I am always thrilled when Sarah Polley releases a new film. I certainly enjoyed her as an actress back in the day but in my opinion her work as a writer and director has been extraordinary and has demonstrated the range of her immense talent. Moving, meaningful films such as Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and Stories We Tell have explored a tapestry of human emotions that we don’t often see depicted on film, and Polley’s new film, Women Talking, breaks even more ground. In this story, based on Miriam Toews’ acclaimed 2018 novel, a group of women in a close-knit and isolated religious colony are forced to reconcile their faith with their reality after they discover that some of the men in their community have been drugging the women and raping them at night. The men have been taken away but their return is imminent and the women gather to debate their next steps: do they do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the community that is all they’ve ever known? 

Though the backstory behind the events in the powerful and moving Women Talking is violent, the film is not. We never see the violence that the women have experienced, we only see short glimpses of the aftermath. Instead, we watch a community of women come together as they must decide, in a very short space of time, what their collective response will be and how, with their limited knowledge of the outside world, they can move forward together to build better lives for themselves and their children. The ensemble that Polley has put together is extraordinary — you won’t see any better acting this year. The women of the community include Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand, and so many others incredibly skilled actors. Ben Whishaw plays August, a sensitive man who left the community but has now returned and is the only man the women (who cannot read or write) trust to take down their deliberations for posterity. And August Winter gives a haunting performance as the nonbinary Melvin (the character’s chosen name that many of the community members refuse to acknowledge) who is helping take care of the many children while the women are engaged in this important task of figuring out their next move. 

I had the pleasure of talking to August Winter about their experience making this remarkable film.

Danny Miller: I would honestly say this is one of the best ensemble films I have ever seen. And while I was moved throughout, I’ll say that it was something that happens with your character in the film that really moved me to tears. What a beautiful performance! Is there something that happens on set during the making of this kind of film that helps acclimate you all into feeling that you’re really part of this close-knit community? 

August Winter

August Winter: Yeah, that was all Sarah. Sarah Polley, the director, was so incredible from the very first day in establishing that warm, welcoming, safe feeling and genuinely connecting with each of us as human beings. She just has that magic quality. You could come to her with any ideas that you had and it would always be welcome. And so we had that permission to go to these more difficult places that were required because she was rock solid. 

I’ve always been a huge fan of Polley’s films. As an actor, I don’t know how much you tend to focus on the backstory of your character or even what happens to them after the events of the movie are over. But I did find myself really worrying about Melvin. How has Melvin been accepted by the men of the community? What’s going to happen with the character in the future? Do you think about things like that or is it more about focusing on what’s on the page?  

I think there’s a bit of both. My primary focus is always on what’s happening right there in the moment. But yeah, I do wonder about this character, especially after the film.  You see Melvin leave with the women, and I think that’s a very big decision to be the only adult male-identifying person leaving with these people. I do think that Melvin will play a very important role in the new world  that these women are going to be creating. What is that male gender to them, how can that be different moving forward? How can Melvin help raise the boys and the other children in a new way? 

You said that Sarah was open to everyone’s ideas. I know this story was based on a book, but did you all have some input on your characters? Were their things you brought to them that perhaps weren’t in the original script?

Well, Sarah, again, in her brilliance in adapting this book (which is so beautiful — everyone should read it!), did so many passes on the script that by the time we were ready to shoot it was just perfect as is. However, I think when she cast the film, she was very much aware of what these individuals could uniquely bring to each role. So I think it was like a hybrid between this intricate, detailed script and a kind of osmosis with these specific people that made the characters who they were. For Melvin, since the character did not speak, I think a lot of it for me was discovered in this idea of what it means to primarily be listening, especially in a film where a lot of talking is happening, and conveying what the character is thinking in other ways. That was really cool as an actor to be able to work so internally. 

Yeah, in a film with so much talking, I found I was really listening even more intently when your character was on the screen. I don’t know about you, but in my life I’ve found myself frequently obsessed by these kinds of isolated, close-knit communities. My ancestors were Chasidic Jews and I can see a lot of parallels there. I think I’d last about 10 minutes in such a strict world but I am always both compelled and repulsed by such groups! 

 Yes. This story was actually based on a Mennonite colony in Bolivia even though this takes place in the United States in 2010. I think there can always be dark sides to any kind of organized religious group but what stood out for me in learning more about these people and how they’re portrayed in this film is how touched I was by their sense of community. I know that can have some barriers and limitations as well and I’m not painting a rosy picture of that, but I think what really helps to uplift this story for me was watching how loving these women are even when they are going through such trauma and even when they disagree with each other. You can see moments where certain characters need support and you watch every single person in that hayloft being there for them, even if it’s in their own gruff way. And so in that sense, I think that’s something missing for the way most of us live in the modern world, the way this community and sense of belonging comes before individualistic sensibilities

Totally. If only such groups didn’t so often take this negative turn with power hungry narcissists at the helm! I think your character is the one who has the most interaction with the children of this community. What was that like? Were those kids actors or were they just local residents?  

Most of them had never acted before, which was what made it so beautiful. They didn’t really know the context of this story, just very loosely, which probably would have been the case for the actual children in the community as well. That was really touching for me and helpful as I developed the character of Melvin since I got to watch these kids play and be with them in their purity and goodness. It was very emotional for me watching their innocence because we all start out that way, right?  And then, depending on how we’re conditioned, we start acting in different ways. I had so much fun with them, they were a delight.  We did so many things together that never made it into the film. There were days we were shooting B-roll and we’d just go out into the field and they would crawl all over me, I really loved those kids, and it made me see how important Melvin’s role could be in their lives. 

Women Talking opens in select cities on December 23, 2022, and in wider release on January 20, 2023.