Sarah Polley earned wide acclaim for directing the drama Away from Her, about a woman fading into the twilight of Alzheimer's, as well as for her acting performances in an array of films including The Sweet Hereafter and My Life Without Me. Her latest film, Stories We Tell, is a documentary, though — and a personal one at that.
Polley grew up in a Canadian theatrical family — her father Michael Polley may be best-known stateside as a featured regular on the well-regarded comedy Slings and Arrows — and one of the jokes around the dinner table was that Polley didn't look much like Dad.
Polley's mother, meanwhile, had died of cancer when Polley was 11, so she never got to know her mom as an adult. As she grew older, the actor grew increasingly suspicious of the truth behind that dinner-table joke — and at age 27, she discovered that those suspicions were accurate. Her biological father was not in fact the man who had raised her as his own.
In Stories We Tell, Polley turns the camera on her surviving family members and a range of family friends to learn more about her mother and what her life was like. She also tries to uncover the story behind that family secret, and in doing so asks the fundamental question of how, when you learn startling things about your parents, your identity and your relationships with other family members change.
The news about her parentage came as a shock to Polley, but she says her late 20s was the right time to find out. And she doesn't begrudge her mother's decision to take the secret to her grave.
"To be honest, I don't see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this," Polley tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I'm not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion."
That doesn't mean the experience was easy. Still, the revelation ultimately brought Polley and her father closer and helped her gain a better understanding of who her parents were and what their marriage had been. And Polley says she was happy to have sorted out her own origins by the time she gave birth to her own first child.
"I finished editing the film probably weeks before I found out I was pregnant," she remembers, "and I'm glad that it was out of my system [so] I can focus on somebody else's childhood for now."
On telling her dad that he wasn't her biological father
"I was sort of, at that stage, filled with regret that I had ever investigated this at all, and felt enormously guilty in a way that almost sank me. And it took a friend of mine to point out to me that by discovering this information, I hadn't actually created the situation — or, you know, done anything particularly wrong. But it was hard to come to terms with that because I felt that I was in possession of information that would be really traumatic and hurtful for him and would destroy him.
"And so I just told him as honestly and clearly as I could, and then was completely staggered and stunned by his response to it, which was so full of compassion for my mother and gentleness and graciousness. In a way, his response to this information was for me what made it a really interesting story. I didn't think the story itself was particularly original, but I think it's very, very unusual for somebody to respond to something a lot of people would call 'betrayal' with a real, true understanding and empathy, and not place blame.
"His first concern was that we not blame or judge my mother for this — and to candidly look at and communicate issues within the marriage that he was responsible for."
On including footage of voiceover retakes
"I think that, for me, it was really important to not leave the construction of the film out. Because it's a film about storytelling, and how we tell stories and why we tell stories. I thought it was really important to include the process of making this film itself in the film. And some of that involves some rather unflattering and ruthless moments for me — like directing my dad when he's ... pouring his heart out, basically.
"You do get into this mode, I think, when you're telling a story — or certainly when you're making a film — where you can kind of lose your sense, or your barometer, for what's human or humane. And certainly I think there are a few moments in the film where I'm directing my dad, where I don't come off that well. But I certainly come off as somebody who's trying to tell a story above all else."
On the story if the press had told it first
"It would have been a very different story. And not an untrue story, but a very, very small piece of a story. So, I mean, the first person who wanted to print the story wanted to write a kind of feel-good piece about this reunification between this father and his daughter. And for me that would have been a huge betrayal of my dad, who's still alive and well. I couldn't see that being the only story. Because, you know, while it was really exciting to meet my biological father, and we had some really interesting conversations and some really amazing times together, for me it was a lot more complicated than just a feel-good story.
"It was also really shocking, slightly traumatic and full of guilt and ambiguity about how I felt in terms of how this was going to impact my family. And it would have excluded my father's entire story — which for me was really the central story, because he was the one who had the most to lose and to respond to. So, for me, it would have been very upsetting to just be that on its own."
On learning about her mother through making this film
"Having the opportunity to sit with for many hours with most of the people that your mother was close to in her life, and get to hear them talk about her, ends up forming a much more full picture than the one I had before.
"At the same time, even though I wasn't an adult and didn't get to know the complexity of who she was, I had somebody say to me once, years ago, 'What was your mother like?' And I said, 'I don't know. She died when I was 11.' And she said, 'Well, what did she feel like?'
