This should come as no surprise to anyone who caught her Oscar-nominated turn as the titular pregnant teen in "Juno," a hilarious, natural performance that catapulted Page onto the A-list when she was only 20. But long before she rose to prominence, she was comfortable with calling the shots.
She was only 10 when casting director–actor John Dunsworth visited her school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and asked her to audition for the TV movie "Pit Pony," which scored Page a Gemini Award. At 15, she traveled to Europe on her own to shoot the movie "Mouth to Mouth," and by 16 she left home to attend school and pursue work in Toronto. At 17, she shot the controversial thriller "Hard Candy," delivering a complex, terrifying performance actors twice her age would envy.
Off screen, Page has proved equally strong-willed. Once she had decided her publicist, Kelly Bush, should also be her manager, Page refused to take no for an answer. She speaks with passion and intelligence on subjects ranging from the environment and feminism to Burmese politics. And she continues to be fearless in her film choices: Of all the scripts coming her way, Page chose to follow up the blockbuster "Inception" with the offbeat, low-budget, pitch-black comedy "Super" from writer-director James Gunn, opening this week. In the film, Page plays Libby, the feisty sidekick to an ordinary guy named Frank (Rainn Wilson) who decides to become a superhero called The Crimson Bolt, armed with nothing more than a homemade costume, a wrench, and the catch phrase "Shut up, crime!"
What's intriguing about Libby—who creates her own costume and gives herself the moniker "Bolty"—is how different she is from Page's previous roles. Immature and obsessed with comic books, Libby launches into her vocation with glee, even whooping with childlike excitement after beating up one bad guy—who might not even be guilty. Says Gunn, "When Ellen and I first met, we talked about how she was always being offered these roles of characters wise beyond their years. Libby is the opposite of that: She's a 12-year-old in a 23-year-old's body. She's completely immature—you might even say sociopathic—in every way. She's Juno turned inside out."
Page was sent the script by Wilson, who had a small part in "Juno" and had stayed in touch. Page admits she was both intimidated and excited by the material. "It was like no one I'd ever played," she recalls. "It's a very extreme character, and you have to make really distinct, kind of frightening choices as an actor." She admits she had concerns about how the character would play. "Is she going to be completely annoying and unlikable—which I'm sure she is to some people. Will it be believable? Is there any groundedness in this?" Working with Wilson, and the film's quick shooting schedule, helped. "We were flying by the seat of our pants so I didn't have a lot of time to overthink it," she says. "And working with someone like Rainn, who I just adore and trust completely, makes it all easier."
Most difficult was a scene in which Libby, dressed as Bolty, aggressively seduces Frank. "I remember going to set that night and just thinking, 'I don't know. I have no idea how to do this.' " Page recalls. "My brain was blank. But that was exciting. There's only been a couple of moments in my career where I felt like I just had to plug my nose and jump right in." Though she can't recall how many takes they did, Page says it was "a long night." And when the film premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival, she could barely watch the scene. "I was squirming, my hands over my eyes," she says with a laugh, "listening to the audience take in this horribly uncomfortable moment."
When Page talks, time and time again the words "fortunate" and "grateful" pop up. She is "grateful" to be working with representation that understands her and feels "fortunate" to be in a place where she's being offered terrific roles. She mentions that at a recent Q&A for "Super," Gunn spoke about how lucky they were to get Page to work for scale for their small movie. "I want to say, 'Shut up!' " Page says. "I'm the one filled with gratitude. I'm grateful he wrote a wonderful character for a young woman—which, as we know, is rare—and I'm grateful I'm the lucky actress who got to do it. I'm always mindful of how fortunate I am."
Page cites her family and upbringing with helping her keep a level head. She attended a Buddhist school and is an avid reader of Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron. "Her work was introduced to me at a pretty young age, and she has been very integral to my life," Page says. "Whenever I'm in a place of too much attachment and my old patterns pop up, I try to snap myself out of it. Like, 'Really, Ellen?' There are bigger things to worry about—like the whole earth dying. They're just movies."
