The Making Of 'Alias Grace,' A Margaret Atwood True-Crime Mystery

How "American Psycho" director Mary Harron brought a harrowing story of female servitude to Netflix.

If “The Handmaid’s Tale” is where we’re going, “Alias Grace” is where we came from.

So says Sarah Polley, the writer and producer behind the new Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel. The work of historical fiction revolves around the titular Grace Marks, a 19th-century servant accused of brutally murdering the master of her household and his mistress, a fellow housekeeper, with the help of a stablehand. The real-life crime rocked Upper Canada in 1843, hurling the Victorian community into a salacious trial that amounted to a life sentence for Marks and a hanging for her accomplice. After 30 years in prison, Grace was eventually pardoned, but her exoneration was a mere consolation prize after decades of living as a notorious woman.

“Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you,” Marks says in Atwood’s book. “It has a smell to it, that word ― musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”

Polley brought the beloved Atwoodian tale to life with the help of acclaimed “American Psycho” director Mary Harron. Together, they created a six-episode miniseries that places Marks, expertly played by Sarah Gadon, as its center of gravity. She at times appears powerless, the product of poverty and neglect forced into an unforgiving life of servitude, and at other times as a careless and deliberate enigma, driven by an internal force we’ve yet to understand. Is she a cold-blooded killer, or a unduly scorned castaway?

Both Atwood and the Polley-Harron adaptation team shy away from answering that question. Instead, the new Netflix series is at its best when it sinks into the historic details that complicate Marks’ narrative. In the show’s meticulously crafted world, an echo of real 19th-century horrors, lower-class women are relegated to sexual prey, cast as the constant targets of unwanted advances and the unfortunate recipients of botched abortions. Indeed, if “Handmaid’s Tale” is the fundamentalist dystopia of our future, “Alias Grace” makes it its mission to paint a clear picture of the overlooked history that would make Gilead possible.

We spoke to Harron ahead of the show’s premiere on Nov. 3. and she echoed Polley’s unnerving parallel between both hair-raising Atwood adaptations, and explained what it was like bringing the story of Grace Marks to life.

Margaret Atwood in a cameo appearance in "Alias Grace."
Margaret Atwood in a cameo appearance in "Alias Grace."

What initially drew you to the adaptation of Alias Grace?

Well, I hadn’t read the novel. I knew nothing about the story going in, I had no preconceptions about it. But it’s such a fantastic plot. You get totally drawn into this world. I’ve always loved ambiguity and mystery, and also a female character who suffers a lot but isn’t conventionally, like, “Oh, poor Grace.” She’s very complicated. Is she good? Is she bad? Have the things she’s suffered turned her into a murderer? All of these things. I was very drawn into the world right away.

Were you a Margaret Atwood fan before this?

Yeah, I’m Canadian, so of course. I was also at university in the ’70s when her first novels started coming out. Or, at least, that’s when I started discovering them. She had a big impact on feminism at the point ― of that generation. I was very affected by the stories that she was telling. But I hadn’t read her most recent stuff. So it was a real revelation. [Alias Grace] is actually my favorite Margaret Atwood novel now.

The novel is based on a real crime that happened in Canada in the 1840s. Were you aware of the story of Grace Marks at all?

I read a couple reviews of [Atwood’s] book when it came out, but I had never heard of [Marks]. It was very mysterious. I’ve done a lot of period drama ― my first film [“I Shot Andy Warhol”] was the 1960s, “Bettie Page” was the 1950s, “American Psycho” was the 1980s. I studied literature at university ― I’m pretty steeped in the Victorian novel ― so I always wanted to do a period drama like this. This is a very interesting take on a 19th-century story.

The story revolves around perhaps one of the most enigmatic characters Margaret Atwood ever wrote. If you could give your own character description of Grace Marks, what would it be?

