Why 'Alias Grace' Star Sarah Gadon Had To Do Tons Of Manual Labor On Set
It took a lot to run a household back in the Victorian era, and Alias Grace's star Sarah Gadon learned that the hard way. In order to authentically portray the lead character Grace Marks in Netflix's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's iconic historical fiction novel, Gadon couldn't just pretend to do household chores. In every scene, Grace was quilting by hand or milking a cow or preparing a meal or cleaning the house, and Gadon had to learn how to do all that, Victorian-era style. So director Mary Harron sent her to "pioneer boot camp" to learn what it took to be a house servant back in the 19th century.
"I went to Pioneer Village which is a pioneer reenactment village," Gadon tells Bustle with a knowing smirk as she reminisces on a late October morning. "I spent a week learning the ropes of what it meant to be a pioneer in the Victorian era. I learned my way around a Victorian kitchen, I learned how to milk a cow, everything, because Mary wanted me to perform all the tasks for real on set during filming."
While Gadon had a pretty good sense of what it took to run a household back then, she was shocked at just how complicated every seemingly-small task was.
"Just to make breakfast is so complicated, there is so much to do," she says. "The chores you had to do even before lunch was so exhausting. Learning how to navigate a Victorian stove, how to light the hearth fire, how you lift the burners and how you'd have to do all that was so different than just turning on a gas stove, boom, there's a flame. Everything has this methodology to it and it's so much work."
All day every day at boot camp Gadon was worked to complete exhaustion, and that didn't stop once filming began. "Because of the way we shot, Sarah quite literally was doing manual labor every single day on set," her co-star Anna Paquin reveals to Bustle, sitting next to Harron on the couch in the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. "Every single prop or scene or setup was a fully functioning whatever it was supposed to be. She was actually doing all of that on camera."
And Harron couldn't believe the level of skill and multitasking required of Gadon to film each scene. "She had to learn how to sew and quilt because she's quilting throughout all the episodes, sitting there with the doctor quilting during their conversations," she says. "She worked her tail off. She learned such useful stuff if there's ever an apocalypse. And even though I thought I had a good idea of what life was like in Victorian society, the amount of physical labor that was done by young women, teenage girls, who were working from sunrise to late at night just to do the simplest domestic task, was so shocking."
Harron then starts listing off what it takes to start the day — "Getting firewood, lighting the coal, making fire, going to the well, drawing water, washing dishes, washing clothes, emptying chamber pots," she says. "Nothing was easy or automatic. That wonderful lifestyle you see in like Downton Abbey, it's on the backs of people working 14 back breaking hours a day, nonstop labor. I didn't really understand the scale of that before this."
But impressively, Gadon never complained about the amount of work she had to do before and during production, because "the level of physical exhaustion helped" her completely transform into Grace Marks, the poor, young Irish immigrant and domestic servant convicted of the controversial and brutal murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Paquin), in 1843, despite her claims of innocence.
"I was hauling buckets of water, they weren't empty," Gadon says. "I was pumping water, I was milking a cow, and if the cow kicked stuff over [during filming] that is what actually happened. It was this constant physical negotiation of my space that I was not used to. I was overwhelmed by the level of work involved."
In fact, sometimes the work would get to be too much and she would stop to go for a run to clear her head. "I would become so riddled with anxiety that I would oftentimes have to stop," she says. "I became paralyzed with the amount of work that I had to do. But just charging through and taking each small task I had to do and just getting through it started to propel me and fulfill me with a confidence in my ability to be able to do this and play this character."
And then she began to find the joy in her exhausting labor.
"One of the things I loved doing most was milking cows," she reveals with a little laugh. "It's so intimate and it's really beautiful. If you have a good cow, one that isn't surly, then it's really peaceful because you lean your whole shoulder and your neck into the cow's body and then you find this rhythm. I never thought that I would ever say that but I really liked that part of it. It was so cool."
Paquin laughs when Harron points out that she never had to go to pioneer boot camp like Gadon. "[Nancy] does literally nothing, that's why this was so great for me," she says. And since Paquin plays one of Grace's supposed victims, the actor spent a lot of time getting killed on camera repeatedly as they filmed all the different versions of the murder scene.
"There was one 14 hour day where we just killed her over and over and over, dragged her across the room on the floor, threw her down some stairs, her head bangs on the ground," Harron recalls with a laugh. "There are some great shots of the death of Nancy, I'll say that."
Paquin agrees as a broad smile breaks out on her face, adding, "I got to have the fun, flashy guest star role instead of having to quilt or scrub floors or stick my hand up a chicken's ass."
But all that work Gadon put in is paying off, as she knows how to make herself a meal essentially out of nothing.
"There were a lot of food scenes – preparation of eggs, cutting the fat off of ham. Stuffing a chicken. Kneading bread," she says. "It was lots of work. Are you asking me to make you dinner? Because I can now."
Hey Netflix, that sounds like a great promotional tie-in — a fully authentic pioneer meal prepared by the star of Alias Grace. She's certainly prepared for it.