Rising star Ellen Page—the heart and soul of Jason Reitman’s 2007 indie hit Juno—is turning up on Hollywood marquees more and more these days. But her success, while much deserved, has been a relatively long time coming. Next playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Page—at the age of 23—has been clocking set time consistently for well over a decade.
A celebrated fixture of the Canadian film and television scene since the age of 10, she broke internationally with David Slade’s sermonic thriller, Hard Candy, which premiered at Sundance in 2005. She has since appeared in the blockbuster X-Men: The Last Stand and a raft of well-crafted indies, including Noam Murro’s Smart People, Kari Skogland’s The Stone Angel, Alison Murray’s Mouth to Mouth, Tommy O’Haver’s An American Crime and fellow Canadian Bruce McDonald’s iconoclastic gem, The Tracey Fragments, for which she was feted with Best Actress awards at both the Atlantic Film Festival and Vancouver Film Critics Circle.
Particularly since the success of Juno, the opportunity to read great scripts, and choose between them, has become the norm for Page.
“I’ve been lucky,” she says. “I’ve been able to read a lot of things and be picky—and be supported in that. I think a lot of actors aren’t supported in that way, and can sometimes be pushed into things. Whenever I’ve wanted to do something, usually the moviemaker has also been interested in me doing it. I’m very grateful for that. To be able to work as an actor is a gift, let alone to be able to say ‘no’ sometimes.”
In Inception—a psychological thriller set in a world in which certain humans have learned to infiltrate the dreams of others—DiCaprio plays a kind of thief, an expert in the art of extracting secrets from deep within a target’s subconscious while he or she sleeps. His latest job requires him to invert his normal process and plant an idea in a subject’s mind. Says Page, “I play a character called Ariadne, who is new to this idea of dream sharing, which is what Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is such an expert at. I get selected to be a member of the [new mission]. I’m the architect; I am literally the one who designs the dreams.”
A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she still lives, Page has not allowed distance to retard the pace of her career. “I became involved with the film because originally I had a general meeting with Chris, just because I am a massive fan of his work. About a week later I heard about Inception; I went to an office, read the script and was completely blown away. I was excited and humbled by the fact that Chris was thinking of me for it. And then it ended up working out.”
In her second tête-à-tête with MM, Page talks about the joys of growing up in the Canadian indie scene, the beautiful netherworld of her own dream inceptions and the exact moment she fell in love with acting.
Phillip Williams (MM): What makes a successful collaboration with a director for you? And what was it like working with Christopher Nolan?
Ellen Page (EP): I think in any successful collaboration the main thing is trust. Chris Nolan is a pretty easy guy to have trust with. I love his work and, after meeting him, it was simple: He’s clearly a moviemaker because he loves film and he loves doing what he does and there’s absolutely no ego. When you are working with someone like that, who has that amount of passion, it’s an incredibly interesting, fulfilling experience. He’s very collaborative and I think, because he’s written the script, he’s very open to what you want to bring to the table. Despite how meticulous he is, he also pays attention to every moment, to make it honest.
MM: Is your interest in a given script largely about the emotional reaction you have to the material or are you looking to expand in specific ways?
EP: I think ultimately, yes, it’s the emotional reaction. It’s about how attached I feel to a character—whether I want to live with that person and learn with that person. There have been times where I’ve read great scripts with interesting characters, but I didn’t feel it, even if other people saw me in the part. But I’m very honest; I’ll say, ‘No, I’d be bad for this.’ Of course, sometimes it’s the people involved or the writer or the director or it represents a departure and you’re excited about that. All these things come up in the process of choosing to do something or taking a meeting with someone. But ultimately, for me, it’s absolutely crucial that I feel connected to that character in some way and feel like I want to be immersed in their world. If I don’t feel that way, then I just shouldn’t be in the movie, because I’m going to be bad.
MM: Did you train as an actor?
EP: No, I didn’t.
MM: You began to audition and it just happened?
EP: Well, I was ten years old when I started acting in Canada. It did just happen and I ended up in a small movie of the week. But then that movie of the week turned into a TV show, which I wasn’t in a lot, but there was an episode that—even at a young age—allowed me to do some critical acting for the first time. I was about 11, and that led me to being in that show more and everything kind of rolled along. I was in a bunch of independent movies, and one of them happened to do pretty well. (laughs)
MM: Is acting a natural, intuitive process for you?
