Taking The Lead
After an Oscar nomination at 20 years old, blockbusters and superhero franchises came calling for ELLEN PAGE. But it took another decade for the actress to feel able to speak up about injustice, Hollywood’s homophobia and her own sexuality. Now there’s no stopping her. By JANE MULKERRINS
“I was distinctly told, by people in the industry, when I started to become known: ‘People cannot know you’re gay.’ And I was pressured – forced, in many cases – to always wear dresses and heels for events and photo shoots.” Ellen Page rolls her eyes at me expansively. “As if lesbians don’t wear dresses and heels. But I will never let anyone put me in anything I feel uncomfortable in ever again.”
This morning, the 32-year-old actress is very much in her comfort zone, sartorially speaking, as well as being happily out and married. It’s a brisk January day in New York and a brutal wind is blowing off the nearby Hudson River; Page arrives suitably bundled up in a huge overcoat, plaid shirt, jeans and a beanie hat. She and her wife, 24-year-old dancer and choreographer Emma Portner, recently relocated here from Los Angeles, where Page had been based for almost a decade. “I love public transport, I love walking. I’d been here filming for five months, and I just couldn’t face going back to getting in the car to go everywhere in LA,” she explains.
“I was distinctly told, by people in the INDUSTRY, when I started to become known: ‘People CANNOT know you’re gay.’ And I was forced to wear DRESSES and heels”
Fresh-faced and makeup free, Page looks barely older than when she starred in Juno, the independent comedy-drama that garnered her an Oscar nomination, aged just 20, for portraying the pregnant, smart-mouthed teenager of the film’s title. Apparently impervious to typecasting, in the years since she has starred in comedies such as Whip It, dramas including To Rome with Love, and blockbusters such as Inception and the X-Men franchise. It is the superhero/supernatural genre to which she returns with her latest project, The Umbrella Academy, a 10-part Netflix series adapted from the graphic novels of the same name. Page plays Vanya, ‘Number Seven’ in a family of seven adopted children, raised by a wealthy but mysterious scientist and entrepreneur, all of whom possess special powers except, apparently, her.
“She had a very abusive childhood, as did they all,” nods Page. “But on top of the abuse, she has been separated from the others, and constantly made to feel worthless. As an adult, it’s hard for her to have intimate relationships, and she struggles with anxiety and depression. I’m sure a lot of people, particularly young women, will really relate to her.”
“I’m so GRATEFUL to be a part of something that offers representation. But there’s still so LITTLE out there. And what comes of that is people still not understanding what LGBTQ people deal with”
Having not worked in television since her teens, Page now has not one but two shows launching imminently – the second another Netflix production, Tales of the City. The much-anticipated limited series is a continuation of the early 1990s show based on the books by Armistead Maupin, which were ground-breaking in their depiction of queer and transgender characters. Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis both reprise their roles 25 years on from the original: Linney (who also serves as executive producer) as Mary Ann Singleton, the naive Ohio native who uproots to San Francisco on a whim; Dukakis as her marijuana-growing transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal. Page plays Mary Ann’s adopted daughter, Shawna.
“I’m so grateful to be a part of something that offers a lot of representation,” says Page. “But it doesn’t scratch the surface – there’s still so little out there. And what comes of that is a perpetuation of negative stereotypes and people still not understanding what LGBTQ people deal with.” The cast includes a number of trans and non-binary members, including actress Daniela Vega and director Silas Howard, who has directed on both Pose and Transparent. “It was the most inclusive set, in every aspect of the production, that I’ve ever been on,” says Page. “It is just different, and you do feel it. It’s something I want to do better and better at with anything I produce too.”
Maupin has been celebrated for his portrayal of LGBTQ issues – such as, in the original stories, the AIDS crisis – but has also faced criticism for his outing of the late, closeted leading man, Rock Hudson, his affair with whom Maupin wrote about in his memoir. Is it ever, I ask Page, acceptable to out someone else? She takes a long pause, as she frequently does, to formulate a considered answer. “For me, no,” she says, eventually. “I think there’s an exception if you are a politician and you’re actively participating in destructive and dangerous policies, but it’s not acceptable in any other situation.”
