WASHINGTON — She earned an Oscar nomination as a pregnant teen in Jason Reitman’s “Juno” (2007), blew our minds by altering memories in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010), got caught in a European love affair in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love” (2012) and used her mutant powers to send Wolverine back in time in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014).
Now, Ellen Page stars across reigning Oscar champ Julianne Moore in the new social drama, “Freeheld,” written by Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) and directed by Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”). The film follows the true story of New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester (Moore), and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Page), who rail against the local councilman (aka “freeholders”) in an attempt to earn Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with cancer.
Page joined WTOP to discuss the film, its emotional relevance to her personal life and her career.
“If Laurel and Stacie had been able to get married, they wouldn’t have been in the situation they found themselves in, and I hope it shows just what the implications of inequality are,” Page tells WTOP. “It’s a celebration of how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time.”
Page is, of course, referring to the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in June.
“I think the film had pretty much just been completed when the Supreme Court made that incredible decision,” Page says. “This is a special time for this film to come out because this situation only happened ten years ago. … When we do have these amazing moments happen, there can tend to be some backlash. You hope that this film can demonstrate how important that recent decision is.”
The story is admittedly personal to Page, who came out as gay on Valentine’s Day 2014. She then went right to work producing and starring in “Freeheld.”
“It was special to be out and playing a gay character and someone that I admire so much,” Page says. “I can’t even wrap my head around what it would mean to be a closeted actor and play this part.”
A different challenge faced Moore, who’s married with two kids to writer/director Bart Freundlich. For her, it was a similar dying character as her recent Oscar win for “Still Alice” (2014), only now the disease is lung cancer instead of Alzheimer’s disease. Page essentially plays the Alec Baldwin role.
“Julianne is extraordinary, obviously. She’s one of the best actors ever,” Page says. “It’s almost impossible not to be present when you’re working with her because she’s just that good.”
The two developed a powerful bond as human beings throughout the experience.
“Julianne is one of the most generous, kindhearted, funny, delightful, protective people you could have the pleasure of knowing,” Page says. “We were fortunate that we just really bonded quickly and really tried to establish a comfort and ease in our intimacy and really did form a partnership off-screen as well as on-screen. We were always together, connected, arms around each other, excited to see each other in the morning, and it was hard to say goodbye when it was done.”
Amid the heavy subject matter, Steve Carell provides the comic relief as a bubbly gay rights activist.
“That’s the first time I’ve really been around Steve Carell, who I’m such a massive, massive fan of,” Page says. “I’d say, if anything, he’s a more quiet guy (on set). He did such a great job with this role. Steven Goldstein, who he plays who I’ve met, (is) an extraordinary activist. Steve Carell just nailed it.”
Straight viewers may relate most to Michael Shannon as a straight cop who initially resists the Laurel-Stacie romance, only to gain increasing sympathy amid their human rights violations.
“You hope that when someone watches this film and sees what they went through and how much they loved each other … and how Laurel was treated after spending her entire career protecting the citizens of New Jersey and then being denied her rights strictly because she was in a same-sex relationship, I think you hope that it can move someone,” Page says. “Maybe someone who doesn’t fully understand or perceives the LGBT community as different … can realize we’re all the same.”
Despite the powerful central performances, the film isn’t without its flaws. The two main characters disappear for too much of the second half, fading to the background as the supporting characters take over the script. We appreciate this “it takes a village” concept, but as viewers, we crave more screentime with the heroines with whom we’ve invested so much of our emotions in Act One.
These talented actresses are the only thing preventing this weeper from becoming a Lifetime “Movie of the Week,” so we miss their presence when they’re not around. Without them, the council meetings feel slightly staged, as Carell leads protesters in a cheesy chant, “You have the power!” Magically, out of thin air, a priest appears to say, “I’ll tell you what Christ said about gay marriage,” and then cleverly stands in silence to prove his point that Jesus never directly addressed the issue.
The entire film is summed up in this precise moment. On the one hand, it carries the noblest of intentions on a relevant, important, pressing issue. On the other, the execution feels slightly forced in moments where the lead actresses aren’t on screen. Audiences will walk away with mixed reactions.
In the end, a screenwriter like Nyswaner deserves some benefit of the doubt. How many snarky film critics have penned a masterpiece like “Philadelphia?” In 1993, Nyswaner changed the world by teaming with director Jonathan Demme, musician Bruce Springsteen and actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to turn a legal drama about the AIDS epidemic into an earth-shattering American awakening on homosexuality. The social statement predated the likes of “Happy Together” (1997), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013) and “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013).
Page remembers the profound impact that “Philadelphia” had on her.
“Oh my gosh, I just remember being so moved,” Page says. “Like I was saying in regards to people hopefully connecting to Laurel and Stacie’s story and love and what they went through helps transform hearts and minds, I think that’s what ‘Philadelphia’ offered. It allowed people this deeply human story particularly during that horrific time to hopefully make people understand that situation and go beyond the kind of ignorant ideas that were surrounding it at the time.”
Born in 1987, Page was just six years old when “Philadelphia” hit movie theatres.
In 2007, it was her turn to take on a controversial social issue with teenage pregnancy in “Juno,” which earned Page an Oscar nomination and won Best Screenplay for writer Diablo Cody.
“I was 20 when I made it,” Page says. “I haven’t seen it obviously since it came out. I don’t tend to. I probably watching something once, maybe twice if you’re at a premiere or whatever. But that was a crazy experience and I didn’t expect all of that to happen which happened, so it was pretty special.”
The role was such a hit that she landed the blockbuster role of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream-planting sidekick in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010), which she jokingly called a “mindf**k.”
“The thing that is amazing about Chris Nolan is, of course there’s days when you’re flipping upside-down in a van and water’s coming at you, you’re hanging upside-down, but when he shoots, he shoots so intimately. And with Wally (Pfister), his incredible cinematographer, everything is handheld and you really get the feeling that you’re telling this intimate story. I think that’s what makes his films so successful, because despite the massiveness of those projects, they’re really grounded in reality.”
More recently, she starred as mutant Kitty Pryde in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014), which Page calls a “special” entry in the oversatured superhero tentpole market of 21st century Hollywood.
“When you’re shooting a movie like ‘Juno,’ you don’t have a lot of time, you’re moving really quickly. When you’re shooting a movie like ‘X-Men,’ it presents just different challenges. It’s obviously a completely different world. … I’m obviously not really looking at a Sentinel. So my end of it, my job, is always the same. … My job is to take something off the page in relation to my surroundings and who I’m playing, do my homework, and then on the day make it as present and as truthful as possible.”
Listen to the full interview below. WARNING: Interview contains a moment of graphic language.