Ellen Page on Standing Up to ‘Homophobic’ Ted Cruz, the Celluloid Closet, and Her LGBT Documentary

The Oscar-nominated actress sat down to discuss her new film ‘Freeheld,’ her journey to coming out, and much more.

09.12.15 1:00 PM ET

Ellen Page is crestfallen. The petite Canadian actress, dressed in a fresh suit, is waiting for the hotel elevator with her flack following our interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, and she’s just been informed that Serena Williams lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, suffering a shocking defeat to Italian unknown Roberta Vinci—who, in a cruel bit of irony, bears the same name as the setting of the much-reviled True Detective Season 2.

“People are joking online that it’s Drake’s fault,” I say, referring to the tennis champ’s silky-smooth boy toy, and Page’s fellow countryman.

She looks me dead in the eye and says, “Get out of here. Really?!” Page grins. “I went to high school with Drake.”

Yes, the Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning rapper attended Vaughan Road Academy together in Toronto, a school that also counts the actresses Neve Campbell and Alison Pill among its noteworthy alumni. Of course, we’d all know this fact if we’d paid close attention to their Twitter timelines, with Drizzy quoting his own rap lyrics to Page, and Page jokingly reminiscing about their high school days, and what he’s been up to since.

But alas, when the elevator arrives in the lobby, she’s whisked off into a vehicle and unable to answer all of my 6 God-related queries. Still, prior to the Drizzy revelation, I had an interesting conversation with the smart, charming actress about her upcoming film Freeheld, which will be released stateside on October 2.

In Peter Sollett’s remarkably timely film, based on the 2007 documentary short of the same name, Page plays Stacie Andree—a car mechanic who falls for Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey cop who’s later diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. What follows is a drawn-out battle with the closed-minded county’s board of chosen freeholders over whether the dying Hester can pass on her pension benefits to her domestic partner, with the Republican-controlled board initially rejecting her plea, arguing that it threatened “the sanctity of marriage.” 

Page has been connected with the film for seven years. At one point it was to be director Catherine Hardwicke’s follow-up to Twilight, before she dropped out.

“It does take a long time to finance a movie, let alone a movie that stars two women,” says Page. “But it’s so gratifying to be a part of this story.”

The Juno and Inception star, who’s been closely involved with developing the project over those seven years, says she cried when the inimitable Julianne Moore signed on to play Hester, she was so overcome with joy. And the real-life Stacie and her best pal, Dane Wells (played by Michael Shannon) have given the film their seal of approval, which makes Page smile from ear-to-ear.

It’s also a very personal project for Page, who came out last February in a stirring speech at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Conference. “I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility,” said Page at the event, tearing up. “I also do it selfishly, because I’m tired of hiding. And I’m tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered, and my relationships suffered. And I’m standing here today, with all of you, on the other side of that pain.”

The Daily Beast sat down with Page for an in-depth conversation about Freeheld, the gay rights movement, and the gay-unfriendly prominent members of the GOP.

Freeheld, and the story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, is timely and important when you look at the battle for gay rights in this country—which Lee Daniels told me is our generation’s Civil Rights Movement.

It is. We’ve had this recent, fantastic decision by the Supreme Court, at the same time there’s a lot of work to do. And whenever you have civil rights progress, there’s always a backlash—which is what we’re seeing with the likes of Kim Davis and Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, the religious liberty justification for discrimination. This has always been used when there’s been progress, from the segregation era, when women wanted to vote, etc. It’s an old argument.

I did get a kick out of the video of you giving Ted Cruz the business at the Iowa State Fair. How did that happen?

Well we were shooting this show I’m doing with Vice, and we were in Iowa. We were hoping to go to his Religious Liberty Rally that he was hosting there. You’ll see what happens in regards to that when the show comes out, because more happened that day. But I woke up early and went to the State Fair to watch him speak, and we were hoping to get an opportunity to talk to him or ask him a question but he kind of disappeared. And so we were walking around bummed out, and then someone was like, “Oh, he’s over at this barbecue or something and they’re just filming and talking to him.”

To be honest, it couldn’t have been more perfect cinematically: Ted Cruz is standing there in an apron holding a pork sandwich and getting his ass handed to him on gay rights.

