Alias Grace makes its Canadian debut tonight on CBC, but had its world premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14.
The six-part miniseries, adapted from the award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood, is loosely based on the true story of an 1843 murder in Upper Canada, now known as the Canadian province of Ontario. The rest of the world will be able to catch it on Netflix later this fall.
I sat down with Alias Grace stars Sarah Gadon (Grace Marks) and Edward Holcroft (Dr. Simon Jordan) during TIFF. We discussed how this story really gets into your head, Grace’s many layers, and how Atwood puts the subconscious into words.
Grace Marks is a very nuanced and layered character, and Gadon relished getting into those layers. “For me, playing Grace, I have a lot of empathy for her,” explained Gadon. “I think, ‘Is Grace bad at her core? I don’t think so. Is her behaviour bad? Yes.’ Now that we’re at a time where we have female subjectivity represented so well [on TV], and we have female characters at the centre of the story, women are able to have this full spectrum of human behaviour. What I think [Director] Mary Herron did so well in terms of telling this story is she didn’t fall prey to any kind of cinematic tropes of what it is to be a woman. That is why Grace is so complex but also compelling. It’s because she’s not a stereotypical anything. You spend so much time trying to tease apart her identity and who she is. That’s what drew me to the character and to the book, and what people connect with when they watch the show.”
It wasn’t just character that intrigued Holcroft. He was also drawn in by the setting. “I found the world fascinating,” Holcroft said. “I knew nothing about Simon’s profession, or Canada at the time. When I read the script, it was really full of life. You don’t often get that on the page — that substance of a world. You have to find it yourself. I wanted to know more about psychology, and the state of the social conditions at the time, especially to do with Grace, prison and things that women were going through.”
There is also a love story at play, albeit a twisted one. “Alias Grace is also the story of Simon and Grace. It’s a love story, even though it’s pretty messed up,” Holcroft told me. Gadon added, “They really become obsessed with each other. One of the things that I loved so deeply in the novel was the Simon element and character, and the journey that Grace and Simon go on.”
While this is a captivating story, there is an unsettling element. The story and these characters are really going to stick with you. Gadon commented on that aspect of the series. “I have a friend who says, ‘Once someone gets into your head, they never get out.’ That is so true of these characters, and of human nature, which is why the story resonates with people.”
Grace isn’t always a reliable narrator, so viewers will be second guessing the story at every turn. Holcroft remarked, “The story is intense, and it’s about being misled. It’s about what’s real and what’s not real. When you’re working on material like this for as long a period as we were, it’s inevitable that your head becomes — by osmosis — like the heads of the characters. It’s a transformation in a sense, and it’s also a headfuck.”
Gadon credits the nuances in this tale to the genius of Margaret Atwood. “Margaret has a way of giving voice to the deepest of deep psychological thoughts. The way that we process some of our most traumatic moments in life, Margaret is able to articulate out loud to a point that is unsettling.”
“She can put the subconscious into words,” Holcroft interjected.
“She does that and she challenges you then as a performer to go there,” continued Gadon. “You have to sit there very cleanly in those places, and it messes with you.”
With the overwhelming response to The Handmaid’s Tale this year, is there such a thing as too much Margaret Atwood on TV right now? Gadon doesn’t think so. “The Handmaid’s Tale was such a huge success, and the feedback we’re getting [about Alias Grace] is not ‘That’s enough now, we’ve had our female character of the year.’ The Handmaid’s Tale really struck a chord with people, and they’re craving more.”
Photo Courtesy of CBC