Drew Barrymore will never forget her first all-girl roller-derby adventure, the rough-and-tumble spectacle that inspired her critically acclaimed directorial debut, the lighthearted coming-of-age drama “Whip It.”
“When I walked into my first game, I literally thought it was my 'Wizard of Oz' moment, where everything was in black-and-white and the world became Technicolor,” says the onetime child star, 34, whose Flower Films production company helped establish her as a bona fide superstar with comedies like 1999's “Never Been Kissed” and the following year's “Charlie's Angels.”
“There was just the most eclectic crowd, the most amazing women and this incredible environment. You feel as if you've entered some parallel universe, but it's real, and it's awesome.”
For Barrymore, who was first drawn to the sport by author Shauna Cross' semi-autobiographical tale of a 17-year-old small-town misfit (played by Ellen Page, the Oscar-nominated star of “Juno”) who becomes an unlikely derby star, “Whip It” presented an irresistible outlet for her creative ambitions.
“I thought, 'I have to direct this, this is the film I have to start with,'” she says. “It felt like something I was practicing for my whole life. I took every little detail I had ever seen and learned and experienced, whether it was a song I heard, a museum I went to or a person I met, and I pictured it all as an emotional and cultural piggy bank. Then I took my piggy bank and broke it all over the floor for this film.”
That's not to say Barrymore, who once presented her godfather, Steven Spielberg, with a script she'd written at the ripe age of 6, has any plans to cut back on her acting. In “Whip It,” she costars as hot-tempered brawler Smashley Simpson, and she will soon appear opposite Robert De Niro in the holiday comedy “Everybody's Fine.”
But she remains eager to direct again, and credits her veteran cast, including Juliette Lewis, Marcia Gay Harden and Kristen Wiig of “Saturday Night Live,” with helping make “Whip It” such a rewarding experience.
Harden is quick to return the compliment.
“Drew on skates wearing a director's hat is lovely,” she says. “She had an absolute joy and gratitude for being in the place she was, and she brought that to the set every single day.
“There was this little girl that we remember from 'E.T.' who's now a beautiful woman, and there she was directing this film about the darker side of femininity and doing it beautifully. And she was in total control. That was the happiest surprise for me.”