Predicting which titles will be hits at a major film festival is tough business (last year, Elizabethtown limped into Toronto with more hype than Brokeback Mountain — go figure). But this fall, the buzz should be fairly earsplitting for Away From Her, an adaptation of a short story by Alice Munro that marks the feature directorial debut of Sarah Polley.

Interviewed in her native Toronto a week before the film’s completion, the 27-year-old actress downplays the celebrity-director angle. Polley may be familiar to millions from her childhood work as Sara Stanley on Road to Avonlea, but visibility doesn’t necessarily translate to bankability — especially on the other side of the camera. “If anyone thought it was going to be easy for me to get money for a film,” she sighs, “it sure didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel like I was being given any leg up.”

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“I spent three or four years trying to get another film green-lit,” she explains. “It didn’t work. And then this one did, which is fantastic. But it’s tough. I’m glad that it was hard for me, because I think that it makes you a better filmmaker to have to fight for what you’re doing. I’m glad I got that experience, but it’s a hard thing, and I think it’s harder now than it was 10 years ago. I hope it doesn’t get harder, but I think it will.”

Not that Polley is about to retreat. She says that making Away From Her was a milestone in her young career that she describes as the “most thrilling, nightmarish, fantastic experience” she’s ever had. “Even though I’ve always really enjoyed acting, it was never something I set out to do for myself. As much as I loved it — I think it’s the luckiest, most privileged job in the world — this has a different meaning for me.”

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Even if she were to never appear in another film, Polley’s onscreen legacy would be solid. There aren’t many actresses who can claim to have both worked with award-winning filmmakers from around the globe and starred in a box-office topping action flick about killer zombies (2004’s Toronto-shot Dawn of the Dead.)

Her decision to do the latter had less to do with breaking through in Hollywood than blowing off some steam. “It just looked like a lot of fun,” she says. “Acting for me has always involved a certain amount of pain and agony . . . those are always the kinds of films I’ve ended up in. So [for Dawn of the Dead] I loved the idea of running around and being a kid for the summer. I also got to see what it looks like when you descend into the belly of the beast. It was pretty f—ing interesting.”

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