In addition, her parents have always been supportive and were anything but stage parents. "They never pushed me into anything, but they never held me back," she says. Though Page had only been on stage twice before—playing a dove in a Christmas pageant and Charlie in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" when she was 6—they supported her auditioning for "Pit Pony." That movie turned into a TV series and was followed by another series, "Trailer Park Boys," in which, coincidentally, she played the daughter of Dunsworth, the man who discovered her. With TV and Canadian movies, Page was working fairly regularly but says she never felt any pressure to continue.
At first, Page admits, acting was just for fun. But when she was 15, she made a Canadian film called "Marion Bridge," about three sisters who reunite to care for their ailing mother. "It was a great screenplay and had these wonderful actors. And it was the first role that really allowed me to play someone who wasn't at all like me," she recalls. "And I know it will sound crazy, but I just had this feeling of 'What is this?' I think that was the first time that I really felt what acting was about and what it could be, and I've simply been trying to chase that feeling ever since."
Once Page had made the decision to make acting her career, she dove in headfirst. After returning from the "Mouth to Mouth" shoot in Europe, she moved to Toronto to live on her own and attend the Interact Program at Vaughan Road Academy, which was designed for artists and athletes who often had to spend time away from school. She had just turned 16 and was sporting a bald head, as her character in "Mouth to Mouth" shaves her head upon joining a cult. "It was a really interesting experience because I was out there on my own and I had never had people treating me the way they were," Page recalls. "Because I'm white and from a middle-class family in Nova Scotia, I suddenly realized what people who look different have to deal with in everyday life. People would yell at me on the street; I was told to leave my bag at the front when I went to stores. It was very eye-opening."
At this point, she hadn't considered moving to Los Angeles and didn't really have a plan other than to continue to grow as an actor and do work that intrigued her. Then she read Brian Nelson's script for "Hard Candy," and her reaction was instant. "WTF," Page says, mimicking her response when she finished the dark tale about a 14-year-old girl who turns the tables on a suspected pedophile (Patrick Wilson) she meets on the Internet. "There was no way I couldn't do this." But she thought it was a long shot. For one thing, she put herself on tape, which "is never the best way to get a part." Secondly, she still had a shaved head. But director David Slade took an interest and asked her to send a second tape, this time in a wig. "So I made another tape and put this thing on my head—David said it looked like a dead raccoon," Page recalls. "David was really persistent about me, thankfully, and they ended up flying me to L.A. for an audition."
The film was shot on a shoestring budget in 18 days, during which time Page stayed at the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, a common home for out-of-town actors. She recalls the time as "being on a constant adrenaline rush," often returning home at night and having to run from one end of the room to the other over and over again to work off the tension.
Page knew the disturbing material was liable to stir controversy; even though she was 17 when the film was shot, several people expressed concern over such a young woman playing such an intense role, which called for her character to torture Wilson's. Page is somewhat amused by this. "I mean, I've shot a lot of stuff where I've been abused as a female, and I've never had anyone seem very concerned," she says. "The controversy over 'Hard Candy' seems silly because if you watch prime-time television, the amount of women in Dumpsters and being murdered and raped, it's insane. Or watch a James Bond movie—the dude kills a lot of f---ing people."
"Hard Candy" premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and buzz for the film—particularly Page's performance—started immediately. "Everything came about as a result of 'Hard Candy,' " Page says. "I had no idea; I thought I was just shooting this little movie no one would see. But after Sundance, I got American agents. I was offered 'X-Men 2.' Everything changed."
It's virtually impossible to imagine any other actor as Juno MacGuff, the hyper-intelligent pregnant teen at the center of the Oscar-winning "Juno." But originally, when the film was going to be made by a different director, Page auditioned and lost out to another actor. "It was the only time I ever cried over not getting a role," Page reveals. "And it was only because I knew I was supposed to do it. I know that sounds crazy, but there were distinct signs from the universe." While shooting the TV movie "An American Crime," Page's agents at William Morris Endeavor got word to her that the original director had fallen through. "They told me Jason Reitman was interested in the film, and he really liked 'Hard Candy' and wanted to meet me," Page recalls. Reitman visited Page on the set of "An American Crime," a true story in which Page plays a torture victim. "I was really insecure about meeting him because I was extremely thin, playing this girl who's tortured and starved," Page says. "But we talked about how much we were both in love with the script and how great it would be to work together. A week later, Jason was attached to direct, and it all came together."
