Sarah Polley has played a working-class mother with inoperable cancer. She has played an abandoned daughter in a dusty frontier town. A crash survivor who is having an incestuous affair with her father. An amateur Ecstasy dealer. In fact, Sarah Polley has played pretty much every dark, miserable, grim, sad, tragic role that the indie world has to offer. But as it turns out, what she wanted to do all along was tan some serious zombie hide.
''I've never been in a movie where people are squealing over what a good time they're having. I mean, The Sweet Hereafter doesn't exactly leave the audience begging for more,'' she says over a mango-strawberry smoothie at a Toronto coffee shop. ''And it's zombies! Zombies are fun!''
Yes, this is Sarah Polley talking. And no, she's not kidding. One of the most thoughtful, highly respected young actresses in North America is slyly enjoying the success of Dawn of the Dead -- Universal's remake of the George A. Romero cult hit, which opened at a robust $27 million to take over first place from The Passion of the Christ. Covered in blood and brains, Polley gleefully anchors the movie as a steely nurse trapped in a shopping mall with a handful of other survivors. She fights off her zombie husband. She squishes the undead with an armored bus. She even shoves a spike through the eyeball of an attacking, bloodthirsty ghoul. It's a hell of a lotta fun, but it raises the question: What's a nice girl like her doing in a neighborhood like this?
Born and raised in the northern suburbs of Toronto, Polley began acting at the age of 5. She did a lot of TV, winning a Gemini award (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy) in 1991 for her role in the series Lantern Hill (which aired here on PBS), and got her first major film with Terry Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen at age 9. But it was 1997's Sweet Hereafter -- her second collaboration with Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan, in which she played the lone survivor of a horrific school bus crash -- that an image began to emerge. Oh, no doubt, Polley was brilliant: the kind of blond, almond-eyed beauty with whom one could imagine meandering around bookstores. But stories started surfacing about how she'd gotten her teeth knocked out by riot police in a demonstration alongside welfare mothers at age 16. How she'd left home that same year. How she was unyielding in her leftist politics. In other words, the kinds of things that get you labeled prickly and judgmental.
''It's weird. All of that stuff that got written about me was really an indication of who I was at 16,'' says the actress, now 25. ''I was militant. I did take myself too seriously. But that's the problem with deciding not to create an image for yourself: People create one for you. And for the last nine years I've been different, but this humorless, angry person kept coming across in the media.''
Never mind that she was only a teenager at the time -- the image stuck. And when Polley turned down the role of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous -- the part that would make Kate Hudson a star -- the feeling that she wasn't meant for the mainstream grew stronger. She worked in tiny movies. Directed a couple of shorts. Started planning her wedding to new husband David Wharnsby, a film editor. And then last spring came the call from her agent that started with three words: ''Okay, don't laugh...''