Sarah Polley

Road to Avonlea Away from Her Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley
Flickr - nicogenin - Sarah Polley 66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra).jpg
Polley on September 11, 2009
Sarah Ellen[citation needed] Polley

(1979-01-08) January 8, 1979 (age 41)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Years active1985–present
  • (m. 2003; div. 2008)
  • David Sandomierski
    (m. 2011)
Parent(s)Harry Gulkin (biological father)

Sarah Ellen Polley OC (born January 8, 1979) is a Canadian actress, writer, director, producer and political activist. Polley first garnered attention as a child actress for her role as Ramona Quimby in the television series Ramona, based on Beverly Cleary's books. Subsequently this led to her role as Sara Stanley in the Canadian television series Road to Avonlea (1990–1996). She has starred in many feature films, including Exotica (1994), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Guinevere (1999), Go (1999), The Weight of Water (2000), My Life Without Me (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Splice (2009), and Mr. Nobody (2009).

Polley made her feature film directorial debut with Away from Her (2006), for which she won a Genie Award for Best Achievement in Direction and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.[1] Polley's second film, Take This Waltz (2011), premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.[2]

Her first documentary film, Stories We Tell (2012), was awarded the $100,000 prize for best Canadian film of the year by the Toronto Film Critics Association.[3] In 2017, Polley executive produced the film A Better Man (2017),[4] and wrote the miniseries Alias Grace,[5] based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, which Polley began adapting in 2012.[6]

Early life

Polley was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, the youngest of five children born to Diane Elizabeth Polley (née MacMillan). Her siblings are Susy and John Buchan from Diane's first marriage to George Deans-Buchan, and Mark and Joanna Polley from her second marriage to Michael Polley (1933–2018), a British-born actor who became an insurance agent after Diane and he started a family.[7][8]

Her mother was an actress (best known for playing Gloria Beechham in 44 episodes of the Canadian TV series Street Legal) and a casting director. She died of cancer the week of Polley's 11th birthday.[9]

Polley was raised by Diane and Michael.[10] During her childhood, Polley's siblings teased her because she bore no physical resemblance to Michael. Polley discovered as an adult that her biological father was actually Harry Gulkin, with whom her mother had an affair (as chronicled in Polley's film Stories We Tell).[11] Gulkin, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was a Quebec-born film producer who produced the 1975 Canadian film Lies My Father Told Me, and had met Diane after attending a play in which she acted in Montreal in 1978.[12][13][14] When Polley turned 18, she decided to follow up on suggestions from her mother's friends that her biological father might be Geoff Bowes—one of three castmates from her mother's play in Montreal.[11] Meeting with Gulkin as just someone who could provide information about Diane in Montreal, he informed Polley of his affair with Diane.[11] Bowes and Michael Polley also confirmed, in Stories We Tell, that they had sexual relations with Diane during the run of the Montreal play.[11] Gulkin's paternity was later confirmed by a DNA test.[3][15]

Polley attended Subway Academy II, then Earl Haig Secondary School, but dropped out at age 15.[11]


Early career

Her first appearance on screen was at the age of four, as Molly in the Disney film One Magic Christmas. She was also in the pilot episode for Friday the 13th – The Series, as well as appearing in a small role in William Fruet's sci-fi horror film Blue Monkey, both in 1987. At age eight, she was cast as Ramona Quimby in the television series Ramona, based on Beverly Cleary's books.

That same year, she played one of the lead characters in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Polley burst into the public eye in 1990 as Sara Stanley on the popular CBC television series Road to Avonlea. The series made her famous and financially independent, and she was hailed as "Canada's Sweetheart" by the popular press.[16] The show was picked up by the Disney Channel for distribution in the United States. At the age of 12 (around 1991), Polley attended an awards ceremony while wearing a peace sign to protest the first Gulf War. Disney executives asked her to remove it, and she refused. This soured her relationship with Disney, though she continued on Road to Avonlea until 1994.[17] The show ran until 1996; Polley did return as Sara Stanley for an episode in 1995 and for the series finale.

Transition into more adult roles

Polley appeared as Lily on the CBC television series Straight Up. It ran from 1996 to 1998 and she won the Gemini Award for Best Performance in a Children's or Youth Program or Series for her role. Polley's subsequent role as Nicole Burnell in the 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter brought her considerable attention in the United States; she was a favourite at the Sundance Film Festival. Her character in the film was an aspiring singer, and on the film's soundtrack, she performed covers of The Tragically Hip's "Courage" and Jane Siberry's "One More Colour," as well as the film's title track, which she co-wrote with Mychael Danna.[18]

In 1998, Polley appeared in the critically acclaimed film Last Night. The following year, she starred as part of the ensemble cast in the film Go.

