March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

There came a time last December on the set of Avonlea, the Disney Channel’s new 13-part series about a young girl who moves to Canada’s Prince Edward Island after the death of her mother, when its principal, child actress Sarah Polley, was called on to weep. “Someone on the show was dying, and I was supposed to cry,” she recalls. “The tears came running down. I got through the scene. And afterward I cried some more.” There was a special motivation for Sarah’s affecting performance that day—as close, in fact, as her own mother standing nearby. As only Sarah and a few intimates then knew, Diane Polley, 53, a well-regarded actress on Canadian TV, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. On Jan. 10, after a two-year battle and two days after Sarah’s 11th birthday, Diane died.

Not long before her mother’s death, Sarah called a friend on the set who had lost his own father to cancer four years before. “I said, ‘What do I do? I don’t know what to do.’ And he said, ‘This is going to sound horrible, and there is no good way to put this, but it’s going to happen, and there is nothing you can do. Try, just try, to make the best of each day.’

“I did that,” Sarah says solemnly. “And there was nothing else I could have asked from him. It helped me. A lot.”

Precocity and self-possession have been Polley trademarks since roughly age 4, when the little girl began her acting career playing a cockney street waif in the film One Magic Christmas. “I’ve been paying taxes since I was 5, you know,” she says matter-of-factly. Years later, after the lead in the Canadian TV series Ramona and a role as Sally Salt in last year’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Polley remains largely unfazed by her success. “Acting to me is just an option in life,” she says. “It’s important to me, but it’s not something I’d ever risk my happiness over. I’m a kid. I don’t want to think I wasted my childhood being an adult.”

Part of the Polley insouciance may come from having been raised by professional actors who were resolute about deglamorizing the job for a family of five children. “We never particularly wanted the kids in the business,” says father Michael, 55, a British-born stage actor who has appeared in innumerable Canadian productions. “But we never tried to influence her. It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

Suffice it to say, Sarah is not easily swayed. She was blasé, for example, about Munchausen’s co-stars, who included Robin Williams and, in a bit part, Sting. Once, during a set lunch break, she promised to save a place for a relatively lowly crew member. “The seat across from me was empty, I was holding it. And the tables were filling up, and here comes Sting, and he says, very nicely, ‘Hi. Can I sit down?’ And I say, ‘No! It’s saved!’ Looking back, I can’t believe I did that.”

Professionally, as in life, the young actress has no patience with artifice. Her complaint about a scene from Avonlea that calls for her to be thrown into a pile of pig manure? “They used butterscotch pudding,” she reveals, “but I would have preferred the manure. I stunk of sugar and gelatin forever.”

Despite Sarah’s commercial success, she and her father (her four older siblings have left the nest) live a resolutely down-to-earth life in their comfortably cluttered, four-bedroom suburban Toronto house, home also to a bichon frise named Mookie and a backyard complete with bird feeders and wild rabbits.

In the now-motherless household, Michael makes valiant culinary efforts, but, Sarah confides, “If you ever come here for dinner, don’t be surprised if you get a cheese-and-bacon omelet. God! That’s all he ever makes—that and baked beans. Don’t tell him this, but I’m sort of getting sick of them.”

If there are no telltale signs of the recent tragedy, it may be because Sarah has found therapeutic solace in work. Says A vonlea executive producer Kevin Sullivan: “Sarah had been living and dealing with her mom’s illness for a long while. And Sarah is a pro. Going back to work the week after her mother died helped take her mind off things. She made it clear she didn’t want people falling all over her. She knows they love her and she loves them.”

What Sarah also knows is that even life’s most traumatic experiences can sometimes, eventually, become boons. Speaking of her character, the girl whose mother has died, she says, “I know her. She’s stronger because of what happened to her. This is how she works. She is able to deal with things.” And, adds Polley softly, “I’ve been there.”

—Susan Schindehette, Alan Carter in Toronto

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