Imagine you're a screenwriter, and against all odds you've created a complex character who's never pinned down to a type, who sometimes behaves well and sometimes inexplicably, whose emotions change and moods swing (just like a real person!), whose mind races and who has to convey her thoughts to the audience, sometimes literally but more often through nuance and technical skill and sheer talent - and oh, by the way, she's a teenager, so she has to be played by someone alarmingly young.
What you would do is get down on your knees and thank the art gods for Ellen Page. And maybe send a nice note to her parents, too, because Page is the real deal, an actor from the soul, yet more un-full-of-herself than you would dare imagine, a straight-up Halifax girl, and a mere 20 years old.
"Ellen is not a dramatic person," said Jennifer Garner, Page's co-star in the highly anticipated comedy Juno, directed by Jason Reitman ( Thank You For Smoking), which earned raves in September at Toronto International Film Festival and opens Dec. 14. "She's laid-back, sweet. She's the first to notice, in a quiet way, if someone needs something, but she never imposes herself. Yet the second we'd go into a scene, she was brilliant, incredible. She can do anything. On a set, everyone can see when an actor is nailing a part. We all knew she was killing it."
Juno is a smart, mouthy, funny, small-town teenager who gets pregnant (by the ever-endearing, Brampton, Ont.-born Michael Cera), then gets to know the couple (Garner and Jason Bateman) whom she's chosen to adopt her baby. "I did wonder who could play this part," said Diablo Cody, Juno's screenwriter. "Not that I think my writing is so challenging, but the dialogue is stylized, and I didn't want a sitcom reading. But Ellen is so awesome, it's embarrassing."
"I have never met another actor with Ellen's ability for complete honesty," Reitman said. "She identifies completely with a character. But she's technically brilliant, too. She's like a jazz instrumentalist - I'd ask for the tiniest changes in tone or modulation, and she would deliver it exactly. People who've made a movie together say a lot of nice things about each other in the press. But honestly, there are only nice things to say about this girl. I don't mean this in a religious way, but she's touched by God. She has a gift."
Others agree. Last Tuesday morning, Page heard Lisa Kudrow and Zach Braff announce her name as a best-actress nominee for a Spirit Award, the alterna-Oscars run by Film Independent, which are much valued by the Hollywood intelligentsia. (Yes, it exists.) That same evening, Page was named Breakthrough Actor at the Gotham Awards, sponsored by the New-York based Independent Feature Project. (Past winners include Maggie Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams.) Over and over, I hear people comparing Page to a young Jodie Foster, and her name is on every Oscar forecast. Which all means that Page has been launched into a new stratosphere of possibilities, that rarefied region where producers and screenwriters create projects with you in mind.
When I met her in November in Toronto - where, unlike most actors doing hotel-room interviews, she took the straight-backed wooden chair and offered the cushy, plush chair to me - my first thought was how minute Page is, pale and delicate under all her clothes: a grey T-shirt and windbreaker, a black hoodie, jeans, red Converse sneakers, and a grey knit cap run through with snags, like stockings. A few ends of her straight, brown hair stuck out of the cap, but she was mainly eyes, brown ones, rimmed in lots of black liner. She looked like a small woodland animal.
Then she spoke, and my next thought was, "Here is the 20-year-old I wish I'd been." Lots of actors can't wait to tell you how unique they are, how romantically underestimated and misunderstood. Page would have every excuse to do so - she's palpably intelligent, wry and so articulate that she apologizes for mispronouncing a word. I asked what she'd been reading, and she reeled off a list that floored me: A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman; The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abrams; two novels by Daniel Pinchbeck. "And right now I'm reading [Jeremy Narby's] Intelligence in Nature," Page said, "which talks about intelligence in all aspects of nature, and how humans can be so ignorant and so arrogant towards that. So, things that make me feel really excited, and sometimes really sad. Engaged."
"Yeah, we all quickly learned that if you ask Ellen what she's reading, you'll instantly feel like a complete troglodyte," Cody said.
Yet Page insists on how regular she is. "I don't really know what kind of a teenager I was. It was so long ago," she said, widening her eyes just enough to let me know she was kidding. "I played soccer competitively my whole life, so I was in touch with that sporty side." (A couple of roles have required that she bare her stomach, a washboard that could make a pro athlete cry.) "I also had an artistic element, I guess. I always loved music, watched films. In Halifax, it's mostly rental, but we have an incredible video store, Video Difference. I was a big reader. I liked being outdoors, hanging out with friends. I don't think I fit into the mainstream, but I feel like a lot of people don't. I just kind of liked what I like and did what I did."
"She's a thoughtful, socially-conscious person, the direct opposite of any stereotype of a young person being shallow or clueless," Cody added. "She's younger than I am, but she's a role model to me."
