Only a few years ago, Ellen Page thought she could never come out publicly. Now, her new movie Freeheld marks an important step in the marriage equality movement — and it's just the start of a new stage in her career.
On a bright, windy October morning in 2014, Ellen Page prepared to film a wrenching scene for her upcoming movie Freeheld, a project she’d been attached to since 2008. The four-minute scene was six years in the making for Page: Her character, Stacie Andree, was alone on a beach — Long Island's Lido Beach, posing as the Jersey Shore — mourning the death of her partner, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore). Trudging in work boots, Page walked down the beach, sat in the sand, opened a box of Stacie and Laurel's mementos, and began to cry.
"This is my kind of scene," Freeheld director Peter Sollett said as he watched Page do another take. "All emotion, no dialogue."
Nearly a year later, Freeheld will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 2, expanding on Oct. 16. Adapted from Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary short of the same name, it tells the true story of Hester, a detective from Ocean County, New Jersey, who sought to leave her police pension to her domestic partner, Andree, as Hester became increasingly sick from terminal lung cancer. The movie's plot is a busy one: It begins in 2002, when Hester and Andree met and fell in love, and reaches its dramatic peak in late 2005 and early 2006, as Hester's fight with her local governing body — the Freeholders — escalated and became a national news story.
Thematically, Freeheld is both a love story and a narrative about the palpable, toxic effects of anti-gay discrimination — ones that only this year in the United States have begun to feel surmountable. Its motifs of the importance of allies, community, and friendship — as well as its central idea that coming out is still an act of bravery and necessity — seek to move, if not wreck, its audience.
And Page can relate. Her own coming-out on Valentine's Day in 2014 — during a galvanizing speech at a Human Rights Campaign conference — was both a personal and political act. More than five minutes into the eight-and-a-half-minute speech, Page said, "And I am here today because I am gay," which was greeted with a standing ovation from the surprised crowd. The nervous-looking Page took a moment to say, "Whew!" before continuing. "I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility," she said. "I also do it selfishly, because I’m tired of hiding. And I’m tired of lying by omission."
With that, Page suddenly became the highest-profile actress of her generation ever to come out.
Sitting recently at a small table in the middle of an otherwise empty conference room in a Beverly Hills hotel, Page, who is also one of Freeheld’s producers, reflected on how the movie's labyrinthine trip to the screen has paralleled her own often-painful path. Page is now 28. And though she has been acting professionally since she was 10 years old, her paparazzi-chronicled public life began in late 2007 after the release of Juno. In the Jason Reitman-directed/Diablo Cody-scripted film, Page's performance as Juno MacGuff — the honest-to-bloggiest pregnant 16-year-old there ever was — propelled her to fame and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. As a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality apart from her incipient fame, Page at 20 quickly learned about how celebrity and life in the closet can clash.
"I remember someone writing an article called, like, 'The Ellen Page Sexuality Sweepstakes,'" she said. "And to be honest with you, at 20 or 21, in retrospect, of course I was sure — but I wasn't sure. Stuff like that, particularly when you go from being a totally anonymous person to not, was a jarring experience."
It was around then, shortly after Page's Juno fame explosion, when filmmakers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher — the producers of Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich, and many more, who had optioned Freeheld after it won the Oscar in 2008 — approached Page about playing Stacie. (Shamberg is now an adviser to BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.) Page was filming Whip It, the Drew Barrymore–directed Roller Derby movie, and was living in a Detroit hotel room. She committed to Freeheld after seeing only the trailer for Wade's documentary. "I cried," Page said. "And I just said yes."
Page's fervent attachment to Freeheld even in its earliest stages is a throughline in the story of the movie's creation. In a telephone interview, Wade remembered flying out to Los Angeles in 2008 to talk with Page and Kelly Bush Novak, Page's manager, producing partner, and then-publicist. During one meeting with the producing team, some of whom were on speakerphone, Wade described what she had witnessed while filming the documentary. "I don't know whether I should say this or not," Wade said, sounding wary, "but Ellen just started sobbing — sobbing — as I explained the inequality that I saw, and the relationship that I saw between Stacie and Laurel. And it was clear to me that it was incredibly meaningful for Ellen, in whatever that meant." (When I asked Page whether she remembered that meeting, she said quietly, "I think so, yeah. There were a bunch of us on the call, and it was emotional — emotional for Kelly too.")
At her most ascendant moment as a young actor, Page had signed on to play a lesbian and to produce a movie about a significant, soon-to-be historical moment in the marriage equality movement. Did that mean she was envisioning a future time when she would come out?
"No," Page said, shaking her head, as if she couldn't believe it herself. "I think back to not that long ago, and I didn't think it was possible to be out. And I don't know why I believed that so strongly, but I remember someone was like, 'So when do you think you could maybe come out?' And I was like, 'No, that's impossible.' And I really, really, really believed it. Which I think back to now, and it's amazing, because it's like — that's insane. That is an insane thought that I had!" She pointed at her head and added, "But something had gotten inside of me; it had gotten in my thoughts. It had gotten in my body — I was just not a healthy person. And I believed it!"
Page, whose Twitter bio reads "I am a tiny Canadian," was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in February 1987. As a kid, she was in drama club, and she liked theater enough to ask to be taken to the plays the older high schoolers were doing — "Needless to say I would have no understanding of what they were even talking about," Page said. But at age 10, when she was cast in a Canadian TV movie called Pit Pony that was filming in Nova Scotia, it didn't seem like her life was about to change, even when the movie evolved into a series. Her parents reminded her to be a regular student ("Hey, this isn't your life, you know that — keep your grades up," she remembered them saying) and regular kid ("Keep playing soccer").
"So that's what I did," Page said. "And even for me, it wasn't until I was about 15 when I was like, Oh, I love this — this is what I want to do. And I think that was more because I started falling in love with film." After working steadily in Canadian productions, when Page was 16 she moved to Toronto by herself, continuing high school but also aggressively seeking more acting roles. "I think back now, and I'm like, Whoa, they're cool," Page said of her parents. "But I think they trusted me, and I will say: They could. I feel fortunate because I found this thing that I loved and that made me self-disciplined and driven."
As we discussed this topic, Page made the argument that child actors don't have time to get up to no good, because they're simply too busy working and being in school at the same time. She was cogent and earnest as she described this idea; I pointed out that history does not prove her theory to be correct. "I'd say I'm fortunate that I'm not attracted to things that maybe young actors get involved with," she said with a laugh. "And Canada doesn't have the same sort of star system or anything like that. So you are getting to live a normal life."
It was shortly after moving to Toronto — and filming Mouth to Mouth, a dark, harsh film shot across Europe, for which she shaved her head — when Page received the script for Hard Candy. "I was at a new school, I had a new look, I'd been through this amazing but intense experience in Europe," Page said. "My parents were like, 'Please, just a take a break. Go to school, get your grades up.'" She agreed — in theory. After reading Brian Nelson's screenplay — about a 14-year-old vigilante who lures a pedophiliac murderer into a deathtrap — Page abandoned her promise and sent an audition tape to Hard Candy's director, David Slade. She ended up getting the role, her first American job, opposite Patrick Wilson.
Page was a baby-faced 17-year-old, credibly playing 14-year-old Hayley. But more important, she inhabited the twisted, righteous character throughout every flirty, torturous (literally), sweaty, manipulative zigzag. To watch Hard Candy is an uncomfortably visceral event — at one point, Hayley fools Wilson's Jeff into thinking she has castrated him — but to act in it, Page was completely sanguine.
"I'm not judging her," Page said of playing Hayley. "And for the most part, I'm operating from a place of, Oh, she's radical. She sees something wrong, and she's going to do something about it — cool. And that's my mindset when I'm making it. So it's not 'til I go to Sundance with my dad, and he has to watch it, and I have to watch him watching it, that then it registers."
