The women (and two men) behind AliasGrace tell all.
Alias Grace, adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, tells the story of a young Irish maid convicted of two brutal murders in 19th-century Canada. Here, the cast and crew talk about the making of this much-hyped CBC-Netflix production.
SARAH POLLEY “I read this novel when I was a teenager, and I fell in love with it; I read it over and over again. I actually tried to get the film rights when I was 17, but they went to someone else and then someone else. At one point, I ended up getting hired to write and direct a version of it, but that company’s rights ended up lapsing. That’s when I scooped them up...but I got pregnant and then got pregnant again, so it took a really long time before I wrote these six episodes.” NOREEN HALPERN “A few years ago, Sarah and I had a meeting at By the Way café in Toronto. She asked me if I’d read the book. I’ve been such a huge Atwood fan ever since I started reading. I even made a horribly embarrassing Handmaid’s Tale installation piece when I was in art school, entitled Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum. So I took her scripts home and read them in one sitting. I was completely blown away by the fact that she’d taken this massive book and turned it into a beautiful, heartbreaking and, weirdly, sometimes funny six hours of television.” SP “I initially wrote a treatment for Alias Grace as a film, but to make it into a two-hour feature, I would be eliminating most of what I loved about the novel, like the social and political contexts of immigration, women, class and domestic work. Even so, my entire mindset when I was writing these episodes was ‘This is far more difficult and complicated than I thought it would be.’ Even structurally, because the novel is so complex, trying to untangle and pull apart and match things up with other things was probably the most challenging part.” MARY HARRON “When Sarah and Noreen approached me to direct, I actually tried to persuade Sarah to at least do some herself. Six episodes is a lot for one person to direct, but she said: ‘You’re doing them all. All of them.’” NH “Sarah was also very clear that she only wanted to make this if we could get the big budget it needed for full historical authenticity and for the set pieces [like the ship on which Grace comes to Canada]; this was not something we were going to CGI in. Within a couple of weeks, we hired our producer, D.J. Carson, and he took the scripts and budgeted them. We all choked—it was clear that we were going to have to raise a lot of money.” MH “We needed it to have full historical authenticity and look like a movie. Television audiences are now visually sophisticated, and they have high expectations. It’s not BBC drama in the 1970s, you know?” SP “I honestly think Mary was like, ‘It’s nice to support this thing, but it’s very unlikely they’ll get the money for it, so what’s the harm [in saying yes]?’” NH “We did nine pitches in three days to studios in Los Angeles. CBC had already committed to the project, knowing it would be the most expensive show they had ever produced, but we needed a partner outside of Canada. Netflix was our first meeting, and they really got it. In the end we got multiple offers, but they were the ones
who were aggressive and creatively in sync with what we wanted to do. That was in January, and we started pre-production in the spring.” SP “We had all worked with Sarah Gadon before. From the very beginning, she was someone we were excited about [getting] to play Grace, the lead role.” MH “The network wanted to see a range of options, so we saw other people for the part. Initially, we thought we were going to cast some 19-year-old Irish unknown, but when we got Sarah in, we were like, ‘Here she is.’” SARAH GADON “My prep for the show was intense. Grace emigrates from Northern Ireland, so I had to learn that accent, which is a very tough one to do. I did a lot of reading about life as a housemaid in the Victorian era, like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. They also sent me to a kind of boot camp at [Black Creek] Pioneer Village in Toronto, because I had to do household tasks for real in the show, like milk a cow, make a bed, feed chickens. I also had to learn to quilt by hand, because that’s what Grace does throughout her interviews with Dr. Jordan.” SP “Casting Simon Jordan was tricky because it’s a hard role. He has a much tougher job because he has to elicit this information from Grace, and you have to feel for him without very much screen time to look at his life.” SG “I was excited to meet Ed Holcroft! We had guys read from all over the world, but we couldn’t find the perfect person to play [Dr. Jordan], so when we found Ed, there was rejoicing!” ED HOLCROFT “I’d heard of Margaret Atwood, but I didn’t quite fathom what a big deal she is. People speak about her like the Queen.” SG “We shot 60 pages of script in six days.” EH “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The material itself was also difficult—any scene where you’re just sitting and talking is hard; it’s dialogue heavy. And then we had planes constantly interrupting the sound....” SG “We were shooting in a sound studio in Toronto, and every five minutes, we’d have to pause when the planes flew overhead. It was usually right in the middle of an important scene; there wasn’t enough time to cut and start again, so we would have to just pause.” EH “After six days of this intense filming, we were just finishing up at, like, 4 a.m. when someone came running in saying ‘We’ve lost the memory card.’ All the close-ups had been lost, so we had to do that chunk all over again.” SG “At the end of those six days, Ed and I went for a spa day!” REBECCA LIDDIARD “The first scene I shot—it was the first day of the whole production— was the scene where Mary, my character, who is Grace’s best friend, has an abortion. There was a lot of fake blood involved, and I was actually glued to the bed. That stuff is like liquid cement! You could hear the sound of it sticking when I was rolled over. It was an intense start, but luckily that was followed up by all the fun scenes with Grace and Mary. Mary’s the only nice character in the show.” KERR LOGAN “I play a stable hand at the farm when Grace arrives from Ireland. Sarah and I have an aggressive sexual scene together, and we were both very uncomfortable about doing it. We spoke a lot about it, and supported each other, but it was still harrowing. She actually ended up falling off a safety mat and getting hurt. We were both kind of shaken up after it.” RL “The nature of the show just made it difficult emotionally. I carried around this sense of impending doom.” KL “I kind of stomped around and kept myself very low-key the entire time. That’s why I was so amazed by Gadon. She’d spend these long hours doing horrific, abusive scenes, and then she’d come knocking on my door like, ‘Hey, Kerr!’ She was able to just drop it.” SG “That attempted-rape scene with Kerr was definitely one of the toughest. When you’re shooting those kinds of things, your adrenalin is intense, and I only realized afterwards that I’d bruised myself a lot. I rode home in the van with ice packs all over my body. I stayed up until 4 a.m. and then slept all day.” NH “I slept very little during the entire shoot, but all that matters is that we have a series we’re all really proud of. We felt a huge responsibility to tell this story well.” SP “Margaret Atwood has seen it, and she was happy. She didn’t know I was there, but I got to see her watch the first two episodes in a theatre with her friends, and I got to hear her comments. That was big.” SG “After I was done, I took a trip with Brett [Tyne, her dialect coach]. He said, ‘Let’s go to Nashville and purge the Irish out of you.’ But, you know, a character like Grace never really leaves you. She was a real person who lived a terrible life, but by playing her, I met some of the most incredible women I’ve ever worked with. It was the ride of a lifetime.” n