Here’s a scene straight out of a movie set. The actress Ellen Page is working in Los Angeles with Leonardo DiCaprio on the film Inception when a member of the crew whacks a bee and kills it.
Page is visibly upset. She wants the bee assailant to know that the tiny winged creature matters, that honeybees play a vital role in the cycle of life, and moreover, they’re mysteriously vanishing at an alarming rate worldwide. It’s a quintessential Page moment; whether she’s on a Hollywood movie set or hanging out in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, she’s going to let you know what she thinks if a topic moves her.
And here’s the weird thing: Visiting on the set that day is a friend of DiCaprio’s, actor Peter Youngblood Hills, who is close with a pair of filmmakers who have made a documentary called Vanishing of the Bees and who need someone with star power to narrate the film. After viewing it, Page says she’s in.
For a young actress who got famous fast after starring in the film Juno, which earned her nominations for Golden Globe and Academy awards, doing a documentary about bees might seem like a risky move—something many up-and-coming actresses wouldn’t take on for fear of derailing a promising career trajectory. But 24-year-old Page is different. She takes chances and goes with her gut. And because of that, she’s crossed the borders of conventionality more times than not.
That self-possession came early for Page, who heeded what she liked and disliked, “even if it didn’t particularly correspond with my demographic,” she says. “I followed my heart, no matter how cheesy that sounds.”
Sure, she can be opinionated and intense, even a pain sometimes, she admits. “I just kind of enjoyed diving into and learning about things I wanted to learn about, and I was stubborn about things I didn’t want to learn about.”
But Hollywood veterans have found Page’s particular brand of self-confidence to be refreshing and disarming. “I have a decade on the girl, and I’m intimidated by her,” Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody said in a 2008 interview with USA Today. “She is that collected, self-assured and mature. She’s comfortable in her own skin. She lacks that insecurity and vanity that’s rampant among young actresses these days. You’d never call her a starlet. She’s an actor in the tradition of Jodie Foster and Sissy Spacek, who are two of her favorites.”
Page says her upbringing in Canada and her education set her apart from many young North American actors. As a youngster, she played sports, participated in the drama club and gravitated toward acting naturally—without prodding from her parents. “I wasn’t 11 and being forced into tap lessons and singing lessons, and being sent to auditions by my overly tanned mother in California,” she told a reporter for National Public Radio.
Though she isn’t Buddhist, she attended a Buddhist high school in Halifax that gave students the freedom to choose what they wanted to learn while teaching them gratitude, personal responsibility, self-discipline, mindfulness, how to think for themselves, even how to communicate with others. “It allowed flexibility in harvesting an individual desire to learn,” Page says. “It made me so much more excited about being educated and gaining beneficial ideas. All education is a huge, huge gift, but I think we lose touch with that when we’re teenagers.”
Page’s acting career started at age 10, when she was asked to audition for a Canadian television movie called Pit Pony. After acting in several other Canadian productions, including the movie Marion Bridge, Page landed a breakout role in 2005 in the American indy feature and psychological thriller Hard Candy, playing a teenager who meets a photographer on the Internet and then tries to expose him as a pedophile. That critically acclaimed performance led to other interesting roles, including a mutant schoolgirl in X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, and Juno in 2007, about a quirky teenager who has to navigate a surprise pregnancy.
Ellen Page owns her character the way Audrey Hepburn owned Holly Golightly.
Page says she immediately knew she was the right person to play Juno after reading just a few pages of the script. “It was like, are you kidding me?” she says. “I’m the first to admit I’m not right for a part, but when I’m right for it, you better give it to me.”
Since that role, she’s played other offbeat characters, such as a Roller Derby teenage rebel in Whip It and Rain Wilson’s sidekick in Super, a dark comedy about do-it-yourself superheroes. She most recently starred alongside Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz and Alec Baldwin in Woody Allen’s new movie, Nero Fiddled, due out this year. The romantic comedy is set in Rome and was influenced by The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of bawdy tales of love. Next up, she’ll be filming The East, a terrorist thriller.