She speaks from bitter personal experience. “I was 20, I had just fallen in love for the first time with a woman, and I was still navigating my own stuff, while people were writing articles headlined: ‘Ellen Page’s sexuality sweepstake’. There was a tabloid magazine that I saw at every checkout, in every gas station, with a picture of me on the cover, and the question: ‘Is Ellen Page gay?’” She recounts these horror stories calmly, but her hands are trembling. “It was very detrimental to my mental health.”
In the end, her eloquent, gracious coming out, on Valentine’s Day 2014, during a speech at a conference in Las Vegas for counsellors of LGBTQ youth, won the then 26-year-old worldwide admiration. “I’m tired of hiding, I’m tired of lying by omission,” she said. “I suffered for years because I was afraid to be out.”
“But I felt, and I feel, a sense of responsibility,” she says today. “I want to be able to help in any way I can, and I want to make queer content.” In 2015, Page starred alongside Julianne Moore in the brilliant Freeheld, the true story of a New Jersey woman who fought to have her police pension left to her domestic partner. She has also made two seasons of her Viceland show Gaycation, exploring LGBTQ cultures around the world.
“In my early 20s I really believed it was IMPOSSIBLE for me to come out. But, over time, hearts and minds have been CHANGED. It hasn’t happened enough, particularly for the most marginalized in the community. But things have got BETTER”
It is clear that, having found her voice, she is determined to use it honestly and powerfully. A few days after we meet, Page appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and delivers an excoriating speech about hate crime in the US. When I asked, however, if she’d ever consider returning to her native Canada instead of staying in the US, she says, “Canada still has a lot of issues too. [There are] white supremacist groups in Nova Scotia, where I grew up. And the treatment of indigenous people, still, is utterly horrific.”
Coming out in Hollywood, at least, is “completely different” to the way it was ten years ago, she says. “I remember being in my early 20s and really believing it was impossible for me to come out. But, over time, with more representation, hearts and minds have been changed. It doesn’t happen quickly enough and it hasn’t happened enough, particularly for the most marginalized in the community. But things have got better.”
In Gaycation, the actress’ mission is to explore those places and fields where that is not yet the case. “I wanted to do a Gaycation sports episode but I realized that if we interviewed professional male athletes, other than, I think, in the MLS soccer league [the US men’s league, where one active player is openly gay], there’s not a single person [who is out and currently playing]. We would have to disguise their identity. You’d be watching something where a man has disguised his face because he is gay and plays on a sports team. And it’s 2019.”
A little over a year ago, Page married Portner, a fellow Canadian, and she beams whenever the subject of her wife comes up. “I’m so in love,” she sighs, dreamily. “I love being married. I’ll be walking my dog, and I start talking to people, and I end up telling them about my wife and making them look at our Instagram. I’m that person,” she grins. They met via Instagram, in fact – Portner had performed a dance to a song by a band Page follows, who reposted her video of it. “I was just like, ‘Who the f**k? She’s amazing.’” The pair began messaging, “and then we hung out and talked for four hours, and that truly was it.”
“I’m so in love. I love being MARRIED. I’ll be walking my dog, and I start talking to people, and I end up telling them about my WIFE and making them look at our Instagram. I’m THAT person”
Had she always imagined herself getting married? “Yes, I’m a bit of a romantic, and I’d always thought about what song we’d have, things like that.” The big day itself was, in the event, very small and very private. “It was the most magical night of my life,” she smiles. The couple have “talked about adopting, and that’s something I think we would do, for sure.” She and Portner recently collaborated on a video for the composer Julianna Barwick – “We always have plans to collaborate more,” the actress smiles – and one further, very concrete sign of Page’s happiness is that, after years of standing on the sidelines, she’s even started dancing herself. “I was always just extremely uncomfortable,” she says. “And it sounds a totally simplistic thing to say, but the more comfortable I became, the more I could go out on the dance floor and have fun. Now I’m the embarrassing one out on the floor when no one else is dancing.”
The Umbrella Academy is on Netflix now
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.