Sheila McCarthy on Sarah Polley’s ‘Women Talking’: ‘I Was so Fangirl With the Cast at First’

Coming out of the darkest days of the pandemic, Sheila McCarthy thought she might be done with acting in television and movies. “I do a lot of teaching and directing in theater,” says the award-winning Canadian acto, “and maybe I’d gotten a little bit lazy about learning lines.”

Then she had a conversation with Sarah Polley, whom McCarthy had acted with occasionally, even playing her mom in a film three decades earlier. Polley was considering McCarthy for her new film, “Women Talking,” a powerful meditation on what happens when women who have been kept isolated and been abused find their collective voice and take action. (It’s adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel about men in an ultra-religious Mennonite community who repeatedly drugged and raped women, and the women’s debate and arguments over whether to leave or stay in the community.)

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“I’ve admired Sheila since I was a child,” Polley says via email. “She has always had a screen presence unlike anyone else. A fairy, a clown, a sage.”

McCarthy, who is 66, says Polley was concerned that she looked too young for the role of Greta, a kindly, gentle but determined, elder in the community of women. “I said, ‘Take off the pounds of mascara I wear every day and then slick my hair back and put me in a bonnet and those dresses and we’ll be fine,’” McCarthy says with a laugh. When Polley said it was more about her youthful energy, McCarthy said she could tamp that down too.

“Greta is steadfast from the beginning but she listens to the arguments and bides her time,” McCarthy says, adding that she studied the novel and a documentary that helped inspire it for detail and understanding of her character’s backstory.

“I knew I could find that stillness,” she says. “Greta’s magic is like that of a good grade school teacher. She speaks quietly and gently and you lean in. My battle was trying to find little tidbits of humor and the right balance letting it bubble up and not too much.”

In the end, she found the ideal balance that Polley wanted. “Sheila managed to combine a lightness of touch, humor and gentleness with a deep, rooted wisdom,” she notes, praising her performance as “detailed and nuanced.”

It took a few beats for McCarthy to find her footing after she joined a starry cast that included Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw and Frances McDormand. “I was so fangirl with the cast at first and that was daunting to get over,” McCarthy says.

What helped was the two-week rehearsal process, but also that Polley and McDormand, who was also a producer, fostered a sense of camaraderie among the women during filming by keeping them together in one large room. “We were together for 12 hours a day,” she says, “We laughed a lot. It was hard to get us women to stop talking so we could do ‘Women Talking.’”

The communal experience and the way Polley shot the cast’s scenes all together ultimately made McCarthy feel like she was back in her comfort zone, the theater. “Cut to, ‘In Peoria, this cast is now the bus-and-truck company doing a one-act play version of ‘Women Talking’ set entirely in the hayloft,’” she jokes about a fantasy she briefly indulged in.

Even with the camaraderie, McCarthy found the shoot challenging, with its long takes and emotional explorations of women’s rights and obligations, and their need to assert themselves while making sure everyone is heard and cared for. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on and the most rewarding,” she says.

She has loved hearing from women after they see the film. “Women who never talked are finally telling their stories and talking to each other, and once you share something it’s so much easier to cope with the bad stuff in your life,” she says. “Out of that, comes hope.”

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