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April 12, 2018

Finding Grace

Bringing Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace to life for the Netflix series was a labor of love for the cast and crew.

Melissa Byers
  • Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace.

  • Rebecca Liddlard as Mary Whitney and Sarah Gadon

  • Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery

  • Netflix
  • Author MargaretAtwood behind the scenes of Alias Grace

  • Atwood, in costume for her cameo in the series, with her co-stars

  • Netflix

Margaret Atwood writes novels that stick with you.

Her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale captivated readers when it was published in 1985 and recently drew them back in with the Amazon Studios series.

Another of Atwood's books, Alias Grace, published in 1996, though a very different story about the real-life Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant accused of killing her employer and his lover in the 19th century, was equally captivating, particularly for actor-writer-director-producer Sarah Polley.

Polley says, "I first read it when I was 17 and that's when I started imagining it as a film. I tried to get the rights when I was 18 years old and Margaret Atwood said no.

"It was a very hot property at the time, and a lot of people wanted it and it went to various people over the years. Two or three different companies held the rights to it for many years, and I went from one company to another, kind of stalking them and waiting behind the scenes. So I sort of chased around various companies." When the rights finally became available, Polley nabbed them, and the real work began.

Polley says, "I remember creating some outline that was like 250 pages or something. And it's simply a matter of just chipping away and chipping away at it and not trying to take any short cuts. Because I realized as I was writing it that there are a lot of short cuts to be taken, and I would have lost a lot of things that I loved in the book that I felt were really important for the series.

"It was like trying to have an imagination about it as something other than the novel, and put it into the different medium, but, at the same time there were different elements and a tone to it that I really didn't want to lose. So, I was pretty diligent about creating maps for myself of the book, and of how I was reorienting things instead of piecing them together."

Once she had the story sorted out, she began the hunt for the right production team to bring it to life. Her first stop was producer Noreen Halpern.

Halpern, too, was a fan of the book. "Having grown up in Canada, I've always been a huge fan of Margaret Atwood's, and I started reading her when I was 10. About I guess four years ago, I got a call from Sarah Polley, who I didn't know that well. Her brother and I were friends, have been friends for 30 years.

"He was a co-executive producer on the project and longtime very successful casting person in Canada and the US. She said 'I've written these six scripts, and I think it's television, and everyone has told me if I'm gonna work in television you're the person I have to work with.' Which of course who gets those calls?"

But get that call she did, and immediately decided to give it a go. "I said 'great, send the scripts to me, let's meet.' I read them, I was in Toronto maybe 10 days later, and we met for coffee that lasted for about three hours.

"I'd obviously read the scripts. It's a massive undertaking, a huge period piece set in three time periods, based on a book that back then very few people had heard of. In Canada people knew it, but even in Canada it still was this huge tome of a book. It was just the most riveting story, and a story that felt so incredibly contemporary.

"We talked about it, and I said 'look, the first thing I wanna do is I wanna get it budgeted,' because this was massive, and we both agreed we were only going to make this if we could raise the right budget for it. We were not going to make this in any kind of half assed way. We got it budgeted by D.J. Carson, who became our producer.

"He came on two years ahead of actually shooting, budgeted it, and then Sarah and I looked at each other and said 'wow, we gotta raise a lot of money.'

"She said to me from the beginning she did not want to direct it, and she really wanted Mary Harron to direct it, because there was a visceral nature to this story that she thought it was very important to get someone like Mary ... Not someone like Mary, but to get Mary. It's like 'bring me that Mary Harron' kind of feel, and so we got Mary Harron."

Harron was an easy sell. She says, "I love Sarah Polley and her work but really it was the scripts that drew me in. The story was so enthralling, mysterious and complex that once I started reading I just kept going through all six. Grace Marks is deeply sympathetic, but her story leaves us full of questions and suspicions and you can never get to the bottom of her.

"I also loved this completely unsentimental view of the 19th Century that so cuts against the grain of romanticized period drama. In Alias Grace the servants do not love their masters and the masters exploit and abuse their servants without a second thought, which is pretty much how it was back then."

The book is a huge story, all the more so for being true. Harron says, "This story, the true story was the O.J. Simpson crime of the time, of the moment for its time. And great fascination in the real life story of this young, beautiful immigrant girl, accused of this truly hellacious, heinous, disgusting bloody murder.

"It was a fascinating political story that has obviously huge contemporary resonance, disenfranchised immigrant being abused by men.

"Then we talked about the importance of the fact that we wanted people to come away from watching this arguing loudly about what her role was, and it was never did she or didn't she, it was how did she, how much did she know?

