Oscar nominee Ellen Page felt for years like she was living a lie. Now, after coming out, the lesbian actress talks to Helen Barlow about her new film and why she’s happier than she ever expected to be

She may be tiny, but her mission is huge. Eight years after her breakout role in Juno made her one of the youngest Oscar best-actress nominees in history, Ellen Page has become a Hollywood ambassador for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights after coming out last year.

Her announcement, at the Human Rights Campaign Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas on Valentine's Day last year, was deliberate: "I decided to come out and wanted to do it in the best way I could and not make it about myself but with issues that are important to me," Page says. "I was so ready three months earlier but I waited because it seemed like a special place to do that." Her eight-minute speech caused such a frenzy on news and social media that it crashed the Human Rights Campaign website.

The Canadian-born actress has since devoted herself to LGBT projects wherever she can.
What makes Page exceptional is not only that she is an openly gay A-list actress, but that she is young and out - it's still a rare occurence for young Hollywood stars who fear jeopardising future movie roles. At just 28, Page has a lengthy career ahead of her and hopes that being part of hugely successful projects such as the X-Men franchise (the brainchild of the openly gay Bryan Singer) will help attract younger audiences to her smaller gay-themed films.

Though, to be fair, Page doesn't even need a movie to spread her message. The highly articulate star has recently been travelling the world to conduct interviews for a television series called Gaycation, on the subject of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Her recent unscheduled interview with American presidential-hopeful Ted Cruz at a campaign barbecue is priceless - the ultra conservative Tea Party candidate is known for his formidable debating skills, yet Page, disguised in hat and sunglasses, managed to capture him at the hot griddle wearing an apron with the words "pork be inspired" and the famously vegan actress had him for dinner, well figuratively speaking.

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Watch it on YouTube and you'll see just how different Page is today from her breakout performance in Juno in 2007, the comedy drama in which she played a teenager dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.

"I was very, very closeted at the time," Page says of her life then. "Now it's hard to remember not being out. If I'm out and about with my girlfriend [surfer and artist Samantha Thomas, 33] it doesn't even cross my mind. And when I think of how I used to think or how I used to act, or things that I believed and the ideas that I don't believe in anymore ..."

She still empathises with those who feel unable to come out, however. "I understand the feeling. I understand the pressure and I remember thinking it's impossible. I even remember saying it aloud. And now not only was it possible, I was excited to do it, and it's done and I'm living my life. It's been 100 per cent utter positive change. I expected to be happier but I didn't expect to be as happy as I am. I feel like a different person."

We are meeting to discuss her new film, Freeheld, a passion project for Page, which took six years to make and which she helped to produce. It follows the real-life story of Stacie Andree (Page) who stood by her older police detective girlfriend, Laurel Hester, who became terminally ill and fought to gain the same pension benefits for same-sex partners that are automatic for heterosexual couples. It became a landmark ruling in the state of New Jersey that transferred to the rest of America.

For Page the film marked her first major project since coming out and casting Julianne Moore in the Hester role was vital. Moore committed a week after Page's Valentine's Day speech. Incredibly, they'd never met.

"I went to Julie's house and we just hung out in her living room," Page recalls. "It ended up being nine months later that we shot the film but luckily we hit it off immediately and we are still friends. The intimacy came easily for us."

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) in a scene from Freeheld. Photo / Supplied
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) in a scene from Freeheld. Photo / Supplied

In the interim, on June 26 last year, same-sex marriage was legalised in the US. The themes in Freeheld could not be more prescient. Did Page see that coming? Could the entertainment industry have helped somehow?

"I think it's more a reflection of the culture and that society right now has become more tolerant," she responds. "Popular opinion was in favour of gay marriage and so I do think a lot of the films at [the Toronto International Film Festival, where Freeheld premiered last month] with a LGBT theme [including two transgender-themed movies, About Ray with Elle Fanning and The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne] are a reflection of cultural change. There's an interest in having more diverse stories and that's what we're seeing reflected in television. You're seeing gay people, gay families and that form of visibility creates so much change.

"When I think back to when Ellen DeGeneres came out and she lost her affiliates and didn't work for like four years ... " Page sighs. "But then she started her talk show and it's become one of the most-watched daytime talk shows in America. So many homes in the Midwest and all these different regional areas tune in and she's just one person. Then we have shows like Will & Grace, Modern Family and now Orange is the New Black, which deals with LGBT issues and particularly trans issues, with Laverne Cox." (Jodie Foster, who came out at the 2013 Golden Globes, received an Emmy nomination last year for directing a first-season episode, Lesbian Request Denied, which explored the back story of Cox's character.)

What makes Freeheld special for Page is that it speaks to her personally, especially as a love story. "I feel like gay women haven't really had a film like this. For men there have been wonderful movies like Philadelphia, Milk and Brokeback Mountain. For me Freeheld is a celebration of how far America has come in a fairly short time."

Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Page is the daughter of a schoolteacher and a graphic designer who separated when she was a baby. She moved between both parents with ease and considers she had a stable upbringing. She was educated at the prestigious Halifax Grammar School where she was spotted by a talent agent and cast in the 1997 Canadian telemovie, Pit Pony, which spawned a series and led to a slew of other productions.

At 16 she shaved her head for her role as an anarchist in Mouth to Mouth and she continued with the toughness for Hard Candy, where she turned the tables on a man who thought he could have his way with her 14-year-old character.

Actress Ellen Page, left, and Samantha Thomas attend the premiere of Freeheld.
Actress Ellen Page, left, and Samantha Thomas attend the premiere of Freeheld.

"It was rare to find a script where a teenage girl has so much passion and intelligence," Page said at the time. "She was not just someone's girlfriend."

That performance, as well as her portrayal as the leather-suited Shadowcat in X-Men: The Last Stand inspired fellow Canadian Jason Reitman to cast her in Juno, a low-budget film that garnered four Oscar nominations and became a huge financial success. At Juno's 2005 Sundance premiere US critics declared of Page: "a star is born".

She would later make her mark opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the 2010's Inception and last year reprised her Shadowcat role in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Always a tomboy, Page has never been interested in glamming up in heels and finery. She has however associated with some glamorous women - her rumoured past flames include American actresses Clea DuVall and Drew Barrymore (her director and co-star on the 2009 roller derby movie Whip It). Barrymore is understood to be one of her many friends who encouraged her to come out.

For many years Page had attended celebrity interviews unable to reveal much about her private life. She always seemed rather withdrawn since she wasn't about to lie.

"I didn't see heterosexual actors going to great lengths to hide their heterosexuality and that is the unfair double standard," she asserts in her newly expansive manner. "So it was a destructive thing in my life. I was sad, I was uncomfortable and it even made me stop liking my job."

In Freeheld the major battle Hester is waging is for Andree to have the right to keep their suburban house with a white picket fence that they had so lovingly created. Is this kind of arrangement something Page yearns for?

"I think we all want to love and be loved and that's something that's hopefully conveyed in the film," she says.

"I do often feel that our love is devalued and therefore we're devalued as who we are. But yeah, I'd love in the future to marry someone and live that life. That would be really good."

Of course for any actress it's always difficult fitting in children, especially when their career is going at full pelt.

"Totally," Page agrees. "I go back and forth on kids. Sometimes I think, 'Oh, that sounds great!' Then another time I'm not so sure. But you see someone like Julianne and her family and they're just so awesome. I love her husband, Bart, and she lives in a way that is so grounded and she has a career.

"It's also less difficult if you're not a person who has 20 SUVs [full of paparazzi photographers] following you all the time. That level of crazy fame makes everything more difficult. I don't experience that, so for me it seems totally plausible."