This is important: She’s a young girl, Protestant, from Northern Ireland. She’s very competent and capable and bright. She’s the sort of person who could have run a corporation, but she’s born into a world of incredible poverty and oppression, and she suffers greatly. She’s quite puritanical, like a lot of Northern Irish Protestants. I can say that, because my family’s from there. She has love in her heart, but the question is: With all her sufferings, did they make her a better person or a worse person? With all the terrible things that she has had to go through, which way did they turn her in the end? I had this conversation with Margaret Atwood. People think that suffering makes you noble, but not always. Sometimes, a lot of suffering can turn you. It can make you vindictive and murderess. You don’t know. 

Yes, that’s certainly one of the intriguing aspects of the way Atwood wrote the character. You don’t necessarily know if Grace is the protagonist or the antagonist of the story. And that doesn’t really seem to be the point. There’s not a whole lot of morality to it; it’s simply an interesting character exploration.

Yes. It’s a real-life story. Although there’s not a lot known about Grace, there are certain historical records and interviews with people at the time about what happened during those murders. I love real-life stories, because the behaviors are always so contradictory. It’s like ... why? Why didn’t you tell anyone? Why, when the butcher answered the door, didn’t you tell him that [James] McDermott was going to kill someone? You know? It’s funny, when Sarah Gadon and I were going through the script and making notes on the character together, we were like, “Grace, what were you thinking?” You think you know her, Grace. You think you have a line on her, but then there is some piece of the story that puts that out of whack. As with Simon [Jordan] during the drama. Simon is constantly being turned around and bewildered by her, and banging his head against the wall, because you can never quite get a handle on who she is.  

During a TIFF masterclass this year, you told audiences that the key to eliciting a standout performance from your actors is “entirely casting.” What was the process like casting Sarah Gadon in the role of Grace? How did you know she was the one?

I had worked with her before, six or seven years ago, on a movie called “The Moth Diaries,” in which she was playing 16 [years old], actually. I’d seen hundreds of people for the role I cast her in, and she actually recorded an audition for me on her computer, because she was filming overseas. As soon as I saw her, I thought, this girl is remarkable. When you meet her, she’s sort of an old soul, a very impressive person. And working with her, she’s very subtle. She does what I really like in actors, she does a lot of layers. She makes adjustments very quickly. Even as a young actress who hadn’t done that many movies, she could make these incredible subtle changes and imply a lot going on below the surface. And also, with Grace, you want someone who is very beautiful, but who has a mystery to them, which she has kind of effortlessly. You could really just watch her face for a long time. And with Edward [Holcroft], too. You know, there are these long scenes where they are just sitting in a room talking. You want to be able to linger on their faces.

Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks.
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks.

What kind of research did you do before filming ― in terms of reading up on the era and real-life crime?

Margaret Atwood had recommended some books. She gave Sarah Polley a sort of book list, and I read one in particular ― a 19th-century woman’s account of traveling through Canada. That was really interesting on the condition of servant girls as sexual prey. It’s always interesting to read contemporary accounts that give the attitudes of the time. Margaret Atwood had done so much research into language. Usually I’m very bothered by period inaccuracies and dialogue anachronisms, but Margaret Atwood has done all the work. She is very authentic, not just in how people talked, but how they thought and behaved. You know, women thought in very different ways [in the 1800s]. Grace saw her life very differently than a woman today sees her life, or sees sexuality, religion, everything.

But in terms of the kind of research I had to do, that was more with the production designer about getting the actual details of the world right. And for Sarah Gadon, she had to learn how to do all this housework! She had to learn how to sew and quilt. I didn’t want her faking, and she didn’t want to either. She’s quilting throughout so many of those conversations, so she had to be so good at it she could do it without looking. And it has to be completely natural. She spent weeks and months learning. Domestic labor is a whole story in that.

Watching [Gadon] as Grace, you can actually see calluses on her hands.

Right! I was with the makeup department and I was like, “You have to roughen her hands.” She has beautiful hands, you know. So she did some of it herself, and then we had the makeup team roughen them up, too.

You spent time at Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary, where the real Grace Marks actually spent time during her lifetime. What was it like filming there?

