Metro Weekly

Interview: Ellen Page on coming out, “Freeheld” and being gay in Hollywood

Ellen Page - Photo: Pamela Hanson

Ellen Page – Photo: Pamela Hanson

“Ohhhh, Ellen! God, I just gave her an award last night!”

It’s an overcast, chilly Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C. And Allison Janney is at the Unite to Face Addiction Rally on the National Mall. She takes a brief respite from questions about the cause to wax adoringly about Page, to whom she presented the National Vanguard Award at Saturday night’s HRC National Dinner.

“The first time I met her was on Juno,” says the Emmy-winning star of Mom. “And I was so intimidated by this little girl, who looks always younger than she is — how incredibly grounded and powerful her intelligence is. Any time I spend time with her, I learn something about the world, because she’s so informed and articulate and she loves art and music and is always turning me onto to new artists. I always leave her feeling like I know something new. I love her so much.”

What’s not to love about the Canadian-born 28-year-old, whose roles have ranged from a sardonic, pregnant teen in Juno to the heroic Kitty Pryde in the X-Men series of films? Page has even endeared herself to the gaming community, appearing in both likeness and voice in the moody, cinematically-driven title Beyond: Two Souls.

With Freeheld, Page has undertaken perhaps her most personal role to date, portraying Stacie Andree, the “domestic partner” of New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester. Based on real life events set in 2002, what begins as a blissful swirl of love and romance quickly turns despondently tragic as Hester is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

However, there are more hurdles than just health issues. The detective wants her pension to go to Andree upon her passing, but a craven band of county freeholders stubbornly (and homophobically) refuse the request, despite state laws that would allow them to enact the contrary. The battle for equality that ensued served as a harbinger of things to come, as change started to sweep the nation’s attitude about gay marriage. Still, the movie, magnificently acted by Page, Julianne Moore and Michael Shannon, serves as a trenchant reminder of how tenuous our legal rights are. We may live in a democratic society, but we are all subject to the whims and beliefs of those in power.

Freeheld marks the first time Page, who came out in 2014 while speaking at an HRC event, has portrayed a gay character on screen. Yet she doesn’t feel she should receive any special plaudits for doing so.

“When people are [called] brave in regards to playing LGBTQ people, that’s borderline offensive,” she told Time Magazine in August. “I’m never going to be considered brave for playing a straight person, and nor should I be. It’s hard to say this, because the context of the film is so deeply tragic, but for me there was a deep sense of peace on set that I had not felt in a really long time, potentially since I was a teenager and first having these really beautiful, fortunate moments in films. There was something about being out, getting to play a gay character, and getting to play a woman who is so inspiring to me—it was such an amazing experience for me. Honestly, if I played gay characters for the rest of my career, I’d be thrilled. I wish I could, honestly!”

In person, Page has a luminous, graceful beauty. There’s a gentleness to her demeanor that the gritty, tough roles she often undertakes belies. Relaxing in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown last Friday, she reflected on the award she was about to get from HRC.

“It’s an extraordinary honor. I am humbled by it because I feel like more truly brave and truly courageous people have done the work that let me get to live the life I’m living with my girlfriend right now.”

The girlfriend of nine months — artist Samantha Thomas — combined with being fully out has brought a newfound sense of elation to Page’s life.

“To experience being in love and get to live my life, hold my partner’s hand, bring her to the premiere of the film, go down the red carpet — it’s all these firsts in my life,” she says. “I’m like, ‘This is the first time I’m in an out relationship in an airplane!’ That might sound so insignificant to a lot of people, but probably not to a lot of people in the LGBT community because they would understand. I can’t tell you how special it is. It’s really extraordinary, and I feel really lucky.”

“As more people like Ellen come out and show that it doesn’t affect their career, all people will feel more comfortable about being honest about who they are and being authentic,” says Janney, when asked of Matt Damon’s recent comment that gay actors ought to remain closeted so as to maintain an air of mystery, allowing them to disappear into roles better. That’s hogwash, of course. Take Page, for instance, who takes passionate umbrage with Damon’s comments: she’s had no trouble vanishing into the roles she plays. In many regards, Page is very much like Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore: you forget you’re watching a performance and fully believe in the character they’re creating. It’s a rare gift that many movie stars lack.

“We’re actors,” says Janney, who will once again join forces with Page in the upcoming comedy Talullah. “It doesn’t matter who we are. That’s what we do, we play different people.”

METRO WEEKLY: What was it that got you into acting as a career?

ELLEN PAGE: It was accidental. I was in the drama club and someone came to my school when I was 10, looking for kids to audition for a CBC movie of the week. I went and auditioned and got the part. At first I was like, “Oh this is a cute experience. You’ll have fun doing this cute thing.” At first, I think it was just seen as this little thing that was happening in my life, and that was going to be it. So it was like a “keep playing soccer, keep your grades up” kind of thing. But then that part turned into a show, and then that show lead to something else, which lead to something else. And then, really, it was when I was 15, when I really started to fall in love with film in general, that I got really excited. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I moved out and to Toronto when I was 16, and I just worked and worked.

