The last time Ellen Page was onscreen, she played a pseudo intellectual temptation for the protagonist of Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. It was a comical role, one that really fit in nicely with the oblivious Allen-type characters. Now she can be seen in The East with a performance that couldn’t be more different. Here, playing Izzy, Page is an intimidating presence in the eco-terrorist group the film follows. In terms of genre and performance, it’s a 180-degree turn for the actress.
Like most actors, that’s something Page strives for. She’s been making some inspired, or no-brainer, choices of who to craft those diverse performances with. In Christopher Nolan, David Slade, Jason Reitman, Lynn Shelton and James Gunn, Page has worked with some of today’s best talents. The East finds her joined up with an exciting duo in the film world, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling.
We discussed Batmanglij and Marling’s thriller with Ellen Page, as well as her process, the world The East unveils, and more:
Did you watch it with an audience at Sundance?
Yeah, I usually try and see it before, to be honest with you. I was especially interested in seeing how an audience reacted to this. I mean because it is so…aside from all the issues within it and the ethical murkiness of it, it’s also just an incredibly compelling, suspenseful film that is just sort of relentless.
Was it similar to Hard Candy where certain audience members feel pushed?
Yeah. Hard Candy for sure did. Watching that with an audience was very interesting to see how, especially men, responded.
Actually, I just spoke to David Slade last week. He said how people would violently react to that movie. He said he thought it’s funny now, but at the time it wasn’t particularly enjoyable.
I thought the experience was very interesting because of the double standard that happens with male and female violence in film. This one movie comes out where a man is in a vulnerable position and people are freaking out about it, whereas I turn on primetime television and there’s a naked woman in a dumpster. So I found a lot of that just so weird when you are, as a woman, constantly, constantly getting portrayed as the victim of horrible sexual attacks and physical attacks.
Have you noticed any reactions like that with the political message in The East? I don’t see it as a political film, but…
No, but of course people do. Of course people do. Yeah, I don’t either. I think what they explore in this is what a lot of people are feeling right now. You know, a frustration with the world, with corporate greed, with how we’re treating the environment, with the lack of accountability taken by massive corporations that commit a lot of atrocities and are responsible for a lot of human suffering. It’s hard to know what to do when we live in a world like that, where when I wake up every day and I’m sort of knowingly a part of oppressing a lot of the world by my existence. It’s complicated to know how to live.
Even with only two movies Batmanglij and Marling have established their own voice. You’ve worked with some directors like that, like James Gunn, Jason Reitman, and a few others. Is there maybe a common thread between those kinds of filmmakers?
I think there’s something to be said, obviously, for their individual unique talents. It’s interesting, the directors that you just said, I think what they all have in common is they are incredibly assured in knowing what they want, but also so open to being collaborative with your process. It’s a joy to work with someone like that who you feel them guiding the ship, but they also let you sort of partake in the activities.
How would you describe your process?
It can sort of vary in different degrees depending on the movie, of course. To be honest, mostly it’s about feeling some sort of honest connection with someone. I think that’s the first and foremost thing. Not to say that sometimes external things don’t help, like Izzy’s hair is really dark or her boots. Sometimes those things sort of help something form.
For me, it always starts on a core level of really understanding this person’s pain and their sort of internal world and how that manifests in the external world. What was so compelling for me is the relationship she has with her father. As an actor, that’s a great jumping point to sort of everything helps that happens, because, in a way, that’s sort of the core of the story and the core of her, in a way, in her anger.
Was there a discussion with Batmanglij about that relationship as a whole or just what we see in the film?
Yeah, I mean somewhat. Of course we would talk. But there wasn’t too much rehearsal, by any means, to this movie at all. But yeah, we would hang out and talk about it and go over scenes.
One thing about those directors I mentioned, and also Christopher Nolan, of course, is they generally write their own material, which some actors say creates a different enviroment on set having a writer/director. Is there a noticeable difference?
I’m not sure if it’s a different feel. The thing that’s great about Chris, having written Inception and then is directing it, if you have a moment where you are not necessarily feeling so sturdy and exactly where you are at, he’s able to sort of quickly get you there. And most, if not all, writer/directors I’ve worked with have been so open to your thoughts and not making you feel contained by exact wording. They sort of want you to bring not necessarily a part of yourself to it, but allow for you to discover and change if need be and are open to that. It’s nice to feel that and then also feel guided in that because, obviously, they are the ones who penned it.
In the past two years you’ve worked with two directors who are very different—Lynn Shelton, where you really bring your voice to the film and improvise, and Woody Allen, where there isn’t much talking and it’s all on the page. Is it easy for you to quickly jump between those worth ethics?
I feel grateful to even be able to have that diversity. Being able to work is a nice thing, let alone being able to go from diverse projects. Actually, what’s funny with Woody is, yeah, he doesn’t talk a lot. He doesn’t direct actors that much. I think his big thing is casting and that just sort of creates the space for actors to exist. You see that in the way he shoots. It’s often wide and not that much coverage, etc. but even with Woody, to be honest, if you feel uncomfortable with something, it can be intimidating at first to say…it’s an intimidating process to, obviously, arrive on your first day with Woody. But he’s actually incredibly open to what you feel and really wants you to feel comfortable and make things feel real.
And then with Lynn, that was challenging because the only improv I’ve done is on a comedy on TV when I was a kid. That’s difficult because not only are you focusing on being naturalistic and present in your ability to do it, but you also have to remember that you are playing a character. I remember the first take that’s where I kept stumbling. I was like, “Oh, Ellen. You have to remember what this means for you in the context of the story.” And that’s hard. That was hard. But it’s being able to pivot and constantly get challenged and be afraid that you might screw up.
Was it just like that for the first day or did you kind of have to remind yourself of that every day?
I feel like I started, hopefully, getting into the swing and the beat of it. But it was definitely a challenge for me. Someone like Rosemary DeWitt, who is just like a genius, just was like flawless. I was, “What secret did someone tell you at some point?” I mean she’s just an extraordinary actor. It was amazing to watch her. I was just in absolute awe. I love her performance in Your Sister’s Sister.
Being a writer yourself, I know Stich N’ Bitch and continuing to work on a few other things. Is it satisfying having that big of a voice in the film as a writer?
Yeah. I mean nothing I’ve written have I made. But the process of writing I love. It would be something I hope to be able to focus on more to just get better at because I don’t necessarily feel like I’m good at it yet, by any means. But I enjoy it. I don’t know if it will become something that I can necessarily do. Just for my own purposes I like the process of it. And writing Stich N’ Bitch with Sean [Tillmann] and Alia [Shawkat] was awesome. But we developed it with HBO and then it just didn’t really happen.
The East opens in theaters on May 31st.