Onscreen, Drew Barrymore plays amiable klutzes, but in real life, she’s one of the movie industry’s most successful actor-producers. For years, Barrymore was the poster child for child-actor burnout. Institutionalized at age 14 for substance-abuse problems, she graduated to adult roles in schlock like the teenage femme-fatale thriller Poison Ivy. But after her execution in the opening scenes of Scream, Barrymore was born again. With partner Nancy Juvonen, she founded Flower Films to produce the roles she couldn’t find elsewhere, from the straitlaced copy editor who goes undercover as a high-school student in Never Been Kissed to the rowdy ass-kicker of Charlie’s Angels.
With Whip It, Barrymore steps into another surprising role: director. Starring Ellen Page as a scrawny high-schooler who finds a surrogate family in an all-female roller derby team, the movie has its director’s exuberant charm, as well as some of her comic awkwardness. The A.V. Club caught up with Barrymore a few days after the film’s world première at the Toronto International Film Festival, and talked to her about her move to directing, her love of getting pummeled onscreen, and her role as eccentric fashion plate “Little Edie” Beale in Grey Gardens.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been producing movies for years. What about Shauna Cross’ novel Derby Girl made you pick this for your first directing vehicle?
Drew Barrymore: Because it had the blueprint of things that I wanted to talk about: family themes and how we may have different agendas than what our parents see for us in our future, and how we navigate fighting to become who we want to become and hopefully gain honesty and yet acceptance with them along the way. And the obstacles that families go through when kids are growing up. I also love to explore what defines who you are, and friendship, and how you love to rock out with your best friend and cruise and drive and listen to the Ramones and play air guitar, and yet at the same time, they will come and slap you when you’re acting out of line. I love the themes that I put on the poster: “Be your own hero” and “Find your tribe.” Those are two things that are really important in my life. I loved the world of roller derby because I thought it was such an empowering metaphor, that you get out there and do it. It’s such a rocker, athletic, capable, cool exhibitionist sport; it’s about this great sort of camaraderie. And these girls are friends. Even though they are competitive on the track, they’re good to each other, and friends off the track.
AVC: A lot of directors will reserve the most glamorous role for themselves, but your character is constantly getting the crap beaten out of her.
DB: Or I beat the crap out of someone else.
AVC: True. What made you want to put yourself in that part?
DB: I loved Smashley Simpson. Every character on the team has their own little distinct personality, but I liked the idea of a hippie with anger issues. I sort of relate to that.
AVC: Looking at the arc of your career, it seems as if things fell into place for you when you started taking more physical roles. It seemed like you were having a better time onscreen, and people were having more fun watching you. Do you remember that transition?
DB: Yeah. I love that you recognize that, and I appreciate that. When I produced the Charlie’s movies, I wanted to give girls a chance to do action and get to do what boys do. I’ve always liked when girls like each other and there’s a lack of a backstabby, catty competitiveness. One person is very powerful, but a team is sort of unstoppable. So I like women who like each other and empower each other, and I love getting to do physical comedy. I sort of pratfalled the other day, and I don’t know if I dislocated a disc, but I was limping for three weeks, and I was like, “God, who says comedy isn’t painful?” It’s fun to throw yourself around, whether it’s to make people laugh and be a buffoon, or kick someone’s ass and look like you’ve got your shit together. They’re totally two different types of physicality, but I definitely enjoy both. There certainly are more bruises and injuries that are like merit badges.
AVC: Do you find women engage in that kind of infighting in the movie industry?
DB: If they do, I don’t know any of those women. I don’t hang out with any of those women. I’m sure that that’s true, but I definitely do not play that game, and I do not party with those people.
AVC: What do you think is behind it? Or do you just not think about it and try to avoid it?
DB: Yeah. Life’s too short. We have to love each other.
AVC: Did you spend a lot of time researching real roller-derby teams?
DB: Oh yeah, of course. I’m a very research-, homework-oriented person. We started with the training camp, which I learned from Charlie’s is imperative. You have to see the actors do all the stunts and the skating themselves, and the action. I don’t like camera trickery and editing and doubles and all of that. It’s great to see the people get out there, and they come out of it having trained together and learned these skills and gotten injured. They cheer each other on when they learn a skill. That friendship becomes the chemistry that is so wonderful onscreen. I think those are just imperative. I went to lots of derby games. I really got to know derby girls. This woman that I chose to be my choreographer is an NPR correspondent by day, Alex Cohen, and Axel Of Evil, an awesome derby chick, by night. I just loved that whole double-life aspect. It’s really fascinating.
AVC: That camaraderie between you and the women in the cast is very palpable in the movie, especially given the way it ends. That’s what this sport is about for them.
DB: I really was obsessed with happy endings in my 20s, and then in my 30s, I’m all about a good day. I just love that it’s all about having found this wonderful place with these wonderful people, and her finding some peace in her life after fighting so hard to find the world where she feels like she fits in, and is empowered. That’s really the accurate message. This film is about that wonderful feeling. Because life goes on. Challenges will come to her the next day and all of that. I really wanted it to be about her having found a wonderful place and a wonderful group of people.
