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Those who have seen the trailers for James Gunn’s Super would be forgiven for thinking they’d seen it already: Not only does its “ordinary man tries being a superhero, gets shit beaten out of him” premise recall recent films like Kick-Ass and Defendor, the amateur crime-fighters are played by Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, two actors who shared one of the most smart-assed exchanges in one of the most smart-assed movies of the last decade, Juno. But just as Super surprises with its moments of genuinely unnerving darkness among the quips, the Ellen Page seen here isn’t one that’s been seen before. And to be fair, too much of Page’s perception is unfairly tied to Diablo Cody’s painfully hip dialogue and hamburger phones, when she’s always been more complex than that. After spending years as a child star on Canadian television (including a supporting role on Trailer Park Boys), Page broke out with the back-to-back gritty dramas Mouth To Mouth, in which she shaved her head to play a teenage cult member, and Hard Candy, in which she plays a girl who tortures a would-be sexual predator. From there it’s been a mix of big-budget studio fare like X-Men: The Last Stand and Inception and smaller indies like Smart People and Whip It, while Page has spent her time off-screen being an outspoken advocate for environmental causes, including narrating the 2009 documentary Vanishing Of The Bees. Page spoke to The A.V. Club after the SXSW première of Super about making those unusual choices, dealing with the world’s problems while also distracting from them, and what’s up with those Cisco ads.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said before that you like playing strong-willed characters, but Libby, your character in Super, is so strong-willed she’s actually kind of a psychopath.
Ellen Page: Yeah, a little bit.
AVC: So what were you able to find in her that you identified with?
EP: Well, not necessarily anything. She was a character that I had never really seen before—and needless to say, had never played. So I was kind of excited about going completely full-blown with it, and really just losing myself in it.
AVC: Other than knowing that Libby’s well-versed in comics and pretty hyperactive, the audience doesn’t learn much about her. How did that affect your understanding of her motivation?
EP: Not really in any way. I just think she has issues. I think it’s immediately noticeable that she says things that are very inappropriate, that she doesn’t really have a great understanding of personal space. She’s a sociopath, and, we find out later, a bit of a psychopath. It’s kind of that simple. Rainn’s character, there’s more depth to his decisions, to his moral or ethical dilemma, his religious outlook, the things he’s dealing with as a character. Libby’s a little more straightforward. She likes violence, and she likes being a part of this fantasy, and she thrives on being very violent.
AVC: The press kit says that what drew you to the script was that you were tired of getting offered characters that were “wise beyond their years,” and that Libby was the opposite of that. Is that true?
EP: Sort of. I don’t think it’s that conscious. I think it’s more that this is like nothing that I’ve seen, and that’s exciting. Because there can be a tendency, I guess, to see similar characters offered—similar tone, etc. And to read something that’s just, “Oh wow. I have never seen this, let alone played this.” I’m really pretty excited that Rainn and James wanted me to do it with them.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve become typecast as sort of a precocious smart-ass?
EP: No. I think I’ve been really fortunate to play all kinds of different characters. I feel really friggin’ grateful. Because I think roles for young women that are interesting are really few and far between, and I feel extremely frickin’ fortunate and lucky to have played some really great characters.
AVC: Super is extremely dark, even downright unsettling. Do you think that’s bound to polarize people and make it a hard sell?
EP: I think it will polarize people, and I think that’s great. [Laughs.] I’ve been in a few movies that really have the tendency to polarize people, and I kind of like that. I kind of like anything that pushes people’s buttons. People will always take things as they want, and project stuff on it—it’s just kind of what people do. Whether it’s violence or teen pregnancy, whatever.
AVC: What was the transition like going from shooting a big-budget studio film like Inception to shooting this?
EP: Well, I loved shooting Inception. Frickin’ awesome experience. Working with Chris [Nolan] was amazing, and that cast—all the stuff I got to do on that film was an amazing experience. And then, yeah, immediately getting to go to a kind of bare-bones, very low-budget, very quick shoot was awesome. I mean, as an actor, just to be working is amazing. And then on top of that, to have that versatility, and to kind of go from one project to another that is just so vastly different in their way of filmmaking is great. A similar thing happened after I shot X-Men. I did this little movie in Canada that was less than a $1 million budget called The Tracey Fragments. And it was just so awesome to be a part of Inception, and I feel so grateful for it. It’s still surreal to think that I was even in that. And then to get to follow it up with something like Super is, like, “Pinch me.” It’s awesome to go from one end of the sphere to the other.
AVC: After Inception, there was an article in London’s Telegraph that said, “Ellen Page is now highly bankable.” So did you notice the change gradually—like, did you feel a little bit more bankable each day, or did you just wake up one day and realize you were full-blown bankable?
EP: [Laughs.] I’ve never heard that said about me, nor is that something that I think about. Yeah, I don’t know. I do what I love to do. I have awesome people who let me make the choices I want to make. I navigate things by whether I want to play a part or not, to be honest. Is it bad that I don’t think about those things? I don’t really think about that stuff. Maybe I should. I don’t know.
