Ellen Page is on the dusty roof of a favela in Brazil, standing next to her best friend Ian Daniel, and talking to a man who wants them killed.
More fairly, they are talking to a man who wants people who are like them killed, a contract hitman who has murdered gay people because he disapproves so vehemently of their lifestyle.
It’s not the kind of R&R you might expect from a TV series called Gaycation, a travel show with a name far more cutesy than the powerful documentary-like stories that Page and Daniel tell—all part of the newly launched Viceland TV channel.
Page and Daniel’s super gay travels take them to places like Japan and Brazil and even the U.S., where they imbibe with proud members of local gay communities, explore peculiar fetishes, and confront the unique struggles and oppression that accompany what it means to be gay in each country.
A gleefully free and gender fluid cross-dressing party in Japan gives way to an intimate scene in which a young Japanese man comes out to his mother, asking Page and Daniel to be in the room so his mother would think he has friends. The Carnivale bacchanal in Brazil is in stark contrast with a face-off Page has with a homophobic politician—and a police officer who has killed gay people and sometimes works as a contract killer.
“To be honest with you, when we were on the roof of a house in the favela and this guy came up, the feeling in my body shifted,” Page tells The Daily Beast about meeting him.
He is speaking to Page and Daniel cloaked in anonymity: His eyes are covered by oversized sunglasses, a bandana covers his face, he’s wearing a large hat, and his voice is altered.
Page asks if he thinks that killing gay people is at odds with his job, to protect people.
“No, I think every pigsty needs to be cleaned up,” he replies. “They are worse than animals… If they cross my path I will take care of them.”
It’s at this point in the conversation that Page hides her face from the man and turns to a producer off-camera, double-checking that it’s safe to say what she wants to tell him next, that she won’t put herself or the crew in danger. She turns to Daniel and gets his blessing for including him in the revelation.
She tells the man that she and Daniel are gay.
“I think it’s hard to read on camera, but he went from pretty much looking at us, or looking at us from above those sunglasses, to not even looking at our faces after that,” she tells me. “There was definitely a shift in that moment. That was definitely the moment where you’re like, OK, what did I just do?”
The conversation, never mind the series itself, is a remarkable acceleration in activism for an actress who came out publicly just two years ago, in an emotional speech at the Human Rights Campaign Conference.
“I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility,” Page said in her speech, 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.”
In the short time since, she has become a crucial and impassioned figurehead for the LGBT civil rights movement, using her status in Hollywood to produce films like last fall’s Freeheld and devote herself to activism.
“I feel like now I’m only sort of reflecting on that,” Page says, referring to how far she’s come since being, as she calls it, “severely closeted” a few short years ago. “Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago that I came out, but now I can’t imagine what it would mean to not be out. That reality just seems so crazy.” She pauses. “I don’t want to say crazy. We all have a journey.”
Daniel sees much of the skill and curiosity with which Page approached the filming of Gaycation—be it her inquisitive joy reveling with a group of Brazilian lesbians, or the courage it took to stand up to Ted Cruz about homophobic legislation, in a clip that’s already gone viral—as a reflection of the energization she’s felt since coming out.
“You were also probably more ready because you had just come out of the closet, and you just wanted to experience the world in a new way,” he says, first directing his assessment to Page and then to me. “I saw that shift in Ellen when she came out. I think this just felt like a natural progression.”
Guiding the show is a natural question, too: “Why?” Why the hatred? Why the intolerance? Why not love?
We’re speaking, quite poignantly, on the day after the Super Tuesday elections, in which a season powered by hate speech has led to a stream-rolling of primary wins by Donald Trump. Marveling at the timing of their show and the discourse it hopes to trigger, Page and Daniel talk coming out, facing hitmen, and their whirlwind Gaycation.
When you think of a travel show, you think of beaches and restaurant recommendations and partying. This goes so far beyond that. What was the actual goal of the show?
Ellen: We wanted to give a voice to those who don’t always get to share their perspective or what they’re going through. I think a lot of people just don’t understand the difficulties a lot of people face in the community—including in America still, despite all the incredible progress. It was a means of allowing for some representation. And allowing people to share their experience on this planet that hopefully could reach other people and maybe open some hearts and maybe open some minds.
