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Ready for the next step

Ellen Page, grounded in indie angst, takes a comic leap in 'Juno.'

December 02, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Ellen Page has established herself as a serious young actor seemingly driven to provoke audiences in some of indie film's darkest roles, performances that capitalize on her innocent, open expressions -- then pervert and mangle them.

She's played a murderous adolescent who baits a pedophile in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival hit "Hard Candy," a street urchin seduced by a nomadic cult in the Canadian release "Mouth to Mouth" and a mentally ill girl wandering the streets naked in this year's "The Tracey Fragments." In "An American Crime," she literally starved herself to portray the real-life story of Sylvia Likens, the daughter of carnival workers who was tortured, starved, beaten and raped for no apparent reason in 1965 by an Indianapolis housewife and her kids.

Yet it's Page's role as the quirky, quick-witted pregnant teenager in the endearing new dramatic comedy "Juno" that's expected to launch the 20-year-old indie film darling as a new mainstream star and Oscar contender. The film, opening Wednesday in L.A., has already earned accolades on the fall festival circuit and landed Page a lead spot on Fox Searchlight's busy promotions calendar.

Even an otherwise escapist exercise -- in this case, a recent morning hike through the misty hills of Will Rogers State Historic Park -- carried a sense of urgency and executive planning. Page was chauffeured to the park in a sleek black sedan. A studio publicist trailed behind and a stylist awaited her in an SUV for touch-ups before a photo shoot.

None of this seemed native to her, though. The petite actress wore a girlish ponytail that kept time with the purposeful stride she cut in her colorful, bowling-themed high-top sneakers. She planted her hands deeply into the pockets of her windbreaker on which she wore a button that read "Nova Scotia: Canada's Ocean Playground." As she walked, she absent-mindedly smoothed her bangs against her face.

Page, who still lives in Nova Scotia, seemed to be observing the whole PR spectacle from a safe distance. She possessed an ethereal sense of calm, as if comfortable knowing that soon enough she'd return to her quiet life in Halifax. There, she doesn't own a car. She walks everywhere. She goes camping and reads a lot. She recently returned from a monthlong trip backpacking in eastern Europe.

Back in L.A., she couldn't help but be reminded of Christopher Guest's Oscar campaign sendup, "For Your Consideration." "It is so different [in Halifax] and then when I get thrust back into everything, it can all feel very bizarre," she said, suddenly turning her gaze from the path to make eye contact. "But, I think that's a good thing."

As Juno MacGuff, Page plays an affable girl-next-door type, though Diablo Cody's sharply written script gives the character a tart comic bite. In the film, Juno decides to give up her baby for adoption to a wealthy suburban couple (played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) with their own problems. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney play Juno's unflappable father and stepmother. Michael Cera plays Juno's baby's daddy. But the film's heart comes from Page's ability to channel wit and youthful vulnerability without a trace of sentimentality.

For Page, "Juno" is a welcome break from the more challenging material, a chance to charm filmgoers rather than polarize them. (Next, Page costars with her "Juno" castmate Olivia Thirlby in another indie, "Jack and Diane," as a young lesbian in love in New York.)

"I'm used to people hating the film or hating me," she said. "That's fine, because it's nice just to get a reaction out of somebody. But it is nice to sit in a theater -- like when I first saw ["Juno"] with an audience in Toronto -- the whole time, people were just laughing. It was nice to feel that kind of warmth."

Digging in deep

Page spoke quickly and earnestly. Acting is an enormously emotional process for her. She plumbs the depths, even lives the character. But she's also a professional. She noted that one of her idols, Sissy Spacek, gave incredibly layered performances in "Carrie" and "Badlands," but in real life remained "so grounded, super smart, separate."

Compared with Page's other roles, "Juno" feels like a cakewalk. But backstage wisdom dictates that comedy is tougher than the most trying dramatic roles.

"I was really nervous in general right before shooting this," she said. "I always do this. I get really excited about shooting a film and then I get deathly -- like I've forgotten how to act. 'This is just a mess! I'm going to screw up the best script of all time!' Then there's the whole comedy thing."

She trailed off, took a quick glance at the mountain vistas and then picked up the thought. "The main thing I wanted was obviously to make it feel natural and fluid and not contrived and annoying," she said. "You obviously can't find the character annoying who is kind of taking you through this film."

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