Drew is calling the shots now
Drew Barrymore, the onetime “E.T.” moppet, wild child and scion of Hollywood, has over the last 15 years made herself the poster child for post-feminism girl power. Through a series of shiny comedies (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Never Been Kissed,” “He’s Just Not That Into You”) in which she starred -- and increasingly produced with her business partner and best friend Nancy Juvonen -- the 34-year-old Barrymore has preached a bouncy, politics-free, up-with-girls, follow-your-dreams mantra. Undoubtedly, it helped that she happened to be adorable too, with that giddy smile that never quite papers over the shadow of heartbreak.
Now comes Drew Barrymore: The Directorial Debut. Stepping behind the lens for the $15-million “Whip It,” Barrymore saw her film unspool at the Toronto International Film Festival to largely sparkling reviews. It is the tale of a small-town Texas indie-misfit girl (Ellen Page) who yearns to make it as a roller-derby star -- regardless of the misgivings of her overbearing mother, a beauty pageant devotee. Lively and bright, “Whip It” plays almost like a tour of the inside of Barrymore’s head.
“If you think about it, it’s very close to me,” Barrymore says. “It seems pretty obvious in a way. I have a tumultuous relationship with my mother, so obviously that story had a deep emotional interest to me -- about women who are empowered and can be athletic and capable and kick ass out on the track and be their own heroes, and I think finding your tribe is everything. I certainly found it with my company. Every aspect of this story including first love and rite of passage, and being able to rock out in the car with your best friend, these are all themes that are crucial to my life. I was able to tell my story,” she says of the Fox Searchlight film releasing Friday.
Barrymore practically spits out her words, gritting politely through an interview when she’s obviously exhausted. Those limpid greenish eyes -- the signature of the Covergirl’s elaborate Lash Blast campaign -- appear to be propped up solely by force of will. It’s the day after the Emmys, where Barrymore was nominated for her riveting dramatic turn as “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, onetime debutante-turned crazy cat lady in the HBO film “Grey Gardens.” If she’s upset that her costars and the film won their categories and she did not, she’s far too professional to say, but last night’s rose-colored, many-tiered Monica Lhuillier dress has clearly evaporated into memory. Yet it wasn’t just a night of celebration that has sapped her famed effervescence but the last weeks of crisscrossing the country, taking her film practically by hand to cities such as Detroit and Dallas and Boston, doing meet-and-greets at roller derbies, and the three years of nonstop work before that.
“I’ve actually measured it. I’ve worked over 1,200 days compared to the 40 to 50 I’ve taken off,” says the actress, perched on a couch in her office at her West Hollywood production company Flower Films. Her voice is slightly croaky; she’s wearing black jeans, a dark, short-sleeved jacket over a shirt, and a giant sparkly blue scarf around her neck, almost like a security blanket. “But it’s been so worth it,” she adds of her hours in service of the project.
The evidence of her recent flowering of creativity literally climbs up the wall. Across one wall is a bulletin board, with every scene from “Whip It” posted on index cards. All the other walls are covered with images that inspire her: stills from the western “Shane,” John Travolta combing his hair in “Saturday Night Fever,” punk-rocker Marianne Faithful and rodeo riders. The profusion continues out into the hall, with elaborate sections devoted to shots from such films as “Terms of Endearment,” “Say Anything” and “Rebel Without a Cause.”
She says, “My whole life I’ve been training” to be a director. “When I was 6 years old, I handed my godfather” -- Steven Spielberg -- a script she’d written, “which was, ironically, a mother-daughter love story.”
Growing up Barrymore
For those who might wonder what a child of Hollywood knows about dead-end Texas, Barrymore has this to say: Bodine ain’t so different from the Hollywood fishbowl. “It’s a small town where everybody knows your business and you don’t feel like you fit in and you just want some privacy and don’t want to be surrounded by people who have priorities that aren’t the same as yours,” she says in one breath. “Circumstances may be different, but the feelings are the exact same.”