"And that was an amazing window for me into the idea that ... you don't actually have to be able to articulate or intellectually know who somebody is to really know them, and that 11 years is actually a really long time — especially to have a really good mother — and it's more than most people get in a lifetime.
"And I had, until I was 11 years old, a mother who made me feel like life was really exciting, that the world was really exciting. That she loved us. That she could find joy even when life had been tragic — and that's so much more than most people get. I feel incredibly grateful for that. And then, obviously, so privileged to have been able to add all this new information to that picture."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STORIES WE TELL")
SARAH POLLEY: Can you describe the whole story, from the beginning until now, in your own words?
MICHAEL POLLEY: What?
Wow. I guess I better pee first.
GROSS: That was the Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley asking what she asked of her family members and friends: Tell the story of her mother as they remember her. It was her way of learning about her mother Diane, who died when Sarah was only 11. Those interviews are interwoven in Sarah Polley's new documentary "Stories We Tell."
She discovers her mother died with a secret. Sarah's father, the actor Michael Polley, was not Sarah's biological father. During the course of her interviews, Sarah learns who her biological father is and then has to break the news to the father who raised her, who was also in the dark.
The film reflects on how her mother was perceived differently by each person who knew her, and it considers what changed and what didn't when the secret was uncovered. "Stories We Tell" won the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Canadian Film, which comes with a $100,000 prize. The first time Sarah Polley won this award was in 2006 for her film "Away From Her" starring Julie Christie as an aging woman with Alzheimer's. Polley also directed the film "Take This Waltz," which starred Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen.
She acted in the films "The Sweet Hereafter," "My Life Without Me" and "Exotica." In the TV miniseries "John Adams," she played the daughter, Nabby. Here's another excerpt of "Stories We Tell" in which Sarah Polley's family members discuss how she never looked like her father Michael Polley, who raised her. We hear first from him, and then from siblings Joanna, John and Mark.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STORIES WE TELL")
POLLEY: So at some point, because we used to often have dinner together on weekends, probably Johnny started by saying you don't look much like your father.
JOANNA POLLEY: I think it was Johnny. I want to say it was Johnny. And actually, now in retrospect, that I know that Johnny was the first of us, he knew. It must have been Johnny.
JOHN POLLEY: I stupidly mentioned it to Mark, I thought.
MARK POLLEY: My lawyer has said I don't have to talk to you, and so I'm not going to say anything more.
I remembered Johnny saying that someone thought that your father might be someone that mum had acted with in a play.
POLLEY: And I told them not to say anything to anyone. But then they turn it into a joke. And I did not participate in the joke, did I? I don't think I ever did.
POLLEY: I remember we talked about how you didn't look like dad, and dad joked about it.
POLLEY: I always thought she does look like me, got that little straight nose, yeah definitely, this is all nonsense, but it's fun. Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?
GROSS: Sarah Polley, welcome to FRESH AIR.
POLLEY: Hi there.
GROSS: So I really think you achieve, in this movie, what fiction strives for, which is complex human stories that make you think about human nature, about the complexities of relationships and how everyone has their own version of reality, except that your story is true.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about that story. Your siblings had heard rumors and jokes about your father not being your biological father. Did those rumors ever filter down to you when your mother was alive, she died when you were 11?
POLLEY: You know, the rumors and the jokes really started after she had died, and, you know, my family, the sense of humor, my family has always been a little bit dark. There's no sacred cows. There's no taboos. So, you know, as much as it doesn't sound very funny, probably, in the context of another family, in my family it was completely normal to joke about this kind of thing, that I didn't look much like my father, my dad probably wasn't my real dad.
And I just took it as a joke, but over the years I started to wonder if there was maybe more truth to that remark.
GROSS: What made you wonder?
POLLEY: I think that when I sort of pushed at it a little bit, as I got older, as I became a teenager, sort of, you know, poked my finger into it a little bit, I felt like people were - they were laughing it off, but there was something there that they were also being cagey about. So I did decide to kind of pursue that more and meet with some of my mother's friends to investigate.
GROSS: So how did you arrange the meetings? Did you call up people and say, well, I think my father might not be my biological father, so I need to talk with you?
POLLEY: I did that with one of her best friends a long time ago, and she was pretty - I think she had sort of decided, like most of my mum's friends did, that she was going to honor her promise to her friend and not talk about it. And so she didn't reveal much, but I got a sense that there was something there.
