Ellen Page chose a very public forum to tell the world what her close friends and family already knew. At the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas in 2014, the 28-year-old actor announced she was gay.
“I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission,” she told hundreds of delegates. It was a brave move for an actress who has starred in blockbuster mainstream films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Inception.
But for Page, coming out was a defining moment. Within months of making her announcement she started work on Freeheld, the true story of Laurel Hester, a gay police woman, and Stacie Andree, her younger lover, who helped pave the way for legalised same-sex marriage in the United States.
Knowing she was about to portray Stacie partly informed Page’s decision to come out. “It was at a time when I was thinking about it. I was just done with feeling the way I had been feeling, which was not good, to say it simply,” she says.
“I was like, ‘You cannot be a closeted actor and make this movie.’ It’s that simple. People like Laurel and Stacie are the true, courageous people, who in a time of unimaginable difficulty and sadness inadvertently became activists. And when you hear a story like that, or you see a documentary like God Loves Uganda [not yet shown in the UK] or you’re witnessing what is happening in Russia – you watch those things and you’re like, ‘Ellen, just say you’re gay.’ It started to feel like a moral imperative to come out.”
She admits that she did fear going public might harm her career. “I went from being an anonymous to not an anonymous person at the age of 20,” she says, referring to her role in 2007’s Juno, a critical and box-office hit.
“At that point, I was in a relationship with a woman and very much in love but I was still figuring out my own identity. And no one is overtly saying it, but I think there is an idea in Hollywood – and this is why there aren’t more out gay people and particularly out young gay people – that if you come out then your career is done. I guess I choose not to believe that any more, and right now it’s not true and I feel happier in the work that I’m doing.”
Page felt a strong personal connection to Laurel and Stacie when she first heard of their story. Set in 2005, Freeheld (in cinemas from Friday 19 February) tells how Laurel (played by Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police force lieutenant, fell head over heels for Stacie, a younger mechanic.
They built a home together before fate dealt them a cruel blow when Laurel was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. During the last months of her life, her wish was that she could leave Stacie her personal pension benefits so her partner would be financially secure after she was gone, just like any heterosexual police officer.
But the five Ocean County freeholders – the name for the local elected officials – repeatedly refused her request, with one saying doing so could threaten “the sanctity of marriage”.
In June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to all citizens, including same-sex couples. Stacie and Laurel’s campaign, ten years earlier, was credited with informing that historic decision.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada, Page first acted as a ten-year-old when she landed a role in a TV movie and series called Pit Pony.
By the time she was a teenager, she was appearing in Hollywood films. Juno propelled her on to the A-list and a returning role as Kitty Pryde in the X-Men franchise, working with Woody Allen on To Rome with Love and starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception.
Since coming out, she’s been photographed at the Freeheld premiere with her girlfriend, artist Samantha Thomas (above). “Walking down the red carpet holding my girlfriend’s hand was pretty awesome.”
These are, she says, more enlightened times but homophobia is still an issue. “It wasn’t so long ago that if you flirted with a cop in a bar in some states you would be thrown in jail, so the progress has been extraordinary, but we still live in a homophobic and trans-phobic society.
“There’s still so much homophobic rhetoric and people who say, ‘Oh I’m not homophobic, this isn’t about hate, but it’s inappropriate for kids to learn about this.’
“Why? Why don’t you want kids to know that these people are not different? That is the exact time when you should be saying ‘Love people for who they are, they are not different from you.’ ”