Polley at the premiere of Mr. Nobody at the 2009 Venice Film Festival

She was cast in the role of Penny Lane in the big-budget 2000 film Almost Famous, but dropped out of the project to return to Canada for the low-budget The Law of Enclosures. Her role in the 2003 film My Life Without Me garnered the Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 2004. In the same year, she starred in a lead role in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which was a departure from her other indie roles.

In 2005, she starred in The Secret Life of Words, opposite Tim Robbins and Julie Christie. She was nominated as Best European Actress by the European Film Academy for her role as Hanna.[19]

In 2006, Polley took a role on the acclaimed series Slings and Arrows during its third and final season. Polley's father, Michael Polley, was a regular on the show during its entire three-season run. She served as a member of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival jury.[20]

In 2008, Polley appeared as Nabby Adams in the HBO miniseries based on the life of John Adams. Polley played Elise in Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody, which was released in 2010. Critical response has praised the film's artistry and Polley's acting.[21] Later that year, she also appeared in a cameo role in Bruce MacDonald's film Trigger.

Directing career

In 1999, Polley made her first short film, The Best Day of My Life, for the On the Fly 4 Film Festival. She also made a second short film that year, Don't Think Twice. Polley attended the Canadian Film Centre's directing program in 2001, and won the Genie Award for Best Live Action Short Drama in 2003 for her short film I Shout Love.

She made her feature-length film directing debut with Away from Her, which Polley adapted from the Alice Munro short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain. The movie, starring Julie Christie (with whom she had played in No Such Thing, 2001, and The Secret Life of Words, 2005), debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2006, as part of the TIFF's Gala showcase.

Away from Her was acquired by Lionsgate for release in the US for the sum of $750,000. It drew rave reviews from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the three Toronto dailies, both for the performances of Christie and her co-star, Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, and for Polley's direction. It also earned Polley a 2007 Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay,[1] and won the Genie Award for Best Achievement in Direction. At the 2008 Genies, she was also awarded the Claude Jutra Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by a first-time feature film director.[22]

Polley wrote and directed her second feature, Take This Waltz starring Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011.

Her documentary film Stories We Tell premiered at the 69th Venice International Film Festival in competition in the Venice Days category, and its North American premiere followed at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.[23] The critically acclaimed documentary examined family secrets in Polley's own childhood.[3]

In late 2012, Polley announced that she would be adapting Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace.[6] Polley first wrote to Atwood asking to adapt the novel when she was 17. They held off for 20 years until she was ready to make the show.[24] In August 2014, during a profile of her work as a director, Polley announced that Alias Grace was being adapted into a six-part miniseries.[25] In June 2016, the series was confirmed with Polley writing and producing. The series premiered in 2017 on CBC Television in Canada; it streams on Netflix globally, outside of Canada.[26] It received positive reviews from critics.[5]

In June 2014, it was announced that she would be writing and directing an adaptation of John Green's Looking for Alaska.[27] In March 2015, Polley was hired to write the script for a new adaptation of Little Women, as well as potentially direct;[28] However, Polley's involvement in the project never went beyond initial discussions, despite reports.[29] it was subsequently announced that June that, due to scheduling conflicts Polley would no longer be directing Looking for Alaska.[30][31]

In an interview, Polley stated that she takes pride in her work and enjoys both acting and directing, but is not keen on combining the two:

I like the feeling of keeping them separate. I find that really gratifying. I can't imagine combining those. For me, I love the feeling of using different parts of my brain separately.[32]

In a 2015 retrospective of the movie Go, Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club commented that Polley's decision to go into directing had "deprived the world of many potentially great performances", calling her a "superb actor".[33].

Political and social activism

Following the row with Disney as a twelve year old for wearing a peace sign to protest the Gulf War, Polley dedicated more of her efforts to politics, becoming a prominent member of the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP), where Ontario legislator Peter Kormos was her political mentor. In 1996, she gave a nomination speech for Kormos at the ONDP leadership convention which she later referred to as the "proudest moment in [her] life".[34]

In 1995, she lost two back teeth after being struck by a riot police officer during a protest against the provincial Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris in Queen's Park.[8][35] She was subsequently involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. She subsequently scaled back her political activism.[35] She was part of a group in 2001 which opposed the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. The 3rd Summit of the Americas was held in Quebec City in April 2001.[36] In 2003, she was part of former Toronto mayor David Miller's transition advisory team.