And then I ended up meeting with the person in question, I finally got a name, and I felt that maybe he was not being completely forthcoming. And then eventually it led me to, you know, finding sort of oddly by accident, when I had kind of given up on finding it out, I ended up finding out and meeting with the person who actually was my biological father in 2006.
And it - you know, I also met his family and ended up finding a lot about my mother's life in that period of my mother's life both from his point of view and everybody else's point of view once that secret was out.
GROSS: You have everybody telling their story, and the stories, some of those stories are contradictory of other stories. But the person who turns out to be your biological father, he doesn't want other people's stories. He feels like he owns that story, only he and your mother know about what happened between them and that everybody else's story is kind of like secondary, they're bystanders, they're minor characters, and, like, he should be the one who owns the story. What was your response to that?
POLLEY: Well, I think what he talks about in the film, which I think he talks about very eloquently, is that the crucial function of art is to tell the truth and that, you know, the only people who can really tell the story of him, the story of him and my mother's relationship is him and - you know, only one of them is left living, and it's him.
And I think he's right, and in a way in the film, he is the only person who tells that part of the story. I mean, there are other people peppering it with comments, but basically he does tell us, you know, that story, probably not as completely as, you know, he would have if he had made his own film about it, but his voice is the one that tells that story.
But I really loved that essential in a way disagreement in terms of a world view of my father and my biological father of whether or not you can know the truth in the past and whether or not you can get close to it and whether you can reconstruct the past and whether memory is reliable.
And, I mean, I don't think it's like a black and white disagreement, but I think that for me was a really interesting tension in the film. And I think in terms of, you know, what the film is about is also this need and want to own a story. I mean, I was doing it as much as he was, probably, making this film. I ultimately did get to construct and tell the story the way I wanted to, and he participated in that, even though this is not the way he would have chosen to tell the story, which I think was a real act of generosity.
GROSS: So even though you didn't want the movie to just be you exposing your story, I just really want to know: When you found out that your mother had kept this secret from you, from your father and from your biological father, did you feel betrayed, like you were all treated unfairly?
POLLEY: I didn't actually. I don't think she kept it a secret from my biological father but certainly from my father and I and the rest of my family. To be honest, I don't see what the point would have been at telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family, and, you know, I was very much a part of that family, and I'm not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.
I think I found out about it at the perfect age, when I was 27, when, you know, you're not still in that kind of adolescent, forming-yourself, completely vulnerable stage of life where something like this would be a real trauma, I think, to find out. So I never felt betrayed, and I certainly never felt angry.
GROSS: You decided to tell your father that he was not your biological father. Was that a tough choice to make?
POLLEY: Yes, and it wasn't a choice I wanted to make. I think that I had decided pretty firmly to not tell him for the same reasons, sort of not being able to see the point of crashing that information on somebody. But a couple of journalists, or one journalist in particular in Toronto, had heard this story and was going to print it. He ended up agreeing not to print it, but I realized at that moment that, you know, my father was in danger of finding this information out in a newspaper, and I certainly wanted to prevent that being the way he would hear it.
GROSS: How did you figure out what the right way to tell him would be, what the most gentle way of telling him would be?
POLLEY: It was pretty impossible. I mean, to be honest, I was sort of at that stage really filled with regret that I had ever investigated this at all and felt enormously guilty in a way that almost sank me. And it took a friend of mine to actually point out to me that by discovering this information, I hadn't actually created the situation or, you know, done anything particularly wrong.
But it was hard to come to terms with that because I felt that I was in possession of information that would be really traumatic and hurtful for him and would destroy him. And so I just - I told him as honestly and clearly as I could and then was completely staggered and stunned by his response to it, which was so full of compassion for my mother and gentleness and graciousness.
And I think in a way his response to this information was for me what made it a really interesting story. I didn't think the story itself was particularly original, but I think it's very, very unusual for somebody to respond to something a lot of people would call betrayal with real, true understanding and empathy and not place blame.
And his first concern was that we not blame or judge my mother for this and to candidly look at and communicate issues within the marriage that he was responsible for.
GROSS: So since we're discussing here how your father handled the news, I want to play a clip from your movie "Stories We Tell" in which he actually reads an email that he sent you explaining to you how he felt about it. And it is so compassionate, so full of understanding for your mother, who had this affair, and so full of love with you, love unchanged by knowing that he is really not your biological father.
