Sarah Gadon Finds Empathy for Her Messy Character in 'North of Normal'

Having started as a child actor in Are You Afraid of the Dark? and appeared in Cronenberg films, the Toronto actor has taken on one of her most nuanced roles yet
Sarah Gadon Finds Empathy for Her Messy Character in 'North of Normal'
Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures
Sarah Gadon got her start in shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and La Femme Nikita — but her career took a left turn when she was welcomed into the Cronenberg camp (both David and Brandon), beginning with 2011's A Dangerous Method. "When all that started happening in my early 20s, I felt kind of untethered," she recalls.

"There were these wild experiences that I was being exposed to — worlds that I had never moved in that, all of a sudden, I had a toe in. They can be very destabilizing and very fickle."

The Toronto-born actor credits her hometown for providing an anchor in those years: "Toronto has always been my home. I found it really grounding and positive for my creative soul to be somewhere where I had a history and an identity, and people who would put me in my place."

Since then, Gadon has built an impressive career in Canada and abroad. Playing women who are, as she describes them, "deeply complicated, struggling with a lot of trauma," Gadon seems to gravitate towards roles that play against the sexualized parts typically offered. In David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis she played Elise, the soft-spoken, pristine wife of Robert Pattinson's Eric, whose matter-of-fact simplicity made her equally refreshing and terrifying; in the following year, Denis Villeneuve cast her as a pregnant-wife-turned-spider in the surreal thriller Enemy.

"I've spent so much of my entire career fighting against playing tropes, regardless of what age I am," Gadon explains on the telephone as she navigates walking around Toronto's construction season. "When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I remember not wanting to play that manic pixie dream girl, or whatever the trope was."

Instead, Gadon went against the grain and sought layered roles that posed a challenge. Her persistence in finding these rarely-written characters has paid off many times, including landing the starring role in the acclaimed miniseries Alias Grace, helmed by American Psycho director Mary Harron, written by Sarah Polley and adapted from a historical fiction novel by Margaret Atwood — essentially, a project bursting at the seams with Canadian talent.

In North of Normal (in theatres July 28), Gadon once again stretches herself. Directed by Carly Stone and based on the memoir of Cea Sunrise Person, the movie follows Gadon's Michelle, a young woman raised in an off-the-grid commune in Kootenay Plains, AB, where sex and drugs are freed from their stigmas and the complications of a capitalist society are far from reach.

At 15 years old, Michelle becomes a mother to Cea, played by River Price-Maenpaa as a child and Amanda Fix as a teenager. When Michelle decides to leave the commune to travel with her latest boyfriend, Cea becomes acquainted with not only Michelle's revolving door of men, but also her increasingly capricious attitude as well.

"Michelle is just so clean — she's such a free spirit. She's making the wrong choice all the time, operating for herself instead of those around her," the three-time Canadian Screen Award winner observes. "I don't think I've ever played a character that's so irresponsible or so flawed in this way."

There's a soft complexity to the role that Gadon explores throughout the film. When Michelle returns to the commune years later only to leave Cea there to be raised by her parents, Gadon grants the character a certain grace that leaves audiences with complicated feelings about her actions.

"The way [into Michelle's character] for me was really understanding what are the circumstances that made her the way she was, and then having a tremendous amount of empathy for that," she explains. "[But] it wasn't necessarily my goal to make her empathetic."

She continues, "I don't necessarily think that we always have to have empathy for characters who make bad decisions. But part of my process is understanding the psychology of the character and what gets them to their state of being. I was able to really humanize her and bring the humanity out in the circumstances where you would just normally be really appalled by what she was doing to her kids or how she was raising them."

When the film premiered at TIFF last year, much of the feedback Gadon received was in praise of taking on a character so different from the roles in her past. And while projects like North of Normal may seem to mark a new phase in Gadon's career, for her, it's business as usual.

"I've been working as an actor since I was 10, so I've been in lots of periods of transition," Gadon says, acknowledging the natural transition any actor confronts. "[I've] aged out of certain groups and into other groups — it's all just a part of your long career, if you're lucky to have a long career."