Sarah Gadon snagged her first plum role last year as the wife of Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s slow-burning psychodrama, A Dangerous Method, and this year, she’s honing her craft with not one, but two members of the Cronenberg clan. In her turn as poet-heiress Elise Shifrin in David Cronenberg’s new thriller, Cosmopolis, she stars as the wife of Robert Pattinson’s Eric Packer, a billionaire playboy who hosts a string of oddball characters in his souped-up limo over the course of a 24-hour trek through Manhattan. “I love the notion that there is something quite secretive about Elise,” says Gadon. The Toronto native researched early 20th-century New York City socialites to tap into her character’s eccentric side. “They had these really bizarre stories and hilarious names like Bunny and Daphne. I was drawn to the fact that they were extremely wealthy but became very reclusive later in life, so I gave Elise a Connecticut boarding-school drawl and thought she might have been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath.” Next up, Gadon will appear in the sci-fi flick Antiviral, the directorial debut of Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, playing a Hollywood starlet who dies of a mysterious disease.
When did you first realize you wanted to act?
When I stepped onstage for the first time professionally in The Nutcracker. I was ten. I was at the National Ballet School of Canada, and as soon as I did that show I realized acting was the most thrilling and satisfying profession for me.
What drew you to your role in David Cronenberg’s new film, Cosmopolis?
David, for sure. I had finished working on A Dangerous Method (2011) last January in Toronto, and I was in what I call “Cronenberg withdrawal.” I could feel this terror that I might never have that wonderful artistic working experience again. So I phoned my agent and asked what else David was working on, and they sent me Cosmopolis. It sounded a little weird, but I read it and thought it was very interesting. A few months later, David called me and offered me the part of Elise Shifrin. I was so thrilled because I didn’t really expect him to do that. Then it was just game on.
What was so fascinating about Elise?
The characters in the film are extremely alienated from their environment, and what was interesting about the dynamic between Eric [played by Robert Pattinson] and Elise was that, as leading men often do, he kept trying to project onto her what she should be feeling, what she should be doing. But faced with all his sexual advances, she was able to remain cool and calm and deflect the emotions or actions he wanted her to have. I thought that was really interesting because so often young women aren’t given the opportunity to play characters who are so reserved. I sensed something very quiet and understated about Elise, and I thought that it was almost refreshing. After a slew of auditions for horror films or romantic comedies, it seemed so different to be playing a character like that.
What sort of research did you do to prepare for the role?
I love the notion that there is something quite secretive about Elise. I was looking up New York socialites from the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. They had these really bizarre stories and hilarious names like Bunny and Daphne. I was drawn to the fact that they were extremely wealthy but became very reclusive later in life, so I gave Elise a Connecticut boarding-school drawl and thought she might have been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath. She’d be approaching everything she was saying as if she were sort of pontificating, speaking in prose and not dialogue.
It does seem like you saw it as a layered, very three-dimensional role. What was the most challenging part of playing it?
What was difficult about it was the lack of movement. All of our scenes take place sitting down, and that was kind of challenging: doing a whole day’s work sitting and intensely staring at somebody. I had never experienced anything like it before, but it works for the characters because they’re so rigid anyway.
You’re also starring in the upcoming film Antiviral, directed by David Cronenberg’s son Brandon. Tell me about your character in it, Hannah Geist.
I thought a film about people who are obsessed with celebrity to the point where they want to ingest their viruses just seemed kind of freaky and awesome. But when I read Brandon’s script I really didn’t see myself as Hannah Geist because I pictured her as this kind of iconic, completely inaccessible person. Then, when I went to meet with Brandon to talk about the film, he started to explain that she has this vulnerability and humanity behind the icon status—and that he wanted to be very collaborative and was willing to create Hannah Geist with me so that I wouldn’t feel objectified. That was important to me as a young woman.
Playing this role was almost meta for you because your star, too, is on the rise. Did the story make you think about your possible future as a big celebrity?
I don’t think so. I really just see myself as an actor. I don’t think of that side. I think it’s really easy to live in Toronto and lead a normal life. I view myself as a struggling artist. I still feel like, “Where is my next job coming from? Where’s the next piece of art I want to make?” I don’t know if that would ever go away. Maybe if you’re Brad Pitt it goes away.
So you worked with David Cronenberg twice, and now Brandon Cronenberg. Why are the Cronenbergs so obsessed with Sarah Gadon?
I don’t think I can answer that. Maybe they should! From my perspective, I really love working with David because I see him as a true artist and an intellectual. He makes films and writes films completely autonomously, which is so rare in the filmmaking industry right now. I really respect that and connect with that and admire that. And I think Brandon is following in his footsteps in terms of that kind of filmmaking process. Their work is always changing, and the trajectory of their careers might change, but there’s something special about that first film—that innocence and idealism—that I really enjoyed while working with Brandon.
You’re still taking college courses. What are you studying now?
Yeah, I’m still a part-time student. I’m getting into a screenwriting course. I took “Feminist Approaches to Cinema” and watched a lot of great films. I saw Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), which was incredible. It focuses on female sexuality and loss of virginity, and the ending is just so crazy. Another one was The Holy Girl (2004) by Lucrecia Martel. It’s an Argentinian film—an amazing, amazing film. We studied all these incredible female directors who get marginalized in the history books. We explored a lot of theory about the actual nature of the filmmaking process and how it’s not conducive to the artistic process.
Have you been able to apply any of these theories to any of your roles?
Yeah, definitely. When I met with Brandon for Antiviral we had a really long discussion about how I was concerned that the film was glorifying the objectification of women in cinema, that they become these objects of voyeurism. I was concerned that being a character like Hannah Geist would be promoting such a relationship, and Brandon spent a lot of time convincing me that the film was a critique of that relationship. When I started to view it as a critique, it became a lot more interesting as a film.
You seem interested in these complex, very serious roles. Would you ever do a comedy?
Yeah, definitely. When I got back from Cannes I sat down with my team and I said to them that I think I want to make a film now that a lot of people are going to watch and enjoy. I think a lot of the reason why David is so brilliant is because he makes films that challenge you and doesn’t ask the spectator to be a passive audience member. But I would like to make a film that people can go to the cinema to see and that will purely entertain them. I do believe that film can function that way as well.
Is there an actor or director you really love and admire?
I really love Tilda Swinton. I think that she is totally unrecognizable in every film that she does, which I think is kind of genius. As for directors, I love Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Sarah Polley, Sofia Coppola, Woody Allen… The list just never ends.
In light of Bullett’s Romance Issue, I have to ask: What do you think is the greatest love story ever told?
The films that make me think most about love in terms of real love are Bicycle Thieves (1948). It’s really about that father-son dynamic. In terms of unrequited love, my favorite would be Senso (1954). It’s about a woman who is searching for more in her life, for a man and a romantic relationship to fulfill her, and she gets played by this young soldier who uses her for his own benefit. It’s such a great movie.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest turnoff?
Probably someone who is narcissistic.
The opposite of that. I want a true gentleman, someone who is going to open the door for me. Someone who will ask me out on a proper date.
How would you define love?
My definition of love is a work in progress. Love is… I don’t know, what’s that corny line? ‘Your heart finds its counterpart in another person’? I think love is just instinctual. Nothing can necessarily describe it.
Are you in love now?
You’re going to make me so sad. No, I’m not… but now I’m going to go eat a big bowl of ice cream!