So this is the email. Here he is reading the email that he wrote you, and this is from Sarah Polley's documentary "Stories We Tell."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STORIES WE TELL")
POLLEY: (Reading) So don't feel sorry for me. If you have pity, it should be for Harry, who loved and lost Diane and then missed out on the childhood of that Sarah that he'd produced. Had that been my lot, I would have been mortified when I read that DNA result. I've been a very lucky man, and of course for one of my luckiest moments I have to thank Harry Gulkin for loving Diane.
(Reading) Sarah's only what she is because of that night of love between Diane and Harry. Had I been her biological father, she would have been entirely different. She might have been better or worse, but she would definitely not have been the Sarah she is today, and that's the one I love. Of the other possible outcomes, there's nothing.
(Reading) You may decide you want to keep this letter to yourself or to share it. It's yours, and yours the choice. You know, look...
POLLEY: Dad, can you just go back over that one line?
POLLEY: I was being so real.
POLLEY: I completely convinced myself. (Reading) You may decide you want to keep this letter to yourself or to share it, it's yours and yours the choice. You know, look, while telling me your news on Thursday you twice hugged me as hard as you ever did in your childhood. That alone made your revelation worth 1,000 words.
GROSS: Oh, I love that section, Sarah Polley, because first of all, the letter your father wrote you is just, as you said, so full of compassion. It's such a beautiful expression of love for you and of compassion and forgiveness for your mother. But also in that segment we hear that you're directing him. This is his letter, but you have him read it in your movie, and when you don't like one his line readings, you interrupt him, and you have him do it over, and it's a constant reminder that, like, you're making a movie out of these emotions and out of this past.
POLLEY: Yeah, and I think that for me it was really important to not leave the construction of the film out because it's a film about storytelling and how we tell stories and why we tell stories. I thought it was really important to include the process of making this film itself in the film. And some of that involves some rather unflattering and ruthless moments from me directing my dad while he's reading, you know, pouring his heart out basically.
And, you know, you do get into this mode, I think, when you're telling a story or certainly when you're making a film where you can kind of lose your sense or your barometer for what's human or humane. And certainly I think there are a few moments in the film where I'm directing my dad where I don't come off that well, but I certainly come off as somebody who's trying to tell a story above all else.
GROSS: Do you remember when you received this letter and first read it?
POLLEY: I do, yeah. I remember just being floored by it. It was within 24 hours of him finding out that he was not my biological father, that he came to that and came to sending us this email saying, you know, our marriage was not a perfect one, and there are things I know your mother said she needed in the marriage that I see now she desperately needed and I did not provide.
And his first concern for her and that we not blame her or change our feelings or impression of her and then also real concern for me and the fact that I had felt that I had to keep this secret or that he couldn't handle it. So it was very inspiring and obviously really unexpected.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Polley, and we're talking about her new film "Stories We Tell." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is actor and director Sarah Polley. Her new documentary, "Stories We Tell," is about learning more about her mother, who died when Sarah was 11, and learning about her mother's secret. Sarah's father, Michael Polley, is not her biological father. Sarah had to break the news to Michael Polley.
So has knowing that your father isn't your biological father, you know that and he knows that now, has it changed your relationship for better or for worse?
POLLEY: It's certainly brought us a lot closer together. I think that I saw a different side of him through his, you know, response to this information that I don't think I knew as much before. I mean, he's always been someone who responded to things in untraditional ways, in unexpected ways, but I don't think anything could have prepared me for the grace with which he accepted this and made it easier for everybody else.
And then of course collaborating on this film. I mean, a lot of the film is, you know, his writing, and that happened organically through the editing. We realized that this writing he had been doing about his marriage and telling the story of finding out this information was going to be the spine of the story and was going to kind of intertwine and carry all the stories together.
So I think collaborating on that together and, you know, making a film that was as much his voice as it was mine really brought us so much closer together.
GROSS: So I'm going to pause here. I love your father.
GROSS: I mean I know him from the movie and seeing him on the Canadian show "Slings and Arrows," which is just a wonderful - if you haven't seen it, I really recommend it, our listeners - is a wonderful series about a small drama company in Canada, and it's a nonprofit, so if you've ever worked in a nonprofit, or if you love theater, you're guaranteed to love this.
