THE POLLEY PRINCIPLES

Byline: Christopher Bagley

TORONTO — Of all the actors gaining reputations as fierce indie rebels — conscientious objectors to the Hollywood hype machine — Sarah Polley would seem to stand out as an archetype, one who boasts all the predictable attributes of the young anti-star. Hates doing publicity? Check. Refuses to be made up for photo shoots? Check. Despises Los Angeles, steers clear of premieres and devotes her spare time to political activism? Check, check, check.
But unlike some of her less experienced peers, Polley, who lies here, knows what she’s objecting to. After all, she’s been acting professionally since she was four years old.
Now 20, Polley is one of the few young actors who can sound off on politics without seeming self-righteous or hypocritical — perhaps because she spent much of her adolescence as a political protester, once getting her teeth knocked out in a battle with Canadian riot police.
And, most important, Polley can act. “Sarah is a perfect film actress,” says writer-director Audrey Wells, who cast her opposite Stephen Rea in “Guinevere,” which is premiering tonight in New York. “She has one of those faces that manages to convey the passing of 12 different emotions in the space of six words.”
Many film critics were just as gushy about Polley’s talents in 1997, when she starred opposite Ian Holm in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” playing the lone survivor of a school-bus accident. But the self-effacing actress couldn’t really enjoy any of the acclaim — especially since it coincided with a wave of magazine photo shoots that required her to dress up in designer clothes.
“That humiliated me beyond belief and made me feel like a horrible person,” says Polley, sitting in a small park in a residential section of this city. “So I guess all the self-loathing kind of balanced out any ego boost [the reviews] would have given me.” Although Polley is not one to bad-mouth actors who devote their lives to being famous and looking fabulous, she can’t imagine becoming one of them.
“People I know who are great artists spend so much time manufacturing their own images,” she says.
“And I’m just too busy freaking out about who the hell I am when I’m not around cameras, you know? I don’t have time for figuring out how other people perceive me. I want to know what I think of myself first.”
Polley’s career began in 1985 with a small role in “One Magic Christmas,” followed by a part in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and a six-year stint as the star of the popular Canadian TV series “Road to Avonlea.”
By the time she was 15, she was living in her own apartment here, discussing Camille Paglia in interviews and planning to abandon her career to study philosophy and political science.
At 16, she began devoting herself to activism full-time, organizing protests against the policies of Mike Harris, the conservative Ontario premier. Her scuffle with riot police occurred during a mass demonstration in 1996. Today Polley doesn’t want to dwell on the incident, since it ended up drawing more attention to her than to the protest.
“A lot of people jumped the barricades that day, and a lot of them got hit much worse than I did,” she says. “Most of them were single mothers on welfare, and they got nine stitches in their heads. But what got printed was, ‘Oh, little Sarah Polley got two teeth knocked out!’ Like, who cares? I did it out of an idealism, but they did it because they were fighting for their lives.”
Lured back to the movies by Egoyan for “The Sweet Hereafter,” Polley discovered that being an actor wasn’t necessarily “the most shallow thing you can possibly do with your life,” as she’d always said it was.
“I guess the realization came from watching Ian Holm act,” she says, “and just recognizing that there’s something about the human contact you have when you’re acting with somebody who’s really looking at you, and you’re really looking at them. That became completely intoxicating to me.”
Bombarded with job offers in the wake of the film’s success, Polley made a weekend trip to Los Angeles and lined up two independent projects — “Guinevere” and Doug Liman’s “Go” — then scurried back to Toronto. Her brief exposure to Hollywood was enough to confirm all her worst fears about the place.
“Sarcasm is nonexistent there,” she says. “Anything you say, unless it’s sort of insincerely sentimental and sweet, is considered a ravenous insult. It’s like you’re always in a pr meeting! But I just find myself driven into a kind of cynical hole when I’m there, because I know that underneath that happy veneer is the darkest attitude there is about the world — it’s all about self-interest and making money.”
If Polley ever does decide to turn herself into a hot Hollywood starlet, she won’t have to worry about a lack of raw materials. On screen, she looks sort of like Uma Thurman’s kid sister, with a doe-eyed sultriness that can seem either edgy or ingenuous, depending on the character she’s playing. But in person, dressed in a checked shirt, jeans and fisherman’s sandals, the 5-foot-2 actress looks more like a sun-deprived grad student. She’s almost painfully honest about her own insecurities, including her suspicion that her life has been a total failure.
“There’s a big part of me that always feels like I’ve somehow failed as a person, and that I’m trying to redeem myself in some way,” she says.
When told of that remark, Wells laughs in disbelief. “Jesus!” she says. “Sarah is very self-effacing, but underneath that is a lot of power, intelligence and determination. She’s obviously brilliant, and she’s simultaneously humble, which is a very attractive combination.”
Polley also has managed to avoid the self-indulgent excesses that have ruined plenty of American teen stars, although she acknowledges that her childhood career may have left a few scars.
“I think that everyone in the world is in the middle of an identity crisis all the time — but I think mine might be heightened,” she says. “If, from a very young age, you’re getting approval from an adult for pretending to be someone else, I think that ends up making you have not a great sense of who you are.”
That uncertainty is shared by Polley’s “Guinevere” character, a privileged San Francisco college grad who becomes involved with a photographer more than twice her age. Polley hopes the movie’s nuanced treatment of the relationship will help dispel the notion that all intergenerational romances are perverse and reprehensible.
“Yes, I think there are some exploitative relationships between older men and younger women,” she says. “But there are also very real, true, passionate ones. I think ultimately most of them don’t work out — but relationships between people are always complicated, and it’s not about victims and villains.”
Polley may eventually try to direct a feature herself; she recently completed her first short film, “Don’t Think Twice,” which will screen at this month’s Toronto Film Festival. Although she realizes filmmaking could one day allow her to combine her two main interests — art and politics — she says she’s too inexperienced to make an overtly political film.
“I think most films that try to be political, generally, are really embarrassing to watch,” she says. “The problem is, you have to be a really good filmmaker. And I don’t know if I ever will be. But it’s something I definitely want to explore.”
In the meantime, she’ll continue to act, while trying to minimize her concessions to the demands of the publicity mill. In 1997, when “The Sweet Hereafter” was screened at the Cannes Film festival, Polley splurged on a new dress. Six months later, she attended the film’s gala screening here — wearing the same dress.
“It was the only time I ever had to walk up a red carpet,” she remembers. “It wasn’t a real red carpet, like in L.A . — this is Toronto, so it was like 3 feet long — but I vomited pretty quickly after that.”
Her next official appearance, a week after the interview took place, was with “Guinevere” at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Polley hadn’t given much thought to getting a new outfit.
“I think I’m going to be wearing the same thing again. But I may have to get it altered a bit.”