Born in Toronto, Ontario, Sarah Polley is the youngest of five children born to Michael Polley, a British-born actor (he attended acting classes with Albert Finney in England before moving to Canada), and actress and casting director Diane Polley, who died of cancer just before Polley’s 11th birthday. She attended Earl Haig Secondary School, but dropped out before graduating.
Her first cinematic appearance was at the age of four, as Molly in the Disney film One Magic Christmas. At age eight, she was cast in the title role in the television series Ramona, based on Beverly Cleary‘s books. Though the series lasted but one season, Polley burst into the public eye the following year as Sara Stanley on the popular CBC television series Road to Avonlea, produced by Kevin Sullivan. The series made her famous and financially independent, and she was hailed as “Canada’s Sweetheart” by the popular press.
Polley appeared as Lily on the CBC television series, Straight Up. It ran from 1996–1998 and she won the Gemini Award for Best Performance in a Children’s or Youth Program or Series for her role. Polley’s subsequent role as Nicole Burnell in the 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter, brought her considerable attention in the United States; she was a fan favourite at the Sundance Film Festival.
She was cast in the role of Penny Lane in the big-budget 2000 film Almost Famous, but dropped out of the project to return to Canada for the low-budget The Law of Enclosures. Her role in the 2003 film My Life Without Me, garned the Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 2004. In the same year, she starred in a lead role in the stylish and successful remake of Dawn of the Dead, which was a departure from her other indie roles. In 2005 she starred in The Secret Life of Words, opposite Tim Robbins and Julie Christie. She was nominated as Best European Actress by the European Film Academy for her role as Hanna.
She made her feature-length film directing debut with Away From Her, based on the Alice Munro short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain. The movie, starring Julie Christie, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2006 as part of the TIFF’s Gala showcase. The movie drew rave revues from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the three Toronto dailies, both for the performances of Christie and her co-star, Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, and for Polley’s direction.
Away From Her was acquired by Lionsgate for release in the US for the sum of $750,000. The distributor, which plans to release the film in the spring of 2007, is expected to launch a major campaign for Academy Award nominations, for Christie’s performance and for Polley as writer-director. Polley takes pride in her work and enjoys both acting and directing but is not keen on combining the two. “I like the feeling of keeping them separate. I find that really gratifying. I can’t imagine combining those. For me, I love the feeling of using different parts of my brain separately.”
Following the row with Disney, Polley dedicated more of her efforts to progressive politics, becoming a prominent member of the New Democratic Party, where Ontario legislator Peter Kormos was said to be her political mentor.
In 1995, she lost several teeth to riot police while protesting against the Provincial Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris in Queen’s Park, Toronto. She was subsequently involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Not wanting to be seen stealing the spotlight, she has recently scaled back on her political activism but remains one of the most engaged young actors in North America.
In 2003, she was part of newly-elected Toronto mayor David Miller‘s transition advisory team.