But so he's one of, like, the older actors in this acting company who always gets, like, minor roles. But at the end of the episode, he sings a song as the credits role. And I just want to play the song that he sings. It's called "Call My Understudy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL MY UNDERSTUDY")
POLLEY: (Singing) Call the understudy, I can't go on tonight. I'm drinking with my buddy. I'm getting good and tight. Before they raise the curtain, I'll be higher than a kite, so call the understudy, I can't go on tonight. Tell the cast and crew to break a leg, break a leg. Roll me out to dub the bloody keg. I need to ease the pain that life can bring, life can bring, and liquor is what will hit the spot, the play is not the thing.
(Singing) So call me understudy, I think it's only right...
GROSS: That's Michael Polley, my guest Sarah Polley's father, singing the closing song from the Canadian series "Slings and Arrows," which was shown in America on Sundance and is on DVD. But anyways, you know, so your father is an actor. You mother was an actress. But my understanding from the film is that your father basically gave up acting to earn a steady living to help support the family.
POLLEY: Yes, so he was an actor until I guess his 30s, and then he had his first kid, my brother Mark, and, you know, got a job in an insurance company to support the family. And then I think it was after her retired that he started to go back to acting and I think got some of the most, you know, interesting parts he had played.
GROSS: He strikes me as someone who really has acting in his blood and who just knows so much about theater. There's just, like, little clues about that in your documentary.
POLLEY: And I mean he was the kind of person - I mean I'm totally not this kind of actress, so I've always been in awe of this - where, you know, when you'd see my dad onstage, he was the kind of person who could just fill a theater. Like his presence was so kind of robust and big, and he was so arresting. And I'm so the opposite in, you know, the way I am when I'm acting on camera that it's always been a mystery to me how somebody creates that kind of huge life, you know, on a stage.
GROSS: But this leads to something so interesting about the chemistry between your father and your mother. He says - they acted in a play together, which is how they met and started their relationship. And he thinks that your mother fell in love with the character he was playing because that was, like, a big character. And he thought that they were such different people that your mother was kind of theatrical and extroverted, and he was so, like, introverted and private.
And, you know, she had all this energy and libido, and he just, like, he didn't.
POLLEY: Well, and he talks about, I think, you know, that he felt that he had sort of disappointed her that he wasn't, you know, as huge, as larger than life than - you know, he's playing Mick in "The Caretaker, which is this very, very, big character, and that that's who she fell in love with and not really him. I'm not sure if I agree with that, but I think that, you know, it is interesting and complicated, I think, when actors fall in love, especially when they're playing other people.
GROSS: Sarah Polley will be back in the second half of the show. She directed the new documentary about her family "Stories We Tell." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor and film director Sarah Polley. Her new documentary, "Stories We Tell," is her effort to reconstruct the story of her mother through interviews with family and friends. Her mother died when Sarah was 11. It's through talking with these people, Sarah learns her mother had a secret. Sarah's father, Michael Polley, is not her biological father. Her biological father is someone her mother had an affair with. Polley also directed the films "Away from Her," starring Julie Christie, and "Take This Waltz," starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan. Sarah Polley has acted in the films "Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "My Life Without Me."
So your mother died of cancer when you were 11. Do you think she was ever going to tell you or your father the story that she suspected that your biological father was somebody else?
POLLEY: I can't imagine she would've - to be honest. I mean I could be wrong and perhaps if the information had been brought to her and she'd been asked for verification, she would've been honest, but I would be - would have been surprised if it was the kind of thing she would've wanted to drop on us. I can't really see what the point would be. So I have a feeling that I would probably never have found this out if she had lived.
GROSS: And you, you were young, so did you have any sense that she was keeping something from you?
POLLEY: Not at all. No. I definitely didn't. And the truth is, I mean I don't know that it would've felt that important. I mean we had a pretty happy family and, you know, things were pretty solid and I was, you know, very comfortable in that family, so I can't imagine that beyond the first, you know, maybe year or two, that it would've even really occurred to her that often.
GROSS: I don't know if you're one of those people who like trace their family tree to see like what is my family history. But you know, what you thought your family tree was - if you ever thought about it - is different blood-wise than you would have initially thought.
POLLEY: Yeah. And that is really interesting, and it's funny because it's, you know, my dad, who kind of like encouraged me to, you know, know more about your biological father's family because it sounds so fascinating, I mean they were Russian Jews who fought in the Russian Revolution and, you know, had to escape the Ukraine when the Polish invading armies came, and there's an amazing story there. My dad is kind of like, oh my God, like, you know, your blood is so much more interesting than it was, like you've got to look into, you know, you've got to look into Jewish culture, you've got to look into Russian culture, like this is amazing. And you know, my siblings are, you totally traded up in terms of genes, you traded up.
