Skip to main content

'Frontline' Correspondent Martin Smith

He produced the new documentary Truth, War and Consequences (on most PBS stations Thursday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m.) It's about the infighting between the Pentagon, State Department and White House, before the Iraq war, over the intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction.


Other segments from the episode on October 9, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 9, 2003: Interview with Martin Smith; Interview with Sarah Polley.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Martin Smith discusses his "Frontline" documentary
entitled "Truth, War and Consequences"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Truth, War and Consequences" is the title of the report on the season
premiere of the PBS investigative series "Frontline." It's about the
infighting among the Pentagon, State Department and White House over the
intelligence that was used to make the case for war in Iraq and the planning
that was done to create an orderly postwar transition.

My guest, Martin Smith, is the reporter and co-producer of this edition.
He's made several "Frontline" documentaries that have focused on terrorism,
including "The Terrorist and the Superpower," "In Search of al-Qaeda" and
"Hunting bin Laden." His "Frontline" documentary "Truth, War and
Consequences" airs tonight on most PBS stations.

One of the people you interviewed for the show is Ahmed Chalabi, who was a
major source for the Pentagon in its pre- and postwar planning. Just tell us
briefly who Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, which he was part
of, who they are.

Mr. MARTIN SMITH ("Frontline" Correspondent): The Iraqi National Congress
was founded in 1992 in the wake of the first Gulf War; founded by Dr. Ahmed
Chalabi, who comes from a banking background. And he has probably done more
to bring about the fall of Saddam Hussein than any other person besides George
Bush. Civilians in the Pentagon have been enthralled with him. He's, at the
same time, a very divisive figure, a controversial figure who many in the
State Department and the CIA revile. That's not too strong a word, given the
kind of controversy that he stirs up in Washington.

GROSS: What kind of information did he give the Pentagon that the Pentagon
used to make its case for invading Iraq?

Mr. SMITH: He provided defectors. He actually received money from the US
government, and he used that money to attract and pay defectors. Now he has
said that he has only provided three defectors. But if you talk to people in
the intelligence community, it's much more than that. And his organization,
if it wasn't Ahmed Chalabi himself providing the defector, has also provided
information and defectors.

So Richard Perle, the Defense Department adviser, told The New York Times
that Ahmed Chalabi was, I think the quote is, "without question, the single
best source of intelligence the US government had on Iraq."

GROSS: What was Chalabi telling the Pentagon about weapons of mass

Mr. SMITH: Well, he was making a case all along that Saddam Hussein had
current and active programs. And the problem here is that Iraq was a black
box. It wasn't well-penetrated by our intelligence services, so we relied on
defectors. And people in the intelligence agencies will tell you that
defectors are a risky bet because they have other motivations. And these
guys were getting money. They also knew their bread was buttered by the INC.
The INC had a political interest in seeing Saddam fall. And so the defectors
knew that if they brought information that the INC wanted to hear, it would
be well received.

GROSS: If the Pentagon trusted Ahmed Chalabi and the INC as a source, how
come the State Department did not?

Mr. SMITH: The State Department was dubious about the idea of backing any
single Iraqi exile. The idea that the State Department had was that we
should move into Iraq and allow Iraqi exiles to come back home and to let
Iraqis in the country organize themselves politically and not come in with a
preordained--you know, backing an Iraqi exile group from the get-go.

So it wasn't so much that they all distrusted Chalabi, although there were
those that did. They'd had some bad experiences in the middle of the '90s in
which they had backed Chalabi. He'd received CIA contacts and money. And he
was running some operations in Iraq to try to get an uprising going. And he
provided intelligence to the CIA and the State Department that was deemed
shoddy. The depth and breadth of his support was deemed not what he was
claiming it to be. And that soured many people in the State Department on
what this guy represented.

GROSS: Another source of disagreement between different branches of the Bush
administration was the weapons of mass destruction. Was there definitive
evidence of weapons of mass destruction? Where did the Pentagon stand on

Mr. SMITH: Well, the civilians in the Pentagon believed that there was
enough evidence. They had felt that the CIA, the DIA were biased, that they
didn't evaluate the intelligence of weapons of mass destruction or the
evidence of links with al-Qaeda, you know, between al-Qaeda and Saddam fairly.
They thought that the CIA had biases against believing that al-Qaeda and
Saddam could work together. So they formed their own small intelligence unit
in order to essentially second-guess the intelligence that was coming out of
the CIA and the other agencies.

