Secrets of the Sisterhood: the key cast of Women Talking on humor as a survival tool

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in Sarah Polley's Women Talking. 
Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in Sarah Polley's Women Talking

Mia Vicino talks with key cast from Sarah Polley’s new feature Women Talking about embracing rage, retaining a sense of humor and building a more woman-inclusive film canon.

This story and the film it covers contain discussion of sexual violence.

These women have survived something so atrocious and so dehumanizing, and yet they can still laugh with each other, they can still love each other, and a lot of that is to do with community.

—⁠Claire Foy

This is a true story. In 2009, eight men from a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were arrested and accused of sexually assaulting at least 60 women and children in their community. During the trial a few years later, the number of victims rose to 151. These men would drug their targets with anesthetizing spray, and in the morning the women would wake to their wrists bound with rope, their bodies covered with bruises, blood and semen stains. Though the men were convicted, some say the ghost rapes are still happening.

But Women Talking is not technically a true story, rather, an act of female imagination—as stated by its opening title card. Adapted from co-screenwriter Miriam Toews’ thought-provoking source novel of the same name, Sarah Polley’s dialogue-driven drama imagines the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna on the brink of a reckoning. Husbands and fathers have been committing the unthinkable, and the survivors hold a clandestine meeting in a hay loft to collectively settle on one of three choices: 1. Do nothing. 2. Fight. 3. Leave.

According to Letterboxd member Zoë Rose Bryant, what follows is “an empathetic epic on an intimate scale. A radical act of female reinvention. And an emotionally enlightening examination of our eternal struggle to (safely) secure our space in the world.” Empathetic is right—Polley is careful to refrain from depicting or reveling in any violence, opting to center the internal aftermath rather than the horrific inciting incident.

Judith Ivey and Claire Foy, whom we spoke to for this story, as mother and daughter Agata and Salome in Women Talking.
Judith Ivey and Claire Foy, whom we spoke to for this story, as mother and daughter Agata and Salome in Women Talking.

An ensemble piece at its core, the women of Molotschna consist of the pragmatic Mariche (Jessie Buckley), the good-hearted—and pregnant—Ona (Rooney Mara), the fiery Salome (Claire Foy) and sage elders Agata and Greta (Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy). Lurking on the margins is the antagonistic Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), representing the minority group of women who want to do nothing.

The one redeemable man in town is August (Ben Whishaw), a school teacher rejected by the others of the colony for his perceived effeminacy—i.e. an emotional intelligence and love of poetry. August, who secretly pines for Ona, is the sole man allowed in the hay loft, his seat secured because the women need someone literate to take notes.

His presence is a disruption, a distraction, a narrative device that paradoxically emphasizes the women’s powerlessness while empowering them: “It’s a different room when there’s no men,” Sheila McCarthy tells me. “Ben, notwithstanding. But it’s a different atmosphere when it’s just us, and I think I’m like that with my own friends. A man comes into the room, it changes. The conversation changes.”

The ensemble of Women Talking from left to right: Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, Liv McNeil, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kate Hallett, Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey.
The ensemble of Women Talking from left to right: Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, Liv McNeil, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kate Hallett, Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey.

With McCarthy—known for I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a beloved Toronto New Wave lesbian fairytale—and two-time Tony Award-winner Judith Ivey, this particular conversation is lively. The pair joyously finish each other’s thoughts, smiling and swapping stories about the horses named Ruth and Cheryl that their characters cared for: “Jessie [Buckley] wrote ‘Ruth’ and ‘Cheryl’ on her fake boobs!” recalls McCarthy, as Ivey laughs and clarifies, “She called her boobs ‘Ruth and Cheryl.’”

McCarthy, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Ontario, continues: “Humor through storytelling about Ruth and Cheryl was really, for me, so important, because it’s who we are as human beings. I’ve been in hospitals where someone’s dying, but there can still be humor. There can still be, and there must be. That’s the human condition. I think that Ruth and Cheryl provided that in the movie, and I loved them.”