When someone does something like this, I feel like they must feel qualified to ask the questions and present the information. What made you feel like you were qualified to go on this journey?
Ian: For me, when Ellen presented me the idea it wasn’t like, “Let’s do it! I’m going to be on camera!” I thought about the responsibility. Was I capable? Was I ready? A little bit naively, I felt ready. “Oh, I’ve been making films. I’ve been embedded in a world that’s other than mine.” I’ve also never been on camera, but I felt like I could instinctually sit in front of the person and connect with them and hear their story and share a little bit of my story and I think it’s going to be OK.
Ellen: For me, I try to educate myself. I try to be passionate and do my best to learn about what I can learn about in regards to the situations that LGBT people face in this country and all around the world. Doing it was about figuring out a way to create a platform for those who don’t get to share their stories. That’s where I was coming from with it, not in necessarily a journalistic way. More of a human way of connecting with other people, if that makes sense.
Ian: You were also probably more ready because you had just come out of the closet, and you just wanted to experience the world in a new way, and maybe for the first time in a totally different way. And I saw that shift in Ellen when she came out. I think this just felt like a natural progression. I do sit next to her in awe sometimes at how natural and intelligent and inquisitive she is. It’s as if Ellen was just ready.
In the first episode you say how happy you are to be in Japan for the first time without being “severely closeted.” How did the freedom of being out of the closet energize and motivate your experience?
Ellen: Coming out did change my life. I’m happier than I could’ve ever imagined, and just feeling inspired again. There was even feeling guilt for not being a visible person for the community [before], and wanting to know more and learn more and understand the struggles of those who are much more vulnerable than I am, as a gay person in the world. Coming out allows you to produce movies that have LGBT characters and themes and content.
Not to mention this show.
Ellen: Right. And I’ve been able to make this show, which is obviously something I wasn’t thinking about in a closeted space. All of a sudden you have this freedom in everything you want to create when you’re not having to deny this big part of yourself. You’re actually getting to live in the world as an authentic person, and then you explore the work that you want to make and feels important to you.
This is a lot in a short period of time. It was just two years ago you came out, and now you’re sort of a face of a movement and doing this show. What’s it like to accelerate to this point in such a short period of time?
Ellen: I feel like now I’m only sort of reflecting on that. Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago that I came out but now I can’t imagine what it would mean to not be out. That reality just seems so crazy. I don’t want to say crazy. We all have a journey. The things I used to think [while] being so closeted, I’m like why did I think that? Why didn’t I make that decision sooner? I felt restricted from what I could do. Does that make sense? Or what I could talk about. A self-censorship because you are just denying a big part of yourself.
What’s the difference with how you’re feeling now that you’re out and living freely?
Ellen: So for me now, it’s all feeling—I don’t know how to say it except “natural.” Now it’s just feeling like I’m living my life. But I do have moments, of course, when I’m reflecting back on this other time. If you told me I’d be making this show four years ago I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Now it feels very natural.
I can’t stop thinking about the end of the first episode sitting with the Japanese boy coming out to his mother. To be in that room, what is that like?
Ian: First and foremost we were truly honored that people allowed us to have such intimate access into their lives. When we were presented with the idea we definitely had questions. The boy wants us there, why? Does the mom know about it? What is the scenario? This young man was conflicted about what to do but made his mind up that now was the time to talk to his mother. I think he got a lot of inspiration from Ellen. You see in the scene he asks her in the moment for advice. It’s a truly profound moment in the series, where he gained confidence from that story in that moment. All we can do is sit there and be supportive because he’s asking us to do that.
What about the mother? What it was like watching her have to process it in real time?
Ian: She goes through the whole spectrum of emotion. She’s confused. She runs out of the room. She comes back in and is reconciling it and accepting. We’re living so authentically in the moment that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if she’s going to throw the camera down. We don’t know if everything is completely peachy. Watching it back, I’m like, wow, those people are really brave and gave us all a real gift. I know there are people watching the show who are struggling to come out or wanting to come out, and we’ve already heard stories where that scene’s already helped them do it or consider it or just think deeper on the issue. It was intense. The world gets to see such a profound and intimate moment in a family.
What is it like to travel the world and confront homophobia? It’s noble, yes, but it has to be so draining. To sit in front of the Brazilian politician, or talk to the contract killer.
