Alison Pill’s and Sarah Gadon’s real-life bond helped them play sisters in ‘All My Puny Sorrows’

Sarah Gadon as Elf and Alison Pill as Yoli in “All My Puny Sorrows,” directed by Michael McGowan.

When Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon were cast as sisters in Michael McGowan’s “All My Puny Sorrows,” it wasn’t much of a stretch.

The Toronto-born thespians broke into the industry together as child actors and attended the Claude Watson School for the Arts in North York. They followed that up by enrolling in Interact at Vaughan Road Academy (an alternative program designed for students pursuing careers in dance, music, athletics and theatre).

But, in a recent interview with the Star, Gadon said their closeness wasn’t just because of the educational institutions they both attended.

“It’s so much more than just ‘I know her because I went to school with her,’” Gadon said. “I know her. I know what she’s made of. I know the cloth that she’s cut from.”

Pill agreed and said that while they worked tightly together on projects as teenagers, they hadn’t seen each other until their latest collaboration. That said, they didn’t skip a beat when they were reunited in North Bay to shoot their new project in a little over two weeks.

“‘All My Puny Sorrows’ was a real gift. It (the sisters’ relationship) isn’t something you can replicate with somebody that you’ve just known for two weeks,” said Pill “You can’t make that up. There’s only so much you can do in terms of manufacturing history.”

The movie is based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name. It tells the story of the Von Riesen family, focusing primarily on the relationship between sisters Yoli (Pill) and Elf (Gadon).

Yoli is a struggling writer dealing with a looming divorce and a know-it-all teenage daughter (played by Amybeth McNulty of “Anne With an E”), while Elf is an accomplished concert pianist struggling with suicidal impulses. The tumultuous nature of their lives is grounded by the loss of their father, who killed himself years earlier, causing the sisters and their mother, Lottie (Mare Winningham), to leave the Mennonite community they grew up in.

“At the heart of this film is a relationship between two sisters. They both absolutely rely, love and need each other,” director McGowan said. “One wants to die and the other one wants to live. It’s this sort of existential struggle between them as they navigate this.”

The movie resonates primarily because of the believability of its performances.

“Our shared experiences from a young age, I think, really informed our way of being with one another and then getting to see each other as grown women, our own processes and our own way of looking at the world, our own fight,” said Pill. “It was incredibly empowering to be able to have each other as a safety net and as fencing partners.”

While it wasn’t critical for the actors behind his lead characters to know each other, McGowan said it certainly didn’t hurt.

“They worked on a movie of the week together, ‘Fast Food High’ or something like that, 19 years earlier. Alison and Sarah had crossed paths a number of times. They were friends and their reconnection really helped sell it. They are great actors so I am sure they would have been fine even if they didn’t like each other but the fact that they did … it’s like they already had a sisterly relationship that carried over onscreen.”

The movie could almost be described as one long conversation between the sisters, and Gadon and Pill appreciated each other’s way of preparing for that.

“She is not afraid of text and material and confronting that text and material at an in-depth level,” Gadon said of Pill. “Not all performers are like that. We spent so much time together, preparing and finding joy within that prep work.”

“In terms of memorization, in terms of the dialogue, Sarah and I encouraged Mike to really foster a rehearsal process,” Pill said. “I’m in almost every scene of this movie and we had 20 days to shoot it. My favourite part of the rehearsal process is the table work, picking apart the play and then putting it back together again. Sarah was an amazing partner in that.”

The movie’s defining trait is the way it handles the subject of suicide. While Yoli is serious about her desire to end her life, the topic is also handled with an air of levity. This required careful balancing by McGowan.

“It’s the idea that you can go to a funeral and make a joke. There’s sort of this juxtaposition. There was a great sense of humour in the novel,” McGowan said. “You can laugh through tears or be angry and then ecstatic in the next moment. I would hate for this film just to be a relentless downer because I think it is a hopeful film.”

“Just because someone is depressed, that doesn’t mean they can’t see the irony of their situation,” Gadon added.

Pill said nothing is black and white in terms of how it should be treated.

“Humans want to quantify and categorize things, but that’s just a fool’s errand. Death can be tragic and it can be funny. The pandemic has kind of brought that to the fore. There are some really shockingly bad moments and there’s some really shocking beautiful ones, and they live right next door to each other.”

Speaking of the pandemic and levity, Pill said one part of filming the movie she won’t soon forget involved a romantic scene with co-star Dov Tiefenbach, another Toronto-born actor.

The pair had to make out, which meant adhering to strict COVID-19 safety measures. The rules included using hydrogen peroxide mouthwash before each kiss.

“We had to swallow this stuff from tiny paper cups, wait for the COVID officers to count to 10, spit it out into a Ziploc bag and then do a take,” said Pill. “It’s always strange to have any kind of physical intimacy on set, let alone be forced into this strange countdown and spit into a bag. That was a great bonding exercise to begin every day.”

“All My Puny Sorrows” opens April 15 in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg with other major city openings scheduled for April 22.

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