There was hugging and gushing. Big smiles. Kudos for Drew Barrymore’s black-dyed hair tips. Only a pair of traveling pants was missing as the queer-adored actress and the Detroit Derby Girls reunited mid-September outside of the Bonaventure Family Skating Center in Farmington Hills a year after filming “Whip It” last summer in Michigan.
Inside, as Barrymore humbly mingled with raucous fans and promoted her directorial debut that opens Oct. 2, she gave props to the local skaters, calling them the “stars of the movie.” And that’s saying a lot, considering the cast of Hollywood luminaries with roles in the hearty, tough-chick flick “Whip It”: breakout “Juno” actress Ellen Page, Jimmy Fallon, bad-ass rocker Juliette Lewis, Marcia Gay Harden, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Kristen Wiig and rapper Eve.
Based on Shauna Cross’ novel, Page plays dweeby misfit Bliss Cavendar in tiny-town Texas – the film was shot in Detroit, Birch Run, Saline and Ann Arbor – where options are limited (heck, the poor girl works at a diner called The Oink Joint) and she has a mother who thinks winning a beauty pageant is the key to life. And then poof! – Bliss’ world suddenly swells when she sneaks out with her BFF to catch a roller-derby game.
Can an outsider truly triumph in an insiders’ world? That’s the easy-to-relate-to thesis Barrymore explored in her hipster feature, as the ambidextrous actress – known for her Emmy-nominated role in “Grey Gardens,” “Boys on the Side, “Ever After” and countless rom-coms – took to the director’s chair for the first time.
She dubbed it a “very personal” film, elaborating: “I love seeing women be capable and strong and inspirational, but we’re human,” she said while walking the faux-red carpet in back of Bonaventure, wearing a rocker-chick-meets-The-Joker outfit.
“We have moments of extreme vulnerability, but we’re also funny – and we laugh and life is about comedy, too, so it was really important for me to incorporate all those tones into that movie.”
There’s a forthright feminist approach to the roller-derby dramedy – and in the pro-woman way Barrymore discussed it – but the A-list actress has always been vocal about empowering minorities. Some might say her rainbow garb – socks and a hair sash – worn in the movie, and the very subtle lesbianism (don’t blink during the two-chicks-in-the-hot-tub scene), is a nod to her pro-gay ways. But she’s bolder than that. She spoke passionately and powerfully through tears during a rally in California against the passing of Proposition 8, which revoked gay marriage rights. Queer people have defined her, she told the feisty protesters.
“A lot of people who I grew up around have freedom of their sexual orientation,” she told Between The Lines, “and I just think civil liberties are the key to life, so obviously I’m a huge supporter of that.”
Obviously is right: Barrymore’s admitted to swinging both ways. How else do you explain the not-so-shocking October issue of Marie Claire where she lip-locks with cute co-star Page?
Oh, here’s how: “Well, ya know, we do that all the time,” she coyly grinned, like it’s no biggie. “We’re just friends, so people can take from it what they want. We’re just girls being silly and having fun. It’s hysterical that people are reading into it.”
That camaraderie helped make “Whip It” such a memorable hoot for Detroit Derby Girl Laura Hinojosa of Royal Oak. Even if she didn’t kiss Page, or any of her co-stars, it’s for the best: “My girlfriend probably wouldn’t like that very much,” she warned, laughing.
The closest she got to Page was during that hot tub scene, where Hinojosa helped grab, drag and toss her in the water. Off camera, she ate lunch with Juliette Lewis, her Holy Rollers teammate in the feature, and she celebrated with the crew during a wrap party on a ferry sailing along the Detroit River. A nearby shindig at Jacoby’s bar followed. All the drunken horseplay was captured and posted on YouTube, but Hinojosa had a front-row seat as Barrymore banged on the drums, Eve free-styled and Lewis sang. What fun.
But not all of it was. There were sweaty, strenuous 14-hour days, but Barrymore, who Hinojosa praised as “energetic” and “appreciative,” had a very laid-back approach to directing that helped the crew chill out: “She’d play some loud music and get us all dancing and get our spirits up again.”
When Hinojosa saw “Whip It” for the first time – finished, and screened the day before Bonaventure at the University of Michigan – she thought it was heartfelt, but “it really brought awareness to derby and how amazing this sport is. It really captured everything (about it).” That includes the bloody noses, the ramming, the pulling (the “whipping,” if you will) – there’s nothing gentle about roller derby, a thrill sport based around an oval track. Points are scored when a marked “jammer” laps the opposing team’s pack.
It’s exaggerated a bit in the film, Hinojosa said, but not by much: “Derby is all flat-track now. There are only a few banked-track leagues in the country, so it’s a little different than the movie, but it’s still very dangerous. There’s hits; people go flying.”
Two weeks before shooting, the 25 derby girls – over half of the ones that auditioned, including some from as far west as Grand Rapids, were cut during auditions – trained with the acting crew on a built-for-filming track in Saline. When cameras started rolling, it was transported to a big, dirty Monarch Steel Company warehouse in Detroit. “They wanted to learn the certain stances to look authentic, and they were really into it,” Hinojosa said. “They were nervous, but by the time we started shooting they were very confident – and you could hit them a little bit.”
Hinojosa, Vega Vendetta on skates, has been with the Detroit Derby Girls since the league launched in 2004, playing for the Pistoffs. “It’s like a dream,” she said of starring in the film, “because I never (thought that by) joining derby this could’ve possibly happened. It was completely amazing.”
Barrymore proclaimed the experience as “super groovy,” especially using Michigan as the movie’s backdrop. “Every day when I watch this film – and (while) editing – I just watch these people in this town and the landscape of this town,” she told fans at Bonaventure. “I’m so grateful it’s all in the first film I got to direct.”
To make an already groovy experience even groovier, Barrymore received a custom-made Detroit Derby Girls jacket – “the coolest,” she called it.
Screw the traveling pants.