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Teen actress making viewers squirm in 'Candy'

At a recent L.A. screening of ''Hard Candy," which opens in Boston on Friday, one male viewer reportedly retreated to the theater lobby and passed out. It was during The Scene We Do Not Speak Of, both because we wouldn't want to spoil its shock value and because clinical details can make it sound ickier than it is. All you really need to know is that Ellen Page is the exceptional teenage actress who brought the viewer to his knees. And if you've never heard of her, you're about to.

Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, 19-year-old Page already has a varied resume that includes ''Wilby Wonderful," ''Marion Bridge," and ''Mouth to Mouth." She was 17 when she was cast in ''Hard Candy" as the 14-year-old Hayley, who goes home with a cyber-flirting, 32-year-old photographer (Patrick Wilson). As Hayley's calculated agenda is revealed, this low-budget psychological thriller blurs good and evil, prey and predator, host and hostage. Page, with close-cropped hair and a curve-less frame that makes her look even younger than 14, appears to delight in disarming and unsettling her audience. Despite the sensitive nature of Brian Nelson's controversial screenplay, she always looks fearless. And it turns out that's a big part of why she was picked for the role.

''She's able to go to those dark places and come out unscathed," director David Slade explains by phone from Los Angeles. ''What she brought more than anything else was passion, honesty, and strength."

All of which helps her stand up to unforgiving critics and enraged moviegoers. Since turning heads at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005, ''Hard Candy" has created the kind of buzz and backlash that can test filmmakers of any age. Yet, in a recent phone interview done during a promotional stop in Seattle, Page comes across as anything but disturbed.

Q: At 17, did you have to resurrect anything special to play a 14-year-old?

A: Not really. I think the only important thing was to keep a sense of vulnerability and innocence. Hayley, although she has such clear intelligence and maturity, also has a lack of experience which creates this black and white vision ... justification for her agenda, if you will. I didn't want her to be a two-dimensional superhero or super villain.

Q: Are most 14-year-olds that sure of themselves?

A: Yeah. I think it's like adult romanticism that teenagers can't have such passion and intelligence and integrity. I don't think it's a teenage girl's fault that the media portrays [her] the way they do.

Q: And you don't have any problems with the way your movie portrays her?

A: I don't. What I really like about the film is you have two characters that don't really allow the audience to feel safe, because presumably your sympathies are shifting. . . . There are no real answers given from this film, and I think that freaks people out a bit.

Q: Do people object to your character's vengeful behavior, and/or the way she turns a possible sexual predator into a victim?

A: People get really, really angry when they see this film. I think they get angry because they find themselves justifying actions of both characters at certain points. . . . Jeff brings home a 14-year-old girl; that makes him guilty, basically. You don't do that. And a lot of people go through this entire film just hating my character. So it's hard to even put it into words, because the opinions I get are so varied, which is excellent. There's aggression from males and there's aggression from females as well.

Q: What's the worst and best thing anyone's said to you?

A: I don't know if there's a worst. One woman kind of accosted me at the Palm Springs [International Film] Festival and was calling me sadistic. And I was like, well, (a) you know, fiction. And then (b) I did this stupid actor thing where I went into why [Hayley] wasn't sadistic; I shouldn't have done that because she clearly didn't have time for it. And then I love when men tell me that they feel like they've been kicked in the stomach. It's good.

Q: Do guys generally have the more intense reaction?

A: Yeah. I've felt a lot of anger. But I find it interesting, because as women we watch ourselves being violated sexually in television and on films to where it's pretty run of the mill. And I kind of think, well, you know, it's your turn.

Q: So you'd say this is a feminist film?

A: Oh yeah. I think very much so.

Q: And would you say that you're a feminist?

A: Of course. If being a feminist means striving for equality, I don't know who wouldn't be one. It can't be any more obvious that we live in a patriarchal society if ''feminist" is a bad word.

Q: Don't take this the wrong way, but you're incredibly articulate for a young actress.

A: Oh.

Q: What was your initial reaction to the ''Hard Candy" script?

A: It was so completely refreshing to have this teenage girl who was intelligent and passionate and, for me, full of a lot of integrity. I wasn't coming across anything like that -- it was always the lead's girlfriend, or a girl doing all these cool things and then she develops a crush on a boy. This film didn't allow for categorization.

Q: Did you do anything different to prepare for the role? [Warning: potential spoiler here.]

A: No. I went over certain surgical procedures [laugh], but no, there wasn't any point in me debating subject matter or judging Hayley. . . . She has an agenda: She sees something wrong with society that really hurts her and angers her; she's sick of people ignoring it and she's going to do something about it. Symbolically I found that really beautiful. So it was about connecting to that, finding her passion, and then just going for it.

Q: Is Hayley just young and misguided? Is she sick? Evil?

A: It's hard for me as Ellen to look at that, because I was so close to her -- because I developed such a respect for her. . . . I do not think she's sick or sadistic or psychotic, not even in the slightest. And I think the whole point of this film is that it's completely ambiguous.

Q: Is it true that you asked to change certain things that didn't feel ''honest" in the script?

A: Not dishonest, more just not completely organic. . . . Ultimately we didn't want this to be like a clichéd Hollywood film, so if she was being too funny at a certain point, maybe that didn't feel completely right.

Q: Was the humor tricky? Because people could say it borders on glib.

A: When we were making the film, I didn't even feel like it was that funny. I was just playing this extremely articulate character who is trying to manipulate this man's mind. . . . I've been at some screenings where people are laughing the entire time, and it blows my mind. Because when we were shooting, I wasn't even close to any emotion like that.

Q: Do you think adversaries talk this much or this cleverly in real life?

A: Um, well, if they're trapped together in a house [as we were], maybe.

Q: There are so many ready comparisons, from ''Lolita" to ''Monster." Would you compare this film to anything in particular?

A: I get that question a lot. I guess there are films that are deemed similar -- Takashi Miike's ''Audition" is a film that I like, though mind you I don't think they're similar at all. I'd like to think this is a very unique film.

Q: Certainly different from ''X-Men: The Last Stand" (due out next month). How was it playing Kitty Pryde?

A: Fantastic, and a huge transition. You really can't compare it to making a film like ''Hard Candy." . . . I got to wear a leather suit, run through explosions. . . . Versatility is important.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

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