Based on Philip Roth’s late novel, Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.
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.”