POLLEY: So I mean I've definitely had a lot of encouragement(ph) from the family, raised me to be interested in that and to be, you know, inquisitive about. So it's interesting and it is important to a certain extent, and I'm glad to be able to tell, you know, my kids about that. But I'm not sure that it in any way supersedes how important it was in terms of the family I grew up with, and how I was raised, and I think that has ultimately made me who I am more than anything.
GROSS: When your mother found out she was pregnant, she was 42. The doctor told her she was really too old to have a baby, he was worried about her health. She considered having an abortion, she was worried about Down syndrome. She was pregnant with you, I should mention.
GROSS: And the way I understand it, she was on her way to get an abortion and then she changed her mind on the way to getting it. What impact has that had, if any, on your view of abortion?
POLLEY: No one has asked me this question before, but it's certainly interesting. You know, I have to say I'm very pro-choice. I mean the fact is my mom made up her mind to not have an abortion, and so I came into this world as, you know, somebody who was wanted. And I think that if she had made up her mind that that was not going to be something that was the best thing for her or for her family or that, you know, this could create some kind of disaster in her life, then I would have to respect a woman's choice to make that decision. I mean it's a hard thing to say when it would've been, you know, your life and I wouldn't be here to say that. But, you know, certainly like anybody who believes a woman's right to choose, I don't take the idea of abortion lightly at all and certainly no woman who gets an abortion takes it lightly either. So you know, I think it has all of that gravity around it for me, but I do feel that it's unbelievably important that women have that choice and for it to be legal so that it can be safe and ultimately, my mom did make the choice to go through with the pregnancy and that was her choice and I'm glad that she had that choice.
GROSS: You became a mother last year, so your baby's a little more than like a year and a half maybe?
GROSS: So it's just so interesting that you had a baby just as this movie was coming out, you know, and starting to play festivals and stuff. So I guess I'm really wondering what it's been like for you to become a mother after this big investigation of your parents.
POLLEY: You know, I think I'm glad that this is sort of over and done with before I had my own child, to be honest. I mean I finished editing the film probably weeks before I found out I was pregnant, and I'm glad that it was out of my system and I can focus on somebody else's childhood for now.
GROSS: So since your mother's secret - the secret that your father wasn't your biological father - is so at the center of your film, I want to play an excerpt of the interview you and I did in 2003, when we were talking about a movie in which you, your character had a secret, the secret was that she was dying, and you talk a little bit about what it meant to play a character who had a secret.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
POLLEY: Yeah. And, you know, it's something that I really love doing. I've always really loved playing characters with secrets. I feel like there's so many more layers to play with there and scenes where you come into contact with another actor becomes so much more sort of dynamic when there's something you're withholding. I find even roles where there isn't a secret, I try to create one, just because I think the possibilities then are endless and you can surprise yourself more often, which I think is the greatest joy of being an actor is when you do something that you didn't expect.
GROSS: Sarah Polley, that was in 2003. I don't think you knew yet about your mother's secret, did you?
POLLEY: I didn't know. That's really fascinating. You don't know what your subconscious knows, though, before you do, so that's fascinating.
GROSS: Yeah. I just thought, wow, like even that you thought secrets were so interesting and that you'd make them up when you were playing roles just so that your character had a secret.
POLLEY: Wow. That's really strange to hear that from so long ago.
GROSS: Yes. So what else do you make of that? Do you still feel that way?
POLLEY: I don't know. Again, I do think that your subconscious, you know, is mining territory that you're not ready to mine yet. And certainly I think even the first, you know, two films I directed, they're both about marriages, they're both about - deal with infidelity, they both deal with, you know, what happens over time to a relationship, and you know, I think on some level I must've been inquiring into this other story or this - this part of my family history without really knowing it.
GROSS: My guest is actor and director Sarah Polley. Her new documentary is called "Stories We Tell." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is actor and director Sarah Polley. Her new documentary, "Stories We Tell," is about learning more about her mother, who died when Sarah was 11, and learning about her mother's secret: Sarah's father, Michael Polley, is not her biological father. The secret was kept from Michael Polley too. Her biological father is a man her mother had an affair with.
