Whip It star Ellen Page on the LA roller girls
Ellen Page, the diminutive and delicate star of 2007 indie hit Juno, did not know the girls who roughed her up.
by Will Lawrence, published on April 5, 2010
She expected that it might happen – it happens to a lot of young women in the situation that she was in — but it was unsettling nevertheless. The 23-year-old Canadian actress was in Los Angeles early last year. She was downtown at one of the city’s roller-skating rinks, practising some moves for her latest movie, the Drew Barrymore-directed Whip It, when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a gang of armoured women swooped down upon her, knocking her about and giving her a good old jostle.
There were no punches thrown, and no one pulled any hair, but Page felt a little shaken. “I’d entered the world of the roller derby,” she says, “I was so scared; I thought I was going to vomit.”
Roller-derby is an American sport, growing in popularity, which entices teams of young women to put on their skates, helmets and pads and race around a rink. It is a contact sport and Page admits she was terrified when she was practising with real-life roller-derby team the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. “Obviously they are not going to kill me but they are ingrained mentally to play hard, so when we scrimmaged they definitely beat me up a bit.”
The rough-and-tumble of the roller-derby can trace its origins back to 1922, although it has re-remerged over the last few years (updated with a 1950s glamour girl image, lots of tattoos and a spiky, punk attitude) and its profile is about to get its biggest boost yet, with the sport providing the backdrop for Page and Barrymore’s high-energy movie.
Whip It is drawn from the book of the same name, written by author-turned-roller-derby queen Shauna Cross, and it stands as Barrymore’s directorial debut. The actress-turned-director starred in her first film at four years old, and has produced movies since her early twenties, her output including the likes of Donnie Darko and the Charlie’s Angels films. Her first piece as director spans several genres; it is, at once, a coming-of-age picture, a romantic comedy, a sport picture and a taut family drama.
“It was Drew’s first time directing, which is incredibly complex, but she’s an accomplished producer and she’s been in this business since she was four, so I think she knew how to handle all that pressure,” Page says. “She’s done an amazing job with this film. It’s very complicated, with a massive cast, big action sequences, and not a huge budget. And trying to direct actors on roller-skates? They might as well have been on horses.”
The story recounts the tale of Bliss (Page), an indie-rock-loving teenage girl in Texas who rebels against her mother’s obsession with beauty pageants and discovers friendship and love when she tumbles into the world of the roller-derby. Much like the sport itself, the story is underpinned by the notion of female empowerment and, in spite of the challenges, it is an accomplished effort, well acted by Page and a sizzling supporting cast, which includes the ever-excellent Marcia Gay Harden (who plays Page’s mum), rapper-cum-actress Eve, Saturday Night Live comedienne Kristen Wiig, and Hollywood rock chick Juliette Lewis, all of whom star alongside Barrymore as Page’s fellow derby girls.
“It’s cute and fun and has lots of different moments,” smiles Page. In person she is light and bubbly, her tiny frame all wrapped in black, and she is clearly excited by her experience on Barrymore’s movie. “And it was, honestly, the most fun I’ve ever had making a film. Drew loves to play lots of music on set, and we’d have impromptu roller-discos out on the track. Drew’s also a very giving person, too, emotionally. We’d have personal moments, especially when talking about and relating to material in a particular scene; she was always so emotionally available.”
While the film is based on the Shauna Cross novel, Barrymore has infused the script with her own personal touches, and the strained relationship between Bliss and her mum echoes the difficult relationship that the actor-turned-director has endured with her mother (at 15, Barrymore won a legal battle to free herself from her mother’s guardianship).
“It was a personal film for me,” offers Barrymore, “and once I’d met Ellen, I didn’t want anyone else to play the part. She looks so hot out there in her little hot pants racing round that track. I wanted to be greedy, and pack a lot into the movie, and Ellen was perfect.”
Page seems a little embarrassed as I pass on the compliment. “I don’t know about that,” she says. “For a start, I’d never been on roller skates before.” She pauses. “Although I had been on roller blades, so I had the gist of it, co-ordination wise.” And she is from Canada, a nation notoriously good at skating. “That’s more ice-skating, but, yes, obviously I’d skated on ice since I was little. Other than that, though, I was pretty miserable at it and I had to train a lot. I had an amazing trainer, too, called Axles of Evil! We’re really good friends and she and I still skate together.”
A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Page grew up in a happy household, the daughter of Martha Philpotts, a teacher, and Dennis Page, a graphic designer.
