ELLEN PAGE on 'WHIP IT'
Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
September 29, 2009
Drew Barrymore makes her feature film directorial debut with Whip It, a fun, character-driven piece set in the world of roller derby, written by Shauna Cross, a former player who adapted the screenplay from her novel Derby Girl. The film follows the story of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old who spends time with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and little sister on the Texas pageantry circuit, but longs for something more. When she happens upon the world of roller derby, she discovers not only a passion and talent for the sport, but also a newfound voice, empowerment, and sense of belonging--all while rocking the derby moniker "Babe Ruthless."
The fantastic ensemble also includes Daniel Stern as Bliss' football fanatic father; Alia Shawkat as her friend and fellow waitress at an amusingly pork-themed diner; Juliette Lewis as rival derby girl Iron Maven; Kristen Wiig as cool maternal surrogate Maggie Mayhem; Jimmy Fallon as announcer "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket; Andrew Wilson as derby coach Razor; singer Landon Pigg in his acting debut as Bliss' romantic interest Oliver; and Eve and Zoe Bell as teammates Rosa Sparks and Bloody Holly, respectively. Fans of real life players Iron Maiven and Krissy Krash, both of the LA Derby Dolls' Tough Cookies, will also spot the kickass duo in a cameo as "The Manson Sisters."
In this interview, Ellen Page talks about working on this project--from taking hits and earning a nickname to sitting atop a giant pig and filming underwater.
Win a copy of WHIP IT, new on Blu-ray and DVD!
MEDIA: So being Canadian, you already knew how to skate from the very beginning, right?
ELLEN: [laughs] Uh, yeah...A little, a little. I was by no means a good skater, but I could skate, yeah.
Was the physical training for this film a brutal process?
No, it was just fun, to be honest with you. I trained for like three months, and I worked with a really awesome derby trainer, and simultaneously worked with a physical trainer just to get stronger--you know, worked hard, and ate well, and went to bed early...
Who won the honor of having the worst bruises?
I'd say Drew. But she kind of cheats because she just bruises easily.
How was your experience of working with her?
Working with Drew was amazing...She just was tireless in a way that was inspiring. Here was someone who's in pre-production for their first feature film while also training to be a roller derby star. And she just was always there, always available, always present, and always emotionally present with the material, and completely guided me through this film.
Did she really refer to you as "Small Newman"?
She really does. She calls me Small way more than she calls me Ellen. I don't know if I've been called Ellen since we shot. I love it. I have a nickname from Drew Barrymore! I love nicknames. It makes me feel loved. It makes me feel less alone in this world. [laughs]
A lot of roller derby girls use variations of celebrity names for their alter egos. If someone were to take "Ellen Page," what do you think they could turn that into?
[pauses in thought] "Smellin' Rage."
[Editor's note: We thought "Hell'n Rage" works, but we also like the predatory connotation of "Smellin'."]
What attracted you to this project?
Well, I decided to do this way before I shot Juno. I mean, first of all, I read the script and loved it, and was really fascinated and excited about this resurgence of roller derby and what that represented for women. And the fact that Drew Barrymore was attached to direct was really thrilling. And then when I finally met Drew, I was like, "Oh, wow, I definitely want to do this." And I was just so lucky...This was before Juno, so she saw something in me that she liked. And I'm honored to be a part of her first film. [laughs]
Was it fun to have a convergence of pageants and roller derby, and to get to play in both of those diverse worlds?
Yeah. And what I liked about it, too, was like Bliss was by no means "evilly forced" in the pageant world. She loved that that allowed for a connection with her mother, and she liked to make her mother happy. It just obviously wasn't what was igniting some sort of passionate fire within her. And when she discovers derby, obviously that's the thing that she connects with, and that's the thing that allows her to come out of her shell, to establish a sense of confidence, and to develop a sense of sexuality and really be in touch with herself in a way that she'd never felt before. And that was a really nice transition to explore. And what I really loved about how Drew handled the pageant aspect of it is she didn't do that overly tacky, judgmental way of approaching it--because it's what a lot of people like, and probably a lot of people feel that way about pageant like Bliss feels about derby. And I didn't want it to seem like we were being really judgey about it, because I wanted to show respect towards that.
You and Marcia Gay Harden had a nice onscreen chemistry. Did that come easily?
Yeah. It's always so special as a young actor to work with someone who's had such a career full of accolades and awards, and such a diversity in their choice of roles. And this is such a--I'd say--relatively unconventional way of looking at a mother/daughter story, and it felt very sincere to me and very truthful. And it was just an absolute pleasure to explore that with her.
The panormaic shot of Bliss sitting atop the restaurant's giant pig: zen moment or precarious situation?
Zen. It was pretty cool up there, yeah. And that was special, shooting that.
Was that a real restaurant, or was it just a set built for the movie?
I mean, it was a diner, but it was closed down and for sale, and they bought it and we shot there. That was in a place called Frankenmuth, Michigan--a very interesting little town. It's like a little German town.
Did you do much shooting on location in Austin, or was that city just used for exteriors?
Just exteriors, really. We shot some exteriors, and I shot a scene with Landon there. We only shot like two or three days there, though, because of...you know, taxes. It's a low-budget movie, so we shot in Michigan. [laughs] But Michigan's amazing. I fell in love with Michigan, and Detroit and Ann Arbor. I really loved it a lot. I would shoot back there in a millisecond. And I love Austin.
Underwater scenes can present many logistical difficulties. How long did it take to shoot the romance scene between Bliss and Oliver in the pool?
It took a few hours, for sure, of swimming around in that pool. But it was fun. It was one of those things where you're like, "Well, no one would ever do this!" [laughs] But I trusted Drew and, ultimately, think it looks gorgeous. And I love that song by Jens Lekman, so I'm really happy with it.
How long can you hold your breath?
I've never timed it. [jokes] But I'll do it later, and I'll get back to you.
Bliss finds her place and her "tribe" in roller derby. Do you feel that acting served the same purpose for you?
Hmmm...Yeah. I mean, it was something I fell in love with, and I'm still very, very in love with. I don't attach myself with it so much...You know, I adore it and I'm so grateful to do it as my job, but there's other things that I really love. And I also don't want to become like unhealthily attached to what I do. [laughs] So I'm grateful for what I do, but I also love to be able to be okay when I'm not doing it.
Is this the type of project for which you'd reprise your role and do sequel?
It, of course, depends on so many, many factors. But this is one of the greatest filmmaking experiences of my life, so if we could even kind of remotely tap back into that, I'd be very excited, yeah.
Thanks for your time.
Thanks, guys. Have a good one.