GROSS: And what did they find with this special intelligence office?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the special intelligence office is a bit of a secret. We
don't know exactly what they found. We do have some information that they
were looking over the intelligence that existed and re-evaluating it and
sending it back up, you know, to policy-makers. Much of it was apparently
intelligence that had been ignored or discredited, and they pulled this back
out of the file and said, `Hey, wait a minute. Look at this.'

One example of that was reports of meetings between the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed
Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. This got into comments that
the vice president would make on "Meet the Press." This was information that
had been discredited by the FBI. They determined that Atta could not have
been in Prague when those supposed meetings took place. But yet this would
live on and this would continue to be repeated by the vice president. This
was the kind of thing that the special intelligence office would take a look
at and say, `Wait a minute. We think this could've happened, we think this is
good evidence.' And so they would ship it on.

GROSS: Now you interviewed Ahmed Chalabi for your report, "Truth, War and
Consequences." And you asked him about his claim that he had evidence that
there were links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. What did he tell you?

Mr. SMITH: It was an interesting exchange that I had with Ahmed Chalabi.
I'd met him in '98, because, at that time, after the African Embassy bombings,
I was investigating al-Qaeda at that time, and I met with Ahmed Chalabi
because he was making claims about al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein then. And I
asked him again about that in the program, and he said, indeed, he had lots of
evidence that there were links. And I said, `Do you have any documentary
evidence of any kind?' He says, `Yeah, there's such a document.' And I said,
`Well, I'd like to see that. That's important.' I mean, in fact, that's the
reason we went to war, one of the explanations for why we needed to go after
Saddam Hussein. And he then sort of twisted and did promise finally to show
me the document but then never was able to do so. He's now said that he can't
find it. It's a kind of dog-ate-my-homework excuse, which I can't quite buy.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Martin Smith. And his report
"Truth, War and Consequences" will be broadcast tonight on most PBS stations
as part of the "Frontline" series.

Another subject that you investigate in "Truth, War and Consequences" is the
planning that went on within the Bush administration for what would happen in
Iraq after the invasion. The State Department had created something called
the Future of Iraq Project, and this was created before the invasion of Iraq.
What was the goal of this project?

Mr. SMITH: The Future of Iraq Project, the idea behind it, was to draw on
the Iraqi exile community, engage Iraqis in thinking hard about the problems
that a postwar Iraq was going to face. This ranged from, you know, how to
keep law and order on the streets to how to keep the water and electricity
flowing after the war, I mean, all of these very important questions that we
failed really to address in the immediate postwar period and still struggling
to address them. So they engaged about 200 to 300 Iraqis in about 15
different working groups all looking at various aspects of postwar Iraq.

GROSS: And what did they recommend?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the problem with the Future of Iraq Project is that there
was no head to this thing. I mean, it was a lot of seminars, a lot of talk,
but there was no single synthesis of this material because, essentially, the
project got cut short. It got cut off before it could come to any kind of
synthesis. So it's hard to say that there were any--in fact, many of the
reports--and there were pages and pages of reports--were in Arabic and never
got translated in such a way that an American official in Iraq could even
read them.

GROSS: My guest is Martin Smith. His documentary "Truth, War and
Consequences" airs tonight on most PBS stations on the investigative series
"Frontline." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're (technical difficulties) Martin Smith. And his report
"Truth, War and Consequences" will be broadcast tonight on the PBS series

You also interviewed members of the military. And some of them shared with
you their frustrations that they were unequipped to help prevent looting and
to keep order.

Mr. SMITH: Well, they were unequipped to keep order. They hadn't had that
kind of training. They aren't policemen. On the other hand, I talked to
General Conway, who heads up the Marines there, and he said that they
basically stood by for several days and watched the looting with a kind of
passive attitude because they weren't told to do otherwise. This goes back to
the rosy scenario. We had an understanding--I mean, if you remember,
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld talked about stuff happens, when you give people
freedom, they're going to run wild a bit, and there was kind of an, you know,
attitude that this wasn't such a big problem.

The problem was that our concept of looting and their concept of looting were
worlds apart. And the kind of looting that took place was so crushing to the
infrastructure of the country that it set us, you know, far, far back.

GROSS: So did members of the military who you interviewed tell you that they
wished they had been given orders to stop the looting once it started?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, I found it almost exasperating talking to General Conway
when I asked him about that and he said that they had pretty much watched it
with the attitude that it was something like, you know, sort of a
much-deserved redistribution of wealth. And I said, `Well, but as you
realized it was going further than that and it was crushing the
infrastructure.' I said, `Did you get on the phone and call anybody and say,
you know, "Maybe we ought to stop this?"' And he says, `No.' Basically, he
waited for orders and the orders didn't come. `We sat by and we allowed this
to go on.'