[Laughs] It was like something out of Kurt Vonnegut or some Orwellian situation. And then I just started to ask him questions out of genuine curiosity. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen multiple videos and read multiple quotes of Ted Cruz discussing gay issues, as well as Mike Huckabee, and it goes exactly as you’d expect. They don’t answer the question. They say you’re cutting them off when you try to ask the same question again because they’re not answering it, because the reality is that they might be homophobic people. To me, it seems like they’re homophobic people. We live in a culture where even the majority of young Republicans are in favor of same-sex marriage—and I mean Republican constituents, not the people running for president—and I don’t know what to say other than it went exactly as expected. It just goes to ISIS and Iran and who knows where.

They love deflecting, don’t they?

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If you watch any interview with Ted Cruz it goes the same way. It went the same way when I was in—spoiler alert—Brazil and was interviewing a politician named Jair Balsonaro who’s very similar to a Ted Cruz, actually, and it’s the exact same stuff, the religion argument.

And this whole martyrdom of Kim Davis, I mean my god. That video of her being released from prison and being trotted out onstage by Mike Huckabee to “Eye of the Tiger” made me cringe. It’s comical how backwards and ridiculous it all is—until you think about the bigger picture, and how so many people in America share these beliefs.

It can seem comical to people, and people can say, “Well, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, they’re obviously not going to be president,” but no, these people have influence, and there are specific areas and communities where they’re popular. The thing that makes me sad and angry in these situations is, look, anything can be said to me and it’s going to go in one ear and out the other. I’m a very fortunate person—just as a human in general I’m privileged, and as a gay person I’m privileged. But I think of the most vulnerable. I think of kids that are gay growing up in that environment and the level of toxicity and shame, and it’s so destructive. It causes a lot of pain. And the ripple effects of intolerance are catastrophic for everybody. Those are the points where it’s like, “This is not funny. Stop devaluing our love.”

Someone made a really good analogy. They said, “Kim Davis isn’t a martyr. She’s George Wallace blocking black children from entering a school.”

Yes! The same religious liberty arguments have been used to discriminate with regards to gender and race. It’s not new. That being said, has religion been used for propelling beautiful movements? Of course. But this is not new, and it’s destructive, and it’s sad.

Do you think it’s just religious opposition, though? When you look at the prominent Republicans who are currently anti-gay rights, these are predominately middle-aged white men. I think there’s an element of male insecurity in play—that these men don’t feel secure enough in their own sexuality so they project those insecurities onto the gay community.

It does boggle my mind. It really boggles my mind—like not wanting gay people to adopt children. If you’re a gay couple, the amount of energy and things you need to do just to be able to adopt kids, you clearly want to be a parent! You’re clearly someone who’s thought it out and really wants to be a parent. And now we’re seeing statistics where, particularly if it’s two women raising children, let’s just say it’s working out quite well.

This is going to sound like a bit of a generalization, but the majority of the most organized and on-task people I’ve met have been gay. So if anybody should be adopting…

…Oh, I know. To me it’s absurd because I’m gay, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it.

Right. I grew up with an aunt who was in the musical theater scene, so there were always plenty of gay people around the house growing up—playing charades and the like. A lot of it is proximity, or the lack thereof. I don’t think many of these anti-gay Republicans met any gay people growing up, and if they did, they were probably pretty deep in the closet.

I’ve been making this show with Vice and I’ve talked to a lot of very homophobic people over the past year. Some just by the things they say, and some far, far worse. It’s something that will come out later. But the main things you hear is, “Back in the ‘50s this wasn’t a thing, and now there are all these gay people.” And you’re like, “Honey, I promise you they were all there, and now that there’s more tolerance in the world, people are able to live their lives and be happy.” It’s like, “Could you please go read a book?” If you were a gay man in Los Angeles and you went into a bar, and an undercover cop flirted with you and you responded to that flirtation, you’d get beaten and thrown in jail. That’s why you didn’t see people walking around and holding hands, and making out on corners. And I’m so sorry how much it’s inconveniencing your life that you might see me and my girlfriend kissing on a bench. I’m really sorry to disrupt your day, you know? It’s crazy.

