In director's skates

Hollywood

a long career in film Actress Drew Barrymore.“I am anything but calm,” Drew Barrymore said. “I’m a little rabid shark. I love to laugh. I love people who are funny. I love girls who are fierce and capable. I could never just sit on the sidelines, I have to get in there. I could never be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know it’s scary, but just go for it, you’ll be fine.’ I wanted to get hurt and be afraid with them.”

She was talking about her headlong immersion in the making of Whip It, her feature directorial debut, set in the world of roller derby, a film that she also produced and in which she appears, taking on the largely ornamental, comic supporting role of Smashley Simpson, an undisciplined member of the Austin Hurl Scouts. Barrymore’s first close-up shoves the actress-producer-director into the camera with blood streaming from nose to chin.

Smashley is a self-caricature, allowing Barrymore’s brazen side to strut and grab laughs, but in person she is decidedly more grounded. We were parked at a table in the first-class car of the Amtrak Acela from New York to Boston, on the inaugural stretch of a seven-city promotional tour, screenings scheduled back-to-back with local roller derby events. Her eyes roamed the car’s sleek interior. “Pretty fancy,” she said with an air of unfeigned innocence.

She’s 34, and her voice, caught in the hum and rattle of the train, is quiet and steady. All signs of sharky rabidity seem nicely suppressed. She’s dressed down for rail travel, wearing a shapeless military jacket (lettering above a pocket reads “Boy Scouts of America”) over a blue T-shirt; her blond hair has a punkish bumblebee band of black accounting for six inches of its lower length, and she twirls strands of it between finger and thumb in the course of the next two hours.

Barrymore has been in the public eye for most of her life, having appeared in E T : The Extraterrestrial at six. Her precocious Hollywood spin-out was chronicled in her own memoir, Little Girl Lost, published when she was 15, and her rise as a producer and lead actress — she formed her own production company, Flower Films, with Nancy Juvonen in 1995 — has not only earned her stature as a savvy survivor but has also elevated her fame and fortune to a level rivaling that of any predecessor in the illustrious Barrymore bloodline. Her grandfather John Barrymore — great Shakespearean actor (onstage), Hollywood ham (on screen) and famously flamboyant celebrity — might tremble with posthumous envy and pride if he could read this declaration from the Whip It press notes: “Feature films produced by Flower have a combined box-office total of over 1 billion dollars.”

The Flower Films slate tends toward goofy, tender romantic comedies, like Never Been Kissed, 50 Dates and He’s Just Not That Into You, but has also included the adventurous Donnie Darko and the outlandish Charlie’s Angels movies. When Flower Films optioned Shauna Cross’s screenplay for Whip It in 2007, it seemed like a natural fit. It doesn’t require much imagination to spot links between the Charlie Angels franchise and the chosen vehicle for her directorial debut. These are movies celebrating female friendship, sass and self-empowerment, and the second Angels film, Full Throttle, even features an anticipatory flash of roller derby in its delirious opening prologue, with Barrymore on skates. “I know, it’s weird,” Barrymore said.“That was the first time I skated on a banked track.”

The emotional center of Whip It, which opens Friday, is Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a small-town teenage misfit who flings herself into the skating scene in defiance of the beauty pageant ethos of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Requisite rites of passage inflict bruises on Bliss’s body and heart, and the movie upholds a tradition of scruffy, magical realism that Barrymore knows and loves from a range of American pop entertainments from the decade she was born into.

Whip It prizes a feminine self-possession while also relishing the idea of life played out as unapologetic performance. But there’s an added ingredient, the awareness that the performing self can’t always stand up to the disappointments of dim, mundane reality. “Ellen and I talked a lot about Paul Newman in Slap Shot, ” Barrymore said. “I ended up giving her the derby name of Small Newman. She really is the tiniest little thing. She’s miniature. I was like, ‘I want you to be Paul Newman.”

On closer questioning Barrymore comes closer, perhaps, to defining her own appeal: “Paul Newman allowed himself to be flawed, and he seems all the more charming for those flaws.” The Newman Slap Shot influence also rubbed off on Andrew Wilson’s performance as the Hurl Scout coach, Razor. Barrymore has cast Wilson (older brother to Owen and Luke) in four of her other movies. “He’s my good-luck charm,” she insisted. Outfitted in skates and short cutoff jeans, with long sun-streaked hair, beard and a scorched Manson-esque stare, he comes off as a comic embodiment of aggrieved male self-seriousness.

“He’s a rascal, but there’s that earnest heart,” Barrymore said. “There are moments he looks so much like my dad, it kind of freaks me out.” As for mother issues — “I have no mother issues,” Barrymore blurted early in the conversation. She was lamenting her previous interview, in which an unspecified journalist chased said issues with relentless abandon. (“Two hours of my life I’ll never get back.”)
Her protestations aside, mother-daughter skirmishes constitute the primary drama in both Whip It and the recent HBO production of Grey Gardens, in which Barrymore plays Little Edie Beale, the daughter of an unhinged matriarch, Big Edie (Jessica Lange).

“People say, ‘Did you always want to direct?’ or ‘Do you think you’ll ever direct again?’ I’m always very polite about it,” she said, adding, with good-natured defiance, “Do you really think I haven’t been preparing for this my whole life? And I’m just going to try it once and then never do it again? It baffles me. And then I just think, ‘Oh God, they just don’t know me.’ ”

Her ambitions extend beyond filmmaking. Next up for Barrymore is a book of her writing and photographs, and a trip to India, undertaken in her role as ambassador for the World Food Program, a United Nations-affiliated, anti-hunger organisation that has carried her to Kenya twice over the past two years. In India she intends to make a documentary, a follow-up to her self-financed report about the youth vote in America, Choose or Lose Presents: The Best Place to Start, which was shown on MTV in 2004.

“This is very personal for me,” she said. “It’s been my dream my whole life to direct. I sort of collected everything from my whole life into this piggy bank, and I crashed it over the floor for this film.”

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