"Was this a case of multiple personalities and her other personality taking over, was she holding the murder weapon, how involved really was she, how much was she aware of what was going on?  Just the story about this massive abuse of a woman and what this did to her, and also the survivor aspect, it's amazing.

"This is a story about really sort of this crazy murder mystery, and at the end of it the only one who's alive is Grace Marks."

The final important piece the project needed to make it work was to find the right actress to portray Grace from age 16 to 40-something.

Halpern says, "The other key piece of this was Sarah Gadon. Because all along it was Mary, Sarah, and I, and Margaret Atwood, because we really worked really closely with Margaret, we really brought her into the fold, we wanted her to be as proud as she's turned out to be of the project.

"But Sarah Gadon came to the project very early on, and the only question we had, because Mary had worked with her, Sarah had known her forever, I was a massive fan, the only question we had was could she pull off 16-year-old Grace. She screen tested, we all looked at it, and we went 'well, there you go, there's Grace.'

"That was it. That was the other crucial piece, is to find the actor who had the skill, and not just brilliant acting but the technical ability. Six hours, and it all rests on her shoulders."

Gadon. like the rest of the team, was immediately enthusiastic. She says, "I had heard that Sarah Polley was adapting the novel, and I'd been a huge fan and admirer of Sarah since I can remember. I grew up watching her on Road to Avonlea, and then I watched her kind of transition into this really cool indie actress and then director, writer.

"So I just knew that anything she was going to be a part of would be very special, and so I auditioned for the role. I had a really long work session with Sarah and Mary and then I taped again for it, and then I met with them, and then I got the part."

The role had a few very specific challenges, starting with Grace's Belfast accent. Halpern notes, "She [Gadon] started practicing, she came in and auditioned with an almost-flawless accent. "

Gadon disagrees, "They say that, which is very generous, and of course I know, I'm much more a tough critic, and I think that, you know, my accent was definitely far from perfect in the audition. However, I had a good friend who was living in Belfast, who's from Northern Ireland, and when I got the audition, I called him, and I said 'would you, if I send you the sides would you record them for me?'

"And he so generously did that, which was very helpful, because it's such a tricky accent, to kind of just pull out of your hat, that it was very helpful that he helped me out."

But the accent was only the beginning. The team strove for realism and accuracy in even the smallest details. Halpern says, "Then from that day she [Gadon] got the part, she was working with our sewing and quilting experts, learning how to light an old-fashioned fire, learning how to bake bread. I mean the minutiae and the detail that she had to be able to perfect was stunning, and she worked so hard on it all."

Gadon says she enjoyed the process. She says, "It was really fascinating. I am kind of a perpetual student. I love research. I love to learn new things. I find that the process of learning something new is the most rewarding and humbling. It's that kind of aspect of being an actor.

"So, I kind of threw myself right into it and did a lot of research in terms of reading. I read Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, which is all about how to be a Victorian servant.

"And so, I did a lot of reading, and then, I went to a pioneer reenactment village in Toronto called 'Pioneer Village,' and I learned, kind of, my way around a pioneer kitchen and how there's so many rules about class and class etiquette and class responsibility. So I got to learn all of that, and then I got to, of course, work on my accent with the brilliant dialect coach Brett Tyne.

"So there were so many different things that I had to do to prepare. I had to learn how to sew. Which was another thing, I sewed throughout the entire [series]. I quilt throughout all of the scenes with Dr. Jordan. And, of course, quilting and sewing and working with those textiles was so important to the novel and to create the story really and the kind of overarching motif of identity.

"So, I got together with a quilting circle and learned how to sew. That was really cool."

Harron, too, enjoyed the process of bringing this world to life. She says, "There is nothing better than immersing yourself in another world and trying to bring it to life, especially when you have been given the resources to do it properly. But more than anything it was about the actors.

"I have never had such a long and intense journey with an actor as I did with Sarah Gadon, and her great gifts, her subtlety and marvelous temperament made her a wonderful partner in crime. Anna Paquin, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Kerr Logan - it was a privilege to work with all of them."

The series, like the book, does not offer an absolute conclusion about Grace's role in the murders. Halpern notes, "We talked about how we wanted people to come away from watching this arguing loudly about what her role was.

Polley adds, "What I can say, is that people come out with wildly different interpretations and that's what we most hope for. We hope that there would be arguments around it. And hope that there would be defense. And we hope that people would be projecting their own experiences on to it enough, or their own bias enough, on to the characters, that they would come out strongly believing something."

Alias Grace is currently streaming on Netflix.

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