Shattering Hollywood taboos is nothing new for Drew Barrymore. After 29 years in the business, she continues to challenge the industry’s standards and herself; this time by stepping behind the camera to direct her first feature film starring Academy Award nominee Ellen Page. Set against the backdrop of the unorthodox, bad-ass world of all female roller derby, ‘Whip It!’ is a journey of self-discovery and female empowerment. For Drew, Ellen and co-stars Juliette Lewis and Zoe Bell, girl power is as much a theme in the film as a personal manifesto.
It’s been eight months since production wrapped on Whip It!, but you could never have guessed it watching Drew, Ellen, Juliette and Zoe boogie their way around a smooth rink for the Vs. photo shoot. While the ladies’ skating moves today are way tamer than the stunts they pulled off in the movie, they still manage to ooze that ‘don’t mess with me’ demeanor that permeates their performances on the big screen. Sure, some flashy skate moves can make a bad-ass out of most, but what really sets these women apart in Hollywood is their unfailing dedication to staying true to themselves and their art. Just take a look at their body of work. Ellen rose to the ranks of Oscar-nominated actress with her turn in Juno. Juliette, since her Oscar nod in 1992 for Cape Fear, has gone on to play some eclectic women and start a rock band. Zoe went from kicking ass as a stunt double to acting in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And Drew, well, she’s conquered the industry as an actress, producer, and now director – and she’s only getting started.
Strong at Heart
Is roller derby the new wave of feminism?
Drew [nodding yes]: I love capable and strong women. In roller derby all these women who have different occupations during the day go out on the skating rink at night, adopt these alter egos, put on cool costumes and kick the shit out of each other. I love that duality.
Ellen: I remember going to my first derby game with you (Drew) and being like wtf! I was blown away, and I couldn’t believe I was witnessing this. I was so excited to know that I was going to train to do that. It definitely takes more than just a belief in women’s lib to stay alive out in the rink.
In roller derby all these women who have different occupations during the day go out on the skating rink at night, adopt these alter egos, put on cool costumes and kick the shit out of each other. I love that duality.
Ellen: I did think at first that I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off. I was very lucky ‘cause when I first put my skates on they felt like sneakers. I didn’t have that bad of an adjustment period.
Drew: You’re so athletic, Ellen. You know, she is better than most of the real derby girls, and she did all her own stunts. My feet were so screwed up the first couple of weeks. They were totally cramped over. I was getting physical therapy ’cause I literally couldn’t walk on them. It’s insane the horror stories we heard. You’d meet a girl and she’d tell you she has an iron rod in her neck ’cause she broke her collar bone. Oh shit.
Juliette: I don’t know about you guys but I lied [laughs].
Ohh, do tell…
Juliette: The studio was wondering if I could skate. I was like, ‘I skate every weekend. I love skating!’ It had been years since I’d put skates on. Roller derby reminds me of skateboarding culture a lot. There’s no age, race or background you have to meet to be a roller derby girl ‘cause once you’re on the track you’re all super heroes together.
Zoe: I didn’t know that! That’s really funny. Lucky you didn’t kill yourself out there.
Drew: A lot of the roles that were heroes to me growing up were both men and women. I’ve always been in this sort of androgynous state of mind. Women should not worry, but just go for films they find exciting and not make it about a dollar sign. I’ve made films as a producer like a Donnie Darko that made like two dollars at the box office, and I’m as proud of that as I am about the Charlie’s Angels movies which grossed like a billion dollars. What matters is getting to tell great stories. I think it is advantageous when women get a venue where they get to do action, comedy…
Ellen [cuts in]: …and be sexy! I think it’s ridiculous to say that films with women leads are not profitable ‘cause there’s plenty of films with men that are deplorable and make money. They don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s because Will Ferrell’s the lead.’
Juliette: Ellen’s character’s strong story is exciting to have now especially for young women, but it’s a really about a broader discussion of the challenge between art and commerce. All the studios want to do is repeat a formula and they sort a disregard the talent that was involved to make that.
Ellen: Yeah, it’s too bad that it’s kind of rarity to see films with complex female characters. People say [her soft voice rises an octave or two], ‘Wow, you always like playing cool, edgy girls.’ No, I just want to play well-rounded roles. That’s just how I operate. It’s great to be around women who feel the same way.
Unconventional seems to be a bad word in Hollywood…?
Juliette: I’m very unconventional and I like it that way! I find that’s my strength and beauty to be as true to myself as I can. I mean, I started a rock & roll band at 30. For me I’m an artist first, so I’m always focused on connecting to emotions and surrendering to the moment, connecting with people and telling stories.
Zoe: There have been times where I’ve felt the pressure to conform. I’d like to think I’ve never felt it and I’m just prone to being able to avoid it. Most of the fans are fascinated that I am a different type of woman in Hollywood. I’m strong and I love it. (To Juliette) Pretend to not hear what I’m talking about. I find inspiration in the way she manages herself in relation to her career in this strange industry, and it allows me to make decisions that sit right for me as opposed to doing something I feel like I should do.