Garner remembers a day off from shooting Juno when she ran into Cera and Page at the Vancouver Aquarium. "They were running around being kids, and I couldn't even imagine being them," she said. "They're so successful so young, and so totally in control of it. They're not playing out some actor fantasy. They're rooted."
Page has been edging into people's consciousness for 10 years, working in that curiously Canadian mix of made-for-TV movies ( Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story), guest-star spots (on Pit Pony, Trailer Park Boys, ReGenesis) and small films: Marion Bridge, Wilby Wonderful, The Tracey Fragments. She also played Kitty Pryde - the mutant with the ability every teen longs for, invisibility - in X-Men: The Last Stand, the role she's most recognized for on the street.
But it was the indie film Hard Candy, about a 14-year-old who turns the tables on a much older photographer (Patrick Wilson, the callow husband in Little Children) who picks her up over the Internet, that compelled everyone's attention. "In 25 years, I've watched a lot of actors' reels," said Valerie McCaffrey, Hard Candy's casting director. "But none blew me away like Ellen's. Day one, I told the producers, 'I've found the girl.' "
Hard Candy led to the even darker An American Crime, based on the true story of an Indiana single mother (Catherine Keener) who in 1965 starved and tortured to death a teenager (Page) left in her care. (The film premiered at Sundance last January, but has not yet been released.) In the middle of that shoot, Page read the script for Juno.
"I became so excited that I was obsessive," she said. "I had to play this role. The language is fantastic; there's fluidity, amazing rhythm, yet it felt honest to me. When I was 16, did I say those exact words? No. But did I have a unique language with my friends? Yeah. It was so nice that that was being portrayed in a witty, honest way, instead of that mainstream, pseudo-unique idea of a teenage girl: 'Oh, she wears black,' or 'She listens to Good Charlotte.' That drives me crazy."
Meeting Reitman for the first time, Page worried, " 'Oh my God, he's going to think I'm psychotic,' because I'd lost a lot of weight and was very absorbed by [ An American Crime]" she said. "I'm not always able to shrug it [a role]off. ... But it's what I love to do, so even when I'm going to really, really dark places, it's oddly fulfilling. I'm not masochistic or anything. But it's this inexplicable feeling of emotional transcendence. Approaching a character, throwing your heart into it, removing blockage, removing judgment and connecting with this other human being. Letting it power through you, feeling it in your veins, is extremely exciting. It's like a drug."
Reitman, of course, got her immediately. "I don't think Ellen realizes how difficult it is for many actors to get to the place where she can go instantly," Reitman says. "She's not a Method actor, in character all the time. In fact, she makes jokes about that. And if she ever thinks she's about to have a 'movie beat,' something too sappy or literal, she'll stop herself and correct it."
The actors Page admires - Sissy Spacek, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney - share her unfussy honesty. Nor does she indulge in complaints about her life or her business. She plans to stay in Halifax. She praises her parents ("I'm so lucky to have them. They never pushed me; they never held me back") and her agents ("They know what I like. The stuff they show me is usually worth reading"), and does not feel powerless about shaping her career.
"Definitely, the more I get into this, the less naive I am about the fact that it is a business," Page said. "But am I going to change myself? No. I would not be a happy human being. I love to act. But there's a lot of other things I love, so I want to make sure that I hold onto myself."
This past summer, for example, she and a friend backpacked through Serbia and Romania, "and that was incredible, to see an area of the world that's in so much transition," she said. Then she and more friends camped in Newfoundland for two weeks, "and that was unbelievable. One of the most beautiful places I'd ever been. Just being outside, playing the guitar. It sounds corny, but it feeds my soul.
"I've shot a lot of dark films - not on purpose, but because those are often the scripts that feel the most honest," Page continued. "Which is why the humanist perspective in Juno is an especially nice thing to have right now. I think a lot of people believe that human beings operate from this dark aspect of themselves, but I simply don't believe that. I have faith in humanity. I can approach a character who doesn't seem at all like myself, but always, through the process of playing them, I completely connect to their hearts.
"In my life, too, I want to become the least judgmental person as possible. There's just so much dishonesty and hiding and isolation. It's such a drag. People are so afraid of what they feel. But I love doing this, because I get to feel so much."
Page in brief
Full name: Ellen Phillpotts-Page
Born: Feb. 21, 1987, in Halifax, daughter of Martha Phillpotts, a teacher, and Dennis Page, a graphic designer.
Education: Attended three different high schools before graduating from the Shambhala School in Halifax in 2005.
Acting: Attended the Neptune Theatre School, performing in a stage version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Grade 5. At age 10, scored her first major role, Maggie Maclean, in the TV show Pit Pony. Had a recurring role in Trailer Park Boys as Treena Lahey and in ReGenesis as Lilith Sandstrom. Played Kitty Pryde, alias Shadowcat, in X-Men, The Last Man Standing.
Next up: Plays Arlene in the adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel.