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Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy on Working With Sarah Polley

Dec 23, 2022


Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a powerful film by Sarah Polley that centers around an isolated Mennonite colony. When it’s revealed that the men of the community have been abusing the women for years, they meet in a barn to decide what they’re going to do: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave and start anew somewhere else. The women must grapple with their faith, each other, and everything they’ve ever known to make a decision that will shape not only their futures but the future of generations to come.

Before the film’s release in select theaters on December 23rd (expanding wide on January 6th and available everywhere on January 27th), I got a chance to speak to Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey, who play elders Greta and Agata in the film. They discussed who influenced their characters, what they learned from their younger co-stars, and how COVID regulations actually helped the cast develop their amazing chemistry.

TAYLOR GATES: It’s so lovely to meet you both. I loved this movie and thought you were so, so wonderful in it. Something I think that’s so brilliant about this movie is the way it portrays this very complex cycle of abuse and explores these very nuanced power dynamics. I was wondering: how did you think about your character’s place in that cycle and where they fit in that power dynamic as the elders of the group?

SHEILA McCARTHY: I think as the elders, we were both – Greta and Agata – were, I think, may I say, slightly more concerned about our children and our grandchildren who experienced the abuse. And so in coddling them and taking care of them and making sure…showing great empathy to them, it helped us. Certainly, I felt that way about Greta.

JUDITH IVEY: Yeah, I – in many ways – I could never quite reconcile whether Agata went through the abuse physically that everyone else did, but it didn’t matter because it had happened to my daughters and grandchild and, of course, the other women in the community who are my friends. And other relatives, I’m sure. So it might as well have happened to me.

Image via Universal

That sort of leads to my next question for you, Sheila. I want to talk about that moment where your character apologizes to her daughter because it’s such a powerful moment. I know it was a little bit different in the script, too. I’m curious how you approached that scene and what it means to you.

McCARTHY: Under the tutelage of Sarah Polley, she’s just an incredible director who gives you permission and created such a safety net for those very difficult scenes. Also working with Jessie Buckley was amazing. I was a dancer my whole life, and I like to do things always the same way, and Jessie’s the exact opposite. Not that we were improvising, but that scene was very fluid, and it changed. Not to make too light of it – I’m a Canadian, and we apologize a lot, so I guess saying sorry more than once was part in my DNA. It was one of those moments that I can hardly touch on because I don’t quite remember where we were all at during it. It was one of those magical moments of indefinable filmmaking, I guess.

Definitely. As someone from the Midwest, I understand the apology thing.

McCARTHY: [Laughs] Once isn’t enough.

It’s not! You have to keep going. Judith, I know that you mentioned that this role reminded you of your grandmother, and it felt like doing an homage to her. Can you talk a little bit about that – how you prepared and how it felt like stepping into her shoes in a way?

IVEY: My grandmother was very religious, I say, in a very happy way. And she had so many of the qualities that seem to be Agata’s when I first read the script and read the book then after that. Not judging people, wanting to listen to people, wanting to hear how they felt. She had a great laugh, and she enjoyed jokes and funny stories, and that was in the script as far as I was concerned – that Agata was going to have fun as much as she possibly could and try to inspire others so that to me is what really keyed me in on grandma.

I love that. Sheila, did you have any influences that you took to play, as well?

McCARTHY: You know, pieces of people, I suppose. I really enjoyed Greta’s quiet humor. It’s something Sarah and I talked a lot about initially, just trying to find the little pieces of sort of wryness to diffuse the tense situations in an argument – a situation where Greta could say, “I want to talk about Ruth and Cheryl, my horses, again” to dispel what was going on. I really loved that. I thought that was kind of necessary – it couldn’t all be sad.

Image Via United Artists Releasing

Yeah, I think the comedy makes the darker stuff even more impactful, in a way. The younger members have spoken a lot about what they learned from the veterans on the set. I’m curious if there’s anything you feel like you took from watching them.

McCARTHY: Lots.

IVEY: Where do we begin?

McCARTHY: There’s nothing in their way.

IVEY: Yeah.

McCARTHY: They’re so open. We were not at all…I mean – it’s harder for us, I think, in a weird way.

IVEY: We grew up in a time where this abuse of power and how you behave as men and women together was different, and their, as it says at the end of the movie, world is different, and so their approach to so many subjects just – when the actors were sitting around talking, that’s what I learned from. It awakened in me a bigger question about how I felt about my relationship with other women.

Definitely. All of the characters have such depth and really get their moments to shine. If you could play a different character in the film, who would you want to dig in and explore?

McCARTHY: Oh, what a good question.

IVEY: Yeah.

Thank you!

McCARTHY: Wow.

IVEY: Well, if I were to play who I really am, I’d be Salome.

McCARTHY: You’d be Claire [Foy]’s.

IVEY: Yeah. I’d jump right in with all those axes and spray cans and everything. That would be my gut reaction to the situation.

McCARTHY: I think I’d jump to Ben Whishaw’s character, August. Maybe similar to Greta, I love his part.

Image via United Artists Releasing

He adds such an interesting layer to it all. And he fits in so interestingly with all of the women. I’m curious how you found and fostered that dynamic between you all because it’s so powerful and feels so authentic between everyone.

McCARTHY: Well, you know, we had the luxury of rehearsing for two weeks, which you don’t usually get in filmmaking. Also, off-set, we were all in one big communal room like the hayloft with our COVID partitions, so we were all together a lot. And the poor crew – getting the women to stop talking so that we could make a movie called Women Talking was quite a challenge. There was a lot of joy on set that helped us get through it all.

IVEY: COVID was actually a help to us in many ways because there were so many rules and regulations to keep everybody healthy. It lent itself to keeping us as a group, so we would finish a scene upstairs in a hayloft and come back down to this conference room where they had put us with our tables and our chairs and our sleeping mats and everything and just start right in talking about our lives as Judy and Sheila. We found out one day probably we’ve worked with 150 people in common just, “Do you know so-and-so?” “Oh, yeah! I know them.”

McCARTHY: War stories. The best. [Laughs]

Women Talking premieres in select theaters on December 23rd, expands wide on January 6th, and is available everywhere on January 27th.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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