Ellen Page - Photo: Pamela Hanson

Ellen Page – Photo: Pamela Hanson

MW: The turning point was Hard Candy.

PAGE: For my career, for sure. Absolutely.

MW: A difficult film to make, I imagine. You were fairly young at the time for such harsh subject matter.

PAGE: I was 17. You look back and think, “Oh, I was 17. Oh yeah, I guess that was difficult or intense or a strange film.” At the time I just loved the script, I loved the character, and thrived off the intensity of it.

MW: Juno gave you the national exposure that propelled your career forward.

PAGE: Yes, that’s when I went from being anonymous to not so much.

MW: Not being anonymous meant that eventually you had a decision to make. Along those lines, when did you first realize that you were gay?

PAGE: I was thinking about girls a lot probably at 14 or 15. But it wasn’t something that I was fully embracing. I would have boyfriends and things. Then I started to have experiences in the last year of high school. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I was in my first actual relationship.

MW: Did you come out to your folks at that point?

PAGE: Yeah. Basically I fell in love with someone and was like, “Hey, I’m in love with this person, that’s that.” It wasn’t really like a big coming out.

MW: How’d they take it?

PAGE: Great. They were super-kind to my partner, and lovely to me. I’m really fortunate.

MW: There’s an interesting contrast here, because in Freeheld, of course, there’s a very awkward coming out for Laurel, and an acknowledgement publicly of her relationship with Stacie. It’s ultimately revealed that Laurel could have come out much sooner. Do you see any parallels in your life?

PAGE: I see parallels in the ability to relate to what it feels like to be in a closeted relationship, as well as realizing I wish I’d come out way earlier, because I’m happier than I could have ever imagined. For me — personally, internally — what I’d went through to get to that time was the time I needed, because there was a period when I thought it was impossible to come out. I used to think my whole life was going to be in the closet. I was out to my family and friends — but I’m talking about that bigger, public, walking down the street holding a partner’s hand what have you. I was looking forward at my life with sadness thinking, “Is this what it’s going to mean to be an actor?” I remember having those thoughts, which, of course, I don’t have anymore at all. You look back and think, “Why did I think that, and why do people have to think that?” And you wanna be like, “Stop thinking that. Let’s change this. Let’s stop this double standard in Hollywood. Why can’t we have more of an LGBT presence in Hollywood?”

MW: Still, you didn’t come out publicly until 2014. Were you pressured to stay in the closet?

PAGE: It’s hard to explain. No one was going, “You can’t be out.” No one was saying that. It’s complicated, because I don’t think any of the attitude that’s shifting you to believe certain things is even coming from a negative place. I think it’s mostly coming from a protective place, a wanting you to have a successful career place. There’s nothing mean about it, there’s not like a malicious intent with it. I think it is more of a general idea — like any general idea we would have in society — that makes our society homophobic, transphobic, biphobic.

It’s just an idea that exists that you cannot be a gay actor, particularly a young, out gay actor. It’s this idea that, for some reason, I believed and listened to and participated in. I felt guilty about not being a visible person for the LGBT community. And, quite frankly, personally, I feel like I should have felt guilty. I’m a very, very privileged person. Of course the right thing to do is to say I’m gay. For myself as a person and for the community, you know?

MW: Was a weight lifted?

PAGE: Oh, my, yes. Immediately. Immediately. I’m happier than I could have ever imagined, and it’s a ripple effect in every aspect of my life, including my work. I think my work suffered being closeted.

MW: How so?

PAGE: I think being closeted was way, way destructive to my work. For me personally — and this may not be the case for some people — being closed off, being sad, feeling uninspired, losing an excitement for my job in general, because of just how I was feeling. It just takes your energy away.

Now that I’m out and living my life freely, I feel so much more open. I feel like my spirit has lifted. I have more energy, I feel more creatively inspired than I’ve potentially ever felt. I feel way, way, way happier in life and also in my job and in the work that I do as an out gay actor.

MW: I love how diplomatic you are in your answer.

PAGE: [Laughs.] Well you gotta be careful, right? Because the truth is I am privileged in a lot of ways. And those in our community that are the most affected and suffer the most are the most vulnerable. My experience is different from other people’s experiences. You can’t just be like “Come out, everybody!” There’s people who, if they would come out, might be at risk of serious violence, you know? It’s different for different people. You just never know what someone’s been through. You never know someone’s childhood. You never know what their family is like. I feel like it’s too easy to be judgemental. Everything is more complicated than it seems.

MW: Matt Damon recently said that gay actors should stay in the closet because it allows them to remain a blank slate, and therefore be better actors — they become more believable in their roles. It was a horrible statement, but does he have a point at all?