Ellen: Good question. I don’t know what to say other than to say that it can be incredibly disheartening. Particularly when you talk to people who are very, very, very nice. They’re very nice to you but they of course think the core of who you are is wrong or immoral or sinful or what have you. Or you talk to someone who proudly stands there and talks about murdering LGBT people. Of course there are moments when you feel devastated. You feel a sense of sadness, especially when you see how that manifests, interviewing parents who lost their children to hate crimes.
Those scenes are incredibly hard to watch.
Ellen: For the most part you’re thinking not about yourself, but those who are living in that community who are potentially at risk of that happening every day. And you’re thinking about how does this change? I will say that when you meet the activists in these places, who are the most brave, courageous people that you could ever hope to have the opportunity to meet and talk to and learn from, they make you feel so inspired, like change is hopefully inevitable. Not to sound cheesy, but it does seem like love does win in the end. The journey to equality doesn’t stop.
I’m still not over the scene with the contract killer in Brazil.
Ian: It’s chilling. When you’re looking into someone’s eyes who just openly admits to cold murdering you, or people like you, it’s a chilling thing to hear. I think Ellen and I are agreeing, we’re not really thinking about ourselves. We’re not necessarily thinking, Are we in danger? We’re thinking about the people he’s talking about walking down the street and getting run over by a car. Their family doesn’t know where they went. There’s no justice for these families. How do you stop this? “How many people are there like you, sir?” Just assessing the problem. Yes, Ellen and I certainly have experienced hate speech at some level in our lives. But I think that was the most visceral form of standing face to face with someone admitting that they hate you and thinking that you’re the dirt of the earth.
It goes beyond the fear.
Ian: People ask us if it’s scary, and it’s like, of course it’s scary. I’m not trying to act not scared. It’s more truly humbling. It shatters you open to think about the number of people out there who think that way and the damage they can do. Where does it come from? Ellen and I are trying to uncover that in the conversations. Where does the hatred come from? Is it family? Is it religion? Is it something that happened to you as a child? Please share it with us so we can learn how to stop it. Yeah, we’re making a show. We’re having an intense experience and we hope the audience also feels that intensity. We want people to learn from that family.
Ellen, you turned to the producer to make sure it was safe to tell him that you were gay. What made you need to tell him in that moment that you were gay?
Ellen: Well that was the plan going in there. There’s a point where Ian says, “This is probably the longest conversation you’ve had with gay people. How are you feeling?” It was an opportunity for this man to be standing and talking to us and then say, “Hey, we’re gay too.” To be honest with you when we were on the roof of a house in the favela and this guy came up, the feeling in my body definitely shifted. And I checked with everyone because it’s not just me I’m making vulnerable in that situation. There’s a whole crew we work with and the producers on the ground in Brazil. Of course I checked in with everybody.
But you thought it was important that he know you’re gay.
Ellen: I thought it was important for us to say it to that man and get his honest opinion. You just had a conversation with people who are gay. Would you want to kill us, too? I think it’s hard to read on camera, but he went from pretty much looking at us, or looking at us from above those sunglasses, to not even looking at our faces after that. There was definitely a shift in that moment. That was definitely a moment where you’re like, OK, what did I just do?
It’s the day after Super Tuesday. Trump is dominating the primaries. In a climate like this, how do you employ all that you've learned from this trip?
Ellen: It’s not over. We’re going to continue making these. Right now we’re focusing on the show coming out and focusing on making more [episodes] and hopefully sharing these stories and being able to illustrated just how much harm this rhetoric does cause. That it’s not just a soundbite. That the way it actually manifests in our society and in people’s lives is really horrific. Hopefully the show can offer that in some way.
Ian: The hate speech has saturated our media. We were not like, “It’s going to get political in the states! We gotta make a show that contradicts that!” It’s just the timing. It’s perfect timing, because our show’s not one of a hateful message. It’s a show of understanding how other people live and opening up a little bit. So yes, it’s obviously hurtful to hear all this ridiculous chatter in certain campaigns. I certainly feel some responsibility on some level to try to find ways to contradict those messages that are so hateful and closed-minded and fear-based. I don’t know what that means yet. There are steps. Our show is one step. I’d like to do what I can to shut that stuff down.