A veteran of Canadian film, television, and theater, Sheila McCarthy has been acting since she first took the stage in a production of Peter Pan as a young girl. Filmmaker Sarah Polley likewise began her career as a child actor in Toronto. "I played her mother in one particular film called Hidden Room," McCarthy recalls. "I remember even then her exactness under her incredible sweetness."
McCarthy would go on to star in big Hollywood movies like Die Hard 2 and The Day After Tomorrow, while Polley ultimately pivoted to writing and directing. Their paths reconvened for Women Talking, which Polley adapted from the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews and directed. The drama is about Mennonite women reckoning with sexual violence in their community. McCarthy plays the matriarch Greta, with an ensemble that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Frances McDormand.
"The cast is full of big, huge movie stars. I was a fangirl for most of it," McCarthy says, "but working with Sarah Polley grounded me and made me feel a part of something I am so proud and honored to be in. Lucky me. I loved playing gentle but a little bit funny Greta with her two horses, Ruth and Cheryl."
She says Polley was just as "exact and yet completely warm and open" as she was as a child, recalling one moment in particular collaborating on Women Talking. "I don't often feel comfortable offering ideas to directors and — not to put too fine a point on it — am not often asked for ideas. Sarah was the opposite," McCarthy says. "She even put my whole bedroom set back together on the very last day of shooting just so I could make my bed after waking up from a drugged-induced night and rape. I had offered that idea up months earlier, to pull up my meager bedspread as though nothing bad had happened to me in the night, and Sarah stored that idea away, then remembered it. 'Wanna make your bed, Sheila?' We shot it and she gave me credit for it in front of the entire crew. Directors don’t usually do that for actors. That was the best moment in the film for me. My Oscar."
Women Talking, meanwhile, won the National Board of Review award for Best Ensemble, and was named as the recipient of Film Independent's Robert Altman Award, given to a film's director, casting director, and ensemble cast. McCarthy was previously nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards in 1992 for her performance in the thriller Bright Angel.
"I suppose the success of the movie could kick open a few doors for me now. Who knows? It is a fickle business," she muses. "I do think this is all just incredible. Anne Hathaway threw her arms around me in Telluride after seeing Women Talking and sobbed. I am 66 years old and have been in this business since I started as a little dancer at five years old. Doing this movie at this time in my career is crazy and makes me a tad lightheaded from all the attention. I also just read that Bette Midler loved our movie. I am starstruck with the idea of that. I am determined to just enjoy this ride for as long as it lasts and try not to faint if I get to meet Brad Pitt."
Below, McCarthy shares with A.frame five films that have had a profound impact on her and set the bar for the caliber of performance she wants to deliver in her own work.
Directed by: Lee Tamahori | Written by: Riwia Brown
I remember watching this exquisite New Zealand film in a hotel room when I was shooting a dark thriller called Bright Angel in Billings, Montana. It was 1995. I was supposed to be sleeping as we were shooting night shoots, but, as soon as I turned on this film, I was wide awake and completely caught up in the harrowing story and performances. It wasn't an easy watch. Full of brutality and truly an attack on domestic violence and abuse. The film is raw and depicts so clearly how alcohol can trigger sudden personality shifts between people who might have loved each other one time.
I'd never seen acting like this before on film, and even today all these years later, I still haven't. It resonates today still with me on two levels. The acting, so powerful and on the edge, plus the topic of abuse, so vividly told. There are no seams in this film. It is life on the screen, and I have never seen another movie that even comes close to moving me as much. I don't know if it changed my performance in Bright Angel. I hope so.
Directed by: Paul Feig | Written by: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
I know this movie had enormous success everywhere and most people just loved it as a romantic romp with Kristen Wiig at the helm, but, after watching this movie one hundred times, I truly believe this film is a more important one for its time. Yes, I know it is drop dead funny, but it affected me on a much deeper level. To me, it digs into what friendship is really all about with all its flaws, and highs, and lows, and hurts. My heart kind of breaks all the way through it even as I laugh, yet again, at the incredible physical comedy of the entire cast. It is a giant puzzle of a film with each puzzle piece fitting perfectly together.
When Melissa McCarthy sits on top of Kristen Wiig, lecturing her about friendship? Well, it doesn't get any better than that. So few movies really get what women really talk about when they are alone. This movie confirms my faith in friendship. I must also mention the mother-daughter relationship between Kristen Wiig and Jill Clayburgh, one of my favorite actresses, in her final role. I adore every second of it. I never get tired of watching it. Doing a movie like this would be so wonderful. It is every actor's dream to be part of a project like this. Great writing equals everything. Serve the witty and human words as an actor and you are halfway there.
Directed by: Ida Lupino | Written by: Blanche Hanalis
This film is one that I like to introduce to everyone. I know on the surface it seems like a slight and juvenile comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, but I think it is a more important film than that. For starters, Ida Lupino directed it. A woman directing a movie in Hollywood in the '60s! Wonders never cease! Look closer and you will see her hand in every frame, every color chosen, ever line of smart, witty dialogue.
I was a catholic girl growing up and had a million fantasies about going to a private school where the nuns might reign terror over us while we got away with hijinks galore, and I would even get to be in a dorm room with my beloved Hayley Mills and her best friend June Harding. This film depicts friendship beautifully, and had a profound effect on me as a young girl. I still love it. It cracks me in two at the end. It may be a bit corny now, but it is still deeply funny and moving, and I defy you not to cry when Sister Liguori dies. And the music score is of the time and wonderful.
Directed by: Bryan Forbes | Written by: Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
This is a British crime thriller again starring Hayley Mills as a young girl who thinks she has found Jesus in her barn. In fact, it is a murderer played by the brilliant Alan Bates. The original book was written by Mills' mother, Mary Hayley Bell. I suppose this movie had an effect on me because it is about children hiding secrets from adults, conspiring with a killer who they have endowed as Jesus, hiding in a 'manger' type barn from the police. The children's profound innocence and curiosity moved me so much the first time I saw this film.
Images of the children waiting for the man, feeding him and protecting him, and then, the final image of him with arms outstretched, standing on a hill like Jesus on the cross, having been caught by the police, are indelibly etched into my memory. I am not at all a religious person, but the children's absolute faith in their discovery just killed me. In 2005, the British Film Institute included this movie in its list of 50 films children should see before they are 14. I agree. It is a lesson in acting, watching these children conspire with each other. Breathtaking.
Directed by: Peter Godfrey | Written by: Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini
This little gem is often overlooked as a must-see Christmas movie. Made in 1945, starring the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, this film holds up today as a real classic. It seems so modern. I only saw it very recently for the very first time and was blown away by the seemingly contemporary style of acting and feminist slant. Stanwyck's acting is so strong, and funny, and clear, most other actresses today could learn from her style — including myself. She is a force, and I love every second of her in this delightful romp that has some really great serious moments as well. Stanwyck rides that fine line between wit and drama. I have tried to copy her without any success!
In looking this one up, I discovered a 1992 remake that I refuse to watch. Don't even try to match the perfection of the original. The humor is timeless and, led by the leading lady, it is an absolute joy to watch again and again. I learned so much from it, in terms of style, and camp, and humor. If it is rooted in a really good story, just let the actors loose and let them have fun! I adore having fun on set. And I just bet this cast in this movie had the time of their lives. Is there anything better than breaking up laughing when you shouldn't? Barbara Stanwyck always gave me the impression she had a secret. I love that.