That was another interesting thing. When I read the script, the way that they were written, the cell was a much bigger cell. But when we went on our location scout to Kingston Penitentiary, and also to penitentiary’s museum, we saw a reproduction of a prison cell from the 19th century. It was almost a 5-foot coffin, the size of a single bed. And that’s where people would spend half their lives. I was very taken by this, by this idea that [Grace] was buried alive for all these years ― all of the prisoners were. So I had to persuade everybody, because it made it much more difficult to shoot, to make the cell smaller. She could still stand up, because we made it a foot wider. I knew it would be hard to shoot, because we couldn’t get the camera inside the room, but the production designer agreed with me ― this is important and we need to make it real.

The other thing that came out from that museum, which wasn’t actually in the original script or the book, was this thing called “the box,” where they’d put prisoners inside this upright coffin. There’s this scene with Grace where you see her face in a little hole in the wood and she’s screaming. We just saw that box, and I asked Sarah [Polley] to write that in. It’s horrifying. It’s medieval. I mean, the rules ... you get whipped for looking or whispering or if you laugh or smile. It was barbaric, and we wanted to show that for real. 

Was that difficult for Sarah Gadon to perform? Did the authentic setting bring a different kind of gravity to the script?

I thought it did. It was tough on her. I stepped inside that box to see what it was like and I was like, oh my God, let me out. I wouldn’t force an actress to do it, but I think most actresses who are taking it seriously want to go there and experience some of this.

One of my favorite lines from the 1996 NYT review of “Alias Grace” reads: “There’s nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the ancient, tired, apparently endless debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic.” This is obviously a central theme in Atwood’s book. How did you and Sarah Polley go about bringing this “debate” to light in your adaptation?

Sarah Polley has a really great quote about this, about women conforming so much and playing to other people’s expectations of them. Of women playing different roles and playing different people in different circumstances. That’s what she’s referring to in those first few words of the script, when [Grace] says, “People think I’m a female demon. People think I’m a poor innocent victim. People think I’m this and that.” What is the essential woman? Victorian women, especially, have all these images put on them.

I also loved the idea that one woman can be seen and get to portray a character in such different ways, without you knowing which is the real one. That allowed a much more complicated female character. One of the things I love about Margaret Atwood is that she’s never like, “Men are bad and women are good.” She’s writing about harsh social pressures and injustices that don’t always bring out the best in people. Like the relationship between Grace and Nancy [Montgomery], who are both really victims of society, both working-class girls, one of whom is pregnant and has managed to claw a little status for herself. I think Margaret Atwood has this view of women that they can become like rats in a cage ― they can turn on each other, because there’s so little safety for them. That was very truthful, about how tough social settings can bring out competitiveness and rivalries. You would like to think that women are always [supportive], but …

What was it like having Margaret Atwood on set? And directing her in a cameo role?

Oh, it was fun. I didn’t have to do too much directing. There was a lot of panic because the schedule had gone wrong. It was like the second day of shooting, and she was waiting around in a heavy costume in 90 degree heat for hours and hours. We were like, “Ahhhh.” But she was very good about it. And I think she was very amused, because on her trailer it said, “Difficult Woman.” That was her name in the [episode].

How much, if at all, did she shape the adaptation? 

I don’t know, I’m not privy to that. Sarah showed her a lot of the drafts at every stage, I think. I think [Atwood’s] pretty hands off, but Sarah Polley was anxious that it be very faithful, so she ran a lot of it by her.  

Obviously the whole show is coming out in the wake of “Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1. If it’s possible for there to be more fandom around Margaret Atwood, now seems to be the time. Many fans saw “Handmaid’s Tale” as an overtly feminist show that inspired a lot of activism. Did you envision “Alias Grace” as an overtly feminist show?

It’s feminist in the sense that it’s presenting a neglected and important piece of female history, which is the lives of female servants in a realistic way. The story of Mary Whitney happened to tens of thousands of girls. Hundreds of thousands of girls got pregnant, were raped or were seduced and abandoned, were sexual fodder for upper-class men. And that’s a really neglected part of history, you know, of what these girls’ lives were like.

