Sarah Gadon on her exciting new role in Her Majesty

FELLOW Canadian David Cronenberg lent a nightmarish undercurrent to Sarah Gadon’s career. Now Her Majesty has given it a fairytale turn
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon. Picture: GettyCanadian actress Sarah Gadon. Picture: Getty
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon. Picture: Getty

THE fact that she’s drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t hurt. But it’s Sarah Gadon’s confidence and regal poise that make her a natural movie queen. In the past few years, the Canadian actress has co-starred in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, British period romance Belle and as the holographic face of Oscorp Industries in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now A Royal Night Out sees her ascend, if not to the throne, then to her first leading role.

Gadon seems an unexpected choice to play a young version of Queen Elizabeth; she’s tall, fine-boned, blue-eyed and blonde – more Grace Kelly than grace and favour, but A Royal Night Out is hardly a story that frets over detail. It’s a production by Ecosse, the same company that scored Oscars with Mrs Brown, and the new film treats the restrictions and reserve of Princess Elizabeth as benevolently as John Madden’s film treated Queen Victoria. It does, however, take a few more liberties. This may be based on a true event, but it’s a confection of a story. The King’s Speech crowd should love it.

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There are a few known facts about the night that Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret slipped out of Buckingham Palace and joined the crowds on VE night. The Queen herself recalled in 1985, “My sister and I realised we couldn’t see what the crowds were enjoying, so we asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves.”

Emily Watson as the Queen Mother and Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth. Picture: ContributedEmily Watson as the Queen Mother and Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth. Picture: Contributed
Emily Watson as the Queen Mother and Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth. Picture: Contributed

Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Trevor De Silva have spun this out into a fairytale about royalty running amok, with the future Queen coming face to face for the first time with the public she would eventually rule. Rupert Everett plays King George VI, while Irish actor Jack Reynor portrays Elizabeth’s companion for most of the night, a republican-minded soldier who fails to realise that the young woman in the ATS uniform is set to reign over him.

Gadon is inclined to shy away from comparisons with The King’s Speech. “It reminded me much more of Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and I loved that film,” she says with stately diplomacy. “This story is like Cinderella in reverse. Rather than becoming an inaccessible person, this is Elizabeth going through things that happen to all of us: the first time we go to a party, the first time we fall in love with a boy, the first time we find ourselves out of our element.”

Rumour has it that the Queen is a bit put out by the portrayal of her late sister Princess Margaret as a Bolly-swigging party girl in A Royal Night Out, but she can hardly baulk at Gadon’s feisty and quick-witted teen princess, who can drive a Daimler like a demon.

However, she might have cocked a quizzical eyebrow at being impersonated by an actress who is Toronto-born and bred, who pronounces “about” in the traditional Canadian manner, and who totes a bottle of maple syrup on international film sets. Gadon has form for playing English aristocrats – in Belle she portrayed the cousin of a mixed-race woman in 18th century England – but she admits that when she first met Julian Jarrold, director of A Royal Night Out, after auditioning over a Skype connection, he was disconcerted.

“I was talking to him about the film, being my happy, enthusiastic Canadian self, then I saw the terror in his eyes. He said, ‘Oh my god, you’re so Canadian.’ And I realised that I had my work cut out for me.”

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Gadon researched the regal details by talking to royal consultants, immersing herself in books like Sally Smith’s biography Elizabeth The Queen, plunging into etiquette classes, and trying to pull together a non-treasonable facsimile of the princess’s terse upper-clarse accent.

“There was a lot of discussion about that. I listened to clips of her speaking, and it was felt to be a little too strong for a contemporary audience, so we decided to model the accent on the film Brief Encounter, with that kind of pacing and clipped way of speaking. We felt that gave enough of the period, without being frightfully distracting.”

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Gadon squashed her own hair under a rather good wig of chocolate kiss curls, shaped in a looser version of the Queen’s later rigid look. In the past decade there has been an excess of Elizabeths, but usually in her 60s and 70s, as played by Helen Mirren. “It was kind of liberating to corner the market on the Queen as a much younger woman,” says Gadon. “It afforded me 
a lot of freedom, because there’s relatively little known about her or that particular evening, so I felt slightly less pressure about having a standard to live up to.”

Are there parallels between the expectations we have of royalty, and the way we scrutinise modern stars? Gadon grimaces. “When I was researching the part I thought there might be a lot I could learn about conducting yourself in public, but the royal code of behaviour is very different. The Queen is not supposed to have a favourite or prefer anything. From a very young age they are taught that if you fall down, you don’t make a face, you keep your emotions under control and you don’t let other people know what you’re feeling. That’s a very different kind of way of thinking from how I was brought up.”

Gadon’s father is a psychologist, and her mother a teacher. “I was brought up to express myself and say how I was feeling,” she says. But she also recalls watching the Queen’s Speech at Christmas on Canadian television, raised as she was in a country with a Commonwealth regard for the Windsors.