Claire Foy agrees: “These women have survived something so atrocious and so dehumanizing, and yet they can still laugh with each other, they can still love each other, and a lot of that is to do with community,” she tells me, going on to highlight how the real-life set functioned similarly. “We all just really got on like a house on fire, so it was a joy. We basically spent the whole time chatting; we wouldn’t stop if it wasn’t a really heavy scene. We were all incredibly respectful of each other, obviously, so we could read the room… But what happens in the hay loft, stays in the hay loft,” she jokes.

Claire Foy, Sarah Polley, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara share a laugh at their film’s TIFF premiere.
Claire Foy, Sarah Polley, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara share a laugh at their film’s TIFF premiere.

For a film with such serious subject matter, the script and performances are still infused with healthy levity. Polley’s in-depth research involved speaking with Mennonite people, and their one caveat—as with author Toews’—was that she incorporate laughter and human contact. In multiple scenes, just when an argument threatens to explode, a well-timed joke punctuates the bubble of tension, causing the loft to erupt in a fit of contagious and cathartic giggles.

Part of how this tight sisterhood was able to thrive was the intimate and inclusive environment that Polley was careful to cultivate. “If you look in the dictionary for the definition of respect, there’s Sarah Polley's picture right there,” says Ivey. “She exudes that; it was contagious and it lasted. It was an everyday event to show respect—I’ve not been on any movie set that had that kind of grace.”

Frances McDormand, who also served as a producer on the film, was supportive of Polley’s resistance to working the industry’s unforgiving 14 to 16-hour days—Polley had three children under the age of eight at the time, and had initially considered only adapting the screenplay rather than directing so she could spend more time with them. McDormand and fellow producer Dede Gardner heard her concerns, and thus, the production was set for a summer shoot in Toronto with shorter hours. Canadian cast and crew were still able to see their kids at night, ensuring a much less stressful production.

Sarah Polley (far right) directs Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and Claire Foy on the hay loft set.
Sarah Polley (far right) directs Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and Claire Foy on the hay loft set.

On set, a grief counselor and therapist were at their beck and call, and the cast would always vocally support each other’s performances—especially in lengthy scenes. According to McCarthy, one particular scene was eleven pages of dialogue long, and the ensemble performed it 120 times. She and Ivey were in their element as seasoned Broadway veterans, but maintaining a heightened level of outrage still became emotionally and physically draining.

“It was demanding, keeping up that level of energy and not dissipating,” says Foy. “People who are angry all the time, I got an insight into what that must be like, and I feel for them—it’s like road rage basically 24 hours a day. It was exhausting, but also really exhilarating.”

Foy, who plays the righteously vengeful Salome, was drawn to the character’s white-hot internal flame. We first meet her as she’s brandishing a scythe, threatening to kill the man who drugged and violated her four-year-old daughter, Miep. “I will destroy any living thing that harms my child,” she rages later, in what is debatably the film’s most unforgettable and chilling monologue. “I will tear it limb from limb. I will desecrate its body and I will bury it alive.”

Salome vows bloody vengeance against anyone who abuses her young daughter Miep, whom she protectively embraces.
Salome vows bloody vengeance against anyone who abuses her young daughter Miep, whom she protectively embraces.

“It was really cathartic to be able to perform it and really not be afraid of it,” says Foy. “Historically, I’ve been ever so slightly reticent of portraying anger on screen. But for this, I was completely behind Salome and all of her approaches to the scenario she’s in, so that was really incredible to not have to hold back.”

Foy has a history of playing headstrong women trapped by patriarchal systems—in Unsane, Sawyer Valentini is involuntarily confined in a mental institution where her stalker works; in First Man, Janet Armstrong scolds NASA astronauts for being “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood” and in her breakout television hit The Crown, Queen Elizabeth the Second is stifled by tradition and regime. Ultimately, however, her characters tend to overcome these structures and break free from their cages, summoning the inner strength to defy the tragic endings pre-written for them.

Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-thriller Unsane (2018).
Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-thriller Unsane (2018).

“There’s so much hope because of the way the women are able to navigate love and faith and their complexities,” says Foy of Women Talking. “They have their own experience, but they aren’t alone in it. We are stronger together, we can do more together, we can learn more and go more places together.” Letterboxd member Samsterrr agrees with this sentiment, writing: “I love this compassionate dream of how we survive. I love that you can tell that it was made by women.”

