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featured interview

Drew Barrymore/Whip It

By Fred Topel
October 2009

As an actor, Drew Barrymore’s name carries a lot of clout. She can pack theaters for romantic comedies like He’s Just Not that Into You and 50 First Dates, or action movies like Charlie’s Angels. She’s just made her directorial debut with Whip It. Now playing everywhere, the roller derby drama showcases a filmmaking style Barrymore developed in her decades of Hollywood experience. She also appears in the film as roller derby skater Smashley Simpson.

“Everything has been leading up to this,” Barrymore said as she made the press rounds in the week leading up to the film’s release.

To start, Barrymore’s Hollywood business has developed behind the scenes as her fame rose in the spotlight. She began producing with her partner, Nancy Juvonen, in their company Flower Films. Their first production was Never Been Kissed, which starred Barrymore as Josie Grossy.

“I just want to not be comfortable and say, 'Oh, yeah, that's easy because I know how to do that,'” She explained. “I want to do things where I say, 'I really don't know if I can pull this off or not.' Living in that fear is very motivating. It's very unsettling but it's very motivating.”

With 30 years of acting experience, and a family legacy that goes back to classic Hollywood actors John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, it may be harder for Drew to find challenges in one craft. Even 10 years of producing must be getting comfortable, so she branched out to take an entire film on her shoulders.

“The jury is out and we've yet to see if I get a chance to do this again but it was an important first step that I took to really just feel like I was completely out of my element in every way possible. That said, all of this has been a lead up and an education and gathering and putting it all into this piggybank. So everything that I've seen and heard and learned and felt and experienced personally and professionally and culturally has all been wanting to be collected for something.”

Whip It is based on Shauna Cross’s novel Derby Girl. Cross also wrote the screenplay. Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, the daughter of a former beauty queen. Her mom wants her to follow in her pageant footsteps, but Bliss discovers roller derby, a wild sport where women on roller skates break through walls of other women, and whip each other around the track at high speeds.

“It’s not just about roller derby,” Barrymore said. “It’s a mother/daughter love story.  It’s a coming of self story, it’s a person’s journey and it’s set in the world of roller derby which is a great backdrop because it’s a unique backdrop. It’s not something we see every day and it has a great culture to it and a great metaphor.  It’s a very welcoming world where you don’t have to be a certain body shape or ethnicity or economical background.  It’s like, ‘You want to play tough? Come and get in here.’ That’s the kind of party I like which is a very welcoming party.”

Casting herself as one of the skaters meant Barrymore would get to vent some aggression. Cross herself took Barrymore into her world of the roller derby.

“It was great to bring people into The Doll House where I was first turned on to derby. It was great for me to share that world. I went there with Shauna after I'd gotten heavily, emotionally invested in the project and then seeing the world of roller derby just changed everything. Once you get familiar with the sport, you learn some skills, there’s nothing better than skating.”

The cast, including Page, Juliette Lewis, Kristin Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell and Barrymore herself, did their own skating. That means when you see them wipe out, that’s A-list Hollywood actors getting ready to file insurance claims.

“As far as the medical insurance I just said, ‘Get the best you can because these girls are going out there and doing their own stunts so do whatever it takes because I am not going to second guess this.’ It’s so important to see actors doing their own stunts.  It gives you such a better emotional and excitable investment to see people really going out there and doing what they’ve learned.”

But remember, Whip It is not only about girls kicking butt. Bliss has to make peace with her family. That part of the story resonated with Barrymore personally.

“Every single aspect I think you can really trace back to me. I have had a precarious and difficult time navigating a relationship with my own mother. We all have the rite of passage of choosing the boy that is interesting and stimulating and inspirational but may not be the one that you can count on at the end of the day. I love my friends and I love finding your tribe and I love action and girls who can do what boys do, yet wanting to party together and have a sisterhood and a camaraderie afterwards. So basically, someone who’s music oriented and doesn’t want to be confined. I thought derby was such a perfect metaphor of like I’d much rather be this person and try and get people to accept that, than try and pretend to be something that I think they want me to be which will make me incredibly unhappy.”

The journey is ongoing for Barrymore. She’s found a way to succeed in Hollywood on her own terms. Now she’s looking for balance in her own life.

“My flaw that I’d like to make peace with is to take a vacation. So, if I do that this fall you’ll know that I’ve done something for the first time in three years that I have not done.”

That workaholic tendency has earned Barrymore some clout in the industry. The cast of Whip It unanimously said it was Barrymore’s name that attracted them to sign on. That’s more important than box office success in Barrymore’s heart.

“It makes me want to burst into tears because Nancy Juvonen, my partner, my sister, when we started our company, we just thought the one mantra we should really keep is that you make a promise and you keep your promises. A lot of the films we started out with, some of which didn’t have scripts, like a Charlie’s Angels or Never Been Kissed which is about a gawky teenager who looks unattractive and is trying to represent people who felt like crap going through high school. Or a Donnie Darko where people didn’t want to make this first time director’s story. So we’ve always been people who have just said, ‘If you take the leap of faith on us, we will not let you down.’ That’s whether it’s a studio or an actor who’s joining the process. So for me, that means the world to me because I think keeping your promise is everything.”

Whip It is now playing.