Alex Cohen, host of KPCC-FM's "All Things Considered," has an alter ego. Her name is Axles of Evil, and she's the roller-derby trainer who taught Ellen Page, director Drew Barrymore (who also appears on-screen in the movie) and the other actresses in the cast how to roll for "Whip It."
Being surrounded by thespians is familiar territory for the New York-born, Los Angeles-raised Cohen, who attended a performing arts high school. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in religious studies, Cohen held a series of odd jobs -- bartender, parade float builder, temp in city hall -- before heading overseas to teach English.
"I was teaching in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere in southern rural Japan and started to realize, once I was away from it, how much I really missed news and knowing what was going on," Cohen said. "And that launched an interest in journalism. I went back to school at UC Berkeley and got my master's in journalism there a little over 10 years ago now. And I've been doing radio ever since."
Cohen was in Austin, Texas, to do a story on roller derby when she recognized her affinity for the sport. "I was really bummed out that there wasn't a roller-derby league in Los Angeles," she said. "I was like, 'This is totally the thing for me. I used to roller skate as a kid, and these women are the kind of women I like hanging out with, and this is such an empowering sport.' "
A couple of months later, she was at an art gallery in Los Feliz, and her husband found a flier recruiting skaters for a brand new roller-derby league in Los Angeles. Today, Axles of Evil is an L.A. Derby Doll, co-author of a forthcoming book on roller derby and the trainer for "Whip It." "I knew from square one: 'OK, this is what I'm doing now,' " she says. " 'I'm hooked.' "
Precarious positions: To the uninitiated, roller derby might look like an undifferentiated pack of skaters in campy costumes moving counter-clockwise around a banked track. There are actually two separate teams and three distinct positions -- only the "jammers" can score points by lapping their opponents. "I'll play jammer once in a blue moon, but I would much rather hurt people than get hurt, so that's why I like playing blocker," Cohen said. "And there's also a position called pivot, which is the leader of the pack, so to speak. And they're a special class of blocker that's up at the front of the pack and determines the speed. I like playing pivot because it's a thinking woman's position."
Rolling admissions: For "Whip It," Cohen started off training Page but soon expanded to most of the cast. "It was like running the most awesome summer camp ever," Cohen said. "It literally was early in the morning to late at night, everything from yoga and strength training exercises to making sure that everyone had the right equipment to learning different skills to doing choreography for the big skate sequences."
Natural born skater: A longtime soccer player, Page found that her footwork translated to the derby. "I remember the first day thinking, 'OK, we'll just take it nice and easy on the flat surface, and then maybe next week we'll think about the banked track," Cohen said. "Within an hour, she was zooming around like nobody's business, because she's just very naturally talented. One of the big moments is when Ellen jumps over a pile of skaters. And initially we were talking about it: 'OK, we're going to have the wires, and it's going to be Peter Pan and all the rest of that.' And Ellen was adamant. She learned how to jump. And she did it herself several times, because you've got multiple takes."
The braking point: One of the most important lessons in derby is how to stop. "There's a really basic move in derby called the T-stop. One foot turns out perpendicular to the other, and that friction between the two feet going in different directions is what causes you to slow down or stop," Cohen said. "Drew struggled with it something fierce. I gave her the name of Tourette Cindy, because she would just curse a blue streak every time I asked her to do it. But for me, derby coaching and training is about finding that thing that will unlock whatever the challenge is for someone. So I told her, 'Imagine there's a little man in your head. And every time you can't stop, say his name [and tell him to] go to hell.' And that was it for her. She got over it, and she stops beautifully now."
Black and blue: : "You will fall doing derby," Cohen said. "And you will get hurt at some point doing derby. Ellen took hits. Drew took hits. Everybody had moments where they got beat up, and they had the bruises to prove it. But in derby, we wear those as badges of honor. They're proof that it's an honest, legitimate sport, and that there's risk involved."