Sarah Gadon lies motionless in a bed, luminous as a light bulb against a backdrop of crisp white linen. Her lips are painted a rusty red, her blonde hair frozen in perfect ringlets. Even with her eyes closed she radiates intensity. It’s a scene from Antiviral, the post-apocalyptic morality tale from Brandon Cronenberg (son of David), and Gadon is playing the biggest movie star in the world. The film is about a futuristic society in which obsessed fans buy diseases from ailing celebrities in a desperate attempt to connect with them. Gadon’s character, Hannah Geist, is the object of their obsession. The idea’s not that far-fetched—over the past couple years, Gadon has leapfrogged from minor Canadian TV guest actor (recurring roles on Murdoch Mysteries, Being Erica and The Border) to auteur’s muse and Cannes regular.
Off the screen, on a sunless, stay-in-bed February morning, Gadon’s face still glows like it’s in an Instagram photo. Her look is high fashion meets film student: tweed jodhpur pants by Isabel Marant, a sheer black blouse by AllSaints and a chunky wool headband. The look is appropriate, since she’s come straight from U of T, where she’s a cinema studies major. Today’s lecture was on experimental film and the body. “Lots of rolling around naked in the mud,” she explains. I’d suggested we meet at one of Gadon’s favourite Toronto shopping spots. She agreed, but called back a few minutes later to ask if we could go to the Patti Smith photography exhibit at the AGO instead. Later, she tells me she’s trying to take control of her image.
In 2012, the elder Cronenberg cast her in his movie A Dangerous Method after seeing a taped audition. “I didn’t meet him until I arrived on set in Germany,” says Gadon. “I remember being on the plane and thinking, ‘What if the tapes got mixed up and he’s expecting a different actress?’”
He wasn’t. The movie was about the volatile love affair between Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, and his patient Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley. Gadon’s part—as Emma, Jung’s emotionally corseted wife—could have been a throwaway supporting role, but Gadon delivered a pivotal performance, turning Emma into a simmering, self-possessed foil for Knightley’s hysteric. It was enough to convince Cronenberg to cast her as another model of upper-crust restraint in his next feature, Cosmopolis. She had only three scenes, but she received critical acclaim for her turn as the blue-blooded, cold-hearted wife of Robert Pattinson’s sociopathic billionaire.
Being cast as the comatose matinee idol in Antiviral established Gadon as the go-to muse for the Cronenbergs, Canada’s first cinematic family, who’ve taken to her icy blonde beauty the way Alfred Hitchcock latched on to Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. The father-and-son directors favour a similar on-set dynamic, Gadon says. “There’s not a lot of talk, not a lot of hot air. No one compliments you just for the sake of it.” More recently, she scored a family hat trick, directing a documentary in which she and photographer Caitlin Cronenberg (David’s daughter) embark on a series of fashion magazine photo shoots—Gadon as subject and Cronenberg as photographer. She says the project is a way to explore the conflict between feminism and vamping for the camera. She hasn’t figured it all out yet, but she’s happy to poke fun at her journey along the way. “Kill me, I know,” she deadpans as our conversation ping-pongs between female objectification and her favourite beauty products.
Gadon needn’t be so hard on herself. In just a couple of years, she has built up a hefty resumé, one notably void of the vampires or prequels or Dude, Where’s My Whatever vehicles that many of her peers suffer through to make names for themselves (ahem, R-Patz). In 2013, she’ll appear in two more awards season hopefuls: Belle, a British period drama about the illegitimate biracial daughter of a Royal Navy officer (Gadon dons a corset once more to play the title character’s privileged, white half-sister), and An Enemy, the first English-language feature from up-and-coming Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, in which she stars opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Isabella Rossellini. And then comes a foray into blockbuster territory with a part in the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s her most mainstream acting gig to date, though not unfamiliar territory. “My character is an artificial intelligence officer,” says Gadon. “She represents the convergence of humanity and technology—it’s very Cronenberg.”