Sarah Polley said that “Alias Grace” is where we come from, and “Handmaid’s Tale” is where we might go. It’s important politically to know where you come from in an accurate way. The same thing is happening with how we look at slavery or the Confederacy and the Civil War. It’s important for us to dig back and say, “We have certain versions of the past, but are there other versions we need to be aware of?” In this case, there’s a somewhat idealized view of the country house, and the happy servants who love their masters and the masters who care for their servants. Is this true? No! Those servants were unbelievably exploited. Especially the young women, who were sexual prey to all the young men. They’d get pregnant, and that was the end of them. What was it like to get an abortion back then? Well, we’ll show you. It’s not even that long ago, and that’s what our society’s grown out of. We need to remind ourselves of that. I remember when I was living in London there was this idea of returning to Victorian values. Well, those are Victorian values: child labor and young women being thrown out into the streets. That’s our history. 

That theme seems particularly relevant in a time when a president wants to “Make America Great Again.”

[Laughs] A lot of the time we want to idealize the past, and that can have a political agenda behind it. People idealize the 1950s in America for the same reason ― that was a Reagan thing. Let’s return the ’50s. Well ... segregation. In terms of women’s stories, there a lot of stories that haven’t been told and perspectives that haven’t been shown. “Alias Grace” is not necessarily as obvious a call to action [as “Handmaid’s Tale], but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important perspective.

You have a history of showcasing women’s stories. You’ve made films about Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page and Anna Nicole Smith. Are there any other outré women, who might similarly challenge notions of femininity, that you’d be interested in spotlighting in a film?

Right now I’m casting for this Manson girls project. The interest there is: How do these seemingly normal, hippy girls end up doing these terrible things? What was their relationship to the cult? Why did they give over their will to this crazy leader? Part of the film is set in the early ’70s, when they are in prison, and part of the story is told from the Manson ranch. People don’t really take an interest in the girls when they tell that story. They don’t really show how it happened ― how they came to do these things. How could they? How did they? What’s the story there? There was this young feminist in her early 30s who came and gave classes to the Manson girls and wrote a book about them. I’m always interested in an untold story. And not just a straightforward story of a noble struggle, but looking at quite complicated issues of female behavior. Can’t get more complicated than the Manson girls.

Taking it back a bit, you refused to cast Leonardo DiCaprio in “American Psycho” in part because his fan base at the time consisted of teenagers, and because you’d already tapped Christian Bale. What was it like pushing back on studio executives at the time?

Well, I got fired, so that’s what it was like. [Editor’s Note: Harron was eventually reinstated as director of “American Psycho.”] Or you could say I quit, but they fired me because I didn’t want to meet with DiCaprio and I didn’t want to cast him. I’d already said I would cast Christian, who wasn’t famous at the time. Leo was. I think everyone thought I was crazy. There were two things: I thought Leo was a great actor but he wasn’t right for it. Christian was right for it. And I would never make a film if I didn’t think the lead was right. But I also knew that if they brought on the biggest star in the world for “American Psycho,” they’d totally rewrite the script and I would lose control over the tone of it. I also thought it was totally inappropriate for this actor with a huge fan base of young girls to play this role. It just seemed wrong on so many levels. It was an advantage with Christian Bale to have someone who wasn’t as famous, because people didn’t have a lot of preconceptions. His fame didn’t get in the way.

I’m very, very specific about casting and I’ve been through many casting battles. I don’t think I’ve been with a film without having a casting battle. It’s the one thing that’s make-or-break for me. I really will not do a film if I don’t think the lead is right for it. No good film was ever made if the lead was miscast. Making a film is hard enough. But Netflix was very good. They said, “You don’t have to cast stars.” And I think this will make a star out of Sarah Gadon.

Has it gotten any easier over the course of your career to assert yourself in that arena and have a position of power in these casting dilemmas?

No, it really hasn’t. And you’d think it would.  

Last question: Why isn’t “I Shot Andy Warhol” available to stream anywhere?

I just saw Christine Vachon, the producer, at the premiere of the Todd Haynes movie [“Wonderstruck”], and she said they’re looking into getting the rights back. It’s one of those things, the company that distributed it went out of business. It breaks my heart that that film isn’t available. There are all these great actors in it. Lili Taylor. Justin Theroux’s first film! I would so love to see that film back. So, we’re working on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. “Alias Grace” is now streaming on Netflix.