'There are a lot of things I love about acting," Ellen Page said recently over the phone, discussing her new film Touchy Feely, "and one of the things I love the most is, here you are taking words off a page, working with someone you might have met just a week before, and somehow you're creating a moment that separates itself from space and time. You feel an incredible rush when you have that moment with another actor. You can feel it bounce off one another. Every take you do can reveal different things that were hiding. And things outside the story get revealed to you, too. It's an incredible way to work and to experience a story."
That's one of the more succinct summations I've heard about the joy of acting. It may not hold for every actor in every film, but it's apt for Touchy Feely, the new comic drama from writer/director Lynn Shelton, which opens in select cities Oct. 11. Shelton, 48, who also made Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, is a polisher of the kind of intimate, revealing onscreen moments that Page, 26 and an Oscar nominee for Juno, is talking about.
"My quest with my last few movies has been how to find the highest level of naturalism on screen," Shelton says in a separate phone interview. "I'm interested in how film can convey interior mental spaces, and also in how our relationships with others inform our relationship with ourselves. How we change in the context of different people. Sometimes people in our lives hold up a mirror and force us to take stock. Are we lining up with who we think we are? Are we living fully in the world?"
In her previous movies, Shelton's solution was to throw a few hyper-articulate characters who are embroiled in a tricky emotional situation into a room together, and let them talk – and behave – it out. Though she always knew where her scenes were going, much of the dialogue was improvised, and the tone was smart-talky fun.
For Touchy Feely, however, Shelton wrote a more complete script, and focused on characters who are far less articulate, who are going through more internal crises, and whose inability to express themselves compounds their struggle. There's Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), a massage therapist who inexplicably loses her sense of touch; Abby's brother Paul (Josh Pais), a painfully lonely dentist whose practice takes off when word gets around that he can heal the locked-jaw condition TMJ; and Paul's daughter Jenny (Page), who got sucked into taking care of her father and is now as closed-off and fearful as he. The audience sees that each character need only take a tiny step to move into a new phase of life, but that step feels to them like an uncrossable chasm.
"It's about how scary it is to be vulnerable," Page says. "And how there's actually much more courage in being vulnerable than the stereotype of what bravery is. The story might be small and contained, but it has a profound truth. That quiet struggle that Jenny's going through, I can't imagine who doesn't relate to having a moment like that in her life.
"We're all human beings struggling with the same emotional dilemmas: loneliness, isolation," Page continues, clearly happy to be talking about things that aren't often said. "I think isolation is an unspoken tragedy of what it means to be alive in modern society right now. Our yearning to connect, and the loss of that."
Because Touchy Feely is more empathic and nakedly emotional than Shelton's previous work, its director had fears of her own to overcome. "It was scary to be dealing with so much emotional content," Shelton says. "I was terrified it would become a syrup fest." As well, part of Abby's struggles were semi-autobiographical: A few years ago, Shelton fell into a mild depression that seemed to come from nowhere.
"It was so confounding and frustrating," she says. "Everything was going great, personally and professionally." She lives in a "little cottage in a very cozy neighbourhood in Seattle," with a husband of 20 years and a son who just started high school. Her work, including directing television shows and speaking at film festivals, is rewarding. She's just completed a larger-budget film, as yet untitled, about the unlikely friendship between a woman and a teenager, played by Keira Knightley and Chloe Moretz.
"I'm living the life I want to be living," Shelton goes on. "But there was a veil between me and it, this weird mist. I couldn't reach out and grab this life, this joy that I knew was mine. I couldn't emotionally connect to it. And there was shame involved: 'You should pull yourself up by your bootstraps.' As if I should be able to conquer it without asking for help."
She's come out of it now. But because of all that, it was important for her to create an unusual amount of trust and intimacy between her Touchy Feely actors and crew. Though she didn't have the budget to bring them together before the shoot, she orchestrated frequent long phone calls between two, three or four people, in which they discussed each character's backstory and relationships every which way; she encouraged the actors to get together without her; she asked everyone to watch Brené Brown's TED Talk about the power of vulnerability; and finally she invited everyone to a friend's house in L.A., where they cooked fish curry together.
Page had anxieties, too. She's not averse to allowing herself to feel lonely in order to play a lonely character. "I'm by no means a method actor," she says. "But it's impossible to not let those feelings get into your veins." But though her career has taken her from action movies such as Inception and the upcoming X-Men sequel, to politically-minded fare like The East, to working with Woody Allen on To Rome with Love, she hadn't done any improv in a decade, since Trailer Park Boys, "which was a different kind of improv for sure," Page says. "With Touchy Feely, the most nerve-wracking thing was, at first I was trying to feel so real and present in the scenes that I forgot I was playing a character. I was being Ellen, and feeling it not working. Then we would get to some moments, and I would get transported to the immediate raw emotions at the centre of it."
She's still not sure if she finally got it right. "But that's the gift of the job I get to do," Page concludes. "You get to move through so much of your own shit. You can go in to play a character and feel so different from her on a surface level. Next thing you know, it's moving something inside of you that you didn't know was there. What a gift that my job is about getting to feel."