GROSS: In your "Frontline" story, several people you interview make the
point how unprepared the United States was for the looting, but one person you
interviewed talks about how he tried to convince the Bush administration to
prepare for this 'cause he'd seen it in other countries. What did he tell

Mr. SMITH: This is Robert Perito, who works for the US Institute for Peace,
which is a government-sponsored think tank in Washington. He was invited by
Richard Perle to come make a presentation. Perle had seen one of his
monographs, his papers, and Perito was an expert on postwar situations. So he
came to the Defense Policy Board in February, 2003, just a month before the
war really began, and said, based on his experience in studying postwar
situations in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Haiti, Panama--in all of these
situations what was paramount was to have a police force on the ground
operating immediately after the fall of the existing government to prevent
looting and disorder and rampant crime.

And his presentation was to take 30 minutes. The Defense Policy Board, which
meets just off the, you know, conference room right next to Secretary
Rumsfeld's office, had him there for 90 minutes. They were very interested in
what he had to say. He was told that he was likely to come back. I couldn't
talk to Richard Perle about this, because Perle says that the discussions that
take place at the policy board are off the table, off the record. But, in any
case, Perito did speak about it, he did make his presentation, but when he
talked to the reconstruction team, they told him, well, they didn't really
know what was going to go on after the war so they were going to wait and see
and then make recommendations later. Well, that proved fatal.

GROSS: Another controversy that you look into in your "Frontline" report is
the issue of whether people who had been in the Baathist Party, Saddam
Hussein's party, should be allowed to participate in the reconstruction of
Iraq. In the first phase of the reconstruction, under General Garner, they
were allowed to participate. Then when Paul Bremer took over the
reconstruction, he started a de-Baathification program. What was his
explanation for wanting, you know, to get Baathists out of the reconstruction

Mr. SMITH: De-Baathification, again, was a key platform plank of the Iraqi
National Congress. The basic assumption was that the Baathists had done so
much harm to the country that there was no way that anybody who was in the,
you know, top 40,000 Baathists technocrats, bureaucrats that had anything to
do with Saddam's government simply couldn't stay. They had to go. This was a
controversial proposal because there were other Iraqis who said, you know, `We
need a smooth transition. Many of these people were Baathists out of need,
not because of belief, not because they were committed to Saddam but simply
because they were people who had chosen to get by.' So they said, `And, look,
we've got to keep some of these people in place.' And Garner was going about
with that approach.

And when Garner was let go and Bremer came in, Bremer basically removed some
30,000 to 40,000 people from ever working again in any government position.
And these people then had nothing to do. Some people will say that these
people then become a major problem for the occupation in that they support the
so-called resistance.

GROSS: We've talked about the importance of Ahmed Chalabi's role in making
the case to go to war and how controversial he was, you know, how the
Pentagon supported him and the State Department distrusted him. What is the
role of Ahmed Chalabi now in the new Iraq?

Mr. SMITH: Well, Ahmed Chalabi is one of the members of the Iraqi Governing
Council that was appointed by the coalition, by the administrator, Paul
Bremer. So he's one of the 25--it's now 24 because of the successful
assassination of one of the members. So he's one of 24. He no longer enjoys
the kind of backing that he would've hoped. Bremer realizes that it's going
to be a long and slow process of building a democracy.

On the other hand, there still is pressure coming out of the vice president's
office and some in the civilians of the Pentagon who would like to see a
quicker turnover of power. Ambassador Bremer seems to understand, from what
I can gather from talking to him, that it's going to take time to build
institutions that will stand up a real democracy. You don't want to rush
into an election before everyone that counts has a chance to organize
politically and put forward candidates.

GROSS: You went into your "Frontline" documentary, "Truth, War and
Consequences," with a lot of questions. What are some of the questions you
come away with now that you've completed it?

Mr. SMITH: That's a good question. I think I have a lot of the same
questions. You know, I still have the questions about the intelligence. It's
not my contention that the administration was lying, as many believe. I think
they believed that--I mean, they interpreted the intelligence. Again, the
intelligence was spotty. So I still have questions about how they were able
to take such spotty evidence and turn it into the kind of, as I say, clear and
unambiguous message that they did. I have questions about why we listen so
much to the rosy scenario, you know, we will be greeted as liberators, sweets
and flowers, when there was lots of evidence on the table that this wouldn't
be the case. So those are still the big questions.

