These Actors Live the Anger, Sadness, and Determination of “Women Talking”

As “Women Talking” begins, it is discovered that a group of men in a remote religious colony have been drugging and raping women and girls in the community. The rapists were arrested; the rest of the men have come all the way to town to rescue her, expecting—nay, demanding—that the women forgive them and get on with their lives as they were. Overall, women agree that this is not an option. A select number of them gather in the hayloft to decide whether to stay and fight for change or leave the only world they know as the audience witnesses their anger, sadness and determination.

Director Sarah Polley adapted the film from Miriam Toews’ book of the same name, loosely based on a true story. Polley fills the loft with a slew of stars including Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey.

The film that opened Christmas week mercifully never features a rape scene; The attacks are hinted at as the survivors awaken to blood and pain. “And how powerful it is not to see those scenes, only to see the episodes,” McCarthy says via Zoom from her Toronto home. “It’s the conversation that counts, not the actual graphic part. The film begins with the healing process, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” She and Ivey play the elders of two families whose faith brings a gentle power to what’s happening.

When Polley first approached McCarthy about playing Greta, she expressed concern about the actor’s youthful energy. “I said, ‘I’m going to curb my enthusiasm,'” McCarthy recalls, before noting that she easily forgets that she’s 66. “I feel like I’m 8 years old and my underwear is still showing,” she jokes. Her pixie haircut is reminiscent of her breakout role in the 1987 indie film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. McCarthy says, “The lesson for me as Greta was to listen and choose my moments to listen to. Greta also provides the weird relief of being able to say something like that, and I’ve loved exploring that.”

A group of conservatively dressed women sits in a hayloft and discusses their future in one scene "woman speaks."

Sheila McCarthy, front left, stars with Jessie Buckley in the Sarah Polley film Women Talking.

(Michael Gibson/Orion publication)

Filming took place in Toronto in the summer of 2021. Unlike most productions, “We were on set all day, every day,” says McCarthy. “We used to talk in this hayloft every three months. Boy oh boy did we have to show up with our A-game every day. It was a very unusual theatrical commitment from all of us. It was like walking down Broadway.”

Over the phone from her home in Nantucket, Ivey agrees. “That’s what I love about acting,” says the two-time Tony winner. “I’ve always struggled with films because the scenes are so short, then it’s time to move on and you think did I even have a character?” On this shoot, an 11-page scene took three days and 120 takes. “It was a joy because there were eight, nine, ten people in it and we had to do it over and over and over again.”

In creating her character, Agata, Ivey says, “I have to give Sarah Polley all the credit—scene to scene, scene to scene, moment to moment, her general comment to me was, ‘You can just do it; you can just say it Make it simple.” These women are complex, but they are not complicated.” She also turned to the memory of her grandmother, a woman who approached life with great enthusiasm.

Ivey has since found that she embodies some of Agata’s qualities. “I found it rewarding to play someone who has so much patience. I’m very conscious now as Judy walks around: am I not being patient? Am I demanding, am I critical, am I judgmental when I should really just sit back and let it be? It was very enlightening.”

She and McCarthy hit it off right away, “and it’s not just because of our ages, but we’re both early theater kids,” says Ivey. “One day we realized we had at least 50 people in common.” McCarthy adds, “I’m so sad that she lives so far away from me because if I could I would knock on her door every day of my life and they see. She’s a funny, wonderful, ironic person.”

The women had no idea how the film would end until they saw it. And then, McCarthy says, “I was like, ‘God, I look like 170.’ I had to watch it again to see anyone but myself.” Ivey notes that during filming when “we had to be just plain Janes, with little to no makeup and our headscarves and polyester dresses and socks and sandals, said to Sheila, ‘I don’t know if that’s stupid or brave of us,’ and she said, ‘Don’t think about it. When we go to the festivals, we’re going to be wearing lots of makeup and glittery dresses.’”

You had many opportunities. “A lot of the films you do, you don’t really see anyone again,” says Ivey. “With the success of this film and how well it was received by all these film festivals – I’ve been to nine of them – you see everyone over and over again. We joked that there is a class reunion every two or three weeks. I think everyone ended up being a big fan of each other because we had gone through this very meaningful piece together and you didn’t want to falter for a second, mostly out of admiration for what everyone was bringing to the table. It’s unfortunate that it’s a rare experience, but how great that it happened, especially with a piece that says so much.”

McCarthy agrees, ending on a Greta-like note of faith. “It was like singing a long anthem.” These Actors Live the Anger, Sadness, and Determination of “Women Talking”

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