NEW YORK — Even more than most children, Sarah Polley grew up in a world of make-believe. Her parents were Toronto-based actors, and two of her four older siblings — she was something of a postscript, arriving in 1979, eight years after the next youngest — gravitated toward the profession as well.
Although she now questions whether her earliest auditions, at age 4, were fully self-motivated (“Who knows where that line was, between my interest and theirs?”), she took to the milieu as if born to it. Plucked from a world of backyard pretending, she booked her first film, “One Magic Christmas,” at age 6. Over the next decade, she would, in addition to film work, star in 67 episodes of the hugely popular Canadian TV series “Avonlea,” based on the works of Lucy Maud (“Anne of Green Gables”) Montgomery.
Today, as the 34-year-old mother of an infant daughter and a filmmaker-auteur with three impressive feature credits under her belt (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz,” and now the documentary “Stories We Tell,” opening in Boston on Friday), she is adamantly opposed to allowing children to act for pay.
“I think it’s great to nurture whatever interest your kids have,” she says, nibbling from a box of movie popcorn while awaiting a Q&A session following the New York debut of “Stories” at the prestigious New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. “I don’t know why we need to rush our kids into professional environments, with all the pressures.”
In person, Polley appears as delicately boned as a bird, despite the swagger lent by a black leather jacket (silk lined). But she’s tough, having proved her mettle again and again.
Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen” (1988), with its 20-hour shoots under extreme conditions — random explosions, constant dunking in freezing water — was her first taste of a truly “out-of-control” production: The ordeal put her model child-actor persona to the test. “Being ‘good’ and behaving well and being a trouper — every kid has that in them to a certain extent. And as a child you have very little agency over what happens to you. You’d feel very uncomfortable standing up to 60 adults and saying, ‘Sorry, none of you can work anymore because I’m either scared or uncomfortable or unsafe.’ ”
Polley soldiered on, even after her mother died of cancer soon after Polley’s 11th birthday. But at 14, she declared her independence by dropping out of school, leaving the family home, and getting an apartment on her own. “I didn’t have any life skills,” she recalls, “but I survived somehow.”
Leftist politics occupied her fervid intelligence for the next several years (in 1995, she sacrificed a couple of teeth in an altercation with riot police during an anti-Conservative demonstration outside the Ontario Legislature). When she did return to the industry — starring at 18 in Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s gritty novel “The Sweet Hereafter” — it was on her own terms.
During her activist phase, in her mid-teens, Polley viewed film work as “something really frivolous and trivial.” It was only after her experience with the incisive and well-received “Sweet Hereafter” that her perspective changed: “I started to think of it as something meaningful and a potentially useful thing to do with your life.”
The first script she penned — about the travails of a 12-year-old actress starring on a TV series — failed to find funding. “I was turned down for financing for about five years straight, each time in ways more humiliating than the last. It was probably good that it wasn’t my first film anyway.”
While continuing to act in various projects (including the TV series “Slings and Arrows,” alongside her father), she hit her directorial stride with “Away From Her” (2007), the poignant tale of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted woman who gradually forgets her husband while becoming enamored with a fellow nursing-home resident. Based on a short story by Canadian treasure Alice Munro, it garnered two Oscar nominations: best adaptation for Polley and best leading actress for Julie Christie. Polley’s next full-length film — “Take This Waltz” (2011), starring Michelle Williams as a restless Toronto wife attracted by a free-spirited neighbor — echoed the themes of “Away From Her,” transposed down a generation.
Between two narrative films, Polley began toying with an idea for a documentary about her own family. “Stories We Tell,” which debuted at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, was five years in the making — not for lack of funding or due to production delays, but because Polley was dealing with material extremely close to home and potentially explosive. She wasn’t sure how to approach it, and Canada’s National Film Board gave her the leeway to experiment.
In 2006, she’d been apprised of a family secret that had been percolating for years. Ever since she was a teenager, Polley’s siblings had teased her about being an outlier — “Like, ‘Are you sure your dad’s your real dad?’ It always seemed to be in the form of a joke — my family has always had a really irreverent, dark sense of humor — but there was a moment at which I started to take it a little bit more seriously.”
Her entire life history, it turned out, had been an exercise in make-believe in more ways than one.
After pursuing various leads (grilling friends of her mother’s), she managed to track down the truth — but she was determined to keep it from her father, just as her mother had kept it from her. Then, in 2008, the threat of a journalistic exposé left her no options: She wanted to be the one to break the news to her father.
As for the filmmaking aspect, “The story itself didn’t interest me that much,” she insists, “because I think there’s something typical about it.” What sparked her, creatively, was the “elegance and generosity” with which the man she still calls her “real dad” responded to the revelation.
It’s true: Amid the mosaic of memories that Polley’s family members — including her biological progenitor — create out of their often conflicting recollections of a woman who was full of life if not always consistent (or faithful), Michael Polley emerges as the ultimate gentleman, willing to accept culpability for failing his wife in certain ways. Loquacious, reflective, he’s a model of gracious acceptance.
“I don’t think there’s anything typical about his response — which he doesn’t agree with,” Polley says. “When we’ve been at Q&As for the film, he always says, ‘I think you’d be surprised how many people would respond this way. People are a lot more grounded and decent than you imagine.’ ”
As carefully constructed as Polley’s take is, it leaves the impression that the story is far from told — but may serve as a bulwark, perhaps, against existential chaos.
“One of my main interests in making the film,” Polley says, “is this really essential human need to be able to create narrative out of the mess of our lives, and how at sea we are if we can’t do that.”
She favors a quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace,” about a notorious 1843 murderess: ”When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion: a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood . . .”
That’s an environment with which the young Polley was all too familiar, and now she’ll be coming to terms with it — taking “ownership,” as she might put it. Having secured the rights to “Alias Grace” after a 15-year campaign, she’s crafting a script during her daughter’s naps and looking forward to creating her first period film.
“It’s kind of funny, finally, to be the person making the film as opposed to being the little kid in the bonnet sitting around,” Polley says. “Making something very dark!,” she gloats. “It’ll be” — her favorite word is at the ready — “interesting.”
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymac