‘Alias Grace’ Star Sarah Gadon on the Enduring Power of Margaret Atwood

Spoiler alert: Save for later if you haven’t finished ‘Alias Grace.’

While Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale looks forward to how bad things could potentially get for women, Alias Grace, written by Atwood eleven years later. in 1996, looks back at how bad things have always been. The story is based on the story of Grace Marks, a real 19th-century Irish-Canadian maid convicted of murdering her employer. Now, like Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace has been adapted for television; originally produced for CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), the six-part series is now available on Netflix.

The story is based on facts, but characters and scenarios have been added. It follows Grace as she arrives from Ireland with her family; her mother dies on the trip and her drunken father abuses her before sending her off to work as a housekeeper at the age of 14. There begins several years of working for men who take liberties, and women who enable them. At a second job, her employer, and his housekeeper, Nancy—who is also his lover—are brutally murdered. McDermott, a violent handyman who works alongside Grace, hangs for those crimes. In his confession, he implicates Grace, who, when we meet her, has survived an asylum and decades in prison. Atwood and the show offer no definitive guilty or not guilty verdict for Grace (the real woman was mysteriously pardoned after 30 years in prison), but, in the end, after seeing what Grace has suffered at the hands of men and women, her guilt or innocence hardly matters.

11-6-alias-grace-05 In the end, Grace Marks is pardoned from her accused crime. Jan Thijs/Netflix

The critically acclaimed show was created by four women, which is still rare in TV or film. In addition to Atwood, the director and actress Sarah Polley (Away From Her) adapted the book, Mary Harron (American Psycho) directed, and Sarah Gadon (11.22.63) stars. They are all Canadian. Gadon, who began acting as a child, spoke to Newsweek about the "fully immersive" experience of playing Grace Marks.

What was the process behind become Grace?

I had two months to prep, which is almost unheard of for television. Mary and I spent a lot of time together; we read Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings [the 1853 book that inspired Atwood’s novel] and Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, about the breakdown of roles of maids in a Victorian household. I even went to a pioneer reenactment camp called Black Creek Pioneer Village and learned how to milk cows, light a Victorian-era stove, to make bread, churn butter and all that good stuff. 

It was Mary’s idea that I learn all of the Victorian house chores for real. She didn’t want me to be faking anything. Grace’s work, her female labor, understanding what it was like for women at that time—that is so important to Margaret Atwood’s novel.

How involved was Atwood in the production, and what advice did she have you about playing Grace?

Margaret was a supervising producer, so she read every draft of the script, she watched everybody’s auditions tapes, she consulted with the production design team. She wasn’t on set a lot, other than her cameo in the show—a disapproving woman in church. When we spoke, Margaret told me the most important thing to maintain while playing Grace is the ambiguity of the novel; no matter what my personal beliefs on whether or not Grace was guilty or innocent, I needed to honor that ambiguity.

alias-grace-margaret-atwood FROM LEFT: Sarah Gadon, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley on the set of 'Alias Grace.' Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

How does an actor “play” ambiguity?

In the earlier scenes, everything leading up to the murder, I didn’t have to play her as ambiguous. Her relationship with Mary Whitney [Grace’s friend and fellow maid, played by Rebecca Liddiard] is very real. Her relationship with her family is real. Her relationship with Nancy and Kinnear [Anna Paquin and Paul Gross] and McDermott [Kerr Logan], that’s all very real. It was only in the interviews with the psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan [Edward Holcroft], that we get to play around with ambiguity. Grace’s intense back-and-forths with Simon were a psychological marathon, with really intense dialogue sequences.

Mary Harron suggested that we come up with a way of shooting where we would do a take of different versions of Grace for every scene. We developed a shorthand: “Good Grace,” “Bad Grace” and “Neutral Grace.”  It was a fun way of acting because I didn’t feel locked into any one way of playing her. Mary wanted "Neutral Grace" to be played as if she had already died and was speaking posthumously. That happens to folks who have been through a lot of trauma—part of them shuts down or is dead. So "Neutral Grace" is, You can’t hurt me anymore because I’ve already killed that part of myself off.

What was the hardest scene to film?

The hypnotism scene was 20 pages of me speaking under a veil. I asked Mary and Sarah, ‘Are we going to shoot this in different chunks so I just have to prep up to a certain point?’ And they said, ‘No, we want to do it all as one long scene.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that’s really hard.’ Then Sarah consulted with Margaret, and Margaret decided that I should also be doing it in the voice of her dead friend, Mary Whitney [as if Grace is possessed by her spirti]. So then I had to relearn it in Mary’s voice! It was almost like doing a play; the takes were almost ten minutes long.

11-6-alias-grace-03 Actor Edward Holcroft plays the doctor Simon Jordan, a character Atwood invented, who researches the case of Grace Marks. Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

The sexual harassment and pressure Grace feels from every man she encounters had me thinking about the current conversation in the entertainment industry, following the Weinstein scandal.

Yeah, I mean the whole show is about what happens to a woman subjected to harassment. Men are trying to break her, essentially. It’s about power imbalance, and how that power imbalance is possibly responsible for unnatural human behavior. When you look at everyone who’s coming forward about their experience with harassment after staying silent for so long, that’s not natural human behavior; it’s behavior that’s been bred from fear.

Grace grew up at a time when women and immigrants had no rights. And yet those are issues we're still talking about now! In terms of labor, immigration, gender politics and reproductive rights—there’s still tremendous anxiety around those issues.  

Handmaid’s Tale is continuing beyond the book. Any chance Alias Grace might have a second season?

I don’t think so. The point of the series is that you go through this whole expression of Grace’s identity, and I don’t see anywhere else for us to go. But I will say that I’d happily sign up for another project with Margaret, Sarah and Mary.

It’s super poignant that Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace came out the same year, and at this time. Both shows offer powerful platforms for women. Between Hulu and and Netflix, that's 100 million subscribers! 

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