Ellen Page is no amateur.
Not only has she starred in some of the most beloved and successful modern indies, including cult favorite Hard Candy and her star-making role in Juno, she’s also held her own in big-budget endeavors too, stealing scenes from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception. But on her first day on set for director Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, Page suddenly found herself paralyzed with fear and doubt.
Shelton, whose previous features include Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, is known for crafting hyper personal narratives that rely heavily on improvisation from her actors. Despite Page’s extensive resume, this was new for her. “I remember thinking ‘ok, Ellen. Improv! Be cool! Be present. Be in it,’” Page told EW. “And then we started filming this dinner scene with Rose and Josh and Scoot and I thought ‘I am so bad. They’re going to kick me off this movie, they’re going to call another actress. I am garbage.’”
Page plays the character of Jenny, a quiet girl who lives with her father (Josh Pais), works as a dental assistant at his practice, and quietly yearns for something else. She also has a crush on her aunt Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). So consumed with her improv anxieties, Page said, “I realized a couple takes into it that I’m completely forgetting that I’m playing Jenny. I’m completely forgetting everything we’ve been talking about. On top of having to seem natural in this scene, I’m playing a character who has really intense dynamics with every person in this room.” The training wheels quickly came off, though. “I finally let go of my insecurity of seeming natural and present and connected with what I was actually feeling.”
In the middle of a somewhat quirky story of a masseuse (DeWitt) who becomes repulsed by human touch and her struggling, awkward dentist brother (Pais) who can all of a sudden heal people with his touch, Page’s Jenny is perhaps the most simply human character in the ensemble. “I deeply connected the feelings of staying at a certain place in your life because of your fear, your inability to be open and really step into who you are in your life and instead remaining in a situation that is really closing you off from that,” said Page of Jenny. “To explore this girl’s deep sadness and her very quiet inner turmoil of trying to step out of that and trying to move forward and sort of let go of everything that’s allowed her to not be brave enough to do that? It really intrigued me.”
Shelton approached Page to play the part of Jenny in a somewhat unconventional way. “It’s all thanks to Catherine Keener,” says Page, who she’s known since they worked together on An American Crime. “Ever since has been a dear, dear friend of mine. I was in Catherine’s car and we were driving up to a friend’s house north of L.A. and she said ‘oh my friend Lynn wants to talk to you about a movie.’” And so, they just called Shelton and things started moving forward. “I saw Your Sister’s Sister and that was that,” she says. “I wanted to experience working with this filmmaker and being part of her body of work. I was such a fan.”
“It’s so true and authentic and profound, despite it being so intimate,” says Page of Touchy Feely. “This summer has been an incredible example of people’s desire for films that really, really move them. Look at what people are talking about! The Spectacular Now? Oh my god, I loved that film so much. And the performances? Or a movie like Fruitvale? Such powerful, incredible movies that were made for very little and have totally found their audience and more,” she says. “I feel totally inspired by that.”
“One can only hope that someone will connect with Jenny,” she says. “That’s all you can ever hope as an actor.”
Touchy Feely is currently available on VOD.