Sarah Gadon has been in no fewer than three David Cronenberg films. She was cast in A Dangerous Method, his account of the friendship between Freud and Jung, while she was still a student at the University of Toronto, and brought real pathos to the role of Carl Jung’s long-suffering wife, trying to remain dignified as he put into practice his theories of human sexuality with his mistress. Cast opposite Michael Fassbender and more recently Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars, Gadon is capable of not only holding her own, but virtually pulling focus from two of the most scene-stealing actors around. So it’s hardly surprising that she’s now taking centre stage herself.
In A Royal Night Out she stars as Princess Elizabeth, the 19-year-old future Queen. The film is a fantasy spun from the fact that on VE Day, and for a few summer nights afterwards, ‘Lilibet’ and Margaret were allowed out of the palace to mingle with the crowds. Did their adventures go a stage further? Did they perhaps have a real night have a night on the tiles as ‘ordinary’ girls? It’s the kind of historical rumour that stays around because it’s so appealing — the idea of the teenage princesses running amok, hoping for a glimpse of Gregory Peck in the Curzon Club and looking for boys to dance with in the Chelsea Barracks.
In 1945, even the chandeliers in a very grey Buckingham Palace were literally wrapped in cotton wool, to protect them from bomb blasts. It’s hard not to sympathise with the girls’ desire to escape what Princess Margaret terms a ‘ghastly mausoleum’. Right on cue, they are barely past the footmen before Margaret (a memorably batshit turn by Bel Powley) is in danger of being slipped a Mickey Finn in Soho and Elizabeth has lost a heel after falling off the back of a bus in a attempt to capture her sister who has run — inevitably — ‘orf’.
‘The thing about our film is that it is very tongue in cheek, full of humour, full of embellishment. It’s a very heightened fantastical look back at history. I’m a huge fan of Roman Holiday and tonally the film had a lot of that to it,’ Gadon tells me. As the film’s producer Douglas Rae points out, Gadon herself has more than a touch of Audrey Hepburn about her. While she makes a wholly convincing Windsor, she has more of an emotional connection to the anonymous faces in the crowd than to the princesses. Her late British grandmother was in the WAAF and her grandparents were in Trafalgar Square dancing on that very night.
As is often the way with modern casting, Gadon’s first interactions with the film’s director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited) were a recorded video and conversations over Skype. Their first face-to-face meeting was in Soho, long after she had been cast. ‘I said “Hi, how are you, I’m so excited about this,”’ she recalls. ‘And he looked really terrified and said, “You’re so Canadian!”’
Our own interview takes place in the garden of the Cipriani during the Venice film festival. As is the nature of these things, we rattle at top speed through her life, her filmography and whatever else comes to mind. Gadon carries maple syrup with her wherever she travels — ‘We put it in everything, we put it in our salad dressings, we glaze our chicken with it, we have it porridge in the morning, in yoghurt…’ I take Jarrold’s point. She is very Canadian indeed. However, in his film she perfects a peculiarly prickly British royal unworldliness which sits uneasily (and interestingly) with the sweetness she brings to her character.
Her father is a psychologist and she shares his fascination with what makes people tick. ‘I never consciously felt that it would have any sort of influence in terms of me becoming an actor — but now, as an adult and looking at it, I realise that it really has a lot to do with it.’ The combination of spectacular looks and this psychological subtlety makes it easy to see her joining the ranks of Canada’s star exports to Los Angeles: think Cronenberg, Jason Reitman, Christopher Plummer, the Ryans — Gosling and Reynolds — Jim Carrey, Joshua Jackson, Rachel McAdam. This list goes on. Next up is The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, the psychological thriller that Anthony Minghella was developing when he died, in which Sarah will star with Jamie Dornan.
I wondered if she worries about the inspiration for her character seeing the film: after all, Helen Mirren was invited to Buckingham Palace after winning her Oscar for The Queen. ‘I hope she sees it but it’s not an accurate retelling of history so I think… I hope she has fun watching it,’ she says diplomatically.
Being a fledgling film star is an odd thing. As a brand ambassador for Jaeger LeCoultre, sponsors of the Venice film festival, Gadon is ferried around the Lido dripping in diamonds and Armani Privé; on the other her mum and a friend have come along to look at art, and when I ask where her retro interview outfit came from, she tells me Topshop.
‘We’re a city that goes to the movies,’ she says of her home city. ‘New York and London are known for their theatre, Paris it’s opera, San Francisco is ballet but Toronto has always had the festival. I grew up going to the Toronto film festival and watching films there. Toronto influenced me as an artist but it is also my home, it’s where my family lives, it’s where my childhood friends are. I come home and I’m submerged in familiarity and familiar experiences. In order to be an actor you have to live a life.’
David Cronenberg will be relieved. His home-grown find may be the new face of Armani, but there’s nothing princessy about her. She’ll be carrying around her own maple syrup for a good while yet.