Once again, Page was caught off guard by the critical and commercial success of a small independent film she starred in. During promotion and the Oscar trail for "Juno," she began working with Bush, the founder and CEO of ID-PR, one of the industry's top publicity firms. At the time, Page didn't have a manager, and, Bush says, "The publicist relationship with an actor can be very intimate very quickly. We'd be in long car trips to photo shoots or traveling, and she'd start to ask for my counsel. I was just giving her advice: You really should have a manager, you should have a lawyer, and you should really take ownership of your career." To that end, Page decided she wanted Bush for her manager, and asked her to take on the job. "I sort of laughed it off and said, 'I'm not a manager. But aren't you sweet,' " Bush recalls, noting that it wasn't the first time a client had approached her about taking on management duties.
Page was persistent. "I knew who I wanted in my court," she says simply. "And I just wouldn't take no for an answer." Eventually, Bush relented, agreeing to try it out for a time. Asked what finally persuaded her to say yes and Bush jokes, "Her tiny Canadian-ness." She continues, "No. I think it's that I'm a mother, I have two daughters, and it was somewhat a maternal thing. She's also very convincing and worked on it for weeks. I said we could try it out and see how it goes, even though it's not my area of expertise. She didn't care, and the rest is history. And it's been three years."
Page praises Bush, as well as her agent, Patrick Whitesell, for offering genuine support in her career. "I know a lot of young people who have a film that does well and they just get pushed and pulled in so many directions," she says. "I'm just lucky that I have real, sincere support from people who understand that if something doesn't motivate me or I have no real connection to it, I'm going to be really shitty and unhappy in it. And if I ever got to a point in my life where those scripts were my only options, I'll go be a farmer." For her part, Bush says she has no intention of pushing Page into anything she doesn't want to do and is fully supportive if that means taking a break from acting. "I'm not here to ride a racehorse," Bush says. "I'm here to nurture a human being, a young girl, through what can be a difficult landscape for young women. She's on a journey and I'm here to support her."
As Page looks forward to her future career, she says she chooses roles based not on budget or the size of the part, but on her response to scripts and the people she'll be working with. She was thrilled to have the chance to work with Christopher Nolan on "Inception," though she jokes, "I kept wondering, 'What am I doing here?' The whole time we were in London, I was convinced they were going to replace me with Keira Knightley."
Page also hopes to develop her own work, such as the TV series she has written and developed with her friends Alia Shawkat ("Arrested Development") and Sean Tillman called "Stitch N' Bitch," in which she and Shawkat play a pair of hipsters in a band who move from Brooklyn neighborhood Williamsburg to Los Angeles' Silver Lake area. She also hopes to star in the film "Freeheld," based on the short documentary about a dying policewoman fighting to transfer her pension to her domestic partner.
And though Page has never taken a single acting lesson, she says she has developed a style of preparation that works for her, though it can vary from role to role. "When you're shooting a movie like 'An American Crime,' it's a true story and there's proper research to do," she says. "But for me, it's about connecting with something honestly. Identifying with a character. Not judging them for any of their actions and completely connecting my heart to their heart. When that's happened, it's about forming something around that. And collaborating with other people and trusting whomever you're working with and creating something. And then letting it transform you, from the inside out."
– Other films include "Whip It," from director Drew Barrymore, and "Smart People," in which she played a Young Republican.
– Her father saw "Hard Candy" with her for the first time at Sundance. "The first thing he said to me was, 'I feel like someone just kicked me in the stomach.' But he liked the movie."
– James Gunn compares her to, of all people, Steve McQueen. "Because she's just so entirely present on film, you never question whether she's being real or not."