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In the fall of 2015, the filmmaker Sarah Polley was at a swimming pool near her home in Toronto, rummaging through a lost-and-found bin for her hair dryer, when a jostled fire extinguisher fell on her head. Polley’s vision went blurry; the world tilted and slowed. It turned out that she had a concussion, one severe enough to keep her bed-bound for weeks, and foggy and hindered for months, then years. A movie that she was writing had to be abandoned; the scope of her life dramatically compressed. Again and again, Polley was advised to respect her limits for fear of doing further damage. Not until she consulted a doctor who told her that she could recover only if she agreed to “run towards the danger”—to push herself past her enduring pain and illness—did she finally start to get well.

Polley has been in the public eye since she was small. She was a child star, famous for playing Sara Stanley, the lead role on “Road to Avonlea,” a beloved CBC television show based on novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Sally Salt, the precocious young lead in Terry Gilliam’s madcap movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988). Eventually, Polley began to make her own acclaimed movies, including “Take This Waltz” (2011), a could-have-been love story starring Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, and Seth Rogen, and “Stories We Tell” (2013), a kaleidescopic documentary in which Polley, interviewing family members and friends, investigates the major mystery of her childhood: the fact that the father who raised her was not her biological father, a secret that her mother, who died when Polley was eleven, had never divulged.

From the outside, Polley seemed like that rare thing—a child actor who made the impossible leap to mature artistry. The lived reality proved to be another story. Now Polley has published “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory,” a roving, psychologically probing memoir in essays, in which she applies her doctor’s good counsel to a host of personal subjects. Polley writes of struggling with scoliosis; of her perplexing father, in the wake of her mother’s death; of being in dire danger on film sets, and of reckoning, years later, with sexual assault; of experiencing a high-risk pregnancy with her oldest child and finding uncommon solidarity on the maternity ward. On the page, Polley turns out to be as brave, funny, and unself-serious as she is on the screen; that’s how she is in person, too, as I discovered when we recently spoke for a couple of hours over Zoom. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

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How old were you when you started acting?

I think that I was four or five. No, sorry! I was five or six, but when I was seven or eight, I used to lie about it to make it seem like it was longer. The first thing I ever did was “One Magic Christmas.”

Was that a TV special?

It was a movie. It was with Harry Dean Stanton and Mary Steenburgen. It’s, like, a really creepy Christmas movie with a lot of really difficult undertones. [Laughs.] In one part, I had to be sitting on the toilet while a bathtub overflowed. And I remember my entire school went to see the movie, and the gales of laughter at the sight of me on a toilet was not the best moment of my life. It was a rocky start.

How did you get into acting?

So, the story is that I pushed my way into it despite my parents’ protests. That’s also Shirley Temple’s story, so I’m doubtful. [Laughs.] But I was surrounded by it. My dad had been an actor—he wasn’t when I was a kid, he was working at an insurance company to support the family—and my mom was a casting director, and produced comedy shows like “Kids in the Hall.” I think that all of my siblings, at least the two who are closest in age, had been auditioning and stuff.

I know that, until I was seven or eight, I didn’t mind it. But I don’t have a memory of forcing my way into it.

It seems that things flipped when you were about eight. You really wanted out, and couldn’t get out.

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Yes. I mean, I couldn’t get out partly because I had signed—I can’t remember how many years that contract was, it was between five and seven years with the TV show “Road to Avonlea.” But certainly after “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” my interest had taken a hit. When I was twelve or thirteen, I wrote a letter to myself saying, “If you’re still doing this as an adult, you’ve sold your soul. This is not what you’ve chosen to do.”

I’m curious, for kids who don’t have training, or a lifetime of watching movies—how do they understand acting? How did you learn to act?

I think that, when you’re a kid, you have a really keen sense of what’s authentic. Even watching TV with my kids, they can point out when someone’s pushing and when someone is being.

But I don’t know! As a kid, you’re such a sponge, and you’re working with actors; I think you’re keenly observing what they are doing. My own feeling was that I didn’t really act until I was fourteen and in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter.” Before, it was more like trying to behave a certain way or indicate something. And then suddenly it was about actually experiencing something, and revealing something of yourself.

It seems, from the way you describe it, that acting at a younger age was almost a way of being made to conceal yourself. You write about being at odds with a lot of the roles you were in—certainly with the role in “Road to Avonlea,” which was this sort of naïve, happy girl, built on nostalgia for an earlier time. And, meanwhile, you were becoming an adolescent, and presumably going through adolescent stuff.


Were you frustrated that you couldn’t get more of yourself into the role?

I mean, I think the whole thing just chafed against my view of myself, my world view, everything. I was in this sugary-sweet depiction of childhood, of myself, of Canada—all of these things that I knew were not true.

As I get older, I’m more reluctant to denigrate the show, because I feel like it was one of those shows that parents and kids watched together; it was an important escape for a lot of people. But I do think there’s something problematic about it, especially given what we know about the history of this country. Our airwaves have been saturated with pictures of this idyllic Canadian history, and it just hides so many horrible things. It was such a relief, as a teen-ager, to play characters who had some skepticism, and some introspection, and a sense of injustice.

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Can you tell me about the house you grew up in?

I grew up in suburban Toronto, in North York. Until my mom died, and until my older siblings moved out, it was this incredibly boisterous place, with music playing all the time, and political discussions, and books being discussed, and laughter. It’s really fun to be the youngest in a family like that, because you’re just getting to wander through this environment that everyone else is creating.

It wasn’t perfect. I think that, in an environment that chaotic, feelings can get missed. And certainly there’s a sense of humor in my family that is incredibly cutting. There are no sacred cows, and people laugh when they’d like to cry. My mom worked hard, and she also did all of the domestic duties and all of the child rearing. She didn’t have any support. Especially from my dad.

When you were eight, you got cast in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” the Terry Gilliam movie. You really idolized Gilliam and Monty Python as a kid.

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