So both your parents were actors - not full-time actors, but they both acted. And your mother was a casting director.
GROSS: And the person who is your biological father is part of the Canadian film industry. So when you were growing up, you were a child actress and I'm wondering like whether that was something you pushed your parents to allow you to do or whether they kind of push you in that direction?
POLLEY: You know, it's really hard to ever know the truth of these stories in the past, as this film, you know, talks about, but I think that my memory is that I really wanted to do it and that my parents were - knew better and were resistant and knew what the pitfalls could be for a child actor, but I really wanted to do it and so they finally relented. And the reason I am sort of saying that with some skepticism is although that is what I remember to be the truth, it's also the story of every other child actor I've ever read about, including Shirley Temple, who claims that, I think in her autobiography, I could be getting this wrong, but I seem to remember reading that she said, you know, her mother didn't want her to do it but she really wanted to do it and pushed her way in. I think that - that child actors are generally told that story by their parents. I believe that that is true in my case, but so do most child actors, so I do approach that part of my history with a certain amount of questioning of, you know, who really wanted me to act more. Was it my mother? Was it me? I have no idea.
GROSS: This might be impossible for you to answer, but do you think your mother might have been at all jealous of you as an actress having a career?
POLLEY: No. I mean I think my mother was like incredibly proud and excited for me and I don't think my mother had jealousy in her. I don't have any memories of that even being something in her makeup, like I can't quite picture it in terms of certainly professionally and certainly not with her kids. I think she was just really excited and thrilled and thought I was getting really amazing opportunities. Now, in retrospect I'm not sure that it was the best way to spend a childhood on a film set. I think it probably may have ended up more balanced if I had been in school, but I think for her it was, she was thrilled for me.
GROSS: One of the reasons why you ended up telling your father that he was not your biological father, after you found that out through a DNA test, is that you were afraid that the press would get the story first. And you know, the three main characters in the story - your father, your mother and your biological father - are all well-known people in Canada. And so if the press had gotten the story first, how do you think the nature of the story would be different? How do you think perception of the story would be different as a result?
POLLEY: Well, it would've been a very different story. And not an untrue story, but a very, very small piece of a story. So I mean the first person who wanted to print the story wanted to write a kind of feel-good piece about, you know, this reunification between this father and his daughter. And for me that would have been a huge betrayal of my dad, who's still alive and well, and I couldn't see that being the only story. Because, you know, while it was, you know, really exciting to meet my biological father and, you know, we had, you know, some really interesting conversations and really amazing times together, you know, for me it was a lot more complicated than just a feel-good story.
It was also really shocking, slightly traumatic and full of guilt and ambiguity about how I felt in terms of how this was going to impact my family. And it would have excluded my father's entire story - which for me was really the central story, because he was the one who, you know, had the most to kind of lose and respond to. So for me it would have been very upsetting, I think, for it to just be that on it's own. I didn't mind if that was included but I wanted it to be part of a whole, and the truth is, this impacted so many people so strongly that it felt strange to just tell one part of it.
GROSS: Everybody who you interview, at least certainly the members of your family, all start by saying, oh, it's going to be so hard, or oh, this is torture, or - like everybody has their complaint about having to sit before the camera and tell this really personal story. Did you take any of that to heart?
POLLEY: Yeah. I mean I knew I was putting my family in a really tricky situation of, you know, being in front of a camera. I interviewed each of them for about eight or nine hours. My father and biological father I interviewed for three or four days. I was asking them to put themselves out there and be exposed and potentially judged by a lot of people they didn't know and, you know, most of these people have not chosen to be actors or be in the public eye, so that was a huge responsibility to take on and one I was never totally comfortable with until the film came out, and everybody seems fine with it.
GROSS: And what was the process like deciding what to leave in and what to leave out in terms of things that might've been too personal, that even though somebody told you that, maybe had second thoughts about it being in the film.
GROSS: Did you go back and ask for their permission for their...
POLLEY: I did on - yeah, with some things that I thought would be potentially contentious in people's lives now, I went back and said, you know, do you really want to talk about this part of the divorce? Do you really want to talk about, you know, the abuse you suffered? Like things like that I wanted to make sure everyone was OK with before they ended up in the final film and I also gave everyone the opportunity to see the film before we had locked picture to, you know, see the film on their own and give their responses.