AVC: How do you approach creating that sort of atmosphere on-set?
DB: I just used the blueprint of Charlie’s Angels: You go in in the morning and train all day, and then everybody eats lunch together, and you come back and you train all afternoon. I had a little bit of a different challenge, because I wasn’t able to have lunches and sit around. I had to go to pre-production meetings and stay after work after everybody went home. But that said, when I was out there skating and learning and everything, I would forget about everything else and just get lost in the training aspect. And then as soon as it was over, I was like, “Oh God, I’ve got a movie to make here,” running back and forth, putting on different hats. So it was very busy, but it was also really, really fun, too.
AVC: What lessons did you take—either good or bad—from directors that you worked with previously?
DB: I think a personal thing is, I don’t like working by a monitor. I stand right next to the camera, and I’m very performance-oriented. That really means everything to me, whether it’s doing an improv of a joke or an emotional scene, and everything in between. I love working with the actors eye-to-eye. I think something gets lost in translation, not only through a monitor, but when you leave the area where the actual scene is taking place. So I’ve always liked directors who work that way. And also, being really buttoned-up—being shot-listed and storyboarded and having everything buttoned-up with every department head, and keeping any drama away from the actors so they can be happy to focus on their performance. Just knowing how to conduct the symphony so it can run as smoothly as it possibly can.
AVC: That “video village” syndrome is a red flag for a lot of actors.
DB: I think video village is bullshit. It’s like it’s a breeding ground for people to nitpick and feel important. It’s just such a weird dynamic. I was like, “We will be having no such area on this set. Let’s trust each other. Please trust me in this process, and I swear there won’t be a bunch of producers sitting around commenting on what you’re doing.” We already were more of a family. We played music on-set for people while they were working. Nobody went back to their trailers; everyone hung out on-set. We were a low-budget movie, and we tried to stretch every dollar the best we could. And I think that environment—especially in a DIY world—it’s true to the derby world, or true to the economics of this family that doesn’t have a lot of money, and it’s just not about that. Now it’s like, “Cut the Hollywood bullshit. Let’s get out there and make an authentic, friendship-oriented, relationship-motivated sports movie, and be really authentic about it.”
AVC: In addition to directing your first movie, you also took on the part this year of “Little Edie” Beale in Grey Gardens, which is probably the most demanding role of your career. It seems like it’s been quite a period for you in terms of artistic growth.
DB: Thank you for recognizing that. Yeah, I’ve been pretty much scared shitless for the last three years, just wondering if I could pull any of these things off. I’m excited if I do. But I definitely thought the journey was more important than the destination. I just really wanted to know if I could do these things. I love acting and I love producing, but I did all that in my 20s, and I wanted to make my 30s about these new challenges. It’s been panic-inducing and scary, but I’m glad I didn’t just sit back and take the easy road.
AVC: Between the two of them—playing Little Edie and directing this movie—which was scarier?
DB: They were both scary in totally different ways. Because one was about an acting challenge I didn’t know if I could pull off, and one was about, “Can I lead this ship? Can I be a storyteller? Can I really pull this off as a filmmaker?” I learned that the thing they have in common was incredible discipline. I have put relationships and my social life completely on the back burner and worked almost seven days a week for three years straight. Because I knew that no matter what, if I didn’t give a thousand percent, then I had no chance of accomplishing either of them, let alone succeeding in them. I don’t know if I succeeded in them, because I don’t know how to measure success other than to know that I didn’t leave any stone unturned. And I did try the hardest that I could, and did the best that I can.
AVC: Little Edie was such a departure for you. Was it hard to get people to see you in that light?
DB: I was grateful to get an opportunity. It’s everybody’s dream to be given the opportunity. Not that I didn’t fight for it, because the director was like, “I don’t believe that you can do this part. I don’t believe you can pull it off. I haven’t seen you do anything like this.” And I was like, “That’s the cool thing. All of those people who have proven themselves, it means someone gave them a chance. And will you be that person who gives me a chance? If you do, I will pay you back by working in a way that will literally be a seven-days-a-week job.”
AVC: It seems like you’re due for a rest, but you’ve been on a fairly expansive promotional tour for this movie. Are you taking some time off after that?
DB: I really feel it is important to go cross-country and bring it to people personally, because it is such a personal experience for me. I didn’t want to just show up on a talk show and say, “Please see this movie.” It’s more grass-roots for me. I spent three years of my life in love with this thing. I wanted to come through, city to city, and bring it to people. As it was my love child, it now really belongs to them. And I made it so that it would hopefully bring some enjoyment to people, because it really is a fun ride, this movie, and yet it has emotional components, too. So I don’t know. I’m looking forward to a nice, cozy, well-fitting straightjacket that has really long sleeves.