Sarah Polley has been busy. The talented multihyphenate — actress, director, writer and political activist — is on the press trail for “Alias Grace,” a Netflix miniseries based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. “It’s been a really awesome experience to finally see it come to fruition,” the 38-year-old tells me over the phone. “It’s been great.”
The Toronto native read the novel as a teen and decided then and there to adapt it — at the ripe age of 17. After finally getting the rights at age 30, her work is premiering on Netflix this Friday, Nov. 3.
Of course, it would be natural to expect “Alias Grace” to be more of the same, Atwood-adaptation-wise — especially because the series comes less than a year after the critically lauded “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But where “THT” follows women in an uncertain dystopian future, “Alias Grace” explores a true story with consequential roots in the past. “Grace” is a fictional take on the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant and domestic servant who was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper/lover in 1840s Canada. But the miniseries is less focused on whether or not she did it than on who Grace Marks actually was.
“She’s one of these women that a lot of people projected onto,” Polley says. “She was a beautiful 16-year-old girl, she was completely fascinating to people. Men were in love with her and projected on to her that she must be innocent. A lot of people decided she must be guilty. The mystery is who she actually was, and what her voyage was. She never got to speak for herself.”
The series is part of a trend — timely and propitious stories about women fighting against patriarchal structures are striking a chord now more than ever. “We’re in such a precarious moment right now — for women and for anybody who has been marginalized,” Polley says. “It’s a really scary moment.”
Polley wrote about her own experience fighting patriarchal structures, detailing a story of her own run-in at age 19 with disgraced producer and alleged serial sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein. “It’s not just our industry, it’s all industries,” she says. “It’s not just gender, it’s also race and class. We live with power structures and an economic system that is based on inequality and injustice and marginalization. Being conscious of the ways that we are complicit, in respect to all of those things, is really important. It’s the first step in a much bigger conversation.”
She admits that it’s taken herself a long time — “way too long” — to acknowledge racial disparities, especially in media. “We’re all kind of complicit in a system that’s pretty racist and discriminatory on many levels,” she says. She notes that taking a look at her own films, including the not-so-diverse “Take This Waltz,” and seeing the lack of diversity in them was a particular low point.
“I had a real awakening, which continues,” she says. “I don’t think as a middle-class white person you’re ever going to get to the bottom of your own ignorance. You have to keep trying, and you just keep asking questions. It has to be part of my work to get better.”
Polley — who has attributed her late onset wokeness largely to watching the Black Lives Matter movement — says her next project will bring together a collective of women and give a voice to their stories. She wants to create space in the industry for people of color to tell their own stories, in their own way. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me as a white filmmaker to decide to write stories for people from other communities,” she says. “But to actually create a space where they can write their own stories, then help bring that to the screen is really exciting to me.”