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Pinsent tense 

Gordon Pinsent holds down the centre of Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her. Carsten Knox gets inside the actor’s low-key performance.

Gordon Pinsent was one of many Canadian thespians who guest-starred on the long-running, much-adored TV drama Road to Avonlea. Though the iconic, Newfoundland-born actor doesn't recall having had a scene with Sarah Polley, then one of the young Avonlea stars, he knew her through her family, many of whom worked in the business.

"I knew her mother and father...her brother, Mark, who is now a lawyer, was the little blonde kid in a series I wrote called A Gift to Last," he says in his trademark gravelly voice down the line from Toronto, where he lives. "And when she"—Sarah— "came upon this work she simply asked me, "Have you ever read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain' by Alice Munro?' And I said no. Little did I know she was at that time trying to get it off the ground as a film. I got an email saying, "I couldn't be happier to offer you this role.'"

The film, adapted for the screen by Polley from the Munro story, is Away From Her. Pinsent, 76, plays Grant, a man whose wife is taken from him by Alzheimer's disease, both intellectually and emotionally, as she forgets him and transfers her affections to another man at the care facility where she lives. Pinsent was impressed by Polley's skill as director, despite it being her first time at the helm of a feature film. At such a young age, at any age, really, it's an unusual career decision.

"My heavens," he says, "27-year-old actresses who say, "No, I've got another step or two to take?' Where could she go? You wouldn't necessarily in LA. And boy, she's done it. Quite beautifully, I must admit. It's fascinating to watch her work."

The character of Fiona, Grant's wife, is played by Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago), an actor who appears onscreen very rarely these days. Having worked with the reluctant screen legend before, in Hal Hartley's No Such Thing and Isabel Coixet's The Secret Life of Words, Polley says Christie has "a pretty complicated relationship with acting where she's not always sure she wants to do it." Polley mounted a campaign of emails, letter-writing and phone calls in order to convince her to take the role.

"I was told by Sarah that Julie was not thrilled anymore by offers to do work, she doesn't go looking for them," says Pinsent. "She just plain isn't keen, and she sure shows it. Then you realize, well, she must have taken it because she liked it. Then you're safe. Then everything is fine. Especially when you see the level at which she excels."

The subtleties of the script must have been a draw, as it offers a number of challenges for the leads. It's implied that Grant may have strayed earlier in his relationship with Fiona, and he's uncertain whether her changing mental state and affection for another man is in some way vindictive, a payback for his past infidelities. In his performance, Pinsent communicates layers of emotion in subtle ways: guilt, anger, loneliness, but all the while his devotion to his wife never wavers.

"One of the first things that comes to people who are slipping in memory are the worst kinds of memories," he says. "The worst thing would be to dwell or argue points regarding a bitter remembrance. That's all it was, a question of understating because there was nothing else to do with it. I kept it on a low key, throughout."

Lionsgate, the company that is opening Away From Her in the United States, has cunningly chosen to counter-program it opposite a certain superhero blockbuster, riding a crest of rave reviews. And even though Polley, Christie and supporting actor

Olympia Dukakis have star wattage in the States to help market the film, it may be Pinsent's visability that increases south of the border as a result of the picture's critical success.

"I suppose," he says, reflecting on his long career and the vagaries of stardom. "You never know. I spent six years in LA. I played the president of the United States in 1969. Now it's 2007, I'm on a roll!" He chuckles at the thought, adding, "But I have no illusions to that sort of thing. If I can pick one more job after each job, that feels good. I'm just not driven anymore in that regard. It's a lovely relaxing time. It's a time when whatever happens, happens."

Away From Her opens May 11. See Movie Times for info.

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