An actor has to be many different things to many different people, and Academy Award nominee Ellen Page seems to have mastered that in subtle ways at the young age of 22. Whether it’s the hipster-snark of Juno or the Young Republican snark in Smart People; the adorable child actor Canadians have known from films like I Downloaded a Ghost or the unsettling child-predator predator in the Sundance hit Hard Candy; the shaven-headed revolutionary from Mouth to Mouth or the mentally shattered runaway from The Tracey Fragments; the mutant superhero Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat, in X-Men: The Last Stand or the shy girl Bliss Cavender who learns to be her own hero, aka Babe Ruthless, in Whip It, she’s not as easily categorized as you might think. In fact, she was even different things to different castmates in director Drew Barrymore’s fun, funny and touching roller-derby saga.
“First of all, you just want to put Ellen in your bag, and when you’re sad, you want to open it up and go ‘I’m all better now,'” says Eve, who plays derby girl Rosa Sparks. “She’s the sweetest, sweetest thing. I saw Juno, obviously. You never know what you’re gonna get when you meet anyone. I knew she was younger – I didn’t have any preconceived notions, but I was just hoping – ‘I hope she’s just a sweetheart, I hope she’s cool’ – and she totally is. She’s a sweetheart, she’s cool, she’s ridiculously super-smart. She went to Buddhist high school – that’s amazing. She’s interesting. But she’s also professional, and it’s dope to see that. She seems as though she has a great head on her shoulders.”
Zoe Bell, aka Bloody Holly, describes her as “smart, and socially conscious. She gives a fuck. Women like her are the ones you go ‘thank god we’ve got one like that in the position that she’s in.’ She’s awesome. Super-talented.”
Page’s arch-enemy in the film is Juliette Lewis, playing the notorious bad girl Iron Maven, and even she had problems getting past the young star’s adorable image. “That was actually the hardest thing, to be mean to her,” Lewis says, incredulously. “To shove her in a locker? I’ve never done anything like that in my life! I’ve done Natural Born Killers and Cape Fear, but to push Ellen Page into a locker just does not come easily to me, especially when she’s being so lovely and admiring of my character. But it did help that we had such a natural affection and respect for one another. Also, I’m the captain of a roller derby team, and all the girls I was working with every day, they’re all real roller derby girls, so I would just ask them ‘would you ever really do this? Do you call people names who are looking up to you?’ And they said ‘yeah, pretty much.’ Basically, you earn your stripes.”
Then there’s the unfortunately-named up-and-coming musician Landon Pigg, who makes his screen debut in Whip It as the young musician Page’s Bliss Cavender crushes upon. Page wasn’t the adorable young ‘un to him – she was the seasoned veteran. “She has this gift to be able to turn it on,” Pigg says. “Just looking at her, you can just kinda fall into her gaze. She really leads the way, since she’s been doing it since she was 10 or something. It’s a lot like a game of tennis or something – when you’re playing someone better than you, it makes you play a little better. I couldn’t be more grateful for my first experience to be opposite Ellen.”
For Daniel Stern, who plays Bliss’ father and mediator between his eldest daughter and her stern pageant-loving mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Page was an interesting firebrand of sorts. “Ellen is an intense actor, man,” Stern says. “She’s an intense person. She really reminds me of my own daughters in a lot of ways. She’s a very strong, opinionated, take-no-shit, ‘I”m on top of the world’ 22-year-old ballsy young lady, you know? And then underneath that is a wonderfully sensitive, soft, creative person, and she’s a gifted enough actor to know how to be both of those things at the same time. That complexity reads on her face. I mean, what a natural! What a naturally gifted person! Ellen’s as true as you can get. For that young a person… damn! She really is mind-blowing.”
She’s also inspired a fairly ingenious idea in him. “Now, she’s been giving me shit every time I see her because she just watched Diner,” he says of the seminal 1982 film in which he starred. “Every time I see her, she says ‘wanna go to the diner? Let’s go to the diner!’ I was thinking they should do a Diner movie with that age of chicks – find that level. That kind of behavior was the tone of that movie. Riding right in the pocket of naturalism.”
The most insight into Page comes from Alia Shawkat, who not only plays her best friend Pash in Whip It, but who also has become one of Page’s closest friends and even a co-writer in real life. Not that it was an easy thing to do. “She had to learn how to roller derby, and I had to learn how to become friends with Ellen Page, which is hard,” Shawkat jokes. “She’s a little intimidating at first, because she’s very stoic and doesn’t show too much. She’s not like some actresses who go ‘omigod, I love you!’ I don’t say that word for a long time. She’s really cool. We’ve become really, really close friends. She’s one of my best friends. We just spent a lot of time together and gave each other a natural high. We just had a similar energy, a very similar sense of humor. She’s been great. Afterwards, we’ve traveled all around the world together, and we’re writing together – it’s exciting. It’s funny, it’s a comedy. She’s just one of the coolest girls I know.”
Of course, we can always just go to the cool, intense, intimidating, sensitive, ballsy, gifted, dope, sweet, socially-conscious, ridiculously super-smart girl herself if we want to get a sense of who she is.
“It’s funny,” Page says about the tendency to try and pigeonhole her, “because I remember when this movie was first starting to be publicized, some woman was talking about Whip It on TV about ‘can Ellen Page play anything other than an indie-loving misfit? I guess we’ll see!’ I was like ‘first of all, what just crawled up your ass?’ And second of all, just because it’s a girl who’s not, I don’t know, trying to get a Mercedes-Benz for their 16th birthday doesn’t mean she’s the exact same as Juno, for goodness sakes. Anyway, Ellen Page’s rant. Sorry you had to witness that.”
Page goes on to say that there’s no calculation to her choice of roles. “It’s one of those things that I read a script, and if I get excited, if my blood starts to boil and I fade into it and then come back and realize what I’ve just read and see this character who I want to spend time with, who I want to figure out and something that feels sincere and honest with me, it’s probably going to be slightly different from those things, because I’ve already done them,” she says. “It’s just not where my immediate instinctual interest is going to go to. But it is funny when people do that thing like ‘all your roles are like Juno.’ I’ve been working since I was 10 years old, you know, and I feel like I don’t really get that. But that’s fine. People can think that if they want.”
For her part, Page is trying to be mellow about talk like that, and about life in general. “I don’t hate anybody. I really don’t. I don’t hate anything,” Page insists, before mitigating it by noting she’s not perfect. “There are things I struggle with, but life’s too short to hate stuff. It just doesn’t make sense, because the more you look into something, the more you start going ‘oh, I hate this because it’s just reminding me of myself.’ I know that’s kind of New Agey and stuff, but I’m telling you – I used to get really mad when I’d see Hummers and stuff on the street, and I’d say ‘what an asshole! How can that person drive an f-in’ Hummer?’ And now I’m grateful for the person driving the Hummer, because they’re reminding me of all the things that I do towards the environment that aren’t perfect. I’m on planes all the time, I’m flown in first-class. That person in the Hummer is reminding me, and I’m grateful for that.”
After a pause, she shrugs again. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
To put a button on the topic of contradictions between the media’s image of Ellen Page and the reality of the girl who trained for weeks on end to get into stunt-skating form, you’re just not going to get comments like this out of most indie hipster types: “I always played sports when I was a kid. I’m a snowboarder, and if I’m ever shooting in the winter, I can’t snowboard, and that’s really hard for me. I’m just contractually obliged not to – it’s just too risky, you know? So it’s awesome to be shooting a movie and simultaneously being smashed around on a derby track.”