Sarah Gadon has more energy at 9:30 in the morning than I could ever hope to. Looking and acting nothing like the sickly, bedridden actress she plays in Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature Antiviral, she bounds into a hotel room fresh from a batch of TV interviews with a bowl of oatmeal in one hand and an arm outstretched for a high five with the other. It’s the happiest and most energetic greeting I would receive all week.
It’s also an interesting contrast to the things we were about to talk about, since it’s a side of the Toronto actress that few really get to see. As an actress on the rise and getting recognized for her work in Cronenberg senior’s A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis (in addition to a slew of television work), this isn’t her first time doing a press junket, but it also never ceases being a point of strange curiosity for her. The curiosity is a bit more loaded this time around as she plays actress Hannah Geist, a widely renowned starlet living in a world where her very germs become a commodity that’s widely traded and uncontrollable beyond her own body.
We talked to the University of Toronto alum about the creation of an image as an actor playing another actor, working with Brandon on his first film, and how the role wasn’t her first choice of character to play in the film.
Dork Shelf: The role that you ended up playing here wasn’t the one you originally wanted to play when you read the script. What drew you into the movie overall and what made you finally settle on the one you did end up taking?
Sarah Gadon: I though that Brandon had articulated a conversation that I had been having a lot recently with friends and family, and that’s just kind of about our culture and stardom and celebrities and how that all relates to how we consume culture. When I started reading the script I was really interested in how he was trying to say that in the screenplay.
I think I didn’t first really connect with Hannah because in the first 50 pages of the screenplay she’s just an image. I think when you’re an actor and looking to accept a job, you’re trying to find something that really resonates with you. So naturally I was sort of drawn to the antagonist in this script. (laughs) So when I met with Brandon and we started talking about the script and I was kind of pitching to him the idea of playing this other character, he started spending a lot of time constructing Hannah as an image and create her aesthetic and how he wanted to create that character with someone who was willing to actively participate in the construction of their own image. I thought that was kind of an interesting exercise. Then on another level, he wanted to express the humanity of the person behind that icon. He wanted to add a human element to the icon, and when we started to approach it from that way it became such a more interesting thing to do. I’m really glad that I played that part and I did that exercise because I’m really proud of the film and I think there’s a lot to take away from it in terms of images of movies and movie stars and all that that encompases.
DS: Is there any trepidation that comes with going into a role like that and you’re playing a celebrity who is one of very few people that can be seen as this sort of “image of perfection”? Was that something that worried you at all going in? Because that’s tough enough to play that in a movie, but you’re also in a line of work that almost forces you to convey a similarly high level of confidence all the time.
SG: Yeah. I think once we decided that Hannah Geist was going to be me that the character was already going to take on more of a human element, and once we started creating an aesthetic for her, we wanted that to have something that people could connect to. There had to be a reason why so many people in this world could connect to her, and maybe she’s described as people in the film as being perfect, but really that’s just a peception and not something that I ever really tried to attain or achieve while trying to play that character. There’s that, but I think the whole idea of perfection and Hannah Geist is that we project our ideals and dreams onto movie stars, and when we watch movies and think about celebrities they become our ego ideals. That’s more the idea behind perfection and who Hannah sort of represents. It’s not that she’s literally perfect. She’s the ego ideal of all those who look up to her.
DS: There’s also a sly sense of humour, and one of the things that ties into this and what we were just talking about is the first time when we see your character it’s simply on a video loop in the office of the Landry Clinic where you’re just smiling and taking your sunglasses off continually. It’s almost like that five second clip is the image that people have in their mind of those sort of people all the time. How much work had to go into making something that small seem like an iconic image.
SG: (faking exhaustion) Hours and hours and days and days! (pauses) No, but there was a lot of prep and pre-production, so a lot of the stills that you see in the film and all the playback and even the peep show stuff that you see later in the film was all done before shooting actually started. For about a week before shooting, Brandon and Caitlin Cronenberg, who did all the photography in the film, and I met at the studio and we would just do photo shoot and playback shoots. We did a lot of that stuff, and I was never really sure just exactly where certain elements of what we did would fall into place, but that was interesting because we were creating the Hannah Geist image, which would in turn create the landscape of the film. We were creating the film’s setting before we even went to camera.
When I was doing it, I didn’t realize how much photography would even be included in the film. When I saw it, that was kind of alarming because I didn’t realize that. It was one of the things I found the most interesting because it was one of the tings I related the most to as an actor, especially when you’re promoting a film or you’re doing PR. You go through these periods of extreme preparation. Like right now, we’re at the Intercontinental and doing however many interviews today, and people come in and they take all these photographs and people do shoots and all these things happen and over time and over the next couple of months these images will start to appear that are attached to these interviews and all of a sudden you’re in a newspaper, you’re in a magazine, you’re online. All of a sudden your image is so disassociated from yourself and your image just kind of starts to come up at strange times. It’s a really odd thing to experience as a person, and I think that’s very well expressed and articulated in the film.
DS: And in your day to day life, just like in the movie for Hannah, your image becomes the day to day iconography that people use to perceive you.
SG: Yeah, and it almost becomes a commodity in the sense that you lose control over it. I’ll be in a hotel room and someone will come in and snap a photograph and then in a few seconds it will be used as a reference to who I am for the next two years from that publication. You have no control over it, and it feels so strange. It’s you, but that’s not who you really are and there’s no context. I think that the production of images and their use is really interesting.
DS: This is Brandon’s first feature film and it’s very artfully directed with a lot of elements that really have to be controlled. What was it like being on set, particularly for that one scene where you first get to show that humanity and we get to see Hanna outsid of just photographs when you’re lying on a bed in a hotel room sick.
SG: Brandon is so sweet and intelligent and talented, and for a first time director he had such a clarity about what he wanted, which is rare because your style isn’t necessarily concrete. Your shooting practices aren’t exactly solidified and you’re collaborating with all these people. A first film is really personal for directors and it’s something that’s often been with them for a very long time and they’ve been thinking about for years. So when we went to set I was surprised by how calm and clear and open he was as a director. That was special to work that way.
What was really surprising and special to me was how accommodating he was to his actors. Caleb (Landry Jones) and I had decided early on that we would not like to know each other or meet each other while we were shooting until that specific scene where we first meet and talk to each other. Brandon accommodated that without even questioning it. He allowed us to take hair and make-up separately and to take lunch and block scenes separately. During that particular hotel room scene I kept my blindfold on always during the blocking until Caleb left the room. Then I would leave. He was very open to embracing our work practices without ever compromising his own work style. He has the mark of someone who is going to be a really great director because they have an openness to collaborate without compromise.