Juliette: When I was 19, I felt that pressure, so I rebelled against. Part of it was wearing cornrows to the Oscars. I don’t know, I thought it was so fun. I never wanted to be remembered for my cheek bones or legs. If people are talking about that, then maybe I’m not doing my work very well.
Drew: I really believe in that kind of sisterhood where we’ve got each other’s back. We don’t compete with each other.
Ellen: The bond that was created between us was absolute magic. I now have so many amazing new people in my life. This is one of the only experiences where I shot a film and I’ve left being like ‘Oh my god this family will semi-stay together’.
Drew: During casting, they’d talk about actresses and say ‘she’s great, but difficult to work with’. I would tell them that I don’t even want to meet her. I don’t want one bad apple in this bunch. I love the art of casting. I think it’s very important to have people that are diverse but there is coalescence where you believe they would be on the same planet. I like Juliette, and I wanted her to play Iron Maven. I just thought her and Ellen having a rivalry would be the coolest things to watch. Zoe is the ultimate fearless, strong woman.
Drew, was Ellen your first choice to play Bliss?
She [Ellen Page] was the only person I ever talked to, and I would not have done it without her. Thank God she wanted to do it.
Ellen [blushing]: It’s kinda crazy to hear her say this…
Drew: I had seen all of your movies and I thought ‘she’s everything I want this character to embody: She’s funny, tough, smart and questions everything’. Your acting abilities are so immeasurable, and I think there are people who come along and are exciting in the moment while some are just timeless. She’s the beating red heart that takes you through the story. She’s on the right path and I knew that way before Juno.
Ellen: I grew up watching you and loving your movies. I am inspired by you for all the reasons one should. Your strength, intelligence, kindness, warmth and the constant positive energy you exude. I’m like, how in God’s name do you do that all the time? It’s all so surreal and I’m so grateful to be in this movie. It all happened before Juno, so it was before that whole hoopla. It’s so nice to know that you saw something in me, I guess. I’m incredibly grateful.
Drew: I’m just in awe at the inherent mental stability and lack of ego in her. She is a fucking smart ass chick.
Ellen, how do you stay grounded?
Ellen: I would never in million years think that I’m special because I’m an actor. If anything, it can make me more self-deprecating and not like that’s healthy either but I’m so grateful for everything that has happened. But at the same time I don’t attach my existence to it. There are other things that I love and other priorities that I have. That gives me the ability to be grounded ’cause I don’t view success as getting an Oscar nomination. Not that it wasn’t unbelievable, but that’s not all that is important.
Tour de Force
Drew, your turn behind the camera wasn’t an easy gig to land…
Drew: No, I was only a producer at first and then I kept fighting for it at the studio. We did not really see eye-to-eye with the first studio. We were meeting with directors and I just fought so hard for this movie. I was wondering why was I so passionate about it? The best type of stories a filmmaker can do is tell the truth. The theme in Whip It! of a mother and daughter trying to gain understanding with each other is deeply personal for me. I had like that moment in Clueless when Alicia Silverstone is at the fountain and she’s like, ‘Wait a minute! I love Josh.’ I was in a parking lot going bowling and I had light bulb moment: ‘Oh my God! I want to direct this movie!’ It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I went into the studio the next day to fight for it. It was amazing to be accepted in that role.
Ellen: You’re a tough, unbelievably assured director who is also open to collaborations. You knew exactly what you wanted and I could completely trust you.
It’s one thing to have a vision but it’s an entirely different animal trying to bring it to life with an army of people.
Drew: Doing Grey Gardens and directing were the scariest things I’ve done in my life. I did not know if I was capable to reach those challenges. It’s been exhausting but it’s been so fucking awesome too. I think the best thing you can do, when you take something on that’s new and intimidating, is to be ultra-prepared. For Whip It! I storyboarded the entire film for three months with J. Todd Anderson. I would always show up to work early. I worked through lunch and I stayed afterwards. I always had an answer and that was vital to me.
How is it working with a director who also acts? Does that dynamic create a unique dialogue absent with other directors?
You can’t ever believe you are the only pioneer in your field. If you kid yourself and think there’s not a fucking army behind you making it happen then you’ve lost all perspective.
Ellen: Drew directs in a way that is so connected to the material and she is so emotionally available. You feel that sense of commitment, trust and you’re able to fall into it. I don’t know who else could have done this. Of course there were days where we had disagreements but that would make us connect even more. It absolutely blew the expectations through the ceiling.
Juliette: I was so knocked out when I first met Drew ‘cause she knew her shit. She was more prepared than a lot of first time directors I’ve worked with. She really, really impressed me.
Zoe: I’m still new at this and learning. You would have never thought this was her first time directing. She was so professional and had it together. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t help you with or you couldn’t talk to her about it. She was good about making everyone on set feel part of this big production.
Drew: You can’t ever believe you are the only pioneer in your field. If you kid yourself and think there’s not a fucking army behind you making it happen then you’ve lost all perspective. It really does take a village. For people to have any faith in you, you can’t be indecisive or unprepared because then you’re totally screwed. I never would be that person for the people who were amazing enough to come on board and rock the show.
Photo credit: Ellen von Unwerth