Page's father wasn't the only one who had a strong reaction; Hard Candy was Sundance's most divisive film of 2005. A story in the Boston Globe at the time called it the "word-of-mouth don't-see buzz movie" that sent "audiences out of Park City theaters in a distressed rage." (The same story also called Page "an actress of tremendous skill and depth.")
When Hard Candy came out a year later, Page quickly grew tired of answering questions about it. "I got really cranky about it when men would come in to interview me and go —" she paused to affect a nerdy, reedy male voice — "'Oh no, are there any scissors in here?' And I'd be like, ‘If we turned on prime-time television tonight, I will see a naked woman in a dumpster. So I need you to stop telling me how hard it is as a man to watch this movie.'"
Hard Candy and Hayley were the beginning of a new phase in Page's career: She would soon appear in X-Men: The Last Stand as Kitty Pryde in 2006 and then, of course, in Juno in 2007. Juno, like Hayley, wore a red hoodie, but to much cheerier effect.
Page had no idea that the indie Juno would become such a big, mainstream hit, and an Oscar contender. She said she "never would have thought when making Juno that in a million years that that would be the movie that popped the eff off." (In addition to Page's nomination, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, Reitman was nominated for Best Director, and Cody won for her screenplay.)
As is usually the case with sudden fame, Page's first months of blasting into the celebrity stratosphere were a mixed bag. "It's exciting to make a movie and have people respond to it in that way: to be, like, quoting it. It entered the zeitgeist somehow," she said. And yet: "I don't want to say it in a complain-y way in any sense, but the reality of the situation is that it is a wild experience to go from people not knowing who you are to, for a period of time, everywhere you went there's some kind of interaction, or you're experiencing paparazzi for the first time."
Career-wise, Page at 21 was a seasoned professional, and knew that Juno would put her in a different category, one in which she would have "a lot of control over what you're going to choose," she said. She would use her position to go back and forth from smaller movies such as Whip It (2009), Super (2010), and The East (2013) to massive ones like Inception (2010) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2013).
But personally, Page was suffering. Today, she appears to be so open and frank and optimistic; before she came out, though, she was miserable. "I'm embarrassed to say how closeted I was," she said. "I get sad thinking about it, honestly, because it was painful. And painful for people I was in relationships with. Just all-around destructive. Intolerance and closetedness is just a ripple effect of shit."
She would hide women she was dating, she said, making them, for instance, leave a hotel by a different entrance to wait for her in a car. "That kind of shit," Page said, sounding disgusted. "Go in the bathroom when room service comes. Or: This is my friend." And, of course: "Noooo public interaction." She cringed: "I feel bad about it. And I did start feeling really guilty about it. And I think that I should feel guilty about it."
Page had her reasons, of course. "Being told that this thing that I love, acting —." She stopped herself. Then, more carefully, she said: "Not even necessarily being told. But the believed, subtly expressed idea that you wouldn't get to do that anymore. And that is a huge part of my life."
That led to her lowest points, she said. Then, in her mid-twenties, Page began to relax — a bit. "I'd be working with people and be like, 'I have a girlfriend,'" she said. By the time Page was ready to publicly come out, "I couldn't have been more out. I was very, very out in my life when it got close to the point,” she said. “I just assumed that everybody knew I was gay. It was shocking to me to meet someone who didn't know I was gay."
Because she had been outed so many times, or because she was living in the so-called glass closet, or — why? "No, I assumed people knew I was gay because of, like—" Page pointed at her clothes — she was wearing a black button-down shirt and black pants — and whole self. "Do you know what I mean? You have to be careful what you say, because a lot of gay women wear tight dresses and heels and lipstick, right? There's all kinds of gay people, bi people — how they want to present themselves. Trans people. I know those stereotypes become tiresome. So I want to preface what I am about to say with that."
Page paused, and laughed hard: "But yeah, I just assumed."
And Freeheld loomed over Page during this whole trajectory toward self-acceptance. When Moore signed on to play Laurel Hester in early 2014, Page knew that the project was finally coming together. "I think I almost cried when she said yes," Page said. "Because I think she's one of the best working actors. And because she's played a lot of gay people."
