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Sarah Polley on the medical advice that inspired her to confront memories of her pain


Writer, director and actress Sarah Polley began acting at the age of 4. In less than a decade, she was starring in a popular Canadian TV series, and she was a lead character in the movie "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen."


SARAH POLLEY: (As Sally Salt) We've got to get back and save the town.

JOHN NEVILLE: (As Baron Munchausen) Don't fret. The town is in no immediate danger.

PFEIFFER: Her life seemed idyllic. Polley had fame, money and success, all before turning 20. But she was also dealing with the death of her mother, her father's negligence and serious scoliosis, all of which she recounts in her new book "Run Towards The Danger." The title comes from advice she was given by a doctor after a debilitating concussion.

POLLEY: The thing that he told me in our first meeting was, if you remember nothing else from this meeting, remember this - run towards the danger. Instead of the protocols we've become so used to of, you know, if you have a concussion or a brain injury, go lie in a dark room, avoid the things that bother you, actually go towards the things you've been avoiding.

PFEIFFER: Polley applied that health advice to understanding her personal life and to her writing.

POLLEY: I started to treat this idea of running towards the danger as a sort of call to move towards anything that was causing me discomfort that I'd been avoiding. And what that turned into was this book, where I kind of move towards and try to describe and immerse myself in some of the hardest experiences I've had and try to unpack them.

PFEIFFER: Polley writes about her frightening experiences as a child actor, her high-risk pregnancy, her daughter's stay in the NICU and her concussion. But even though it reads like a long list of traumas, Polley says she feels lucky.

POLLEY: It's always a strange moment for me when someone's read the book and sort of says to me, you know, you've had such a difficult life. And I think, it's not actually how I feel. I feel like I've actually had sort of a charmed life and a lucky life. And yeah, a lot of stuff has happened, and I'm not trying to minimize that, but I've also ended up with a job I really love and with a family I really love and kind of doing OK.

PFEIFFER: Your stories about your experiences as a child actor were fascinating to read - and often appalling to read - because you described how unsafe you felt. There's a part in the book where you describe a scene you had to film that was so harrowing - you basically had to run through an obstacle course of danger - that an ambulance was waiting at the end just in case. And you had a lot of commentary later on children in the film industry and whether it treated them as well as they should. Do you still question that?

POLLEY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think that it's sort of strange to not ask the hardest question, which is, you know, should kids be in professional environments at all? I mean, we've sort of made a decision as a society that kids shouldn't work, but we make an exception for an industry that's kind of known for its sort of reckless practices. It's a really strange thing that we've just all sort of silently come to terms with. Certainly - I mean, I've talked to a lot of child actors over the years. Very few report that it's been a positive experience. So I think we have to kind of look at it as a risk. And if it's a risk that we've decided to take with a child, putting them in a professional environment with a bunch of adults who are not trained to educate or nurture children, I think we have to sort of make that the priority that this will not be a devastating or even difficult experience for them.

PFEIFFER: I'm sure there are some listeners wondering what kind of experiences you went through as a child actor. I'm thinking of one in the book involving a horse. Maybe that's a good one for you to give as an example.

POLLEY: Yeah. I mean, on the film "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" that I was in when I was 8 years old, there were scenes involving explosives that went off quite close to me. The incident that you're referring to, where, you know, me and Eric Idle and Jack Purvis were in a small rowboat in a water tank and explosives were going off in the water. There was also a horse in the boat with us who started backing up towards us. And the rider had to take it overboard. And that created a situation that was really terrifying for everybody because explosives were still going off. And, yeah, that's one of the more extreme examples of things that happened. And I was taken to hospital after that event and couldn't hear properly for at least a few days after that.

PFEIFFER: Years later, you wrote to the director to describe to him how you had felt, how unsafe you had felt. And from the book, we get the impression that you felt unsatisfied by the response you got from the director.

POLLEY: You know, here's what I'll say - I was satisfied. I - you know, it was Terry Gilliam, and he did respond to my email right away. And he did apologize for certain things, like the incident that happened in the boat. He also gave me permission to publish that email exchange in a newspaper, which I think is an unusual thing to agree to when you might not look - something might not be painting you in such a flattering light. Like, a lot of the things I was leveling at him were not complimentary. But do I think he's taken full responsibility for out of control that production was and how terrifying it was? No, absolutely not.

PFEIFFER: Sarah, in your book, you describe a serious concussion that you suffered as an adult and a health care journey that lasted years as you tried to get better. How are you feeling now?

POLLEY: I'm great. I mean, it's gone. I don't have any concussion symptoms anymore. And this was a concussion that dragged on for 3 1/2 years. And I - you know, I had this really amazing treatment at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And I do feel 100% now. But more than that, I feel like I've been given this gift of this paradigm shift of running towards the things that aggravate your symptoms, which I've just sort of taken with me into every aspect of my life.

PFEIFFER: You wrote in the book that you worried at one point that because you had various maladies throughout your life - and here's the quote - you said, "they were starting to get on people's nerves and make them suspicious." That's really interesting. Why do you think people begin to have that feeling?

POLLEY: I don't know. But, I mean, I think it's - you know, it can start to sort of seem like an identity at some point to people, right? Like, if you have enough things - like, I had scoliosis when I was a kid, which I guess isn't totally invisible. Like, I was clearly crooked, but it's not like having an open, bleeding wound. It's not like having cancer. It's serious but not terminal. And then I had endometriosis. I had a very high-risk first pregnancy. I had a concussion. Like, a lot of these things are invisible. And I think when enough of them are piled on top of each other, you can start to seem a little crazy.

PFEIFFER: Has your understanding of anything that happened early in your life fundamentally changed through the process of writing this book?

POLLEY: I think - so for all of them, what the story feels like and the meaning of these stories has really changed through the process of running towards them and going back into the past and saying, like, I'm just going to wrestle with these things, like, it's not going to be comfortable. But these difficult, pivotal events from our past have a way of coming and finding us and making us wrestle with them if we don't start the process. So I feel like that's the project of this book. And that's, in a way, its battle cry - is let's go back. Let's look at the things we're avoiding. Let's unpack them. Let's have a conversation with them because, otherwise, they just have far too much power.

PFEIFFER: Do you feel more powerful now that you've gone through that process?

POLLEY: I do. I feel a million times stronger, actually. And that's not to say that I think these stories are done with me or that I'm done with them. Like, I think this thing is an ever-evolving process. And I'm sure there's lots of other stories that, you know, I haven't run towards and that are going to either come find me or I'm going to go find them. But I do. I feel really emboldened to kind of go into the things that caused me discomfort and to have these difficult conversations with myself. And I think that inevitably makes one feel stronger.

PFEIFFER: That's Sarah Polley. Her new book is "Run Towards The Danger." Sarah, thank you.

POLLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.