The cast of the film love that, too. “The extraordinary thing about this set was how many women were working, and not just the actors,” says Ivey. “The number of crew members who were women or transgender was extraordinary. I’ve lived long enough to remember when that was so not true and the crew was mostly male, so this was heaven. It really opened the door as to what you can accomplish when you have all women, instead of the stereotype that you really need a man to do that. No, you don’t!” she says with a laugh.

Foy elaborates on the joy of telling women’s stories: “It’s really fascinating when you think about how the movies that we’ve all watched for so long and we deemed to be the classics, or we deemed to be the greatest movies of all time, are all by one set of people. That doesn’t necessarily mean gendered; it means from any different community. It’s difficult to learn more when you don’t have the opportunity because those things aren’t being made… We could do with more filmmakers like Sarah who have been given opportunities.”

Sarah Polley directing, just one of her many hats along with documentarian, actress, author and all-around badass.
Sarah Polley directing, just one of her many hats along with documentarian, actress, author and all-around badass.

A major theme of Women Talking is how these isolated women lack the language to describe their feelings about what has happened to them. Similarly, though on a much less traumatic level, this idea can be applied to the general lack of women-centric stories included in the overall film canon—Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman is only just now beginning to receive her flowers, almost 50 years after release. How are we to process the complicated cocktail of emotions and experiences that come pre-attached to certain identities—and how are others to garner empathy—if we have so few examples to guide us?

For Foy, some films that scratch this itch for representation are Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Jane Campion’s The Piano; the latter she calls one of her favorite films of all time: “It does an incredible job about exploring female desire and there are so many metaphors in it.”

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin as mother and daughter in The Piano (1993), calling to mind Salome and her daughter Miep.
Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin as mother and daughter in The Piano (1993), calling to mind Salome and her daughter Miep.

Ivey cites another Polley film called Away From Her, which she admires for its being told from the perspective of a woman with Alzheimer’s rather than that of her husband (though the narrative compassionately explores the impact on his life as well). She also references a newer drama called Herself, made by Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd: “It’s about a young woman trying to make her life work, and it did make an impact on me, like, ‘Gee, I wish I’d seen that movie when I was that age; it would have made a difference in my life’.”

For McCarthy, the ultimate film in the feminine canon is John Cassavetes’ 1974 masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence. “That movie made an indelible impression on me,” she recalled. “It was about the madness of a woman, and a woman being misunderstood. She wasn’t really mad at all—she was just trying to express herself—but she was deemed mentally unfit. It was a great exploration of a mother, and a woman, and a wife and how she didn’t fit in.”

Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), an essential entry in the feminine film canon.
Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), an essential entry in the feminine film canon.

This discussion of the feminine film canon provokes thoughts on the cinematic language that disparate groups use to tell their stories, and what is deemed acceptable. Some reviewers have taken umbrage with the “dreary” color palette—though the desaturation is a wholly intentional artistic choice—choosing to nitpick about the way it looks rather than focus on what it’s actually saying (a phenomenon women are all too familiar with).

Cinematographer Luc Montpellier based his images off Larry Towell’s seminal photographs of the Mennonite people, and the muted tones reflect a claustrophobic antiquity. “The aesthetic and texture is actually necessary and good and complements the movie really effectively,” writes Letterboxd member Siegel. “With a color-grading that feels ancient, it’s a consistent culture shock every time the viewer is reminded that this abhorrent medieval barbarism is depressingly timeless.”

Polley’s vision for the film was to evoke “a faded postcard of a world that had already passed.”
Polley’s vision for the film was to evoke “a faded postcard of a world that had already passed.”

All this talking about Women Talking—whether positive or negative—is nevertheless encouraged, particularly by Foy. “Films can genuinely provide people to have a differing opinion,” she says. “Some people will like this movie and some people will hate this movie. That’s okay. But have a chat about why. What are the things that you disagree with? What are the things that you like about it? If we are able to make films that are complex and interesting and having big conversations, we’ll be able to have interesting and big conversations around them,” concludes Foy. “That’s the hope, anyway.”


‘Women Talking’ is in select theaters now and releases wide on January 20, courtesy of United Artists.

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