GROSS: Martin Smith, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SMITH: It's great to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: Martin Smith. His "Frontline" report "Truth, War and Consequences"
will be shown tonight on most PBS stations.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, actress Sarah Polley and her new film, "My Life Without
Me." She plays a young wife and mother who's just found out she's dying of
cancer, but she keeps it a secret from her husband and children. Polley's
other films include "Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Go."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Sarah Polley on her life and career as an actress

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Sarah Polley is a veteran actress although she's only 24. She
started acting professionally at the age of six. Her movies include
"Exotica," "The Claim," "Go" and "The Sweet Hereafter," for which she won the
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for best supporting actress.

Polley stars in the new film "My Life Without Me" with Mark Ruffalo, Deborah
Harry and Amanda Plummer. Polley plays a young wife and mother who lives in a
trailer with her husband and two daughters in the back yard of her mother's
house. She works nights as a janitor at a university. Early in the film she
learns she's dying of cancer, but she doesn't want to cast a shadow over her
family, so she keeps the news a secret from them. After making that decision,
she has her second meeting with her doctor.

(Soundbite of "My Life Without Me")

Unidentified Actor: So you didn't come last week.

Ms. SARAH POLLEY: There didn't seem to be a lot of point.

Unidentified Actor: I have to give you a further scan and a fuller biopsy.

Ms. POLLEY: OK. No, no. I'm sorry. I don't want any of those things.

Unidentified Actor: OK.

Ms. POLLY: I'm sorry. I need to feel like I've got some control, so I don't
want any more tests if they're not going to save me. OK? I don't want to be
here. I don't want to die here. I will not have the only thing my kids
remember about me be a hospital ward.

Unidentified Actor: So why are you here then?

Ms. POLLEY: It's this package. I want you to look after it for me.

Unidentified Actor: I don't know. What is it?

Ms. POLLEY: I've recorded birthday messages for both of my daughters for
every birthday till they're 18.

Unidentified Actor: And you want me to give these to them? Why don't you ask
your husband?

Ms. POLLEY: 'Cause Donald, you know, he'd lose them, or maybe he'd give them
to them next year or maybe the year after that. I don't--or maybe he'd give
them to them all at once. You know, they wouldn't understand a thing if he
did that. So can you just tell me you'll do it, please?

GROSS: Sarah Polley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. POLLEY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Well, what is it in your character's personality that you think
explains why she doesn't want to tell her husband and her children that she's

Ms. POLLEY: Well, I had it explained to me by a Japanese journalist who
says--she's a very Eastern character. I think that she does actually the
exact right thing in the context of her life. I don't know that keeping your
death or your dying a secret is the right thing for many people to do in the
context of their lives. But for her I think it really is the greatest gift
that she can give her kids and her husband, to save them the kind of trips to
the hospital and the memory of her dying. And as someone who--you know, I
lost my mother to cancer when I was very young. I really understand that
instinct to do that. It's not necessarily, again, what I would recommend
people do in this situation. But I think in the context of her life, where
she really is the most responsible, competent person in her life, she really
is giving them a gift, and she really is doing the right thing.

GROSS: Your mother died of cancer when you were 11, is that right?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: How did she tell you that she was sick?

Ms. POLLEY: Well, it's an interesting thing and probably another reason why I
was really attracted to this material. You know, I don't think she ever
really admitted or knew that she was going to die, although objectively sort
of, you know, in retrospect, it would have been very clear to anyone that it
was terminal, you know, two and a half years before she died. But she had a
doctor who was actually a really good friend of hers who was also in denial.
And no one really everadmitted she was going to die until, like, the day
before it happened. So she was someone who didn't get a chance to do all the
things she wanted to do before she died for her kids or for herself. And so
there's something sort of oddly therapeutic about playing a part where someone
dies so well and so gracefully and accepts it so fully and then has the chance
to try to do something about it.

GROSS: How long was she sick? How long?

Ms. POLLEY: Two and a half years.

GROSS: So you watched her get sicker and sicker?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You know, one of the premises of "My Life Without Me" is that the
character, when she finds out that she's dying, your character, makes a list
of all the things that she wants to do before she dies, including, you know,
finding a new wife for her husband, sending birthday messages for every year
until they reach 18 for both of her daughters. Did you ever find anything
like that that your mother had, a list of, like, things that she wanted to
accomplish before she died?