In 2009, Polley directed a two-minute short film in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. In advance of the film's airing in Canada during the 82nd Academy Awards, and following news reports that characterized the film as a marketing exercise for the margarine company Becel,[37][38][39] Polley withdrew her association with the film. "In December 2009, I made a film to be aired during the Academy Awards that I believed was to promote the Heart and Stroke Foundation. When I agreed to make this film ["The Heart"], I was thrilled, as I was proud to be associated with the work of this incredible organization. However, I have since learned that my film is also being used to promote a product. Regretfully, I am forced to remove my name from the film and disassociate myself from it. I have never actively promoted any corporate brand, and cannot do so now."[40][41][42] In response, Becel said it was a "founding sponsor" of the Heart Truth campaign and had commissioned the film "to put heart health on the radar of Canadian women".[43]

In January 2012, Polley endorsed Toronto MP Peggy Nash in the 2012 New Democratic Party leadership race to succeed Jack Layton.[44]

On October 15, 2017, Polley wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times detailing her experience with Harvey Weinstein and with Hollywood's treatment of women generally, and making a connection between Hollywood's female problem and Polley's not having acted in years.[45]

Personal life

In 2007, Polley discovered that her father, Michael Polley, who had raised her, was not her biological father. The story of her mother's affair and her biological father Harry Gulkin, producer of the film Lies My Father Told Me (1975), was chronicled in Polley's film Stories We Tell (2012).[11]

On September 10, 2003, Polley married Canadian film editor David Wharnsby, her companion of seven years. They divorced five years later, in 2008.[46]

On August 23, 2011, Polley married David Sandomierski, who at the time was working on his SJD degree (equivalent to a PhD in law) at the University of Toronto, which he would complete six years later, in 2017.[47][48]

On February 7, 2012, Polley and her husband's first daughter, Eve, was born.[47]

In August 2014, Polley revealed that she had given birth to a second daughter.[49]

Polley is an atheist.[50]


In acting roles


Year Title Role Notes
1985 One Magic Christmas Molly Monaghan
1986 Confidential Emma
1987 Tomorrow's a Killer Karla
1987 The Big Town Christy Donaldson
1987 Blue Monkey Ellen
1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Sally Salt
1989 Babar: The Movie Young Celeste (voice)
1994 Exotica Tracey Brown
1996 Joe's So Mean to Josephine Josephine
1996 Children First!
1997 The Sweet Hereafter Nicole Burnell
1997 The Hanging Garden Rosemary (teen)
1997 The Planet of Junior Brown Butter
1998 Jerry and Tom Deb
1998 Last Night Jennifer 'Jenny' Wheeler
1998 Guinevere Harper Sloane
1999 Go Ronna Martin
1999 Existenz Merle
1999 The Life Before This Connie
2000 The Weight of Water Maren Hontvedt
2000 Love Come Down Sister Sarah
2000 The Law of Enclosures Beatrice
2000 The Claim Hope Dillon
2000 This Might Be Good Short film
2001 No Such Thing Beatrice
2003 The Event Dana Shapiro
2003 My Life Without Me Ann
2003 Dermott's Quest Gwen Short film
2003 Luck Margaret
2004 Dawn of the Dead Ana Clark
2004 The I Inside Clair
2004 Sugar Pregnant Girl
2004 Siblings Tabby
2005 Don't Come Knocking Sky
2005 The Secret Life of Words Hanna
2005 Beowulf & Grendel Selma
2009 Mr. Nobody Elise (adult)
2009 Splice Elsa Kast
2010 Trigger Hillary


Year Title Role Notes
1985 Night Heat Cindy Keating Episode: "The Game"
1987 Screen Two Episode: "Heaven on Earth"
1987 Hands of a Stranger Suzie Hearn TV film
1987 Friday the 13th: The Series Mary Episode: "The Inheritance"
1988–89 Ramona Ramona Quimby Lead role
1989 Lantern Hill Jody Turner TV film
1990–1996 Road to Avonlea Sara Stanley Main role (seasons 1–5), guest (seasons 6–7)
1991 Johann's Gift to Christmas Angel TV short
1993 The Hidden Room Alice Episode: "Dangerous Dreams"
1994 Take Another Look Amy TV film
1996 Straight Up Lily TV series
1998 White Lies Catherine Chapman TV film
1999 Made in Canada Rhonda Episode: "It's a Science"
2006 Slings & Arrows Sophie Regular role (season 3)
2008 John Adams Abigail Adams Smith TV miniseries

As writer, director, or producer

Year Title Project Notes
1999 Don't Think Twice Short film Director, co-producer, writer
1999 The Best Day of My Life Short film Director, writer
2001 I Shout Love Short film Director, writer
2002 All I Want for Christmas Short film Director
2004 The Shields Stories TV series, episode "The Harp" Director, writer
2006 Away from Her Feature film Director, screenwriter
2011 Take This Waltz Feature film Director, executive producer, writer
2012 Stories We Tell Documentary Director, writer
2013 Making a Scene Short film Writer
2016 Secret Path TV film Executive producer
2017 A Better Man Documentary Executive producer
2017 Alias Grace TV miniseries Producer, writer
2020 Hey Lady! TV series, 8 episodes Director