AVC: Inception has become this exception that proves the rule that most movies based on original ideas don’t really have a chance of getting made at studios anymore. Since you’re so choosy about your projects, what do you think about the options out there right now?
EP: Well, I don’t know what I think. I think that as a girl—woman—you’re already… [Pauses.] It’s already not as easy, in the sense that interesting roles for girls and women tend to be few and far between. That’s just the reality that I think most people would agree with. So that can be frustrating. I just get sent so many things that are like, “So, here’s another story about a guy….” But that’s just what it is. I’m kind of getting more excited about developing my own stuff, or getting involved early in projects and doing my best to make things that I care about happen.
AVC: It seems like a lot of the young female roles out there tend to be in the romantic-comedy vein, which you haven’t really done so far. Is that something you’ve actively avoided?
EP: Oh God, no, not actively avoided. I do something if I like it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I mean, that sounds really conceited. Believe me, there’s been stuff that I wanted to do that I haven’t been able to, because they’ve gone with someone else—which is frickin’ great. I don’t really have that thing of—not to say I’ve never been bummed out. I mean, I’m a human being. Of course, sometimes it’s like, “Oh shit, I really wanted to do that.” But I always get excited for whomever they choose. There are so many awesome young actors. I get so stoked for whoever gets to do something cool, and I’m always so happy to see people do well. I don’t get competitive, really. So I don’t know. If I’m excited about something, hopefully someone will think, “Oh right, you should do this.” And that’s great. I’m not being very articulate about this. I just don’t want to do stuff if I’m going to feel bummed out and uninspired. Does that make sense?
AVC: Yes, and the reason I ask is that it’s hard for me to picture you doing a Kate Hudson-style romantic comedy. That seems like something you might find uninspired.
EP: Yeah, it’s not my kind of movie. But it is a lot of people’s kind of movie. And if that’s what you want to go to the theater to see, then that’s great, and who am I to say anything about it? Is it a movie that I want to be in? No. Because it’s not a movie that I’m going to go see. It’s that simple. I think my interests are different, and what inspires me as an actor doesn’t typically fall in that format. Mind you, Roman Holiday—which is kind of a romantic comedy—is one of my favorite films, and I think Audrey Hepburn is absolutely phenomenal in that movie. So I think that genre can kind of get lumped into… I think there’s great romantic comedy, you know what I mean?
AVC: In the past, you’ve expressed concern about maybe cultivating this “outsider” or “anti-Hollywood” image. Is that a perception you’re still contending with?
EP: Oh, I don’t think so. I am who I am, and it doesn’t always perfectly fit into the slot. That’s what she said. [Laughs.] But you know what I mean. Like, the fashion thing. I don’t know how to do that, that’s not my thing, and I don’t want to pretend to know how to do it. I really want to do my best to maintain a sense of self, and continue to do jobs that I really like doing while maintaining that sense of self. And if someone were like, “Hey Ellen, you have to, like, completely abandon who you are to keep doing this,” I’d be like, “Oh shit, well, I guess I have to go do something else.” You know what I’m saying? But I’m not anti-anything.
AVC: It does seem pretty rare for someone—especially a younger actor—to adopt that position, since so many are just so happy that they made it, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it. That’s where that “outsider” perception comes in, I think, that you’re one of the rare young actors with a genuine individualist streak.
EP: Who knows, maybe I’m just a stubborn jerk? [Laughs.] Maybe the other people who do stuff they don’t want to do, maybe they’re doing the right thing. Who am I to say? I’m just doing my thing and being myself, and I’ve been given the incredible, fortunate opportunity to play roles that I frickin’ care about and enjoy playing. And it might not last forever. That’s okay. That’s what it is.
AVC: You recently filmed Tilda, the HBO pilot, opposite Diane Keaton, but it ended up not going forward. Why do you think that fell apart?
EP: Oh, I don’t know. It just did. I think some things work out, and sometimes they don’t. It’s that simple. I was excited about it, inspired—and you know, obviously a huge fan of Diane Keaton. But that’s just what happened. It’s life. It’s what happened.
EP: Still just developing it. These things seem to take a while. I feel like it got announced so early on, and so people end up asking about it, and I’m like, “Still developing.” But hopefully we’ll make it at some point. Regardless, it’s been a pleasure to write something and have people like it a little bit. So hopefully we’ll make it. We’ll see.
AVC: Since it was announced, it seems like there have been several shows put into development about young hipster girls trying to make it in the big city.
EP: You’re telling me we missed the boat? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
AVC: No, I’m saying you got robbed.
EP: [Laughs.] Well, we’ll see what happens. Regardless, I got to hang out with two of my best friends in Amsterdam and write something, and then have HBO like it and start developing it with us. That unto itself was a great experience. Hopefully we’ll make it, but you never know.
AVC: In the meantime, you’re regularly seen on TV in those ads for Cisco. Why you? What’s the connection there?