Ms. POLLEY: No, because I think, unfortunately, she never had the moment of
realizing she was going to die. And I think that's why...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. POLLEY: ...this was so interesting to me because I think she's someone
who would have made that list and would have been very practical and very
pragmatic and had the strength to do all those things. She just didn't have
the chance.

GROSS: Lots of people have fantasies about what they would do, how they would
live if they were told that they only had a few days or weeks or months. Did
you ever have fantasies like that?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. You know, it's funny, I don't know that I ever really
managed to make my list, you know. I actually found that while I was making
this film, it was important for me to not compare what I would do to what the
character would do because I inevitably came into conflict with the character.
I think she's 10 times stronger and nobler and braver than I'll ever be. So,
you know, moments where she's doing things for other people, I'm not sure
that, you know, having discovered what I would do would make it easier to play
her in some way. So I don't know. I mean, I honestly think what I would do
would make a very boring movie. It's like the least cinematic list of all
time. Like, I think it'd justinvolve sort of drinking tea on a couch and
reading the paper and, you know, hanging out with friends. So it's really not
a good movie.

GROSS: I think it's interesting what you said, that you didn't want to
examine what you would do too much because it would bring you into conflict
with her character. One technique of acting is to kind of go deep into
yourself and find those similarities between you and the character and to find
the emotional moment in your life that most resonates with that moment. And
it's interesting that you would say that that sometimes doesn't work, that
there's a big difference, and you have to go with the character and not

Ms. POLLEY: For me, I have no objection to actors sort of taking things
personally and making those personal connections. I think it can really work
for some people. For me, I find my acting's always a lot better when those
connections are subconscious. And I think, you know, what drew me to the
character and to the piece--you know, the connections are all there, and I
have a lifetime of experience that kind of, you know, helped me go there. To
make those connections consciously for me, it feels like you're somehow
exploiting your own life in a way that I'm sort of uncomfortable with. Again,
I pass no judgement on actors who do do that, but for me I always find the
best work I do comes out of really trying to see the world through someone
else's eyes and not through my own.

GROSS: Now you started acting when you were, like, five or six, so you
obviously hadn't studied the method yet or, you know, you hadn't been to,
like, drama school. So what advice were you given about what to draw on and
how to get into a character when you were just a child?

Ms. POLLEY: Well, it really varied. And, you know, there are directors who
know what they're doing with kids, and there are a lot of directors who don't
know what they're doing with kids. And, you know, ultimately, I think it's an
incredibly damaging environment for any child to be in, no matter how much
they want to or no matter how much their parents want them to be in it. You
know, the worst examples were two weeks after my mother died I was on a
series, and they wrote in a scene where I cry about my mother dying because
they knew they'd get a great performance out of me. So, you know, that's
where, you know, I probably formed my whole, you know, style of not making
those connections personally because for me, you know, that began as a very
sort of exploitative tactic from someone else. So I sort of felt like that
experience, in a way, got robbed from me by someone for a crappy TV show,
which was kind of a drag.

GROSS: That sounds horrible.

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, it was pretty bad.

GROSS: So did you weep a lot in that scene because the emotions were still

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. And I think, you know, the problem then becomes--and, you
know, I kind of have a theory about child actors. When you see a great
performance by a child actor, you know, the ones that we can think of--I've
done a lot of research into it, and, you know, nine time out of 10 when there
is something written, sort of, biographical information about that child, the
great child performances, the great crying scenes come from kids who were
either abused physically or sexually or had a parent die young. And so it
sort of calls into question, like: Are we watching a great actor in, you
know, this child actor, or are we watching somebody's grief that is being sort
of a forced catharsis that then prevents them from experiencing it in a
natural way maybe when they're older and more mature and ready to do that? So
I sort of have this ongoing debate in my head about whether or not, you know,
I should even go and see films that have kids in it when they're crying. So I
think crying scenes with kids should be avoided at all costs.

GROSS: My guest is actress Sarah Polley. She's starring in the new film "My
Life Without Me." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Sarah Polley is my guest, and she's starring in the new movie "My Life
Without Me."

Now I know your father is an actor, Michael Polley...

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and your late mother was a casting director.

Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you learn about acting from watching TV or from watching them go
to work?

Mr. POLLEY: Probably both. My mother was an actor, too, at certain points in
her life. And, you know, I think that they probably taught me that it was
something, you know, worthwhile in some sense. Like, I constantly, in my
life, feel ambiguous about whether or not this is a worthwhile thing to do
with your life. I always want to feel like I'm contributing something or
changing the world in some way, and is acting really the most direct way to do
that? And they were people who were very sort of progressive and very
socially conscious and felt like this was, in a small indirect way, a way to
contribute or change the world in some way. So, in that sense, I learned its
worth and its merit.