Still, Barrymore’s childhood was a humdinger back in the days before Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears made underage partying a tabloid staple. Raised by her mother, Jaid, a wannabe actress, Barrymore made her first commercial at 11 months and says she was supporting her family by the ripe old age of 6, starring in Spielberg’s mega-hit “E.T.,” an experience that was seminal in giving her a “blueprint” for what she wanted out of life.
“I was 6, but I was a very coherent 6 year old. I understood the emotional aspects of it. I understood it as an adult because I was expected to be responsible.” It’s where “I found the thing that I put on the [“Whip It”] poster, which is, I found my tribe,” she adds.
“Tribe” is a word that has a lot of meaning for Barrymore, and she uses it frequently to refer to the family one makes rather than the one you’re born into. On “E.T.,” it was this “great group of people that are creative and fun and they all worked hard and support a nurturing, fun-loving environment. It was just a place that I realized that that’s how I wanted my life to be ‘cause my life was quite lonely as a kid.”
Barrymore doesn’t mention the dark days after “E.T.” -- but then again she published her autobiography at 14, “Little Girl Lost,” all about her fractious relationship with her mother, her pre-adolescent clubbing, her booze and cocaine abuse, and the resulting rehab by the time she was 13. At 19, she rediscovered her tribe when she met her longest extant friend, “the love of her life,” business partner Juvonen, a sociology major moonlighting as an assistant to musician Clarence Clemons, and the duo launched Flower Films.
While they’d produced a number of films together, Juvonen was adamant about not letting Barrymore direct until she was sure the actress was ready. “I said ‘No, no, no’ for years. ‘You’re not ready. You need to understand time. There’s more to directing than plotting scenes out. Study, study, study and prove you’re ready,’ ” Juvonen says. “I’m the harshest, because I care and love her and don’t have any agenda other than her success.” What she wanted, she says, was for Barrymore to “be ready enough so the first one isn’t the only one.”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks by Juvonen’s account was Barrymore’s penchant for tardiness -- “I almost lunged across the table when someone in a room suggested, ‘Well, Drew, we’ll just get you a watch,’ ” says Juvonen, who recalls screaming, “Absolutely not. She can march down and get her own watch if she cares to do it.”
“Whip It” is based on the novel by former skater Shauna Cross, and Barrymore spent close to a year holed up with Cross, finessing the author’s original script, making the material less broad and more personal. She came prepared for the 10-week shoot with a script in which every page was accompanied by the image she intended to create. “I was just very clear about the movie I wanted to make.”
During preproduction, she also joined the cast for a month at roller-derby boot camp. (Page, who’s supposed to be the fastest on the team, trained for three months.)
Barrymore, who costars as Derby Girl Smashley Simpson, admits it would have been easier to just concentrate on directing, but “I wanted to be in the trenches with the girls, not a sideline dictator and be like, “Yeah, yeah, you go ahead and do that. I know it’s terrifying, but you’ll be fine.’ I wanted to know exactly what they were going through.”
“Drew established an environment on set that felt like none other I’ve ever been on,” Page says. “It really, really felt like a family. She trained with Cameron [Diaz] and Lucy [Liu] for ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and she knew how close that training brings a group of actors. She has this energy no matter what time it was. We would be on skates for 12-hour days, and Drew gave her energy to everybody all the time.”
Barrymore also directed in an unusually emotional way, says Page, perhaps because she’s also an actor. “She’s so connected to the material. When you’re talking about it, she’s there with you. It enables you to get to that place that you need to be. I never worked with someone on that level.”
With a somewhat dazed look in her eye, Barrymore admits she’s always been a workaholic. Spreading grrrl power isn’t for the lazy. “I don’t subscribe to the wishing,” she says. “I subscribe to the willing.
“That’s why I’m taking a break this fall. I’m very excited. I’m just dying to get to the finish line.”