"I was pretty emotional," she continued. "Because I did have that feeling of, We're going to make our movie now. We're going to get to make this movie."
Page, a feminist and a politically engaged person in the world, couldn't stay quiet about herself any longer. "First of all, I didn't want to be a closeted person anymore," she said. "But then also: What, are you going to not be an out gay actor when you shoot a movie like that? Of course not."
"And it is people like Stacie and Laurel that inspire you," Page told herself.
As Stacie, Page starts Freeheld as a carefree, single twentysomething mechanic who falls in love with the significantly older, closeted Laurel — a cop who pulls out her gun on their first date when a gaggle of men threateningly leer at them. When Laurel finds out she is deathly ill, and, because of her love for Stacie and her desire to provide for her, pivots into being a political, public figure fighting for equality, Stacie is ambivalent. Is this how Laurel should spend her final days? She’s also devastated, not to mention terrified to lose Laurel.
It's not something we have seen Page — who can still look so young — play before. In an interview in Toronto before the movie's premiere, Sollett said, "We definitely made a conscious decision to let Ellen look her age, and not make her look younger. And in subtle ways, we tried to age her throughout the film, by pushing her hair out of her face." He feels Stacie is a "breakthrough performance" for Page. "We'd show up in the morning and have rehearsal, and I felt like I was meeting a new actress that I hadn't really seen in a film before," Sollett said.
At the core of Freeheld is Laurel and Stacie's relationship, and Page and Moore worked on it carefully — but they also just liked each other. "We really connected," said Page. "And I think for us, it was about creating this level of natural physical intimacy that I feel that we had together. We had it onscreen and offscreen. We just never left each other's side. I felt we established a partnership through making the movie as Ellen and Julie. I feel like we were protective of one another and checked in on one another and I was excited to see her every morning. There was something that felt natural to us. I hope that we got to convey a certain amount of intimacy in regards to showing their love and being cuddly and kissing as much as we do."
Moore echoed the same affection in a phone interview. "It was kind of amazing to go to work every day and have a real friend there," she said. "And to feel like we did everything together. That's unusual! It doesn't always happen."
And of course, it was also freeing for Page finally to be in a same-sex relationship onscreen. "It was a special experience for me personally: what it represented in my life,” she said. “It was nice to play a gay person. I'm gay! It was nice to fall in love with a person onscreen who is the kind of person that you'd fall in love with."
Page remains personally invested in Freeheld, and hopes that audiences will be too. "I've never been a part of a movie where I've heard such an extreme emotional response," she said. "I'm excited for people to see it, and hopefully be moved by it. And to learn about Laurel and Stacie, and learn about the realities of discrimination, and how far we've come and how important it is that we've had this recent Supreme Court decision."
Page has found a way to fuse her personal beliefs with her career, which she didn't think was possible only a few years ago. She is working on a documentary project with Vice to explore LGBT issues around the world (and at home, too: thus the recent video of Page challenging Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair).
With film, she will — of course — continue to take the roles she likes best, regardless of whether the character is straight or gay. (Into the Forest, which Page also produced and co-stars with Evan Rachel Wood, was bought by A24 after its Toronto Film Festival premiere; over the summer, she shot Tallulah, which will be released next year — her characters in both movies are straight.) Yet it is safe to say that Page is determined to continue to play gay roles whenever possible. "It is rare that we get to go and sit in a theater and see some sort of reflection of ourselves and our lives onscreen — we don't get to have that experience that much," she said. "And those moments really are special. And so, of course, as an actor, I want to have that feeling doing it. To me, it's just natural for me to want to tell gay stories." And so she will: in the yet-to-shoot Lioness, in which Page will play a lesbian Marine during the war with Iraq, and in a movie she will produce and star in with Kate Mara that she called "a love story between two women."
After 18 years of acting, Page is clear about where she's going. It has taken her time to get here — but now she makes it sound simple. "Because I'm out, living my life, I feel like I'm a more confident person in general," she said. "I have more of a vision, but the vision is really just producing, telling stories I want to tell, and living the life I want to live."