You know, they were stage actors and very different style of acting than I
have. I mean, my dad--you know, the kind of actor he was on stage is
something I could never do or never even aspire to do. He's sort of like the
kind of person who can own a room and light up a room. And I'm the kind of
person who's--you know, I'm very introspective, and I think I only really work
on films in that way. Like, he can go out to an audience, and I can only work
in environments where the audience comes to me. So it's a very different kind
of craft, I think.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting that you say that because, with the exception
of "Go," the roles that I've seen you in are really introspective roles. And
you often have some kind of, like, secret that you're keeping or something
just, like, really private and personal. And when I watch you on screen, I'm
always thinking, `What is she thinking? What has gone on? Why is she doing
this?' It is a very kind of introverted presence that you often have.

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. And, you know, it's something that I really love doing.
I've always really loved playing characters with secrets. I feel like there's
so many more layers to play with there, and scenes where you come into contact
with another actor become so much more sort of dynamic when there's something
you're withholding. I find even roles where there isn't a secret, I try to
create one just because I think the possibilities then are endless. And you
can surprise yourself more often, which I think is the greatest joy of being
an actor--is when you do something that you didn't expect. So I do love
playing those kinds of parts. I'm sort of experimenting now with doing other
things where I'm a little less introspective and a little braver in some
sense. So I don't know. I mean, maybe I'll mostly focus on doing the kinds
of roles I've done, but I'd sort of like to be able to know that I could do
the other if I felt like it.

GROSS: Now something else I wanted to ask you about, about your childhood. I
read about this. Tell me if it's true: that you had an operation for
scoliosis, curvature of the spine, when you were young.

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. Yeah, when I was 15, I had two Harrington rods put in my

GROSS: Wow. So you have them now?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. I've got a pound of steel in my back that goes off every
time I go through an airport metal detector.

GROSS: Oh, what a great time for that. Remind me not to travel with you.

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, it's really something. There's a lot of having to hike up
my shirt and show, like, 50 people that there's a scar.

GROSS: Oh, how bizarre.

Ms. POLLEY: No, it's really bizarre.

GROSS: So does that limit, like, the exercises and stuff you can do?

Ms. POLLEY: No. It's actually one of those--it just worked really well for
me, this surgery. You know, it's a 10-hour major surgery on your spinal cord,
and somehow my life is completely normal. There's very few things I can't do.
I mean, I don't do anything high impact, and I don't move pianos. But beyond
that, you know, I experience little to no pain.

GROSS: And were you very troubled, like, with pain before the operation?

Ms. POLLEY: A bit. It's more discomfort. It's more just sort of a long-term
thing because, I mean, I was walking strangely. My spine was clearly curved.
Like, I had a bit of a Quasimodo stance when I was about 15. So ultimately it
could have, you know, collapsed in my organs and my lungs and that kind of
thing. So it was sort of more a preventative thing because scoliosis
generally doesn't get better. It either stays the same, or it gets worse.

GROSS: Right, right.

Ms. POLLEY: It was about a 60-degree curve I had, so it was pretty important
to have it done.

GROSS: Right. Wow. So, you know, I want to figure out how you got from the
childhood roles that you did on screen, which were, like, Disney
roles--actually, before we get to the roles that you've done as an adult, just
kind of tick off for us some of the childhood roles.

Ms. POLLEY: You know, I was the lead in a series called "Road to Avonlea,"
which I think in the States was called "Avonlea," that ran for many years on
the Disney Channel. I was in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." I was in
a series called "Romona" and then a bunch of sort of, like, TV movies and
things like that.

