Meet The All-Female Team That Brought Alias Grace to the Screen
As a blockbuster production of Alias Grace reexamines a historic crime with gender politics at its root, Johanna Schneller meets with the powerhouse all-female team that brought the novel to the screen.
It was Day 1 on the set of the six-part television series Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning 1996 novel, which itself was based on the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Upper Canada who was convicted for a notorious 1843 double murder. (Whether she committed the murder, abetted it or was innocent is still unknown; the shifting nature of “truth,” filtered through the sexism of the era, is the story’s real subject.) Sarah Polley had written all six hours of the screenplay, and Mary Harron (American Psycho) was directing them. Atwood herself was there to do a cameo, as a neighbour scandalised that Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), a wealthy unmarried landowner, was flaunting his lover, Nancy (Anna Paquin), and their new housekeeper, Grace (Sarah Gadon), in church. (Grace gets pulled into the drama, and things end badly for all three. It’s a Margaret Atwood story.)
Atwood had a character name: Disapproving Woman. She had a trailer with that name on its door. She had a costume – drawers, camisole, corset, petticoats, overskirt, jacket, capelet, shawl, bonnet and boots – and two dressers to rope her into it. Disapproving Woman sits in a pew; viewers see little of her costume. But they wanted her to feel authentic.
Her scene was supposed to be shot in daylight, but first days are tricky, and the hot August afternoon dragged into evening. A searchlight was aimed through the set’s windows to evoke morning. “I was frying,” Atwood recalls now, sipping a green smoothie on a restaurant patio near her Toronto home. Small grin. “No wonder I looked disapproving.”
But when the cameras rolled, Atwood got into the spirit. Way in. “She gave herself a line,” Polley recalls, with a grin of her own.
The script supervisor asked if Atwood’s improv – “It’s disgraceful. Disgraceful!” – was okay. “I would think it would be,” Polley replied. The sound person hurriedly tucked a microphone under Disapproving Woman’s capelet. When the episodes air on CBC and Netflix this fall, Atwood’s line will be there, delivered with enough vehemence to make her signature gray curls shake.
At age 77, with 16 novels, eight short fiction collections, 17 poetry collections, eight children’s books, 10 non-fiction books, three television scripts, two opera libretti, one graphic novel, 24 honorary degrees (including Oxford, Harvard and the Sorbonne) and at least 25 major awards to her name (including a Giller Prize, Booker prize and the Companion of the Order of Canada), the Ottawa-born Atwood is hotter than ever. Last April, The New Yorker published a laudatory profile, timed to the release of the television series based on Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale – about a dystopian near-future in which the U.S. is a theocracy, and women are brutally suppressed into being wives, servants or breeders (handmaids). In July, that series was nominated for a whopping 13 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Dramatic Series and Lead Actress for Elisabeth Moss, who plays the handmaid Offred.
As of mid-July, The Handmaid’s Tale novel was near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for its 14th week – 32 years after its publication. Affectionate parodies pepper the internet, such as the one on Funny or Die, called “Finally, a Handmaid’s Tale for Men.” (“I used to be CEO of a large corporation,” a man intones darkly. “Now I’m CEO of a large corporation but with some female colleagues.”) And ordinary women are donning the handmaids’ striking red gowns and white bonnets and staging peaceful sit-ins in state legislatures across the U.S., to protest the Trump administration’s cuts to women’s health care.
Atwood had a cameo in The Handmaid’s Tale, too, as a handmaid trainer who slaps Offred’s face. “I’m getting typecast,” she says, deadpan. Oh, how to describe Atwood’s voice? Deep, nasal and meticulously enunciated, it sounds flat at first. But quickly you tune in to how her smallest inflection bends serious into mischievous, or wry into mirthful.
“I’m having a moment,” she continues. “Who would have predicted that?” Ask if there’s a reason, and she emits a small explosion. “Of course there’s a reason! Trump got elected. He’s a symptom of stuff that was already going on, even more in recent years than in 1985. Back then, some critics could say, ‘This is absurd. It could never happen.’ Nobody is saying that now.”
Day 58 (of 65) on the Alias Grace set. Atwood isn’t here today but her presence hovers. Every member of the crew mentions how they hope to do justice to her.
Polley stands near the monitors, squeezing a piece of pink Play-Doh (a pizza slice made by one of her two young daughters, who’d instructed her to bring it to set and “show everybody”). “The highlight for me, and a lot of us in our careers,” Polley says, “was showing Margaret Atwood the sets of her novel, walking her through the spaces she’d written, showing her the objects, like the head-measuring device we borrowed from a museum [used on Grace], which she’d never seen before. It was the most extraordinary, surreal experience.”
The series’ excecutive producer, Noreen Halpern, points out the wallpaper in the servant’s bedroom (of good quality but ripped and stained with age) and the grooves in a staircase (to suggest wear). In a novel, you can write, “She got on a train.” In a film, you have to know which train. The preserves in the murder cellar were made as they were in the 1830s: topped with a piece of wet pigskin tied with string, which would seal as it dried. Even Atwood hadn’t known that. (“It says botulism to me,” she says juicily.)
Halpern walks by another set, the hold of the ship on which the Marks family sailed from Belfast to Canada. It rests on a machine that pitched and rocked it to create the terror of a storm at sea. Thousands of gallons of water were pumped through it, along with 16 rats, under the direction of a professional rat handler.
