22.63,” from the Stephen King novel and starring James Franco, because she wanted to work with “The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald.
“I’ve really returned to the idea of working with auteur filmmakers this year. I had tried a bunch of different things. I’d done a studio film, I’d done a genre film. I realized the most fulfilling experiences are when I’m working with real auteurs. I wanted to return to that feeling. I’ve always felt the movies that bowled me over and broke me up were those that were helmed by great directors.”