GROSS: OK. Now as a mature teen-ager and young adult, you started doing
films like Atom Egoyan's movies--he's an independent Canadian film
director--the film "Exotica," in which you co-starred. This is a film about
incest and mysterious sexual urges and lots of secrets. And, really, it's a
terrific film, so it's a pretty complex movie. And then also with Atom
Egoyan, you made "The Sweet Hereafter," in which you play a student who
survives a bus crash and is left crippled and unable to walk. And there's
more about secrets in that movie also. But both of those movies are movies in
which a lot is implied and not said, and the viewer has to kind of figure it

And then in the movie "Guinevere," you played opposite the actor Stephen Rae,
who's maybe most famous for his role in "The Crying Game." And, you know, he
plays, like, an older artist who's in his 50s, and you're, you know, a young
girl about to enter college. And he becomes your mentor and lover, and that's
something he always has in his life. He has a string of, like, young girls
who he's mentored and been lovers with, and it's a very complex, unpredictable
relationship. Anyways, these are complicated films. So how did you find

Ms. POLLEY: I would say that working with Atom Egoyan is really what made me
fall in love with acting and realize it was something that I wanted to do into
my adulthood. And I feel like I learned about acting from working in his
films. Then, you know, working with an actor like Ian Holm was a really
pivotal experience for me in "The Sweet Hereafter." And so I think that, you
know, I was sort of trained there. I sort of think of those films as my
acting school, "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter." And so the rest kind of
came naturally out of that.

GROSS: I'm glad to hear that Atom Egoyan made you really want to stay an
actress because I like his films so much. But tell me what it was about
working with him that made you feel more strongly about acting.

Ms. POLLEY: There's just such a thoughtfulness to the process of making his
films, and there's such intellect behind what he does. And, you know, up to
that, I'd really done kids shows. You know, It wasn't something that I
thought of as a serious thing to do with your life. I thought, you know, I
would quit acting, you know, when I was 15 or 16. And, you know, I wanted to
go to university, and I wanted to get a degree in political science, and I
wanted to run for office. And I thought, like, `This is how you change the
world.' And I sort of felt like, you know, what he taught me is there's this
way of saying something important that's either directly or indirectly
political through films you're making or saying something, you know, sort of
that has some kind of human importance and that it's a way of being an
activist in a strange sense. And sometimes it's really clear what that means,
and sometimes it's not. But there's a kind of faith he gave me in films and
their ability to change our minds and affect the way we live that really
excited me.

GROSS: And what about the British actor Ian Holm who you worked with in "The
Sweet Hereafter?"

Ms. POLLEY: Well, that was just--I think working with him and doing scenes
with him, it's this moment when you're working with certain actors who are so
focused on what they're doing, so focused on what the other actor is doing
that you realize there are certain moments that it's sort of worth living a
life for, where you have a moment of pure, unmitigated communication with
another human being. And sometimes I feel like those moments were only
uninhibited enough to have those moments when there's artifice of a film set
around us; that when we are shooting a film, we can actually look into each
other's eyes and affect what the other person is saying, affect how the other
person is reacting and change what they're going to do. And there's something
so intoxicating about that. And I experienced that for the first time with
him. And, you know, if I would look a certain way in a scene, he would stop
what he was saying and look to where I was looking. And that sense of being
so attuned to what another person is doing, I just felt like what a useful
exercise in terms of, you know, learning to be a human being in this world.

GROSS: I love how you describe what Ian Holm was doing, how he was responding
to your every move and probably your every thought. It's so, like, not the
egocentric actor who's just thinking, like, `How do I look, and how do I get
the attention focused on me?'

Ms. POLLEY: No. I mean, it's an amazing thing. And to sort of work with
someone who's such a sort of brilliant technical actor and so sort of
incredible, who's willing to kind of give it all up based on what the other
actor is doing, even if that actor is, like, a 17-year-old totally
inexperienced young girl, it's a pretty astonishing thing to see, you know.

GROSS: My guest is actress Sarah Polley. She's starring in the new film "My
Life Without Me." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Polley, and she's starring in the new movie, "My
Life Without Me." She's also starred in "Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter,"
"Go" and "Guinevere."

You had apparently been very close to getting a role in "Almost Famous," the
role that Kate Hudson played of the groupie Penny Lane, and you decided it
wasn't for you. Do I have that right?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And why did you decide that? Because that's an example of a
career-making role.

Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm. You know, there's a lot of sort of complicated and
disparate reasons for that. It's a decision that I'll always be really happy
I made. I think it's a really great film, and I think Kate did an amazing
job. And I think that I had an instinct that I was not the right person for
that part, and so I pulled myself out of it. And when I saw the film, I felt
really legitimized because I feel she was the right person for that part. And
she brought a depth to that part that I couldn't see. And I don't know. You
know, the truth is, like, you know, the last five years of my life, I guess
since I made that decision, I've worked only on films that I love doing. I
have a comfortable life. I can't see a way of complaining or having regrets.
And the truth is, like, my worst nightmare would be to have Kate Hudson's life
right now, you know. I have this sort of wonderfully anonymous life combined
with being able to do films that I love. So, you know, it was a sort of
life-forming decision in a way, but it's always one that I'll be grateful that
I had a clear enough head to make at the time.