Polley made sure she was on set that day. It was the scene she’d fought hardest to keep. “One of the most pressing issues in the series is about immigration, class,” she says. “We look at refugees and immigrants now, and we forget the squalor and horror they went through to get here. There’s always a stigma. So that was my line in the sand: this is what we need to see right now.”
She brought her children to watch, too. “Mostly they just played with the rats,” Polley says. “My two-year-old told me, ‘I love your work!'”
Tonight, all eyes are on the governor’s study, an elegant set in which Grace relates her story to a doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who wants to exonerate her. Shot over six intense days, then cut through with flashbacks, this 70-page conversation forms the series’ spine. It looks like a Vermeer painting, but the period dialogue is a mouthful, and Gadon has to perform it while sewing quilt patches.
“If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we’d all be hanged,” Gadon/Grace says.
“Could you do one that’s slightly guiltier?” Harron asks. Gadon does.
“And now one where you might be remembering something?” Harron asks. Gadon does.
To make things even tougher, the studio is on an airport flight path, so every five minutes a plane’s roar interrupts the action. “Sarah will have a tear quivering on her eyelid, and we’ll have to hold for the plane,” Halpern says. “Mary will say, ‘Hold that tear.’ And Sarah can.”
Next step: a director. Usually when she wrote a script, Polley could see every shot. Halfway through Alias Grace, she realized she couldn’t – the ambition was too sweeping, the tone too raw. She thought immediately of Mary Harron. “She has an intense, dark sensibility that’s closer to Atwood’s than mine is,” Polley says. “I loved the novel too much to not put it in the right hands.”
And frankly, the book was driving Polley a bit mad. “It spoke to a duality I have in me that I find disturbing,” Polley admits. “The sense of being one person but also carrying a lot of things you haven’t addressed. What happens to that anger or damage when it’s not allowed to be expressed? There’s that Emily Dickinson quote, ‘ourself within ourself concealed.’ Who are we that we haven’t discovered yet? I thought, ‘It’s too close to something dangerous for me.'”
Gadon understands that. “When you’re a young actor, identities are projected onto you,” she says. “That happened to Grace – at a young age, other people took control of her identity. I connect with that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sarah Polley did, too.”
Harron signed on immediately – she’d read English literature at Oxford so was steeped in the form that Atwood and Polley were reworking. “I saw Alias Grace as a Victorian novel but with all the censored bits left in,” Harron says over a plate of deep-red beef carpaccio at a Toronto restaurant.
“It’s more than just a drama. It’s an important piece of hidden history. People don’t know what these girls went through. It’s been sanitized.”
The CBC also signed on: “There’s something timeless and timely about Grace,” says programming chief Sally Catto. “People project onto her what they want to see, based on their own biases,” which makes her perfect for this political moment. “It’s historical yet progressive at the same time.”
There remained the small matter of the $30 million. Polley, Harron and Halpern headed to L.A., where they pitched eight co-production entities in three days. Most of the executives were women. Three made bids. Netflix won. (Netflix and CBC also partnered on the series Anne.) Thanks to their cash, “We were able to film this Canadian book, written by and starring Canadians, in the province where the events took place,” Harron says.
During the shoot, Gadon stopped sleeping at night. She’d never experienced that on a job before. The physical demands were extreme. She was in nearly every scene. She had to do three versions of Grace for every take. She was doing period housework, carrying heavy buckets, scrubbing floors.
“On camera, you see me actually aging as if I’d been in prison for 15 years,” she chortles. But she also realized, “What a gift. Will I ever be challenged that much creatively again?”
Through it all, Gadon felt the presence of so many women behind the camera, especially during scenes of violence or sexual assault. “There were so many times we’d be blocking a scene, and Mary would remind everyone, ‘No, it has to be from Grace’s perspective,'” Gadon says. “Deciding where to put the camera has such an impact. That becomes the gendered lens we all talk about.
“Not that a man can’t tell a beautiful story about a woman,” she continues. But Grace Marks was such an object of desire and fascination, and her story was “claimed by so many men.” A group of women reclaiming her story felt important.
When Polley first read Alias Grace, she was the age Grace is at the beginning. Now she’s almost the age Grace is at the end. “I’ve put more hours of work into this than I’ll put into writing anything,” she says. She did that because she genuinely believes that “film and television can look back on history and give a voice to a group that was previously squashed or silenced.” That’s the work she wants to keep doing.
“I spent my childhood on CBC in this bucolic vision of this time that never existed in this country,” Road to Avonlea, she continues. “So to be back on CBC in this brutally honest look at what it was actually like for women, and people get spattered in blood, was extremely cathartic.”
As of this writing, Atwood has seen most of The Handmaid’s Tale and much of Alias Grace. She’s thrilled with both. Not because she needs more awards: “Thank you very much, they’re lovely, but I actually don’t,” she says. Not because they burnish her fame. “I’ve always been the Wicked Witch to some people. And Glinda the Good to others,” she says. “Status waxes and wanes. It’s very nice when you’re having a moment. People think you’re important. But there will come another moment when they don’t.”
Atwood is pleased with these television adaptations because they take seriously what she takes seriously. “I believe in fostering writing and reading as a very important part of democracy,” she says. “Maybe I was improperly socialized, but there are quite a few things I don’t give a shit about. I’m not a politician. I’m not running for office. I don’t have a job. The only way to fire me is to ban all my books. Or stand me up against a wall and shoot me. That’s been done a lot. That’s why I support PEN Canada and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. And why I think there should be a memorial to murdered journalists in High Park. Why were they killed? Trying to get the story for you. I do give a shit about that.”