Whip It: Ellen Page as Woman-on-Wheels Bliss Cavendar

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Ellen Page stars in “Whip It,” directed by Drew Barrymore, which is about the trials and tribulations of female roller derby. The film is being released October 2, 2009 by Fox Searchlight.

The first challenge facing the WHIP IT team was finding an actress who could fill Bliss Cavendar’s Reidells.  She needed to be smart, offbeat and authentic – but she also needed to be willing and able to whip around a track at fearless speeds.  Right from the start, there was just one person who seemed to embody the humor, courage and authenticity of the character: Ellen Page.

“Ellen is such a beautiful creature and has a vulnerability and sexiness that is also tomboyish.  I was determined to show every aspect of her as Bliss,” says Drew Barrymore. “I didn’t want Bliss to be the cliché of a geek who becomes a badass by the end or the ugly duckling who turns into a swan.  Ellen understood that and you watch her transform very subtly.  At the beginning, Ellen gives Bliss a pigeon walk and tentative body language, but by the end she has a different physical possession. You watch her grow from a small-town girl into this rock ‘n roll world where she truly fits and flourishes.”

Barrymore and Page chatted long into the night about Bliss, the way two friends might analyze all the trials and tribulations of another.  “We talked about the things that start to change her and that empower her, such as the moment she goes from wanting to tell her mother ‘I love this’ to actually saying it out loud.  We both really wanted to get inside not only Bliss’s world,” explains Barrymore. “We wanted to capture the levity and the complexity of all these different types of relationships Bliss has.  Including friendships, teammate camaraderie and first loves.”

Before she ever tied up her laces, Page knew she was in for perhaps the wildest ride of her young career.  “This has been one of the craziest journeys I’ve gone on in a movie,” Page admits, “because it is a mix of different genres and worlds and energies and it seems like every moment is so crucial to Bliss’s growth and development.  What’s great about this film is that it’s got this rock n’ roll, cool, sporty aspect to it but behind that is an honest story of a young woman going through a lot of changes.  The challenge was molding all that together and Drew did it brilliantly, with her high energy and positive spirit.”

Playing Bliss was as physical as it was emotional, throwing Page into a mad pursuit of derby skills.  “I am Canadian so I skate,” laughs Page.  “But I wasn’t good by any means, and my skills definitely had to improve.  Everyone had faith and trusted that I would train hard and have that moment when it would all come together.” Come together it did as she endured months of rigorous, even perilous, training and then threw herself into the ring, jamming with the Derby Dolls in Los Angeles for real-life practice.  “I was absolutely terrified,” she says of the experience.  “It was like the first day of school. No matter how much I’d practiced, it’s a daunting thing to have people wanting to rip your head off while you’re doing it!  But when you get it, it’s such a fantastic feeling.”

Page got further inspired by the big changes that shake up Bliss’ life when she first sets eyes on the spectacle of derby – changes that will challenge her to make a tough, but redemptive, bid for her independence by finally telling her mother the truth.   “I think Bliss has been trying to figure out a way to be able to express herself comfortably for a long time,” observes Page.  “She knows that the beauty pageant scene is not it; she knows she’s always been a little bit different; and she knows she does not want to stay in this small town of Bodeen forever. So when she meets these derby girls and sees the way their differences are being celebrated and the way they are so individual yet they all come together, it’s a thrill.  She’s never experienced anything like it.  It’s the first time she’s had a chance to actually like who she is – and that’s when she realizes she’s going to have to fight to keep this feeling alive.”

The spirit of roller derby seems to be just what Bliss is looking for.  “I think sometimes when things are cool or hip it can feel contrived, but there’s something about the derby world that is very sincere and authentic and that is what’s so incredibly exciting to Bliss,” says Page.  “Derby is all about passion.  Girls who have never played sports before, who were hated in that realm in school, put on the skates and learn how to be empowered women.  One of the beautiful things about it is that anybody can become good at it — if you feel strongly about it.”

But Bliss’s secret entry into the world of derby is not without consequences.  On top of lying to her parents, Bliss finds her very best friend, Pash, slipping away as she moves into this new phase of self discovery.  And then, the most unlikely thing of all happens.  Bliss falls in love.  For Barrymore, Bliss’s fast-moving romance with the ultimate foil – a boy in a hot indie band — was another key to her story.  Confesses the director, “I think when you fall in love with someone who has all the cultural and emotional ideals that you do, who loves all the same music and movies, it’s easy to lose your footing and just get so wrapped up in it.  That’s what happens to Bliss, and it raises a lot of questions for her.  It’s fun and sweeps her off her feet, but then things take a turn and she learns about who she is and what she really wants. I think it’s a rite of passage that every girl has to go through.”

Page adored the love story’s spectrum of real emotions – the impatience, uncertainty and downright chaos of being knocked down by feelings that don’t always make sense.  “I like that this story shows two individuals falling for each other in a really authentic way and that it doesn’t end up the way you necessarily expect,” she says.
By the end of production, Page was nearly as in love with derby as Bliss.  She even began contemplating one of the most important elements of every derby girl’s identity:  her skate name.  While Bliss Cavendar chooses “Babe Ruthless” as a reminder to herself to show no mercy, Page has her own moniker in mind.  “I like ‘Hurt Vonnegut’ because Vonnegut’s one of my favorite authors,” she muses.  That said, Barrymore chose the derby name ‘Small Newman’ for Page and calls her that to this day.