Ellen Page plays Stacie Andree (out.com pic)
"I know what it's like to be in a closeted relationship," says actress Ellen Page. "It's sad, and it sucks."
And therein lies the basic premise of the 28-year-old’s new film "Freeheld," which hinges on marriage equality, gay rights and the pain of living a secret life.
In the based-on-fact film, Page plays Stacie Andree, the domestic partner of Ocean County detective Laurel Hester (played by Julianne Moore). But when Laurel gets cancer, Stacie learns that she can’t be named Laurel’s beneficiary because they are not wed — because in 2005 New Jersey, they could not be.
"Basically, it's a film about someone just saying no to you because you're gay," Page says. "Saying no to someone who'd spent her entire life protecting the citizens of New Jersey.
"Obviously as an out gay woman I connected to the material," Page adds with a smile.
The real-life women didn't listen to "No." Page doesn't either. The self-described "tiny Canadian" is big enough to stand up for herself, whether it's arguing LGBT issues with Sen. Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair ("I thought I was really polite!") or helping push the completion of "Freeheld," which took more than six years.
"I really wanted their story to be told," Page says of her decision to sign on not only as Stacie, but as a producer. "I've been acting since I'm 10, and I love it, but this gave me something new to learn. And I like learning."
I'm a woman who loves women, and that's a huge part of who I am.
Perhaps the most important thing Page ever learned was something the movies helped her discover.
"I remember seeing 'But I'm a Cheerleader' when I was 14, and there's this scene where Natasha Lyonne's boyfriend kisses her and walks away and everyone around her is 'Oh, you're so lucky!' and she's like, ‘I don't get it,'" Page says. "And I remember watching that and thinking, man, that's how I feel, too. Boys — I don't get it. I totally don't get it."
Eventually Page got "that I'm a woman who loves women, and that's a huge part of who I am." Still, once she became a quirky star in 2007 with "Juno," she felt she had to keep that part of herself private.
Asked about her teenage years in interviews, she used codewords like "tomboy." If writers assumed she was straight, she didn't correct them. She never took anyone she was dating to a premiere.
But when "Freeheld" debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, Page walked the red carpet with her girlfriend, artist Samantha Thomas, for the first time.
Page came out publicly just last year, on Valentine's Day. Looking back, she said she’s glad she can finally be honest.
"Has it affected my career?" Page asks. She shrugs. "I'm not a naïve person. Already as a woman you've lost opportunities as an actor - that's just statistically true. And as an out gay actor? I don't know, it's a ‘we'll-see' kind of thing.
“It's not totally cool," she adds. "But I couldn't be happier living my life."
She obviously hails the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage — "Totally amazing, right?" — but isn’t convinced that the struggle for equality is over.
"You should be able to grow up gay and grow up no differently than a heterosexual kid," Page says. "There's still prejudice, even among people who don't think they're prejudiced. They'll say, 'I don't mind gay people as long as they don't flaunt it.' Oh, so you're not homophobic as long as we're not visible?"
The important thing, Page says, is for all sorts of gay people to be seen, and all kinds of gay stories to be told. She hopes, in a small way, "Freeheld" can be a part of that.
"Movies are an empathy machine," she says. "We see stories about people we thought were different from us, and then we realize they're really not. And that’s the only way progress is made.”