“I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, really, and I grew up playing sports all the time, so I already had the athletic will in me which was great for Whip It.” At high school in Halifax, Page proved herself an able footballer (or soccer-player to use her parlance).
“That was the main sport that I played pretty competitively but then when I got to 16-17, my acting career was just taking me away too much so I had to make a choice not to play any more.” Does she support a team? “I am not a huge sports watcher but I love playing; I still kick the ball around once in a while and I play badminton. I play with my father.”
Her acting career, which took off in her mid to late-teens, began with school plays, before she secured her first job on camera at the age of 10, in CBC TV movie Pit Pony, which led to roles in a number of small Canadian films and TV series.
At 16, she shot her first European movie, Mouth to Mouth, and a year later earned a string of glowing notices for her complex, haunting performance in 2005’s Hard Candy, the story of a dark encounter between a sexual predator and a 14-year-old girl, who ends up castrating him. She also appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand as Kitty Pryde, a girl who can walk through walls.
“Nova Scotia is still home for me, and I spend a lot of time there when I don’t work but also a lot of time in LA. It is the best of both worlds. But there did come a time when I had to leave and leaving Halifax led to more opportunities.”
Her biggest opportunity came with Juno, a comedy-drama directed by Jason Reitman (who received four Oscar nominations for last year’s Up in the Air), in which Page plays the eponymous lead, an independent-minded teenager confronting an unplanned pregnancy. Juno earned its star performer an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (she lost out to Marion Cotillard for La Vie En Rose).
“The whole Juno experience was very thrilling because I love what I do and the success that represents and all the control I now have to navigate my career,” she says. “A lot of actors just try desperately to work, so the position I am in is a huge gift. But it is a definitely a transition in my life especially as a young woman to now have that kind of exposure. I keep things in perspective though. I just try my best to stay grounded and I think I am lucky because my interests stray from the stereo-typical interests of young actresses.”
Indeed, Page is a quiet girl, who lives her life far away from the hurly-burly of the Hollywood social scene, and we are unlikely see pictures of her falling out of a taxicab. An online search for information about her love life isn’t revealing. In 2008, it was rumoured Page was gay, although she proceeded to poke fun at the suggestion with a comedy sketch on hit US TV show Saturday Night Live in March of that year. Whatever the truth of that rumour, Page herself is not one to judge other people.
“A lot of people in their twenties go out and party,” she notes, “and it is just unfortunate that a lot of people who work in this industry have their pictures taken these days. I have a lot of friends who are older who I am sure when they were 22 if they had been photographed every Saturday night doing what they did, I am sure they would not have the career they have now.
“But I would never judge anybody for doing that because everybody is exploring and being curious.” She laughs. “It’s just that I am an old lady. I write and I hike. That is how I have fun.” And yet, beneath her soft, rather wholesome, exterior, Page is clearly strong-willed and emanates a steely determination. “When I am passionate about something I am absolutely full on,” she concedes. “I would like to think that most people are and that most young women are. I think it is a matter of finding that thing that really gets your blood pumping and gets your mind going.”
Those perfectionist strivings are reflected in her work. After Whip It, she’ll return to the cinema this year with Peacock, a psychological thriller in which she stars alongside Cillian Murphy and Susan Sarandon, and then opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the eagerly awaited Inception, the next science-fiction blockbuster from the Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan.
The latter has been wrapped in mystery throughout production, although the early footage that screened at Showest, the US film industry trade-show in March, unravelled a story about men that invade people’s mind via their dreams. It’s taken Nolan a decade to hone his story.
Page stars as Ariadne, a name that hints at the part she might play (in Greek mythology, Ariadne furnishes Theseus with the ball of string that guides him out of the Minotaur’s lair) but she is pretty much sworn to secrecy. “It is so bad what I can and cannot talk about,” she says. “Chris Nolan is so magnificent, though, and working with him is such an absolute joy. To shoot a movie for that length of time, which I am not really used to, on such a vast scale, it was so exciting. I’m as excited as anyone to see the final product.”
And what ambitions remain for her? She’s already enjoyed so much success. She likes to write, but would she, like Barrymore, hope to step behind the camera one day? “I sometimes fantasise about it but I am also incredibly overwhelmed by the task, especially watching the directors I have become close to while I have been filming and seeing everything that’s involved. Right now I am very interested in writing. I am just trying to explore; that’s my mission.”
Whip It (12A) is in cinemas on Wednesday.