The ‘Alias Grace’ star’s jour­ney from Claude Wat­son to the CBC

Bayview Post - - Contents - by Macken­zie Pat­ter­son

The true story of Grace Marks dates back to 1840s On­tario, and Mar­garet At­wood’s novel, Alias Grace, was first pub­lished in 1996. De­spite this, the themes and is­sues the story presents are just as rel­e­vant to­day, if not more so.

In the CBC’s new six-episode adap­ta­tion of Alias Grace, Toronto-born ac­tor Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks — the poor Ir­ish im­mi­grant house­maid who is ac­cused of mur­der­ing her em­ployer. Equal parts psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, true crime and ro­mance, the se­ries flashes back and forth be­tween the 1840s and 1850s, when Grace is im­pris­oned for the murder and work­ing with a pro­gres­sive, young Amer­i­can doc­tor to piece to­gether the mem­ory of what re­ally hap­pened.

Com­plex and mys­te­ri­ous, Grace’s char­ac­ter would be a chal­leng­ing yet re­ward­ing part to play for al­most any ac­tor. Gadon says she was thrilled when writer Sarah Pol­ley and direc­tor Mary Har­ron called to say she had been cho­sen for the part.

“I met Sarah and Mary, and I au­di­tioned for them, and the next day, they called me and said, ‘Could you do the scene just one more way?’ I feel like that ex­pe­ri­ence was a telling sign of how the project was go­ing to go be­cause there are end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties for what things mean, how scenes can be played.… Your work is never done,” Gadon says.

Gadon be­gan act­ing at a young age and her tele­vi­sion ca­reer took off in her teens with roles in pop­u­lar se­ries such as Be­ing

Erica. She then tran­si­tioned to film where she be­came a muse for Toronto film­maker David Cro­nen­berg ap­pear­ing in many of his films, from A Dan­ger­ous Method in 2011 to Maps to the

Stars in 2014. For this minis­eries, Gadon and the show’s in­ter­na­tional cast mem­bers had a grand tour of On­tario with film­ing lo­ca­tions in Toronto, Rich­mond Hill and Kingston.

“We shot in farm coun­try, which was beau­ti­ful in the sum­mer­time, and we did some stuff in Vic­to­rian man­sions around U of T, and then we were also able to shoot on Lake On­tario, which was amaz­ing,” she says. “We re­ally got a sense of Toronto and the GTA.”

Gadon, a Toronto na­tive who at­tended lo­cal arts schools, such as Claude Wat­son and Car­di­nal Carter, acted as a tour guide for her Bri­tish and Ir­ish co-stars, show­ing off a few of her favourite foodie des­ti­na­tions in the city.

“I got to host ev­ery­body and take them out on week­ends,” she says. “We would al­ways go out for din­ners to Bar Raval, Bar Is­abel, Wood­lot, Union, Buca, Snack Bar.”

Although Gadon was able to let loose with her cast­mates on week­ends, dur­ing the week, it wasn’t all fun and games.The show paints a pic­ture of what it was like to live as a work­ing­class woman in the Vic­to­rian age, and Gadon im­mersed her­self in Grace’s world to em­body the role.

Part of her train­ing in­cluded learn­ing how to quilt — a run­ning mo­tif through­out the novel and the se­ries sym­bol­iz­ing the weav­ing to­gether of me­mories.

“I al­ways loved the im­agery of quilts in the novel,” she says. “Tex­tiles for women, es­pe­cially dur­ing that time, were about who they were, where they came from, and it was about their abil­ity to weave them into these ar­ti­cles and pieces for prac­ti­cal use in ev­ery­day life. These quilts tell sto­ries, and that mo­tif kind of ex­tends into mem­ory.”

Gadon’s du­ties didn’t stop at quilt­ing, though. She also had to learn how to speak with a North­ern Ir­ish ac­cent, milk cows and per­form other man­ual tasks — all while wear­ing a corset. She says play­ing the part of Grace opened her eyes to the hard­ship of the 1840s and ’50s, and the hot, heavy cloth­ing was just one more layer women had to suf­fer un­der.

“I think, on a large scale, women were trapped, and Grace was fur­ther­more trapped be­cause of her class, be­ing work­ing class,” she says. “In the Vic­to­rian era, women weren’t al­lowed to say how they felt; they weren’t al­lowed to ex­press de­sire; they weren’t al­lowed to ex­press love; they weren’t al­lowed to ex­press all these dif­fer­ent kinds of feel­ings which we os­cil­late be­tween so freely now.”

Cana­dian writer, ac­tor and direc­tor Sarah Pol­ley trans­formed the story of Alias Grace from a novel to a six-episode script for tele­vi­sion. She says that although many things have im­proved for many women around the world since the Vic­to­rian era, it’s cru­cial that sto­ries like Grace Marks’ are con­tin­u­ally told for the women whose voices are still so re­pressed.

“A woman at that time of that class had so lit­tle power and so lit­tle agency and their life was so com­pletely dan­ger­ous,” she says. “They were prey and they had to think as prey. The life of a woman in that time was ter­ri­fy­ing; it was with­out free­dom; it was back-break­ing; and sadly, that’s the life of so many women to­day.”

Pol­ley says there’s still much work to be done for women around the world.The story of the Grace Marks trial may seem dis­tant now, but she says it’s only fairly re­cently that women have be­gun to take back their own nar­ra­tives.

“If you were an alien from outer space, and you landed on planet Earth, and you were shown the time­line of women’s rights, there were mil­len­nia of no rights at all and then this tiny lit­tle blip to­ward the end of the 20th cen­tury go­ing into the 21st cen­tury. You would see noth­ing about that as per­ma­nent,” she says. “In or­der for it to be some­thing that ac­tu­ally gets held on to, it re­quires enor­mous recom­mit­ment to fight­ing for it over and over again.”

Although themes of fem­i­nism, the un­der­dog and the fight to­wards equal­ity are preva­lent in the show, Gadon says Alias

Grace has so many more lay­ers and el­e­ments that will keep view­ers hooked un­til the very end.

“It’s this thrilling psy­cho­log­i­cal tale and a who­dunit, but at the heart of it is this ob­ses­sive love story go­ing on be­tween these two peo­ple, this cat and mouse game,” she says. “When I was read­ing the novel and when I was watch­ing the show, as much as you’re tan­gled up in Grace’s psy­chol­ogy, you’re also en­grossed by her re­la­tion­ship with Dr. Jor­dan. My hope is that peo­ple love that as much as I did.”

Alias Grace airs Mon­day nights, start­ing Sept. 25, on CBC.

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