Could you talk more about the Vice project?

It’s a show where me and my best friend, who’s gay—his name is Ian Daniel—we’ve traveled to countries and explored the LGBT culture in each country.

Where else did you visit? Did you go to Russia?

I’m not allowed to say. Well, we didn’t [go to Russia]. The only reason is I felt so many people were doing things in Russia that are so vital and important, that I felt we’d be hitting on stories there that so many people are already covering.

There’s that insane and horrifying anti-gay group in Russia, Occupy Pedophilia, that’s known for luring in, kidnapping, and assaulting gay people. One of many hate groups there.

Not the last country we were in but the one before it is one of the most homophobic countries in the world, and so the gay app thing is really dangerous. Women, for example, get lured in and they think they’re talking to a woman and they arrive and there are men there, and then they get gang-raped. That’s what I’ve been doing this last year.

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) in Freeheld.

Phil Caruso

Ellen Page and Julianne Moore in 'Freeheld.'

How hard was it, for you, to be someone who’s gay in Hollywood? The Celluloid Closet has existed forever, and we know the stories of everyone from Rock Hudson to Montgomery Clift to the present, and it does seem to be getting a little bit better, but at the same time, there are still many very high-profile actors who feel compelled to stay in the closet, seemingly for the sake of protecting their careers.

Yeah, of course. Just think of how many gay people there are in the world, and I’m sure it’s much higher than that statistic. Honestly, it’s hard to speak to because I’m a really fortunate person, right? It’s a huge reason why I came out—I’m privileged as a human, and I’m privileged as a gay human. Many people are in much worse situations whether it’s socioeconomic, or they face the threat of violence. But in my own world and with my own self, yeah, it was hard. It’s sad. It’s depressing.

Some of my gay colleagues I’ve spoken with seem to have a different opinion than I do when it comes to the choice of a high-profile star staying in the closet. They think that everyone should be out because representationally it’s very important, but at the same time it’s tough because it’s a very personal journey, and a very personal decision.

I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with both sides. I have moments when I’ve been making this show—because I try to be someone who’s conscious of my privilege in the world—and there’ve been situations where I feel just like your friends where it’s, “Come out. It’s a moral imperative. It is what creates change—that visibility is what creates change. If everyone who was in the closet came out tomorrow, homophobia would be almost gone.” At the same time, I know what it feels like. I know the thoughts I used to have; I know the journey it took for me to say, “You know what? I’m done. Let’s do it.” I went from thinking out loud, “It can’t be done,” to being so excited to do it and be out. So I agree with both sides. I went from being an anonymous person to a not-anonymous person at the age of 20, and I was in love with a woman and in a relationship with a woman—and in retrospect I’m like, “I knew I was gay since I was 13 or 14”—but I was still in a space where I don’t think I was ready to be like, “I’m a lesbian.” So you’re going on your own journey. Even when Juno came out, there was speculation about my sexuality and it was getting written about, and when you’re 20 years old, it feels like such an invasive thing.

And you’re 20, so you don’t even feel like a fully formed human being anyway.

Totally. And I will say that from the moment I was in another relationship and I was like, “Yes, I’m gay. I’m like the gayest person I know,” it probably was only two years later that I was like, “Yeah, that’s it. I’m done. I’m coming out. I don’t want to live this way anymore.”

I heard that this project, Freeheld, helped you come out.

Sure. Stacie and Laurel are really inspiring people that did something so important; they did something important for the state of New Jersey that probably had this ripple effect leading to marriage equality in the state, which then had a ripple effect which led to marriage equality federally. I will say that it’s people like Laurel and Stacie that do create incredible change, and they did it in the face of an unimaginably tragic situation. I think it was a few factors: You’d hear the situation in Russia and look at people going out no matter what to express who they are. You watch documentaries like God Loves Uganda—or even the Pussy Riot documentary—and you think, “Clearly I cannot be closeted when this movie comes out.” Or you read about gay history. And then you think, “God, get over yourself! Look at what truly, actually brave people have done—beyond courageous people,” and it does make you go, “Get over yourself. You’re a privileged person, and this is a moral imperative.” And I’m just a badrillion times happier.