`Juno' star grounded in non-Hollywood life

January 13, 2008|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,Los Angeles Daily News

Juno is a monster.

The little independent comedy about a pregnant teenager was the second-highest-grossing movie in North America last weekend, ahead of such big-studio holiday hits as I Am Legend and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's well past $50 million at the box office, and there's no end in sight.

The word-of-mouth smash is simultaneously gaining serious awards momentum, especially for its 20-year-old star, Ellen Page. The petite Canadian is charming everybody as the smart, tart-tongued expectant mother. And for the unpretentious Page, who still lives in her anywhere-but-Hollywood hometown of Halifax, it's all pretty unbelievable.

"Very much so," Page, soft-spoken and looking funky chic in a camel-colored suit jacket, jeans and red high-tops, says. "I come from Nova Scotia, so it's very surreal. But I'm very glad that people are responding so well to this film. I'm just excited that a character like Juno is getting out into the world."

As for her Oscar chances, the indie-minded Page, whose only big-time Hollywood experience was playing mutant heroine Kitty Pryde in the most recent X-Men movie, gives the expected shrug.

"It's crazy," she says with a mild laugh. "I try not to think about it. It's obviously not why I'm an actor. But it's all very exciting, though it's a hard thing to even wrap your head around."

The daughter of a graphic designer and a teacher, Page enjoyed acting in elementary-school plays but really didn't know what she was getting into when she auditioned for a locally produced television movie, Pit Pony, at age 10. That led to an award nomination and a regular role on a spinoff series of the telefilm.

Though she kept working steadily in Canadian film and TV from that point on, Page continued to nurture her nonshow-biz life, attending a Buddhist high school (though neither she nor her parents practice the faith), playing a wide variety of sports, and hiking and camping around both the Great North and Europe.

American critics got early looks at her riveting screen presence and daring intelligence in the independent films Mouth to Mouth and Hard Candy. Page made an indelible impression in the latter as an adolescent seductress who takes an Internet predator hostage.

Juno director Jason Reitman says he believes that Page's appeal rests in her ability to keep things real, no matter how bizarre or eccentric she's asked to act.

"What makes her truly special is that she's incapable of having dishonest moments," says the Thank You for Smoking filmmaker. "That's what I look for in actors, and it's very easy to have a dishonest take on Diablo's dialogue. Ellen just can't."

Diablo is Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, the tattooed ex-stripper who fills the mouths of Juno and her friends with hilarious lines and some pretty artificial-sounding teen slang. Page says she had no problems with Cody's outrageous jawbreakers.

"One of the things that I was blown away by when I first read the script was the dialogue," she reveals. "Although it was unique and witty and all of that, to me it felt very fluid, it felt very rhythmic and it felt very organic. And although I didn't speak the exact same way as Juno spoke when I was 16, I definitely had my own unique language with my friends, which was different from how I communicated with my parents and in work environments.

"So, to me, it totally worked. And it was just about owning it and being easy with it and not forcing it."

Page still has the same friends. What do they think about their lifelong pal's rising celebrity?

"Similar to the way my parents are, they're very supportive, but I'm still the same person," she says. "Some of it's funny to them, because they know who I am and they see the situations I'm in. But the funny thing is, I'm amazed by stuff that they do. I just happen to get this weird attention. Whether they're working on an organic farm or studying anthropology or ... one of my friends is an amazing writer. All of that, to me, is very exciting."

Page is making a lot of new friends, too.

"She's just wise beyond her years, incredibly intelligent and much different than a lot of young Hollywood actresses," notes multiple Emmy-winner Allison Janney, who plays Juno's stepmother in the film. "Just very grounded, very smart. She's not a Hollywood actress, though she now is going to be considered a big one. But she'll bring her very strong sense of self with her."

Page is too level-headed to imagine that she's any kind of role model, though.

"Oh no. No! I'm really just me and this is what I love to do and I'm getting to do it," she says. "It's just an enormous gift."

To further that point, Page says she has absolutely no clue what she would do if she ever found herself in Juno's condition. She does defend the movie, though, against accusations that it's another of last year's unwanted pregnancy comedies (Knocked Up, Waitress) that might have been too timid about addressing the controversial abortion option.

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