GROSS: You don't seem to be into the glamour part of acting.

Ms. POLLEY: I don't really know what glamour is. I think that's my problem.
Like, I read this thing in "The Art of Seeing" by John Berger that says
`Glamour is the state of being envied.' And that, to me, is so kind of
abstract and so difficult to want. I mean, in a way, I understand why people
want tons of money, and I understand why people want this and want that. But
fame is something so elusive, and it doesn't really mean anything, except that
whole bunches of people that you've never met know your name. And it just
seems like a sort of frightening thing to aspire to. It just sort of seems so
difficult to pin down.

GROSS: Now you said that you really wanted to change the world and that you
felt when you were young that you'd drop out of acting and study political
science and, you know, run for office. You actually dropped out of high
school and not with the intention of acting, but with the intention of
becoming more political?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah. I had a couple of years where I quit acting and I quit
school, and I was just really involved in organizing politically. There is a
conservative government that was elected in the province I live in in Ontario,
and they immediately set about, you know, cutting welfare to the point where
people couldn't really live anymore, cutting funding for the arts, trying to
dismantle our public health care system in order to clear the way for a
two-tiered health care system. And it was something where I saw, like, the
things that I love about Canada and the reason I'm so proud to live there sort
of coming apart and disintegrating before our eyes.

And so it was sort of a sense of urgency where I just thought, `I don't think
I can sleep at night unless this is what I'm working towards every day--is
stopping these people.' So I was involved with a lot of anti-poverty
organizations, and I'm involved still with the Toronto Health Coalition in
trying to sort of preserve public health care because it's been working really
well. And it's not going to anymore once they set a manufacturer crisis big
enough that they can justify bringing in some private coverage.

GROSS: Now you said that you had a couple of teeth knocked out during a

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, when I was 16, yeah. It was one of the first really large
protests against the conservative government in Ontario. And, you know, at
that time in Ontario, police violence to that degree was kind of unheard of.
And they sort of brought the riot cops in, and we got trapped between sort of
a huge, you know, row of horses and about five lines of riot cops in riot
gear. And I'd been standing on the front lines talking to this cop for about
half an hour. There's just a standoff. And, you know, he was saying, `You
know, when I was your age, I was doing the same thing as you are right now.'
And we had this really amazing talk. And I sort of thought naively--I was 16,
you know--`This is amazing, you know. We can form these bonds across the
barricades.' And the next thing you know they had the sort of call to push
us off, and I had two teeth knocked out and had my stomach battered in by the
same guy who I had made this really great connection with. So, yeah, it was
definitely a wake-up call.

GROSS: So this is when you were 16?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: What? So this was after the scoliosis operation.

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Gee. So, I mean that's a bad time to be getting battered around like

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, I guess so. Thanks for your concern. I don't think
anyone's ever made that connection before.

GROSS: But you were OK?

Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, I was fine. It was fine. I mean, the sad thing, again,
about that and, again, where my sort of sense of not knowing whether or not
it's a great thing to talk about these things in the press is, you know, I was
standing up there with, you know, nine or 10 welfare moms who were beaten up
eight times as badly as I was, who went to the hospital and had stitches.
Nobody wrote anything about them. They were never on the radio talking about
it, and it's been totally forgotten. And, you know, this is, I mean, eight
years later, and I'm still talking about getting my teeth knocked out.

GROSS: Right, yeah.

Ms. POLLEY: So there's a certain sense of, like, an imbalance to things and
playing into something that you fundamentally despise about society that
actors have all this air time and people who need it don't that, you know, I
guess you just have to keep struggling with. I don't know that you can ever
resolve it.

GROSS: You live in Toronto, which is obviously, you know, far from Hollywood.
I'm sure that probably helps in keeping your life as the life that you want it
to be. But do you ever feel too distant from roles or too distant from the
people making the decisions about roles?

Ms. POLLEY: You know, I've been really lucky, and I don't think it's really
affected my career in a negative way. I mean, I'm sure there are things I
don't know about that may have happened if I had been stationed in LA. But
I'm really happy in Toronto. I have a really great life, and I've been able
to continue to do the films I want to do. So there really is no reason for me
to move. And, you know, I have a community there, and I have family there,
and my life is there, so it's never been something that's really been an issue
for me, whether or not to move.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. POLLEY: Thank you very much. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Sarah Polley stars in the new film "My Life Without Me."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue