Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan sits down with Sheila McCarthy of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking to talk about the hopefulness of the film, audience reactions, and the significance of Ruth and Cheryl.
During preproduction for Women Talking, Sarah Polley told Sheila McCarthy something every actor wants to hear.
“Sarah said, ‘I feel like maybe you’re too young for the part,'” says McCarthy. “I said, ‘Believe me, with no makeup and my hair greased back, there will be no trouble with the age. I’ll tone down my temperature and enthusiasm.'”
Tone she did, earning her spot in one of the most coveted casts of the year. Women Talking follows a group of women in a religious community as they grapple with sexual abuse and questions of faith.
“There were a lot of puzzle pieces, and I think every actor in the world wanted to be in this movie. She wanted the right people in the hayloft. So I guess she thought I was okay for the hayloft!”
Through her decades of TV and film projects, McCarthy has worked with everyone from Eugene Levy to Liza Minnelli to even Sarah Polley, playing her mother in Road to Avonlea (“I could write a book about all the people that I worked with”). With Women Talking, McCarthy got to go back to her theater roots.
“We shot 11-page scenes as though it was theater. All of the voiceovers, we shot in closeups. In terms of the content, it was some heavy-duty stuff. We all had our moments, where we cared for each other in those moments, but we also had such great joy in making the movie. We’re very aware of the young girls in the film and taking care of them, giving everybody space and respect in and around their big days when they had to really go down the rabbit hole. We had a lot of fun doing it, too. We were in one big dressing room the whole time, so we were together a lot. You don’t get that in films very much. It really was like a long run of theater.”
In order to go down the rabbit hole, there was a grief counselor on set, which McCarthy says helped in serving Polley’s script as well as the story.
“When we were shooting the movie, we were all so in a bubble, so intent on making the movie, and there are certain scenes that I watch where I don’t remember shooting them. That was how far down the rabbit hole we went. We all were making the movie and trying to do the best job we could.”
COVID also played a role in setting the tone, including masked rehearsals.
“Never did see Sarah Polley’s face. That kind of repression of COVID fed us a little bit. After shooting 12 or 13 hours a day, I would drive home and eat really bad junk food and watch bad TV. My brain was tired.”
And yet McCarthy’s Greta provides a lot of the levity in the film, especially with the frequent callbacks to her horses, Ruth and Cheryl.
“They are a big part of her life, her daily practical life of probably having 12 or 13 children and then those children having children. She drives those horses like we drive cars. It’s a part of her life and her work, and she can see the parallels between what she is very convinced these women must do in making this decision to stay and fight, stay and do nothing, or leave. So the metaphors she comes up with through her daily encounters with the horses are the perfect conversations for her to be having. Even though these women are illiterate in terms of reading and writing, they’re literate in so many other ways of life that must never be undermined.”
One of the things that frequently comes up when discussing this film is the question of how these women who can’t read or write are able to speak so eloquently. McCarthy says they discussed this a lot in rehearsals.
“That is part of the fable. That comes from Miriam Toews’ book, which was so literate, and then transferred to Sarah’s screenplay and to us saying the words. That was a big discussion we had. It’s a fairytale filled with these women making a choice they would have never made. The black and white of those questions—the movie’s in the gray area.”
McCarthy says having lived among Mennonite communities for many years and witnessing the power and strictness of the patriarchal system, she believes the women in the film have never had these conversations before. They’ve also never had a say in anything before.
“I find voting an extremely moving thing, and it almost makes me cry. I was thinking about our movie, for these women to vote for the very first time with that little black ‘X’ on whether they maybe live or die, that’s huge.”
When Women Talking premiered at Telluride earlier this year, McCarthy was not prepared for the reaction to the film, with men and women coming up to her and throwing their arms around her and crying.
“I’ve sat in the screenings of it now, and there’s kind of a stunned silence when the credits are rolling. I always knew it was an important film, but I had no idea it was going to touch so deeply and provoke discussion on so many different levels. I’ve heard husbands and wives arguing in the street about our movie!”
She believes the hopefulness of the ending is what moves people the most.
“Because acts of kindness are what always provoke a sadness sometimes and when you see those in the movie and you see what these women have been capable of doing, regardless of where they go or don’t go, they’ve made a change. I think what Sarah has created is something that will resonate for a long time.”
Women Talking arrives in theaters December 2.