EP: I don’t know. I always try to be honest… Obviously something worked when I was a kid, because I was able to take lines off of a page and make it seem like they weren’t on a page. As I got older, when I was about 15 or 16, I played roles that were more of a departure—that required more emotional depth—and for the first time I was tapping into that and learning how to manipulate that. That’s when I really fell in love with acting. It was those feelings that I wanted to keep feeling again and again and again, and to learn more about. That’s just what I was doing.
It’s one of those things that you can’t always describe. In some films you have to be more psychoanalytical; in other cases it’s intuitive. With me, things become revealed as the process continues, rather than trying to dissect it before I begin to work with the other actors.
MM: It sounds like work has been your training ground.
EP: It’s also the amazing people that I’ve gotten to work with. From a very young age I was working with some of my favorite Canadian writers, directors and actors. The Canadian independent world was something I absolutely adored; when I was 16, I mainly only watched Canadian independent films. There have been some amazing Canadian movies made that don’t get seen. Honestly, it was that world that I was working in, and the people I was working with. Just being so inspired and learning more and more; that’s where the training was.
MM: Obviously working in Hollywood is going to remain a big part of the picture for you, but do you see yourself continuing to work in Canada?
EP: Oh my god, I’d love to. I guess the last Canadian film I did was with Bruce McDonald (The Tracey Fragments). I’m such a fan of his work; it was just such an awesome time. That’s my past—feeling that 24 days to shoot a movie was a luxury! There is something really special about the intimacy of shooting that way. Don’t get me wrong, shooting Inception, which is at the other end of the scale, was incredibly fulfilling as an actor. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that Chris Nolan’s sets are incredibly intimate. Obviously there are the days where you are doing outlandish things and, yes, it feels like a huge, blockbuster movie. But most of the time, when you’re working with him, it feels like you’re shooting a very intimate movie. I think that’s what makes his movies so special; they have this really immersive quality, because of the sincerity and the honesty in what he does.
MM: What can a director can do to facilitate a more intimate set?
EP: I think it’s pretty simple, really: It’s passion, egolessness and just being there—being present and wanting to make a good film. Like in anything, sometimes those things get lost. Good directors are assured with what they are doing, but open to being collaborative. That’s when you get that incredible sense of intimacy, because you have a bunch of people who hopefully believe in a project and are putting their hearts into it. Whenever you’re doing something like that, it is an absolutely thrilling experience. That’s what I’ve fallen in love with and that’s what motivated me to be an actor; truly nothing other than that. That’s what I find so joyous about the process.
MM: Are there specific films you made that felt like a turning point for you in terms of falling in love with acting?
EP: Yes, I did a movie in Canada when I was 15 years old called Marion Bridge. Molly Parker was the lead and I’m a huge Molly Parker fan. Working with her was an inspiring experience and it was the first time I played a role with a sense of depth. I think for the first time I experienced the feeling of tapping into something else that you can’t see… something that isn’t incredibly tangible. I’m grateful to have been a part of that film; it was a big turning point for me.
MM: What in particular do you like about Inception?
EP: Despite the complexity of the original idea that Chris had—and the multidimensional aspect of this movie—the emotional spine of it is incredibly basic and really touching.
The world of dreams—I mean, we all dream—is a very universal, insane, mysterious part of life. To be able to connect on that level is exciting. Despite how visually unbelievable the movie is, it’s the sense of sincerity and honesty that is special and moving. I hope people feel that; I hope that they are blown away, but also moved and able to attach to it on an emotional level.
MM: Do you pay attention to your own dreams?
EP: I do, yes. I have had a very interesting relationship with dreams and sleeping. I did a lot of sleepwalking as a kid; I’ve always experienced some kinds of hallucinations at night. I will get up and be talking to someone, then I’ll slowly realize that it’s impossible that they’re there—then I come to. But I’ll remember talking to them, and in that moment it’s incredibly real. Or I’ll see things, like bugs or bird’s nests—obscure things like that—or deep freezes, which I’ve had hallucinations of. So I have an interesting relationship with dreams and these weird things that I’m projecting at night. In the moment, they seem incredibly real.
MM: Do you see yourself acting when you are in your 70s or 80s? Do you think this is a lifelong passion?
EP: (laughs) You know, I read a lot about the ecological crisis… so I don’t know where we’ll be 20 years from now. But I don’t really focus on the future that much. I just try to be present. In the position I’m in, there is so much strategic discussion about everything—about my future and the career and the plan of progression. I’d rather just respond in the immediate moment. If someone sends me an amazing TV show idea, why shouldn’t I be open to that? Just because I have a movie career going? Well, no. But then you have people saying, ‘Well, strategically, blah, blah, blah.’ But I’d rather just be as much of an artist as I can. MM