Page says choosing a role comes from an intuitive place. “It can be pretty direct how I respond to the material,” she says. “I listen to my gut; am I being honest with myself? Sometimes I just know that I’m not the right person for it.” Or perhaps the script isn’t challenging or maybe it’s just a topic she’s not interested in exploring.
Page says she’s been lucky to get interesting parts because there just aren’t that many for women. “And everybody is so critical of women. If there’s a movie starring a man that tanks, then I don’t see an article about the fact that the movie starred a man and that must be why it bombed. Then a film comes out where a woman is in the lead… and it doesn’t make much money, and you see articles about how women can’t carry a film,” she said in a 2010 interview with The Guardian.
She’s also critical of the predominance of stereotypical roles, citing the 1985 teen drama The Breakfast Club as an example. “This is, like, an iconic movie, and the coolest character, Ally Sheedy, goes from being this interesting, quirky girl to being made ‘hot’ so she can make out with frickin’ Emilio Estevez? Give me a break!”
Although Page is outspoken about the way Hollywood treats women, she is compassionate toward young actresses whose personal scandals become fodder for tabloids. “They seem like individuals who have been pushed into situations that have been hyper-sexualized from a really young age, and [once they get into trouble] there is no compassion—no one saying ‘Why?’ Everyone’s just judging.”
Drew Barrymore, who directed Whip It, described Page as “wise beyond her years” in a 2009 USA Today interview. “She has range. Ellen is an adult. She’s inquisitive about life.” And a New York Times review of Page in Juno said, “She owns her character the way Audrey Hepburn owned Holly Golightly.”
Owning the character for Page essentially comes from figuring out what makes the character tick. Of course, that’s not always easy. “I think it’s different every time and it’s always a surprise,” she says. “I have moments of feeling insecure, and feeling like I’ve totally pulled the wool over people’s eyes.”
But isn’t it difficult to connect emotionally with a character in a science fiction flick like Inception, where she plays a brilliant student architect charged with designing elaborate dreamscapes that can be used in infiltrating another person’s dreams? Page laughs. That is the reality for that character, she explains: “Like many people, I’m often freaked out by just this world, the absurdity of it. It’s those ideas amplified. I experience a similar bewilderment when I wake up in the middle of the night and am alone and confused about anything that exists.”
Page’s characters—many of them dark, violent, quirky, anything but stereotypical—seem quite different from herself, a young woman who prefers living in her hometown to L.A. or New York, and Converse sneakers and flannel to designer gowns. But finding something in common with her characters makes them and their stories real to her audiences, too.
“I think there’s always such amazing potential for connection and healing with film because it’s art, and that’s what I find so beautiful about art,” she says. “It’s awesome to go on that journey with yourself, and people will respond to it and take from it whatever they will.”
That desire to connect as both an actress and a person contributed to her interest in narrating Vanishing of the Bees. Produced by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein, the documentary explores Colony Collapse Disorder, characterized by the abrupt disappearance of bees, which has been occurring at an increasing rate since it was first identified in North America in 2006. Colony collapse is significant because most agricultural crops depend on bees for pollination. No one has pinpointed the cause of the phenomenon, although authorities have suggested a variety of possibilities, including disease, pesticides, migratory beekeeping (transporting colonies to pollinate different crops) and stress caused by environmental changes.
“I couldn’t have asked for a smarter young woman,” says Henein. “I have a lot of respect and genuine care for her. She wants to do something positive with her celebrity.” It’s not only that Page wants to have an impact; she wants to experience new situations herself. “The interconnectedness of all things is astoundingly beautiful and it almost overwhelms me a lot of the time,” says Page. “My goal is to try and be more connected to the cycles of the earth, to get back to that place.”
And she’s serious. A few years ago, she went to an area near Eugene, Ore., and lived in an eco-village for a month. There, she shoveled goat manure and learned about permaculture, a philosophy in which communities are environmentally sustainable by working with the cycles of nature.
Standing ankle deep in animal dung is a long way from Hollywood for most, but for Page, it’s just one more interesting connection in the web of life—a life in which she sees herself as not so different from all the other creatures, which are just “wired little bunch of stuff like we all are.” Including, of course, those “beautiful, awesome little bees.”