Sarah Gadon booked the lead in A Royal Night Out–she plays a young Princess Elizabeth on V-E Day–over Skype. Then, the Toronto-based actress flew out to meet the director, Julian Jarrold, in London. “I had a big Goose parka on, and I bounced into a members-only club in Soho, and I was showing my emotions openly, and I was blonde”–none of which seemed very queenly. In Gadon’s recollection, the blood drained from his Jarrold’s face, and he said, “Oh my God. You’re so Canadian.”
“You’re so Canadian” might sum up Gadon’s career. Though she has felt the siren call of Los Angeles several times, she’s chosen to maintain her home in Toronto. And it was when she caught the eye of a Toronto-based filmmaker–David Cronenberg, who cast her alongside Michael Fassbender in 2011’s A Dangerous Method–that her career began to take on a meteoric bent. Further collaborations came not only with Cronenberg, but his son and daughter as well. Soon Hollywood came knocking (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dracula Untold), then the fashion world (she’s the new face of Giorgio Armani Beauty).
In the end, Jarrold needn’t have been worried about Gadon’s evident Canadianness. She studied with a dialect coach and delivers a convincing Princess Elizabeth in the whimsical Royal Night Out, which represents a (mostly imagined) romp among her reveling royal subjects. The film hits theaters in select cities today.
Fast Company caught up with Gadon to learn more.
Fast Company: You live in Toronto.
Sarah Gadon: When I graduated high school, I said to my parents, “I’m gonna go to L.A. to be an actor!” They said, “No, you’re not.” So I went to school instead, studying theater and cinema studies in Toronto, and I’m so happy I did. Then I met David [Cronenberg] and started working with him.
How did that change your career?
Before I met him, I felt as though I’d hit a ceiling. I’d done so much stuff in film and TV in Toronto, and people were saying, “You need to move to L.A.,” but at that point I didn’t want to leave Toronto. I was traveling all the time, dipping in and out of characters’ heads, and the industry is so fickle. I felt most grounded in a place where I had a history. Then David and I started working together, and I met all these people, from J.J. Abrams to Michael Haneke, who were all influenced by David’s work. I realized at that point, what can make you a great artist is protecting yourself. I felt like I could do that better from Toronto.
What recharges you?
Watching films. I love film so much. Toronto is a real film-going city. I like to go down to the Lightbox, which is the TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] building. I recently got a projector, so I’ve been buying up Blu-rays.
You’ve cited the French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda as a favorite.
I was 18 when I first saw Cleo from 5 to 7. I had never really seen a film before about true female subjectivity, and it blew my mind. Recently, I rewatched it after 10 years, and I had such a different reaction to it. I love that about a good film.
The film is about a French pop star waiting for biopsy results. How was your reaction different after all these years?
When I was 18, I was swept away by Cleo. But when I watched it now, I thought, “She’s so vapid. How could I have been seduced by her?” Now that I have more experience, and I’ve been exposed to that whole world of commercial beauty, I was very put off by her.
You’re a movie star, and you also play celebrities in several of your films–including A Royal Night Out. What attracts you to these roles?
There’s something interesting about these women who achieve icon status, how we’re constantly consuming their images. When I’m given the opportunity to deconstruct that image and show a side of them that people don’t see, I’m drawn to that. We embalm these women in their images. That’s what’s so interesting about Cleo. Through the movie, this is a woman most comfortable being looked at. Then she has her diagnosis, and the film shifts and goes into her perspective. It reverses the gaze.
The idea of a “male gaze” objectifying a woman is central to film theory. Do you talk about this stuff with your directors?
When I did Antiviral with Brandon [Cronenberg, David’s son], we talked extensively about it: to what extent was he fetishizing this character, how, why . . . [The movie imagines a dystopian future where fans of certain celebrities pay to be infected by the diseases that afflict them.] The whole film is about consuming somebody, so for sure, she’s fetishized, but I wanted to know how self-reflective the film was about that. I was just challenging him, to see what his perspective was. I’m happy to offer up my image for consumption. That’s what I do. But it’s how it’s done, and in what context.
Did your ideas about all this give you any second thoughts about taking your modeling contract with Giorgio Armani Beauty?
Not really. Coming from a dance and theater background, I was exposed to makeup at a very young age. It’s part of the creative process, part of creating a character. And with Armani, all their images are really about a dramatic statement. I never felt like any of his campaigns were submissive. It definitely aligns with who I am.
A Royal Night Out is somewhat lighter fare, when juxtaposed with a Cronenberg film.
I came out of film school very dogmatic about my approach. I thought, “I want films from outside the hype factory. I don’t care what’s popular. I want to make films that stand the test of time. I’d rather take a small film from this amazing filmmaker than be in a rom-com.” But then we went to Cannes with [David Cronenberg’s] Cosmopolis, and my mom said, “Just make a film so that we can go to the theaters and enjoy ourselves.”
Best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Juliette Binoche said to me at Cannes, “Make art.” That was pretty to the point. And a really good friend’s grandfather always said, “Know when to leave.”
When was the last time you applied that?
(Laughs.) Last night.
This interview has been condensed and edited.