HOLLYWOOD — “The politest thing I can say is, ‘It’s about bleeping time!’ ” says Drew Barrymore with a giggle reminiscent of Gertie, the “E.T.” role that made her famous back in 1982.
The actress, recently turned director, is talking about the 2010 Oscar win for best director by Kathryn Bigelow, the first time a woman has won that accolade. Barrymore’s directorial debut is “Whip It,” starring Ellen Page (“Juno”) as a young Texan named Bliss who escapes her boring background and finds herself via the rough sport of roller derby.
Barrymore, granddaughter of stage and screen legend John Barrymore (who died of alcoholism in 1942, aged 60), points out that an actress who decides to direct can have a tougher time of it when it comes to being prepared enough and confident enough that her cast and crew have confidence in her.
But where she — no question — has it tougher, is in the perception of those in the industry.
“Like, isn’t it obvious that male actors who decide to direct are applauded, even excessively? Look at all the actors who directed a movie, got nominated and then actually won the Academy Award. The list includes Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson and Woody Allen.
“Not one of the women ever nominated for Best Director was an actress! It is ludicrous. If an actor directs, he is admired — he’s expanding his horizons. If an actress directs, either she’s getting older — as is anybody who’s still breathing — or she’s washed up or impossible to handle as an actress. Or else she’s too ambitious and so uppity. I’ve heard all those things, and more, said about actresses who directed a movie.
“And I expect them all to be said about me,” says the 35-year-old. “Not that I actually give a damn.”
Barrymore has been coproducing movies for years, including the megahit “Charlie’s Angels” in 2000.
“I’m a child of the business, for better and for worse,” she says wryly. In the past she’s admitted that she’s been through “too much,” having become a drug addict at age 13 (and seeking professional help for substance abuse).
“One thing I’m not,” she gushes, “is insecure! I have a good feel for this business, for what works and doesn’t work . . . I’ve had bombs and I’ve been unemployable. I’ve been in and out, up and down . . . and I always knew in the back of my head that I was going to direct.”
Speaking of in and out, Drew is one of a handful of female Hollywood movie stars who, unlike their male counterparts, is openly bisexual. She has been married twice, very briefly each time, and has said that women are “pickier” choosing female partners than male ones. But at present she prefers not to talk about her personal life. “Relationships last as long as they’re meant to last,” she half sighs.
“If a relationship is a really long one, usually it’s either wonderful and very lucky for the two people involved, or else it’s the traditional habit of both people enduring it until death does them part and finally relieves one of them. But, hey . . . let’s talk about ‘Whip It!’ “
The film, particularly Barrymore’s direction (and Ellen Page’s acting), got mostly very good reviews, but it was not a smash hit in the United States. Why?
“In just one word?” Barrymore queries: “Sexism. Girls will go to movies that boys want to see. But boys won’t go to movies that girls want to see if they (the boys) don’t want to see them.
“But, see, I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ which a lot of people had thought wouldn’t be any kind of a hit because it had all female leads. And let’s face it, a lot of girls aren’t into sports-themed movies, even if they star an actress. Not that ‘Whip It’ is just about sports . . . It’s got a wider scope than that, but it does focus on a girl who ends up doing roller derby, and the average girl doesn’t do that and maybe thinks it’s intimidating in a movie. But it intrigued me.”
She pauses, then enthuses, sounding more like a teenager than a movie veteran. “Remember that movie — way back — with Raquel Welch, ‘Kansas City Bomber.’ Wow! l loved that! And Raquel Welch . . . she was this big sex symbol, people said she couldn’t act, but then she produced this movie, tried to change her image, and she did a great job.
“It wasn’t a big hit, but she got the reviews she’d been wanting. That movie (from 1972) was one of my inspirations for ‘Whip It’ — though my film has more comedy in it.”
Though the screenplay for “Whip It” is by Shauna Cross — on whose novel, “Derby Girl,” it is based — rumor has it that studio executives pressured Barrymore to hire a male screenwriter to adapt the novel.
However, Barrymore urges, “Let’s talk about the movie, not about before it was made. It’s always tough to get any project off the ground.”
She also demurs when asked about her role in “Whip It” as the punningly named Smashley Simpson (shades of Ashley Simpson). “You know, every movie interview I’ve ever had, I talked about who I played and what she was like. Now I finally get to talk about directing.”
