Ellen Page: “I’m hoping that this is the moment where change actually happens”
Tara Brady talks to the 26-year-old actress about coming out to the film industry and having the world at her feet
In early 2013, Ellen Page seemed to have the world at her feet. Aged just 26 she could look back on a career spanning more than 15 years, a career that included an Academy Award nomination, an Independent Spirit Award, and a CV characterised by hip films like Oscar-winner Juno, roller derby comedy Whip It, meaningful projects like the eco-warrior drama, The East or the conservation documentary, The Vanishing of the Bees.
She had worked with star auteurs like Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen. She has played a superhero twice: as a hilariously DIY vigilante in Super and as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: Days of Future Past. A cute, wee, socially-conscious vegan – she and Jared Leto have been named Peta’s Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrities – she could articulate fearlessly and wittily. Still, in early 2013, Page did not feel like she had the world at her feet.
“There was a time when I lost all the joy and inspiration that comes from my job,” says the woman who describes herself as a “tiny Canadian”.
“My job came to represent having to hide. Having to lie about who I was. It actually became a struggle for me. I asked myself: ‘Am I happy like this?’ etc etc. ‘Why am I doing this’?”
So she decided it was time to stop hiding. On February 14th, 2014, Page came out as gay during a speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s ‘Time to Thrive’ conference in Las Vegas. It made headlines around the world; the YouTube video has been viewed more than five million times.
It is a bittersweet sensation for the young Nova Scotia-born artist. “Obviously the goal is that you don’t have to make a speech. And that it’s not a big deal. But I did receive so much support. All the views on the video: that’s so, so extraordinary.
“I suppose you have to think about all the people who don’t get that support or any support. People who get kicked out of their homes and left in an incredibly vulnerable position. When you think about those people you accept that it is a news story right now. Maybe it should be. Until we can get to a place where it’s not.”
Flash-forward to 2016 and Page really does have the world at her feet. She recently moved in to new modernist Hollywood digs with the surfer and artist Samantha Thomas and their puppy, Patter. She has also taken her already commendable career by the scruff of the neck, moving increasingly into production and development.
“Once I came out, I felt inspired about my work again,” she says. “I feel a sense of ownership. I’m part of the work. And I’m in the fortunate position where I can develop a project and make it happen. I’m incredibly excited.”
In this spirit, Page co-stars and co-produced the new drama Freeheld. In the film, Page and Julianne Moore play real life lesbian couple Stacie Andree and Laurel Hester who, in 2005, battled to get their relationship officially recognised so that Hester, a terminally ill New Jersey police detective, could leave her pension to her domestic partner, Andree.
Hester’s appeal to local authorities to extend spousal pension benefits to same-sex partners was supported by the local Policemen’s Benefit Association, but not by county legislators (called freeholders uniquely in New Jersey).
Page’s crusading for equality extends beyond the world of the picture house. Last summer she took on Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair regarding the Republican presidential hopeful’s opposition to Enda, the federal legislation which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“We need to keep pushing. The recent Supreme Court decision was incredible, but there’s a lot more to do. I think that a lot of the reactionary noise is evidence of the fact that there has been so much progress. Particularly among young people, and that includes young Republicans, the majority of whom are okay with marriage equality.
“And if people who never stood with us or who actively fought against us getting equal rights – if they get into power, then that’s a major issue. That would make me sad regardless of whether they are president or not. If they’re in any kind of position of influence, it’s a cause for concern.
“What they say offends people and that’s not fair to have to listen to that if you’re young and queer.”
Freeheld enters the movie market at a moment when issues pertaining to diversity have seldom been more hotly debated. The number of women directing films in the US has, from a very low percentage, fallen over the last 17 years. For the second year running, the hashtag #Oscarssowhite is trending, following the academy’s failure to shortlist a single person of colour.
“I’m hoping that this is the moment where change actually happens,” says Page. “Lack of diversity is a systemic issue in the industry that I work in. We’re telling stories that are supposed to reflect the human experience. Those stories can’t just be about the same demographic all the time.
“Also, just as an audience member, I want to see more varied stories and that requires more variation behind and in front of the camera. The thing that’s so frustrating about the lack of diversity is that there are so many talented people who are not getting opportunities. It’s just not fair. It’s too important to ignore.”
Interestingly, many of her recent projects have been helmed by women directors, including Lynn Shelton’s gently poking New Age comedy Touchy Feely. Later this year, we’ll see her in Patricia Rozema’s post-apocalyptic drama Into the Forest and in Sian Heder’s girl-buddy comedy, Tallulah. Has the actor consciously sought out female directors, I wonder, or does this merely reflect a dovetailing of sensibilities?
“Both. Into the Forest is based on a book that I read years ago that we decided to make. That was an example of a movie where I decided I really wanted a woman to write and direct this. It’s about sisters and female perspective. Tallulah was just an incredible script. Sian is super talented. I do want more women behind the camera; yeah. We should be trying to make that happen, but it happens organically, too.”
It sounds like common sense, yet Page is constantly surprised by the anti-feminist ire she has encountered. “I’m not really sure why,” she sighs. “It’s not that I don’t get hate about being queer, believe me I do. Especially when I came out. But there’s an intensity of response when it involves feminism or women. Doesn’t matter if it’s cis [identifying with the gender they are born with] or trans women.”
Happily, she intends to keep up the good fight. “I’m lucky. I feel such joy and gratitude for the opportunities I have. I feel the way I felt about film when I was 16 and I started waking up to all its possibilities. And that feels really special and really good.”
Freeheld is in cinemas now