A Look Beneath the Veil of Alias Grace’s Showstopping Hypnotism
As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fair’s HWD team is once again diving deep into how some of this season’s greatest scenes and characters came together. You can read more of these close looks here.
THE SCENE: ALIAS GRACE SEASON 1, PART 6
The centerpiece of Netflix’s period miniseries Alias Grace, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, is an almost-18-minute long scene where convicted murderess Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a longtime inmate, becomes the subject of a well-intentioned but theatrical exhibition of hypnosis. Grace’s good manners and longtime protestations of innocence have convinced some that she has been taken advantage of. But the holes in her story, and the conflicting testimony of witnesses, lead to her imprisonment nonetheless. In an extremely Victorian move, her supporters suggest hypnosis in front of a private audience—hoping to uncover something in her repressed memories, while also enjoying the novelty of a recent fad.
The process does not go as expected. Beneath the sheer black veil placed over her head—and in front of every uptight clergyman and stuffy society matron who has gossiped about her—Grace becomes an entirely different person. She begins to speak in a low, hissing voice, and darts malevolent glances at Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), the obsessive psychiatrist attempting to determine if Grace can claim insanity. The voice coming out of her mouth is saucy, cunning, and remorseless; it claims to be Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), a girlhood friend of Grace’s who died after a botched abortion. In just a few minutes—with just the addition of a veil and some theatrics—the scene radically re-frames the story, offering Grace up as a martyr, a murderer, a performance artist, or the subject of supernatural possession.
Director Mary Harron anchored the sequence on Gadon’s performance, laying out the scene around her as if it were a painting. The high, curtained windows of the parlor, coupled with the somber tones of the audience’s Victorian dress, suggested to her a John Singer Sargent portrait; fittingly, the folds of the sheer black veil fall over Gadon’s face like broad brushstrokes. Both Gadon and Harron said in separate interviews that they were nervous when approaching the scene, owing to its complexity and significance.
Both, however, left satisfied with what they accomplished. “It’s the masterpiece of the show,” Gadon said. And, as Harron observed, “The veil is like the perfect image or metaphor for the whole show, because Grace is veiled—she’s partly obscured, she’s enigmatic, and you’re constantly trying to see the real self. So it was a beautiful image, in the end.”
HOW IT CAME TOGETHER
As written by Sarah Polley, this sequence offered room for interpretation—which made filming it particularly daunting for its director and star. The hypnotism was like a one-act play within the show itself, said Gadon. “I was overwhelmed by the amount of work to learn. It became a massive sequence.”
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Originally, Harron said, the scene took place seated around a table, “more like a séance.” But after watching Augustine, a 2012 historical drama from French director Alice Winocour, Harron realized that such an arrangement wouldn’t tease out one of the scene’s most vital elements: that Grace, an object of fascination and a true-crime celebrity in her own right, is being put on display by the hypnotist, Jeremiah (Zachary Levi), a charlatan with only dubious scientific talent.
“He doesn’t know that she’s going to talk in Mary’s voice,” Harron said. “But there’s also that aspect you don’t know—is it a séance? Is she actually channeling something? Is it some kind of confession? . . . Is it a repressed self taking over? Or is it a kind of ghost—the ghost of Mary Whitney? You just don’t know. It’s also theatrical, and it’s also a performance—but we’re not sure how much is a performance and how much is real.”
The crew had the added advantage of being able to reach out to Atwood herself for clarification, specifically when it came to how Mary Whitney’s voice would emanate from Grace. “In the book, it’s very ambiguous,” Gadon said. “Does Grace actually sound like Grace? Does Grace actually channel Mary Whitney?”
Atwood was not coy in her response. “We went directly to Margaret,” she said. “And Margaret said, ‘During the hypnosis, Mary’s voice speaks through Grace.’ It’s so rare that you have that—that line of communication, and also that guidance into the material,” Gadon said.
The revelation from Atwood led Gadon to work with a dialect coach to match her words to the way Liddiard would say them in character. Gadon had Liddiard record the lines, and practiced repeating them along with the recording.
“[Rebecca] has such a fascinating voice. It is quite nasally . . . that was the easiest way for me to access it: to go into my nasal passages,” Gadon explained. The effect sometimes surprised her: “Whoa! What voice came out of me?! It was really fun and creepy.”
“The more specific things can seem, the better they are,” Harron said. “She had this specific model to work on, and that unlocked it. I never anticipated how very scary it would be. But when you heard it, it was like, Oh my god.”
Harron and Gadon went over the script together several times before filming, with Gadon reading and re-reading it aloud to Harron. The role of Grace was a tall order, especially in Polley’s adaptation, which took a long and winding road to the screen; Polley first tried to option the novel when she was just a teenager. Ultimately, Gadon’s slippery lead performance is central to what makes Alias Grace work. To Harron, honoring the script and the book meant preserving the ambiguity present in both: “You don’t want to settle on one answer with Grace, because then it’s just a puzzle with one answer. The mystery of Grace is part of the meaning of the story.”
Then again, Gadon laughed, “You can’t just have her in the space of ambiguity as an actor! It’s not really making any choices and decisions.”
