Canadian culture is shining especially brilliantly right now, and when it comes to film, Toronto-born Sarah Gadon is one of the country’s brightest lights. The talented 29-year-old actor, who starred in three consecutive David Cronenberg films – and earlier this year, appeared at both Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival for the movie Indignation – is making her mark on the cinematic world. She’s also dazzling fans on the red carpet, earning her a starring role in campaigns for Giorgio Armani Beauty and Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces.
Raised by a teacher mother and a psychologist father, Gadon began acting at the age of 10. She studied dance with the National Ballet School and film at University of Toronto, and has cultivated a reputation as an artist who makes careful choices, both cinematically and sartorially. I spoke with Gadon about her work and developing a sense of style at home.
You started acting at quite a young age. A lot of people who were child actors lament the fact that their childhood was spent that way. How did it affect you?
It’s really a testament to my parents, because I was active, curious and creative as a child and my parents nurtured that. But I wouldn’t say that I was a professional child actor at all. I was never the breadwinner of my family. It was something that my parents really tried to temper. I was never allowed to miss a lot of school and I did the majority of [work] on summer vacation. And they insisted that I go to university. They allowed me to indulge in my curiosity for the arts, but it really wasn’t until I was an adult that they gave me their blessing to go and be a full-time actor.
Back In January, V Caught Up With All Of The Stars Of This Year’s Sundance Film Festival For Our Fashion & Film Issue. Here, Indie Darling Sarah Gadon Talks About Her Upcoming Film Indignation
It’s hard to believe that this year’s Sundance Film Festival marked the first for Toronto-born Sarah Gadon. The 29-year-old indie darling has developed somewhat of a cult following among film buffs, thanks to her roles in not one, but three David Cronenberg features (A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis, and Maps to the Stars). Gadon’s newest endeavor comes with the same kind of built-in following: Indignation, the adaption of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, has landed her a spot at the top of just about every must-watch list to come out of the festival.
Gadon had yet to read Roth’s novel when she auditioned for the part. Still, the actor had little difficulty bringing the troubled character of Olivia Hutton to life, thanks to the academic tutelage of director James Schamus. “James is also a university professor, so making this movie with him was a lot like taking a course. He gave us reading material, references, and a lot of homework,” gushes Gadon, whose enthusiasm on the subject demonstrates a genuine dedication and love for the craft. “He believes that Philip Roth had women like Sylvia Plath in the front of his mind when crafting Olivia as a character, so I revisited a lot of Plath’s work and read her journals. I think getting into her head space really helped me identify with Olivia and lift her off the page.”
Set in 1950s America, in the midst of the Korean War, Indignation follows Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) as he recounts his experiences at Winesburg College in Ohio, where he’d met Olivia, a suicide attempt survivor whose dark, quirky persona quickly became the object of his desire. The attraction between the two characters culminates when they drive to a cemetery after their first date, and she performs oral sex on him—a scene that Gadon recalls with a mix of pride and mortification. “Logan and I had spent so much time with the script that I felt totally at ease and completely comfortable when we were shooting the scenes. Then, when I watched them at Sundance, I was completely embarrassed! I couldn’t believe that I had done that.”
While it is a period piece, Gadon believes (and rightfully so) that younger audiences will have much to connect with in the story: “Philip Roth writes about young people at a time when they were bumping up against the power structures of America. He paints a very dismal picture about what it meant to be on the outside. That’s something you can identify with today.”
Incidentally, Gadon is coming off the heels of another adaption of a period novel, 11.22.63, the eight-part Hulu series costarring James Franco, based on the book by Stephen King. “It was great because I did mid-’50s right into early ’60s, so I was just following the chronology of American politics. I feel like one of the best and most exciting things I get to do as an actor is to just lose myself in someone, and I really get the opportunity to do that when it’s someone from another time.”
When Sarah Gadon was in her early 20s, she would read scripts that simply did not speak to her. “The roles for girls in their early 20s are the manic pixie dream girl or the ingénue, or the bubbly girlfriend, and I was just in a place where that didn’t resonate with me or what I liked about films,” she said. “I was drawn to darker roles, roles that were against type.”
Raised in Toronto, Ms. Gadon, a star of “Indignation,” opening July 29, began acting at the age of 10, but her parents refused to let her take a regular role on a television series and insisted that she finish school. So, as Ms. Gadon began to act, she also attended performing arts schools and completed a college degree in cinema studies. “I really fell in love with auteur filmmaking,” she said. “I was lucky that my first major roles were with David Cronenberg and Denis Villeneuve, and I was able to really focus on films with strong directors.
With Mr. Cronenberg as something of a mentor, Ms. Gadon, now 29, has carved out unusual roles for herself as an actress of restrained, sometimes eerie, precision and intensity, in films like Mr. Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars,” as well as “Antiviral,” by his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Mr. Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Most recently, she appeared in the Hulu series “11.22.63” opposite James Franco.
In “Indignation,” which James Schamus adapted from Philip Roth’s novel, Ms. Gadon plays Olivia, a beautiful blond student who becomes more than just the object of a young Jewish man’s affection. Once again, she plays against expectations with a performance that, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, plants “quiet traces of chaos beneath Olivia’s dreamy poise.”
“She’s a deeply troubled girl, and she’s a smart girl,” Ms. Gadon said. “She’s kind of trapped in the ideology of the time, and she’s trying to fight it and trying to express herself in all of these misguided ways, which is something we all struggle with.”
The actress and her director had frank discussions about the fact that Mr. Roth’s novels are not exactly celebrated for their depictions of women. Mr. Schamus, the Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter here making his debut as a director, urged her to reread Sylvia Plath, since there’s some evidence that the sexually forward, darkly comic yet tormented Olivia was inspired by the poet.
“It was an interesting way to approach this character in a Philip Roth piece, who’s so often criticized for being anti-feminist,” said Ms. Gadon, who was surprised by the humor and fun of Plath’s journals. “It made her so much more than just a troubled girl. She has a million moods a minute.”