Former Child Actor "Was in Danger" on Movie Set, Co-Star Admits

Sarah Polley was eight years old when she starred in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Being on a movie set has to be at least a little bit scary and intimidating for any child actor, but when Sarah Polley says that when she worked with director Terry Gilliam, one of her heroes, on the 1988 movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, she was put in real danger and left with trauma that continued to affect her for years to come. In an excerpt of her new memoir, Run Towards the Danger, published by The Guardian, Polley recounts her experience as an eight-year-old making the movie, shares how she's changed her mind about which adults she blames for exposing her to harrowing situations, and talks about how one co-star finally admitted publicly that her memories are not off-base. Read on to find out more about the situation.

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Polley was excited to be in the movie at first.

Sarah Polley in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"
Columbia Pictures

In the excerpt of the memoir published by The Guardian, Polley—now an actor, writer, and director—explains that she and her family were huge Monty Python fans, so when they heard about a casting call for a fantasy movie by Gilliam, a Monty Python member, she was thrilled to be able to audition. Polley was cast in the role of Sally Salt, the sidekick to Baron Munchausen (John Neville), when she was eight years old.

"Terry was giggly, fun, rambunctious," Polley writes of meeting the director. "He reminded me of the kind of disobedient, unregulated child I had avoided in school in order to keep out of trouble." But, once they started filming, Polly says that "things quickly began to fall apart. Terry was erratic, a dreamer, someone who didn't live in the world of 'logic and reason.'"

She was put in situations that terrified her.

Sarah Polley in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"
Columbia Pictures

Polley goes into detail about the scenes she filmed for the movie and how they frightened her to the point of hysteria. In one scene, she had to run through a set made to look like a "bombed-out city." She writes, "Blasts of debris exploded on the ground around me, accompanied by deafening booms that made me feel as if I myself had exploded. A log I was to run under was partially on fire. The gigantic blasts continued and shook everything around me." She says that the scene was difficult for her, and that while "Terry didn't show any frustration about the delay, he also didn't seem to notice how scared [she] was."

Polley also shares that, during a scene in which she and other actors sat in a boat in a tank, a horse accidentally surfaced an explosive from underwater, which went off near her. "I remember a hard, crushing sensation in my chest and being carried towards an ambulance as the crew looked on, alarmed. I remember that the doctors were kind, that my parents were told there was nothing wrong with me and that I went back to work the next day," she writes.

Additionally, Polley reveals that when she was very ill for a few days, feverish and vomiting, she still went to work, because her father told her there wasn't another option.

She later spoke to Gilliam about her memories.

Terry Gilliam at the 2019 Venice Film Festival
Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock

Polley includes in her memoir emails that she exchanged with Gilliam when she was in her mid-20s. She explained in her emails that she didn't blame him for her being put in dangerous situations on set—instead she blamed her parents for not protecting her—but urged him to be aware of the wellbeing of any young actors he would work with going forward.

Gilliam was receptive to the email, but also told her, "Although things might have seemed to be dangerous, they weren't. The only time events got close to trouble was when the horse jumped from the boat." For the stunt with the horse and the underwater explosive, he apologized. However, he also questioned whether Polley remembered which parts in the film were her and which were actually her stunt double.

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An adult co-star corroborated her claims.

Eric Idle at the premiere of "Snatched" in 2017
Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

In 2018, when Gilliam made controversial comments about the #MeToo movement, someone tweeted about the email exchange between Polley and Gilliam—which she had also published in an article she wrote for the Toronto Star—as an example of his character. In response, actor Eric Idle, who was also in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, tweeted, "She was right. She was in danger. Many times. It was amazing we never lost anyone. It was me, her and Jack Purvis in the back of the boat. The explosion scared the horse which backed into us, and the brilliant rider took it overboard."

Polley writes in her memoir, "Someone who was there was appearing from out of nowhere to confirm my memories and verify my version of events. I swear it was around that time that I stopped ducking for cover when I heard the sudden noise of a car door slam."

She now blames Gilliam, not her parents, for the traumatic experience.

Sarah Polley at the Gala Honouring Excellence in Creative Fiction Storytelling in 2018
George Pimentel/WireImage via Getty Images

While Polley blamed her parents for not better protecting her in the email she sent to Gilliam in her 20s, she now feels that the director was most responsible. The 43-year-old writes, "I don't blame my parents as much as I used to, understanding more now how hard it would be to stand up and stop an enormous production under dire financial and time pressures. As the years go on and Terry makes more and more comments that demonstrate not just a childlike incapacity for understanding grown-up problems but a willful dismissal of movements that seek to claim equality and acknowledgment for past harms, I see him, and the role he played in the mayhem back then, differently."

Best Life has reached out to a representative of Gilliam for comment but has not yet received a response.

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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