An interview with Stella Artois Jay Scott Prize winner and director of Rogers Best Canadian Film nominee Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, Ariane Louis-Seize.
North of Normal Is a Tale of Motherhood and Mentors
July 28, 2023
Carly Stone’s North of Normal is a labour of love, as she directed it while eight months pregnant during the pandemic.
But Stone says that becoming a mother while working on this film made her look at motherhood from the other point of view, which she wasn’t able to do before. The film, which opens across Canada today, is based on the memoir by Cea Sunrise Person and follows her unconventional childhood in the wilderness and her relationship with her mother, Michelle (played by Sarah Gadon).
“I saw an opportunity to show the complexities of motherhood on screen and I was inspired to play with that. I wouldn’t have had that take on it before I had a kid,” says Stone in an interview with the TFCA.
Toronto’s Gadon, meanwhile, has never played a character remotely like this one before. “I’m never the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the go-with-the-flow, helpless woman who makes all the wrong choices,” Gadon observes. “There was something exciting for me to take on that challenge that I haven’t done before in my career. That, to me, was what really drew me to the character.”
North of Normal marks Amanda Fix’s first lead role in a feature film as she stars as Gadon’s onscreen daughter, Cea Sunrise (pronounced “see a sunrise”). The actress says she wanted to keep Cea honest and grounded despite the trauma and tough relationships the character endures. “I wanted it to feel very honest and raw and not too over the top,” says Fix. “Cea keeps a lot of what she’s feeling to herself and has a very intense inner monologue. She doesn’t voice her concerns all the time. I wanted to make sure that you could see that she was going through.”
Stone, meanwhile, notes that she “wanted to make sure that intimacy between Cea and her mother Michelle was at the forefront of the whole movie.” This relationship is beautifully explored and carried by both Gadon and Fix. The duo says they lived together and spent a lot of time getting to know each as actors in the industry. “There’s a real friendship there,” says Gadon.
“In the independent film world, having a week of rehearsals is actually quite a luxurious amount of time. It was great that Carly gave us that space,” Gadon continues. “It was important to have time to read through the scripts with Amanda and Carly, because it’s a great way to get to know how your scene partner works and how they listen and how they communicate. But it also provides a foundation for you to start a relationship and be in that rehearsal period. This is the first film that Amanda carried and so she was on set all the time, even when she didn’t have to be.”
Gadon, who also started her career as a child actress, is protective of young actors. “For me, as someone who has a lot of experience [and] who was a child performer, I am very protective of young people when I work with them,” she observes. “I’m very cognizant of the fact that they’re young people moving in adult spaces and that they’re taking on a lot, whether it’s tutoring at the same time as their work, or whether they’re away from home for the first time, living away from home and trying to navigate that on top of their responsibilities professionally. When I was young, it was kind of just like, ‘Sink or swim, figure it out.’ I try to be there for the young people that I work with because it’s really, really hard.”
The actors add that they talked a lot about the industry and we shared experiences. “We give each other feedback and advice,” says Gadon
Fix returns the sentiments, admiring Gadon’s talent and professionalism. “Sarah has such a great smile. She’s fiery and bubbly,” she laughed. “That’s what I first gauged, but she’s also very professional. I’m so honoured that I got to work with Sarah this early on in my career. She’s truly my mentor.”
Gadon quickly jumps in, sharing Fix’s talent that leaps off screen. “Carly sent me one of Amanda’s auditions. It’s the most vulnerable state: in which you audition for something. I was so blown away by her performance,” the actor explains. “When I met her in person, it was the same thing: I was so impressed by her raw talent.”
Gadon says that she’s always inspired by the women she gets to work with. “I love working with women. I have had the privilege of working with so many incredible and talented female directors in my career,” notes Gadon, who has worked with talents like Mary Harron (Alias Grace), Sook-Yin Lee (Octavio Is Dead), and Amma Asante (Belle)
“But Carly was the first female director that I worked with who was eight months pregnant while they were directing a feature film,” observes Gadon. “That was the most inspiring thing I could have ever seen as a woman in this industry. Traditionally, women who are pregnant get treated like they’re sick, or like they’re a problem for insurance, or, they get treated in a way that isn’t the glorious, wonderful warriors that they are. Carly was out there in the trenches with us working hard churning out this movie, because it’s her passion while making a baby, and there’s nothing more inspiring.”
Stone truly believes in the power of this coming-of-age story and says that Cea’s ambition and adversity resonated with her on many levels as a young female filmmaker. “I have always been attracted to coming of age stories–watching how a young woman navigates her way through that pivotal time in young adulthood where you cross over into the beginning of the person you’re really going to be.”
She continues, “I always wanted to pursue filmmaking and writing and it’s really hard. It takes a lot of ambition and perseverance, and you get knocked down a ton, especially being a woman. I saw how much adversity Cea had to face in getting to where she wanted to go, so I could feel that.”
North of Normal opens in theatres on July 28.