Barrymore whips up excitement for roller derby flick
Published Sunday, September 13, 2009 11:13PM EDT
Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page and the rest of the cast from "Whip It" dropped by a live roller derby exhibition Sunday night at Toronto's Yonge and Dundas Square to promote their new film before heading to its world premiere at a nearby theatre.
Barrymore, who makes her directing debut with the movie about a rebellious Texas teen who trades a shot at a beauty pageant crown for a spot on a roller derby league, thanked the hundreds of fans who turned out and promised them they were going to love the movie.
"You will laugh and cry and enjoy yourself and find something to relate (to) and be entertained. We worked our tails off to bring this movie to you," says Barrymore.
The exhibition was presented by members of the Toronto Roller Derby League and player "Rebel Rock-It" says having Barrymore promote the sport through the film is absolutely amazing.
"It's one of the best things that's ever happened to this sport," says Rock-It. "We've been doing this for a while and it's nice to finally get more people to recognize it."
Roller derby empowerment
Barrymore has long been singing the praises for "girl power" and says the way roller derby has been empowering women is one of the reasons she was attracted to the project.
"This sport is amazing. It's unique. It's been through many evolutions and now it is on the precipice of being something really important because all these leagues are cropping up across the country and it's a very welcoming sport," Barrymore said during a press conference earlier in the day.
"You can be any age, physical size, (any) economical background, ethnicity, nothing matters."
Although popular in the 60s and 70s, roller derby has essentially lied dormant until this decade when it was brought back to life at a grassroots level in Austin, Texas -- complete with character names, a punk rock edge and plenty of fishnets. It has since grown to more than 430 amateur leagues worldwide.
Barrymore says the movie, which is based upon a novel by Shauna Cross, was also very personal for her. She could relate to the power struggle that occurs between Page's character Bliss and her mother Brooke (played by Marcia Gay Harden).
"I spent a lot of time with the writer writing those scenes and trying to bring in personal experiences and moments and trying to be in touch with what's it like to be young and want to find your tribe and you don't feel like you fit in ... (and) the desire to get it right with your mom, especially if you're on a different page," says Barrymore.
Barrymore can't say enough about the brilliance Page brought to the role and says she actually cast the young Canadian actress before she had even shot "Juno" -- a role for which she received an Oscar nomination.
"Getting to watch her go through that journey, I was just so excited for her but again, it's about working with actors who are just masters at what they do."
Blood on the stadium floor
But Barrymore didn't just let the actors have all the fun on the track. She strapped on her own pair of skates and played the role of "Smashley Simpson." She says they all got pretty banged up while filming but couldn't be more proud of their war scars.
"We wore our bruises like merit badges," says Barrymore.
The cast also started a "female fight club" and created a "wall of bruises." Barrymore adds they're lucky no one got seriously hurt, as everyone did their own stunts.
"Derby is a really dangerous sport and I've seen girls get taken away in ambulances ... we risked it all to learn and then go out there with this veraciousness of all the skills we had learned and we cheered each other on and helped each other through the pain."
Prior to shooting, all the actors went through an intense daily regimen that included yoga, strength training and hours on the track.
The girls were trained by Alex Coen, a.k.a. Axels of Evil, a member of the L.A. Derby Dolls, and a NPR reporter by day.
"It was everything from basic skating to the strategy of derby to the rules, which are complicated and difficult. Ellen learned everything: she jumps, she blocks, she does all of those moves. It's hard," says Coen.
Coen says even with the proper training and technique, there's nothing you can do to prevent a skater from getting injured.
"Thank God we were fine. We didn't have any serious injuries on set and that's huge."
Real-life derby girl "Val Capone," a member of the Windy City Rollers who was in Toronto for the exhibition game, hasn't been so lucky. Over the five years she's been playing derby, she has torn cartilage in her knee, fractured her ribs, dislocated her shoulders, sprained her ankle and broken her fingers -- and that's just for starters.
But Capone, who has her name tattooed inside her bottom lip, wouldn't trade it for anything.
"It's the best thing I've ever done. I can't even describe the friendships and family (I've made)."
Director on skates
Marcia Gay Harden says Barrymore did an exceptional job as a first-time director and it was great to see her hitting the trenches with everyone else out on the rink.
"Drew on the skates with a director's hat, now that was lovely," says Harden. "This little girl that we remember from "E.T." ... and there she was directing this film of the darker sides of femininity and doing it beautifully and in complete charge."
Barrymore says now that she's been a director, she'll never be able to look at movie making the same way.
"I'm changed forever and I'll never go backwards. I look forward to the next thing I'll do as a director but I've done 50 something movies and genuinely this was the most unique, loving, nurturing, inspired experience that I've ever been on."
"Whip It" opens in theatres Oct. 2nd.