GROSS: So one of the parts of your family's story is that your mother died when you were 11, she died of cancer, she was sick for over two years. In the film you say that she didn't seem to know that she was dying and that she seemed unprepared for it - which leads me to conclude she didn't try to prepare you for it. So were you shocked when your mother died?
POLLEY: I was shocked. And again, there's discrepancies in the stories about what she knew or didn't know. I mean some people feel she absolutely knew she was going to die and other people feel she absolutely didn't and thought she could beat cancer. I hate that term, beating cancer.
POLLEY: But I think that she thought she could beat cancer. I hate that term, beating cancer.
POLLEY: But I think that she thought she could get better. So lots of people have different ideas about what she thought or knew and didn't know. Certainly there were - it took me by surprise and it took my father by surprise. So we were left very unprepared. And, you know, the years that followed were difficult because of that. And obviously the fact that she died made it difficult, whether we were prepared or not. I don't know how prepared you can be, so.
GROSS: So I think what I'm about to say is probably incredibly inappropriate, but I just want to give you something I was honestly thinking about while watching the movie.
GROSS: And I will gladly edit it out if it makes you at all uncomfortable. So when I was watching the movie, hearing your father talk about how, like, he loved your mother so much but he understood that they were just so different and that he couldn't meet her needs. She had more of a libido than he did and she was extroverted and he wasn't. And that she always said that, like, you held your camera more than you held me when we were on our honeymoon.
There was a part of me that was thinking, oh, at the end of the movie do we find out he's really gay? And I was thinking...
POLLEY: Oh, that's fascinating.
GROSS: I was thinking, well, maybe I'm thinking that because he played a gay character in "Slings and Arrows" but I - that's really what I found myself wondering.
POLLEY: What's really interesting is the last person on earth who would uncomfortable with that question would be my dad who would happily start, you know, analyzing himself and wondering if that might be true. So I don't think it's a question out of the blue. But, I mean, it's like only in my family could you just throw that out there and it not be a big deal.
So, in fact, yeah. I mean, it's really interesting. I'll play him this interview and see if he has any thoughts about it.
GROSS: Really? OK.
POLLEY: And get back to you.
GROSS: That's not the answer I was expecting.
POLLEY: No. Yeah, no. I think that would be, like, a really good dinner table conversation in my family that no one would be at all uncomfortable with. So I will get back to you.
GROSS: Did you ever have that thought?
POLLEY: I didn't, actually. But you have me wondering now.
POLLEY: Who knows? Who knows? I don't - I mean, my gut is no and certainly I don't think he believes he's gay. But I think it's always something worth discussing and thinking about and I'll get back to you with his response. I'm excited to play him this interview and see what he thinks.
GROSS: So the film is about finding out who your biological father is, but you also really learned a lot about your mother. You know, as I said, she died when you were 11 so there's a limit to what you could have known about her because you were too young to understand any adult in their complexity. So what - like, hearing different people from your family, hearing your mother's friends, hearing all those people, like, talk about her.
What are some of the holes in her personality and her life that were filled in for you?
POLLEY: I think a lot. I think it's hard to articulate exactly what but just, you know, having the opportunity to sit with, you know, for many hours with most of the people that your mother was close to in her life and get to hear them talk about her. It ends up forming a much more full picture than the one I had before.
At the same time, even though I wasn't an adult and didn't get to know, you know, the complexity of who she was, I had somebody say to me once years ago - they were asking me, you know, what was your mother like. And I said I don't know; she died when I was 11. And she said, well, what did she feel like? And that was an amazing window for me into the idea that I did know her.
That you don't actually have to be able to articulate or intellectually know who somebody is to really know them. And that, you know, 11 years is actually a really long time, especially to have a really good mother. And it's more than most people get in a lifetime. Like I had, you know, I had until I was 11 years old a mother who made me feel like life was really exciting, the world was really exciting.
That she loved us, that she could find joy even when life had been tragic. And that's so much more than most people get that I feel incredibly grateful for that. And then obviously so privileged to have been able to add all of this new information to that picture.
GROSS: Well, I want to say after we've talked our listeners might assume that we've given away all the secrets of your movie "Stories We Tell" and we haven't.
GROSS: So I don't want our listeners to think, oh, well, I know the story now. You don't. You know some of it. So, you know, thank you so much for talking with us and...
POLLEY: Thank you.
GROSS: ...congratulations on the movie.
POLLEY: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Sarah Polley's new documentary about her family is called "Stories We Tell." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.