Between them, the director and star developed three modes for Gadon: Good Grace, who is innocent; Bad Grace, who is guilty; and Neutral Grace, who is calmer, wiser, and older. At times, especially during scenes with Simon Jordan, Gadon would film multiple interpretations of the same moment. “The groundwork is done before you roll the film,” Harron explained. “I’d run over to her from the monitor and go, ‘Now do Good Grace’ . . . I’m not trying to get her to find the performance. It’s just subtle calibration.”
That made the hypnotism scene much easier to enact. The moment when Grace opens her eyes under the veil was electric for Harron: “Her eyes had been closed, but then they open—and it’s a look of such malice,” she said. “That’s the thing about directing . . . It’s so exciting, like, Oh yeah, that’s what it is! You don’t even quite know what it is until you’re actually doing it.”
Gadon is the type of actress who prepares a lot in advance. In addition to working on her dialect and laying the foundations of performance with Harron, Gadon read Atwood’s book six times. “I kind of went crazy with the book,” she said ruefully. “I was reading the book, and comparing it to the script, and writing down the differences . . . I kept reading it and reading it and reading it, looking for answers. And then I realized that they were never really going to come from the book.”
The hypnotist’s veil is only just mentioned in Atwood’s novel, but Harron quickly realized how important it would be to the filmed scene. “It was such a key element,” she said. “Much more noticeable than in the book.” Harron considered patterned veils and fabrics of different weights. Ultimately, she was won over by a semi-transparent black veil’s beautiful simplicity.
For Gadon, being veiled held significance. “There were so many times when I watched the show later where I thought—That is so intense how much I look like the statue of the Veiled Virgin.” But the series gives that iconic image an entirely new context: “[Harron and Polley] take that image that we have seen so often—often in a patriarchal construct—and they say: The veiled woman is something we cannot crack. The veiled woman is something that can be dangerous, something that can express her innermost complicated desires. All of a sudden, they open up this image—and they kind of reclaim it,” Gadon said.
The shroud helped Gadon perform Mary Whitney’s otherworldly voice as well. “There was something absurd about the scene, and it grounds it by being under the veil,” she said. “So much of Grace Marks’s life was about how people projected things onto her. So having that veil neutralizes everything you’ve learned up until this point, and it allows you to project this idea of Mary onto her, and project this idea of danger, too.”
It was a frustrating prop, though. “It was driving us nuts, actually,” Harron remembered. “I was worried it was getting wrinkled.” There was “a lot of shaking it out and re-arranging it,” and “making sure there was enough light coming through, so you could see the face, but not too much.” Harron had to juggle a mixture of wide shots and very tight close-ups around the finicky square of fabric, one of which ended up being her favorite: “It’s almost like a silhouette, in profile, under the veil, with just a rim of light around her face,” she said. “If i was designing the poster—if I had to choose a single image that sums up the show—I would have chosen sitting under this black veil, with a little bit of her face peeking out.”
Gadon was acutely aware, while filming the scene, that her friend and mentor David Cronenberg was also in the audience. (Cronenberg plays Reverend Verringer, an early advocate for Grace’s innocence.) “To look out from under the veil and see him—it was very surreal,” she said.
Cronenberg cast Gadon in his 2011 film A Dangerous Method, and has directed her in two more films since then. Gadon felt the weight of that history during the scene. “David has probably been one of the most influential directors on my career; he really changed my life. I wouldn’t have a career without him. So much of who I am as an artist has been influenced by him. So to have [them] in that room was just so meta: these women that i grew up admiring, and that informed so much of my own work, in front of a man who single-handedly changed my life. Very much super meta,” Gadon said.
Harron and Polley also built tension by contrasting the hypnotism against flashbacks and reveries that were filmed and lit in a completely different way. The Kinnear farm, the site of the murders, is suffused with golden light, and Harron used a Steadicam and rich colors to give the place a dreamlike quality. A particularly telling moment comes when we get a glimpse of Grace kissing her alleged co-conspirator, James McDermott (Kerr Logan), amid clotheslines of drying laundry. Harron and her cinematographer, Brendan Steacy, were running out of time when they had to shoot the scene—so rather than try a time-intensive lighting setup for a nighttime shoot, they did a handheld one shot at twilight. “It was just running to make it before dark,” Harron remembered. The scene is one of her favorites, partly because it reveals a version of Grace that the audience hasn’t seen before. “This Grace is mocking, and sort of a vixen. And leading [McDermott] on,” she said.
The way the series explores the various sides of Grace is what makes it so fascinating—and what made it so challenging for its star. “Everything about Grace Marks is complicated; everything about this job was difficult. And when I finally finished the job, Audible asked me to do the audiobook of Alias Grace. And even that was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was so hard to read this book out loud! I would laugh to myself doing it—like Jesus Christ, nothing is ever going to be easy with this piece of literature,” Gadon said.
But, she added, it was worth it. “It’s so classic. The thing you’re the most afraid of becomes the thing you love the most on the other side. Because it does feel like this massive accomplishment.”
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