Awards and nominations

On October 16, 2010, it was announced that she would receive a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.[51] In June 2013, she received the National Arts Centre Award recognizing achievement over the past performance year at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, where she was the subject of a short vignette by Ann Marie Fleming entitled Stories Sarah Tells.[52] Polley was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada on December 30, 2013.[53]

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Year Association Category Work Result Ref.
2006 ACTRA ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence Won
2007 Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Director Away from Her Nominated
Best Woman Director Won
Best Woman Screenwriter Nominated
Women's Image Award Herself Won
Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in 2007 Nominated
Best Leap from Actress to Director Award Won
2008 Academy Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Away from Her Nominated
2007 Gemini Awards Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Series Slings and Arrows Nominated
1998 Best Performance in a Children's or Youth Program or Series Straight Up Won
1998 Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series The Planet of Junior Brown Nominated
1998 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series White Lies Nominated
1994 Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role Road to Avonlea Nominated
1993 Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role Road to Avonlea Nominated
1992 Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Lantern Hill Won
1990 Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role Road to Avonlea Nominated
1988 Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role Ramona Nominated
2008 Genie Awards Claude Jutra Award (Special Prize) Away from Her Won
2008 Best Director Won
2008 Best Adapted Screenplay Won
2004 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role My Life Without Me Won
2003 Best Live Action Short Drama I Shout Love Won
2002 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role The Law of Enclosures Nominated
1997 Best Original Song The Sweet Hereafter Nominated
1997 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role The Sweet Hereafter Nominated
2000 Independent Spirit Awards Best Supporting Female Go Nominated
2012 Toronto Film Critics Association Awards Rogers Canadian Film Award Stories We Tell Won [3]
Best Documentary Film Award Won [3]
2012 Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Woman Director Take This Waltz Nominated
Best Woman Screenwriter Nominated
2013 Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Documentary Stories We Tell Won
Best Woman Director Nominated
Best Woman Screenwriter Nominated
2014 Writers Guild of America Awards Best Documentary Screenplay Stories We Tell Won [54]


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  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 2, 2012. Retrieved September 12, 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  27. ^ "Sarah Polley will adapt and direct John Green's 'Looking for Alaska'". June 26, 2014.
  28. ^ "Amy Pascal, Sarah Polley Team on 'Little Women' Remake at Sony (Exclusive)". March 18, 2015. Archived from the original on October 5, 2018. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
  29. ^ Whipp, Glenn (July 5, 2018). "Why it's a perfect time for Greta Gerwig's version of 'Little Women'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 10, 2019.
  30. ^ Mendelson, Scott. "Why Rebecca Thomas Directing John Green's 'Looking For Alaska' Is A Big Deal". Forbes. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
  31. ^ Teen.com (June 25, 2015). "John Green Dodges Questions About Looking for Alaska Movie Replacement". Teen.com. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
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  33. ^ https://film.avclub.com/putting-timothy-olyphant-in-a-silly-santa-hat-only-make-1798287204
  34. ^ Polley, Sarah (March 31, 2013). "Nominating Peter Kormos for the Ontario NDP leadership was the proudest moment of my life". Twitter. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
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  36. ^ "III Summit". www.summit-americas.org. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
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  43. ^ Jeromy Lloyd (March 3, 2010). "CTV and Becel React to Polley's Rebuke". Marketing. Archived from the original on March 6, 2010. Retrieved March 7, 2010.
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  47. ^ a b Roberts, Soraya (March 4, 2012). "Sarah Polley talks of her 'whole new level' of breastfeeding while screening latest film in Colorado". North Stars. Yahoo! Celebrity. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  48. ^ Western University (2018). Western Law welcomes new faculty. Western Law 2018 Alumni Magazine, 2018. Retrieved on 2020-03-17 from http://alumni2.westernu.ca/fam/western-law/2018/western-law-welcomes-new.html.
  49. ^ Tabach-Bank, Lauren (August 13, 2014). "Flipping the Script". New York Times.
  50. ^ "When asked what directors she admires, Polley talks about Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick (she says his Thin Red Line "single-handedly brought me out of a deep depression. It shifted something in me. I'm an atheist, but it was the first time that it gave me faith in other people's faith")." Woman on the Verge Archived February 16, 2012, at the Wayback Machine by Mark Pupo, Toronto Life Magazine, October 2006.
  51. ^ "2010 Inductees for The Canada Honours Announced". Canada's Walk of Fame. June 8, 2010. Archived from the original on June 26, 2010. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  52. ^ "NFB shorts: Stories Sarah Tells, Canadian Famous and Daniel Lanois". Toronto Star. June 10, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2013.
  53. ^ "Sarah Polley, Blue Rodeo founders join Order of Canada". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. December 30, 2013. Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  54. ^ "Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell' wins Writers Guild award". CTV News. Associated Press. February 2, 2014. Retrieved February 3, 2014.