Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It,” is set in the freestyling world of women’s roller derby. The title describes a skating move in which teammates form a human chain in order to “whip” their scorer ahead of her opponents. It also describes the larger action in the film, in which Bliss (Ellen Page), a young woman from a small town in Texas, finds her footing with help from her derby compatriots.
Bliss’ mentor is Maggie Mayhem, played with gentle humor by “Saturday Night Live’s” Kristen Wiig. (Barrymore also stars as brawler Smashley Simpson.) Under Maggie’s guidance, Bliss auditions for the Hurl Scouts derby team and finds her calling on the track. Like a cool aunt, Maggie also offers sound advice and a couch to crash on.
Wiig had worked with Page and Barrymore when each had hosted “SNL,” so bonding with their characters was easy. But she says the real key to her derby role was found on the track.
“I knew how to roller skate in a rink 20 years ago, but this is definitely different because the track is slanted and elevated, and you’re not just skating with your friends listening to Eddie Rabbit,” Wiig says. “You’re hitting each other and learning how to fall.” So she showed up for a couple of weeks of training in Michigan, not knowing how to even stand up on the slanted track, let alone move. Playing the team’s captain, Wiig was especially intent on looking at home on wheels. “Knowing that you had to shoot a movie in two weeks is motivation and pressure combined.”
Training included learning how to pretend to take a hit and even how to stop without brakes. It also included lessons from members of real derby team, including the L.A. Derby Dolls. By involving actual derby girls in the project (in addition to training, they play roles as extras), Barrymore showed the actors the very community that she was trying to create in the film, which opens Friday. “I think it was important for Drew to kind of let everyone know that so many different types of women do derby,” Wiig says. “Not just the big tough girls with the tattoos and stuff -- there’s a lot of that -- but we met women there who are teachers and nurses and mothers and wives.”
The derby girls didn’t just play together; they interacted like a family, which served as further inspiration to the actors. “They sleep on each other’s couches, they party together, they go on trips together, and they help each other move,” Wiig says of the skating subculture. So when it came time to portray that sisterhood in the movie, it came naturally.
And the friendships lasted well after the filming ended. “I’m crazy about Kristen,” Page says. “First of all, she is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met. And working with her was so enjoyable, I just want to be in everything she’s in. I want to sneak in the background.”
It’s not just derby girls who fall for Wiig. Jason Bateman, her costar in Mike Judge’s “Extract,” is similarly enchanted. “I’m a gigantic fan of what Kristen does and what she doesn’t do, frankly. She’s very comfortable not leaning into things; she trusts that you don’t need to speak any louder or make any funny faces to get people’s attention. She’s very subtle, and I love that.” The two just wrapped Greg Mottola’s film “Paul,” due out next year. Calling her a genuinely nice person, Bateman adds, “It’s been a great half-year with her, all in.”
Wiig, speaking by phone from the Toronto International Film Festival, can practically be heard blushing at the compliments. She returns the admiration and chalks her warm reputation up to gratitude for the success she’s enjoying now. “If you’re on a movie set and you’re an actor, you’re lucky, because there’s a lot of people out there that would love to be doing what you’re doing, and we’ve all worked hard to get there.” So though it’s certainly easy to complain about the long hours or the wait, “I’ve always said my worst day on a set is better than my best day when I was wanting to be on a set.”
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Where you’ve seen her
Kristen Wiig made her television debut on “Saturday Night Live” in 2005, and her memorable characters include the one-upper Penelope, Judy Grimes and Kathy Lee Gifford. Her breakout movie role was in “Knocked Up,” playing Katherine Heigl’s deliciously passive-aggressive boss. She and “SNL” colleague Bill Hader played amusement park owners in this year’s “Adventureland.” Upcoming films include “Paul,” an alien road-trip comedy that reunites her with Hader and Jason Bateman. On the small screen, she played Brahbrah on an episode of “Flight of the Conchords,” and will appear on an episode of the new HBO comedy series “Bored to Death,” starring Jason Schwartzman, in addition to her duties on “SNL.” Her first dramatic role is coming up next year in the film “All Good Things.”
-- Lisa Rosen