She has other emotional connections to the story. “My grandmother was British and in the Women’s Auxiliary Royal Air Force in World War II.” She married Gadon’s grandfather, a navy officer, during the war and both were in Trafalgar Square on VE night. “The real amazing thing was to be recreating that night in Trafalgar knowing that they had both been there, before emigrating to Canada. I think a lot of people still have a lot connections to World War II, and that time in history, because the world became very small during that point so it was really special to do that.

“It was like coming full circle. It was very emotional for me, actually, because they have both passed away since then.”

Gadon has been acting for most of her 27 years, although she also studied ballet and contemporary dance. By ten she was getting regular work on TV. But as she hit her twenties, instead of progressing through high school comedies and breathless blockbusters, she took herself down a darker path. As a long shot, she sent an audition tape to David Cronenberg, the veteran explorer of tormented psyches. He liked what he saw and cast her in A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung’s long-suffering wife, trying to remain dignified as the psychiatrist put into practice his theories of human sexuality with his mistress, and she became something of a muse. He cast her as another wife, this time hitched to Robert Pattinson in the apocalyptic tale, Cosmopolis, then as a hostile hallucination in Maps To The Stars, a deeply unsettling Hollywood nightmare.

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Gadon hopes to be back for more, “David’s scripts are specific and surgical, and the way films are financed these days, it is very difficult for someone to say, ‘I am making a film this way.’ Each time I get one of his scripts it’s like getting a riddle. I spend the next month working with him trying to understand it. The one thing I find when I go for meetings, from Julian to JJ Abrams [Star Wars], they all go, ‘Wow, you worked with Cronenberg.’ He gave me credibility.”

Gadon is intrigued by films that touch on fame and the effects of the public gaze. Besides A Royal Night Out and Maps To The Stars, she also appeared in Antiviral, the feature debut of Brandon Cronenberg (son of David), which offered an endgame to celebrity culture in which even famous cells and viruses are bought and venerated.

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Gadon stresses that her own life offscreen is very normal. She is still based in Toronto rather than LA. “I have a regular life and I do that intentionally, hanging out with my friends, cooking dinner for my boyfriend.” Most of brushes with fame so far are tangential, she says. During Cosmopolis she was pursued by paparazzi who were convinced there was an off-screen romance with co-star Robert Pattinson, and it drew her to the attention of Pattinson’s Twihards. “When I was doing Dangerous Method with Viggo Mortensen, he had diehard fans, who freak out for him – but Rob’s fans are like the CIA, they knew every detail of his day.”

Is there any actor who makes her starstruck? “It’s mostly directors whom I get starstruck around. You can have a bunch of great actors in a film, but if you don’t have anyone telling a great story, it’s a moot point.”

Having a film editor for a boyfriend also makes her very aware of how work can change or performances be built in the cutting room, and Gadon has her sights set on directing.

“At university I had friends saying, ‘What am I going to be? What am I going to do with my life?’” she says. “I never had that in common with other people, I always knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

In between acting jobs she enrolled at the University of Toronto for a film course, and made a half-hour documentary about Antiviral with another Cronenberg, Caitlin, who did the photography. Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones who directed her in the Channel 4 mini-series, The Pillars Of The Earth, described her as “very ambitious”. “On set she always wanted to know about the technical side, and she asked good questions. She may well end up on the other side of the camera eventually,” he said.

And if she does, she’ll be better prepared than she was for what she considers her strangest role to date, in Spider-Man 2. It was only a few days’ work, playing KARI, the computerised face of a high tech company, but Gadon became subject to the comic universe’s secrecy and paranoia. “I got the script the day before I was due to shoot,” she remembers. “And I had to be laser-scanned, so they now have all my facial expressions stored on digital files. That was actually quite good fun, but there was so much secrecy about the film that I was left wondering what I was actually meant to be doing.”

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In the last few minutes of the interview, Gadon suddenly clocks that I’m Scottish. “I was at Scone Palace a while ago,” she beams. After filming Belle, Gadon and her co-star, Gugu Mbatha Raw, were invited to see the original painting of their characters, Belle and Elizabeth, in Scotland.

“When we wrapped, the two of us set out on a pilgrimage to go and look at the actual painting. It’s a fantastic image of these two women, standing looking out of the painting as equals. The Murrays hosted us and we had a fantastic time. I do want to go back to Scotland because it was a beautiful place.”

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Maybe we can find a movie to occupy her while she’s there? “I would love that,” she says guilelessly. “There’s a real strength in the writing here, particularly in film. Perhaps it’s connected to your theatre scene but it seems that every time I read a really great script, it’s from Britain.” n

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• A Royal Night Out (12A) is in cinemas from Friday