Ellen Page brings quirky charm to ‘Juno’ and the Academy Awards

By Sandy Cohen

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – If Ellen Page is having trouble adjusting to being the latest It-girl, she doesn’t show it.

An hour before the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, the 20-year-old actress is sitting calmly in a giant brown booth in the bar of the Beverly Hilton hotel. As the star of “Juno,” the indie comedy that’s made more than $100 million and is up for four Academy Awards, Page has been riding a tsunami of publicity.

She’s been nominated for practically every acting prize. She’s given a million interviews. She’s on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

Today she’s the perfect picture of tomboy chic in a black-and-white striped dress and a black leather jacket. Her hair and makeup are flawless, but her nails are bitten to the quick. She’s talking about bats.

“They’re really beautiful creatures. Like profoundly beautiful,” she says. “Vampire bats are so sweet and they take in bat orphans. And they remember favors and they repay favors.”

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She recalls backpacking in Belgrade not long ago and how taken she was by the sight of bats flying overhead.

“You know those moments,” she says. “You just feel so alive.”

Acting makes her feel the same way, she says. She “fell into it” when she was 10 in her native Nova Scotia – “Then it was just silly, like a neat little experience,” she says – but after a few years and a few roles, “it really started meaning something more to me.”

“I was playing roles that had more emotional maturity and more depth, and I was first feeling that connection with the heart and feeling that kind of transcendence,” Page says. “Your heart becomes more alive but there’s also that kind of analytical part of you that starts connecting with it … It made me just completely fall in love.”

She had already collected Canadian honors and more than a dozen credits, including a starring turn in 2005’s “Hard Candy,” when she landed the role of Juno MacGuff. Just don’t ask her to compare herself to her breakthrough character.

“Sorry,” she says. “The ‘How do you relate to Juno’ question is really the bane of my existence.”

Page is something like Juno. She’s quick-witted and liable to make obscure references, like a nod to a naturalist poet and a 1959 French film. Though she’s “not as comfortable in my skin” as her character, Page says she tried to make Juno “as honest as possible.”

“It was just making her a young woman that we haven’t seen before,” she says. “Having her be intelligent and articulate and all those things, but also having her be naive in moments and arrogant in moments.”

“Juno” director Jason Reitman says Page “seems incapable of having a dishonest moment on screen.”

“I saw that in ‘Hard Candy,’ I saw that when I met her, and it was a great joy to direct her every day because she made my job very, very easy,” he says. “I’d just sit there and enjoy her.”

Whether it was her honesty or her deft comic delivery that resonated with Oscar voters, Page’s name will now forever be preceded by those weighty words: Academy Award nominee.

“It’s all very bizarre,” she says. “To have your name involved with a group of women, a group of people who you just have so much respect for and so much admiration for, it actually feels kind of wrong. I feel young and I feel like I just have a lot more I want to discover … and just so much to learn.”

It’s been “surreal” and “humbling” to meet her idols, including Kate Winslet, “who I’m crazy about and who I’ve seen all her movies and think she’s flawless,” Page says.

Page doesn’t act for awards, she says, but accolades bring opportunity – and validation.

“It’s what I love to do, and when something like that happens, it’s like, ‘This is actually kind of working out,'” she says.

Page will next be seen in theaters alongside Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker in “Smart People,” opening April 11. She plays the politically conservative daughter of a widowed English professor, delivering bitter maxims like, “I think self-absorption is underrated.”

Director Noam Murro says simply, “She’s a genius.”

The actress has been away from her Halifax home now for weeks, traveling from London to film festivals to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Lately she’s had a companion on the road, an adopted dog whose breed she’s embarrassed to reveal.

“She’s a rescue, can I just say that first? And this just happened,” Page says. “She’s a Chihuahua-toy terrier mix.”

It’s not a Hollywood thing, she insists. (“Believe me, it’s not the dog I ever thought I would own.”) It’s just that when her friend found Patty the pup a few months ago, Page couldn’t resist.

After the Oscars, Page (and Patty’s) next adventure will be a trip to Texas, where Page is set to star in “Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s directing debut. Page plays a teenager forced to compete in beauty pageants who finds salvation when she joins a roller-derby team. Page will learn to roller-skate for the role. And she’ll have a chance to see bats.

“There’s a lot of bats in Texas,” she says. “They have this famous bridge where all the bats come out and it’s supposed to be really amazing.”