Set in the last tumultuous years of famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s life, centers on the battle for his soul waged by his wife Sofya Andreyevna and his leading disciple Vladimir Cherkov. Torn between his professed doctrine of poverty and chastity and the reality of his enormous wealth, his thirteen children and a life of hedonism, Tolstoy makes a dramatic flight from his home. Too ill to continue beyond the tiny rail station at Astapovo, he believes that he is dying alone, while over one hundred newspapermen camp outside awaiting hourly reports on his condition.
It’s something that’s becoming an annual event now, the small, bittersweet American comedy that charms critics and cinema-goers, and then becomes the Little Film That Could when the Oscars come round.
Last year, it was Little Miss Sunshine. The year before that, it was Sideways. And this year, it’s Juno, a film whose back story is just about as charming and hip as the tale it tells.
Up on the screen, you’ve got a wisecracking 16-year old girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her best friend, and who then decides she’ll give up the baby to the first worthy couple who answers her ad in the local Pennysaver freesheet.
Off the screen, the script was a first-time effort by a streetsmart lap dancer named Diablo Cody, who had already made a splash with her blog about life in the skin trade, Pussy Ranch, later pulled together in a book, Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper.
It was a script that instantly became a hot property in Hollywood, and therefore managed to attract a hip young director (Jason Reitman, who had just debuted with 2005’s Thank You For Smoking) and a very hip cast (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are the adoptive parents-to-be; Michael Cera – from Superbad – is the sheepish father; relative vets J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney play Juno’s parents).
Playing the part of the eponymous wisecracking, hipper-than-thou anti-heroine is Ellen Page, the 20-year old Canadian actress who broke through playing a paedophile torturer in last year’s Hard Candy, and who’s just gotten an Oscar nomination for her performance as Juno MacGuff. The film is also up for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay.
I met up with the diminutive Ms. Page (5′ 1″ at the last count) in London the day after the Oscar nominations were announced. Naturally, she was excited and delighted about the nod, but I had to ask her, given the acclaim she had received already – A.O. Scott in The New York Times regarding her as ‘frighteningly talented’, and Roger Ebert stating, ‘Is there… ‘ – I asked her if a part of her would have been downright disappointed if the name Ellen Page hadn’t been read out during the Oscar announcement.
“To be honest with you, with me, it was a surprise,” she says. “It’s not something I would ever expect, and, of course, leading up to it, doing press, everyone’s mentioning it as a possibility, so, it’s on your mind. But, no, I didn’t know it was going to happen. I was extremely thrilled, and just grateful for the acknowledgement.”
The great Sir Ian McKellan has said that it’s not so much the actor but the role that wins the Oscar, and I’m guessing Ellen Page knew from the moment she read Diablo Cody’s script that Juno was an exceptional character. She and director Ivan Reitman were so in love with this script, they even met up before either had gotten their gigs to talk about how they’d make the film.
“Oh, I completely recognised that this was a wonderful role to play, right from the start,” says Page. “And not in any sense that I would take on a role because it seemed Oscar-worthy, or anything like that, but I fell in love with the character because she was unbelievably refreshing. She was a teenage female lead that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and a script that was amazingly written, and you just never expect something like this. This is a small independent film, and now, here we are. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a bit of Diablo Cody in Juno MacGuff, right down to the hamburger phone the teenage future stripper-turn-screenwriter had in her bedroom – back when she was known as Brook Busey. Did Page sit down with Cody to discuss the fine line between fact and fiction?
“We didn’t actually meet until one or two nights before we started shooting, and I was extremely intimidated. I just didn’t want to screw this up on Diablo, because she had written something that was just so beautiful. And yeah, immediately, when I started to getting to know Diablo, I could see pieces of Juno in her, and pieces of Diablo in Juno – and so on and so forth – but, to be honest with you, it’s all on the page. The film you see is the script I read two years ago, or whenever it was that I read it. She’s just brilliant.”
Still, I was struck early on in the film that there can’t be many 16-year old girls out there who have a copy of Patti Smith’s seminal punk album Horses on original vinyl. And then I discovered that Page’s two big heroes are Kate Winslet and, yep, Patti Smith.
“Yeah, the Patti Smith album was my idea,” she nods. “I asked Jason if I could put the album in Juno’s room, just because I’m a huge fan of Patti Smith. I think what’s really great is that we’re so used to seeing what teenage people are supposed to be into, especially in the popular media – and especially in north America – and it just becomes so suffocating. So, it was so nice just to have this idea, and broadening the horizon, allowing this new character for people who are closer to Juno in reality to be able to relate to.”
It’s a point that further blurs the line between actor and part. Anyone who’s seen both Juno and Hard Candy (Page playing a young teen who traps a paedophile in the latter) could easily come to the conclusion that the young actress playing both parts is something of a tough cookie. And maybe even a little intimidating.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Page. “It’s just what I do. I’m an actor, and I fall in love with characters that are honest and full. I then just work with directors to try and do the best to portray them.”
I think that’s a no. For someone who has openly stated their strong desire not to be famous, it was surprising to see Page turn up on The David Letterman Show recently. And Oprah. Then again, there were Oscar nominations to think about. And a movie that was beginning to attract some real heat. And box-office moolah.
“Yeah, it is a little bit different for me these days,” says Page, talking about her rising fame, “especially in LA and New York. But it’s just amazing that people are responding to the film so well. This is what I love to do, and once a thing like this happens, you think, wow, maybe this means I can be in a few more movies. So, there’s a little bit of fame creeping into my life, but you can choose how you want to deal with it. You can be the one who’s in control.”
Having started acting at the age of ten in a Canadian TV series called Pit Pony, Ellen Page was well on her way to become Hollywood fodder – with an offer to star in a big-budget TV series – when her parents, Dennis and Martha, pretty much grounded such notions. Their little Ellen wasn’t going to turn into the next Lindsay Lohan – she was going to finish her schooling, and then, hey, she could take take off down The Yellow Brick Road. How are ma and pa handling their young daughter’s growing fame today?
“I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things,” she says. “I think they’re really proud, and they really support me, and the most important thing for them is that I remain sane. And healthy, and happy. And that’s why they’re fantastic, and that’s how they’ve helped me establish a balance, and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
The one blip, the one expected entry, on the sassy and sussed Ellen Page’s CV is X-Men: The Last Stand, a movie the then-rising young star was convinced to take on only after a call from its director, superhack Brett Ratner. A one-off, big-budget Hollywood experience?
“There are a lot of factors involved when it comes to taking on a role. If I fall in love with the script, in love with the character, you’ve got me. That’s what matters the most. That I’m going to be able to be passionate about playing the role.
“Yeah, there’s been lots of different experiences, completely different kinds of filmmaking, but I’m grateful for those experiences. To be able to work with incredible actors, and be part of a legacy, and playing a character who’s been in people’s lives for a very long time, and shooting a movie like that, it’s helped me be a part of other movies, like Juno, and things that are smaller, and that I just pour my heart into.”