She continues, “I wasn’t concerned about this being labeled a chick-flick, which is a woman film today, even though the whole concept is pretty sexist. Like, when do they call it a ‘man’ film? Yet that’s what Westerns almost always are — usually they’re too boring to interest women unless the guy’s really cute or does some nudity.
“But I identified with this girl wanting to get away from a limited and limiting hometown and a mom who wants her to be what she wants her to be — not what Bliss (the daughter) wants to be, even though she doesn’t really know what she wants to be. It’s not easy for most kids to know that.
“With me, it was sort of taken care of for me. I was sent out on auditions from almost before I can remember. My mom was ambitious for me — and for her.
“Oh, yeah, and . . . we drifted apart, which is I guess common knowledge,” referring to Barrymore going to court at age 15 to declare legal separation from both her parents. “But then we sort of grew back together,” she says.
“Anyway, it’s easier for a kid to guide via negatives,” she continues. “Like Bliss knows what she doesn’t want to do or be. Her mom’s really into beauty pageants, her father’s pretty fixated on ball games, and her friend Pash is obsessed with Ivy League schools. Bliss, who’s waitressing, is into music — her kind of music, not her mother’s. And eventually she gets a boyfriend, a musician, and they share that.
“But in the end, you have to find your career path, the kind of work and goal that you dedicate yourself to, the thing you’ll still have when a relationship busts up.
“And ‘Whip It’ has the usual conflict, with Bliss’ parents, before they all learn to appreciate each other better — which tends to happen when the alternative is breaking apart permanently.
“Of course, Ellen (Page) is terrific in it. So’s everyone else — people of the caliber of Marcia Gay Harden (as the mother), Daniel Stern (the father) . . . I mean, everyone involved, both sides of the camera, gave 100 percent, and I think it shows. I really am very proud of ‘Whip It.’ “
Among the relatively few criticisms the film received were its somewhat ambiguous ending and some of the cutesy character and roller-derby team names. Barrymore laughs, “Well, it’s always something. But it could be worse!
“This movie isn’t cutesy, though. I think it’s realistic. Just not grimly, depressingly realistic. Like, Bliss’ life in Bordeen, Texas, may seem dull and dreary to her and you, and me — but there are starving people in a lot of this world that would be real glad to switch places with her, materially.
“That’s because everything’s relative. I think that, really, the one human constant is that whatever it is you have, you want more . . .”
Barrymore adds that her film is also about female bonding.
“Falling in love, all that, is wonderful. For a while. For as long is it’s exciting and before reality sets in, whether or not you’re living together. But when you think about how long friendships can last, and how they can easily outlast romantic relationships . . . and there’s the whole universe of female friendships, which tend to be deeper, and I assume more lasting, than male ones. So one theme in ‘Whip It’ is being accepted by your own peers.
“Bliss is accepted for herself by other women. Parents, so often, they want to mold, and they can’t help from critiquing and judging. And it’s only natural that kids rebel against that — I mean, I certainly did! And this movie shows some of that.
“I didn’t choose to do ‘Whip It’ because it’s autobiographical. It’s not. One reviewer thought and insisted that it was. Anyway, to me, the ultimate critics of any movie are its audience.
“And some movies become much more appreciated over time, Look how many movies did so-so when they came out, but years after they draw bigger and bigger audiences and cults and all that.”
Was it easy, as an actor herself, to direct Page and the rest of the cast?
“Yes, mostly. But with Ellen there was a different thing. Hers is the role I would have been playing, and I had to keep myself in check, to keep from giving suggestions on how to portray . . . I had to not say anything like, ‘Well, I’d do it this way,’ or ‘why don’t you try this?’
“I had to box myself in as simply the director, a good director who lets her cast find their own way into their characterizations. Which was a little tougher to do than I expected!
“But then, you live and learn, right?”
Then, laughing, Barrymore observes, “If directing a movie isn’t a learning experience, I mean on several levels, I don’t know what is. And it is much tougher, more involving and consuming than acting ever is!
“Preparing to direct a movie is, like, the toughest homework anyone could ever have! Ever since ‘Whip It’ I’ve just been lazing around, you know, being lazy — being just an actor!”