EP: Well, what is the connection for anyone doing anything like that? They came to me and asked me if I wanted to do this, and at first, I was like, “Oh God, I don’t think so”—only because it’s not something I ever thought I would do. And then I gave it more thought, and talked to them, and looked at all the awesome stuff they do, and the company, and they do some great work. Whether it’s education programs around the world or using their technology to monitor climate change all around the world, I think their products can be really, extremely beneficial. For example, their company, and a lot of companies they work with have virtually stopped traveling for business and having to get on airplanes, because TelePresence enables people to be connected. So I think their product can be extremely valuable.
For example, I just sponsored a soil conference in Nova Scotia, to talk about the integrity of topsoil, and how it’s being depleted—like all of our other natural resources. And I couldn’t be there—I was in Austin, promoting Super—but I was able to TelePresence in and be a part of the conference. Also, they’re just really rad people who let me have a lot of control, especially over the second set of ads that we did, and get all my friends involved. I don’t know. I’ve had a great experience with them.
AVC: So did you get a cool Cisco hookup at your house?
EP: [Laughs.] Yeah. My parents have one, so we get to talk and communicate. It’s enabled me to have meetings with people in other places, and again, not have to get on a plane, and connect with people. So yeah, I’m sure some people see it and think, “What the—?” Whatever. I don’t care. I’m doing my thing.
AVC: You always seem extremely comfortable in your roles, whatever you’re doing. Are you interested in ever trying something that would turn you inside out as an actor—like a period piece, or a heavy accent, something challenging like that?
EP: None of those I’m naturally attracted to doing, to be honest. Maybe it’s because I’m scared, or I don’t have the guts. I don’t know. I have trouble sometimes watching actors—even when they do a great job—with an accent. It kind of removes me, somehow. And maybe at some point, yeah, it could be a really cool experience. It’s not something that I consciously think, “Oh yeah, I want to do a movie with an accent.” Not to say that it couldn’t happen. But I think that a lot of the roles I do—playing a character like Libby, you turn yourself inside out in a lot of ways for something like that. It’s why I love doing my job. I don’t necessarily think it’s always a corset and an accent that’s turning oneself inside out. I think it can be a different way that might be less obvious.
AVC: You’re very active in areas such as permaculture, sustainability, and other environmental issues. How do you balance the idea of timely, urgent world problems with the pop-culture ephemera that you have a hand in creating—which is arguably one of the biggest distractions from all of that?
EP: It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to wrap the brain around. I think it’s probably something a lot of people are dealing with. Because I think a lot of people really, really, really care. They want, of course, a sustainable future for our planet. Climate change that is occurring right now is causing so much suffering all around the world. Whether it’s adding 30 million people to the “at risk of starvation” list in 2008, whether it’s the floods in Pakistan, or entire cultures at risk of disappearing, or desertification in Africa—all these things that are currently being caused by climate change. I think it’s something that a lot of people want to figure out: how to make the shift, how to help. It seems like such an overwhelming problem.
And of course, there’s moments when I’m doing my job—when I’m reading the stuff that I read, and sincerely wanting to devote myself to figuring out just how we create a sustainable future—where I think, “Yeah, why would I be a part of this world that wants to talk about what frickin’ Charlie Sheen’s talking about over the fact that our earth is in absolute peril?” And animals are being tortured in industrialized farming practices, and there are insane chemicals being put in our food, and indigenous people are being forced off of land that they’ve lived sustainably on? It can be hard. It can be this kind of ethical dilemma. But I feel like we’ve inherited this infrastructure, and I could run away from it and become a full-time activist, or I can try to do my job, and try to talk about things I care about, and be able to do something like sponsor a topsoil conference in Nova Scotia, and talk about Bill McKibben, and narrate a documentary about the vanishing of the bees, and try to navigate my way through this world the best way possible. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Probably like many people right now.
And I think it’s really easy for people to point out hypocrisy in people’s lives. It’s like yeah, I get on planes a lot, and I drank from a plastic water bottle today—you know what I’m saying? A lot of people would just be like, “Oh, you’re a hypocrite. You live in an ecovillage for a month, and then you fly around the world to talk about a movie.” Don’t think that I don’t think about those things! Don’t think that that’s not, like, a quandary in my life. It can be a pretty intense ethical dilemma. I think it’s about figuring out, you know, navigating life. I guess that’s what we’re all doing, right?
AVC: Right, and I’m as guilty as anyone about providing that distraction, so I didn’t mean it like I was calling you a hypocrite.
EP: Oh no, I didn’t think that was what you were saying. And if it was, that would be fine. [Laughs.] But yeah, that’s what I spend the bulk of my time focusing on, which is I think what’s interesting in my life right now. I want to make it a bigger part of my life, while hopefully maintaining the opportunity to help out causes that I really care about. And being an actor allows me to do that. Shooting a Cisco commercial allows me to do that. I mean, doing all these things allows me to talk about these issues. But don’t think there aren’t those moments where I’m like, “What am I doing? I have to quit my job and chain myself to a tree.” Believe me, I have those moments. But I don’t necessarily know if that’s going to help any more than, you know, hopefully connecting with some people about some stuff. You know what I’m saying?