PAGE: He doesn’t have a point because he related it to sexuality. Heterosexual actors and actresses do not have to go to great lengths to hide their sexuality. Yes, of course, keep your private life private. Protect yourself. Have boundaries. When you’re a public person, you need to think about your safety. But if it’s in relation to sexuality, then no — that’s an unfair double standard. Heterosexual people walk down the red carpet with their partners all the time, they talk about their children….

MW: Yet if you walk down the red carpet with a girl, and especially if you’re closeted, it becomes a thing.

PAGE: Totally. And I think that will change. And it’s going to continue to change the more people come out.

MW: Let’s talk about the film. What was it like working with Julianne Moore?

PAGE: Amazing. She’s one of the best actors, ever, I think, and she is the most generous actor you could work with. Protective. Kind. She’s there every day with complete and utter excitement and delight because she loves her job. She’s so hard-working and so meticulous, that when she gets to the set she operates from this place of complete and utter openness — everything is about the present moment. And my favorite part of the job is that moment with another actor. It’s that reality you’re creating in the midst of the world around you, creating a moment hopefully as authentically and as truthfully as possible, but is separate from the reality in which we exist. And when you’re working with someone like Julianne, she just forces you to be present.

MW: It must have been a challenge to film the latter-stage cancer scenes, as they were so realistic. It’s not just brutal on Laurel, but on Stacie, who has to cope with the fact that the woman she loves is dying and there’s nothing she can do about it, though she tries.

PAGE: This film goes to an extra emotional level because you know it was actually someone’s experience. Never could I ever begin to imagine or remotely understand what this experience was like for Stacie. We care very much about Stacie — we’d be shooting, text her from set, always wanted to make her feel included and safe, and to know that we had her best interest in our hearts.

MW: This is such a small, intimate film and everything else in movies these days seems like a big, cinematic event to draw people into theaters. I worry if it’s going to be a tough marketing sell to audiences.

PAGE: I absolutely hear what you’re saying, but I think something we’re seeing — mostly in television — is that there is this desire to be watching stories about LGBT people and African-American people. There’s this desire to see more of a reflection of reality. And people, for the most part, love a love story. They’re drawn to a stunning love story, and I feel like lesbians haven’t really had a movie like this in the sense that men have had Milk, Philadephia, Brokeback. Of course, we’ve had wonderful love stories between women, but nothing necessarily like this.

MW: What does the movie mean to you, personally?

PAGE: For me, the film is a celebration of how far we’ve come in a short amount of time — this happened only ten years ago. It’s also a demonstration of how important that recent Supreme Court decision is. Because if these women could have gotten married, they wouldn’t have been in this situation. And, of course, when we have this amazing moment of progress, there tends to be backlash. I hope that this film can show people, with the emotional throughline of a love story, that “Hey look, we’re the same, no different. We’re just asking to be treated equally.”

I think Laurel and Stacie did something important and critical and inspiring in a time of unimaginable difficulty. And I think that is the thing that makes [straight] people walk out of the theater moved, saying “I don’t think I ever really realized that this is what [LGBT] people had to deal with.” I keep hearing people walk out and go like, “God, it feels like it took place in the ’70s — how did this happen ten years ago?” And you also want to be like, “Hey, a lot of people still want this to be happening.”

MW: One thing that struck me was that, though it’s set in 2002, Freeheld raises the subject of personal religious preferences, much like what’s happening with county clerk Kim Davis. It seems to be the new weapon of our opponents.

PAGE: Religious freedom, religious liberty — it’s so important, so crucial. Sadly we’ve seen it used and abused to discriminate whether it’s been based on gender or race, and now LGBT people. I think it will go away, because there’s a momentum. I think of how far we’ve come — how far so many people who at a certain point would have had this mindset. And it’s just because they’re not exposed to LGBT people. The more and more people are coming out, the more and more people are living their lives openly, the more and more people have personal connections and understand that we’re all the same, it changes. So I think right now, I think it’s a loud minority — at least in this country. Obviously, there are places in the world where you can get thrown in jail for being gay.

The thing that makes me the most sad is when I just see people misunderstanding each other, inflicting pain on one another. Discrimination in general, whether it’s towards the LGBT community, the African American community, the First Nations community, the environment, which please, I’m a part of, too — I’m sitting in the Ritz with water bottles, right now. But you hear what I’m saying. I often just think it comes from a place of lack of exposure, misunderstanding, perpetuating a certain rhetoric for whether it’s political gain, or what have you. But it makes me sad to think of people growing up and being made to feel less than.

MW: Do you think there be a day when we’re all out and visible?

PAGE: I feel hopeful enough to say yes, don’t you?

Freeheld opens Friday, Oct. 9 at the Landmark E Street and Bethesda Theatres.

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Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.