Ellen Page has been really busy.
Along with promoting a new TV show for Netflix, over the past few weeks the Canadian actor has made headlines by giving an impassioned speech on American television against Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the devastating ramifications of hate speech, and used Twitter to take aim at the infamous and allegedly anti-LGBTQ, Justin Bieber-endorsed Christian group, Hillsong Church. It’s meant that trying to pin down a time to chat to Ellen for this interview has proven difficult – she’s been preoccupied putting the world to rights!
Having spent over half her life in the film industry, Page, now 31, almost sees her denouncement and displacement of bigotry as a duty. Early in her career, she caught immediate attention thanks her immense acting ability, but also because of the roles she took on. Aged 17 she starred in Hard Candy, a subversive film about a 14-year-old vigilante paedophile hunter, and soon got cast in the third film in the X-Men franchise. However, it was her turn as the sharp, vulnerable and sardonic titular character in Juno that truly propelled her career, netting her a nomination for Best Actress at the 2008 Oscars in the process (she was, at the time, the youngest actress to ever be nominated for the award). Ellen Page wasn’t just a young talent but a great one, too.
While roles in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and another go around the Marvel track with X-Men: Days of Future Past kept Page’s career growing, the biggest and most significant sea change in her professional life came in 2014 during a speech at a Human Rights Campaign Time to Thrive conference benefitting LGBTQ youth. Page came out as a lesbian. “I’m here today because I am gay,” she said, “and because maybe I can make a difference, to help others have an easier and more hopeful time. Regardless, for me, I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility.” Later, in an interview with Time in 2015, Page said that coming out made every “cell in my body transform”. Whereas before she described herself as a “little flame that was barely flickering anymore”, being honest and open about her identity made her “happier than I ever could have imagined” and “excited about life”.
The transformative nature of discovering your potential after acknowledging and owning your identity is a theme of Page’s latest project, Netflix’s 10-episode series The Umbrella Academy, an adaptation of the comic book series written by former My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way and Brazilian comic book artist Gabriel Bá. The show follows a group of seven children with supernatural abilities all born on the same day in 1989 by immaculate conception, who are later adopted by the enigmatic billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves and raised in an dysfunctional and brutal household as a superhero crime fighting squad. Page plays Vanya (aka Number Seven), the only one of the adopted siblings who appears to possess no special powers. As a result of this, and the rejection and abuse she suffered at the hands of her adoptive father, as an adult Vanya is shy, meek and almost invisible. Sure, it might sound a bit like X-Men, but it isn’t.
“I totally understand when people bring it up or paper the similarities,” Page says over the phone from the back of a taxi when, after a lot of back-and- forth, we finally chat, “but it’s a weird thing to even relate them. They’re nothing alike. Nor are my experiences in them. I’m barely in those X-Men movies. Those are very specific kinds of movies and they do a very specific things. Some of them are good and others,” she pauses for a laugh, “aren’t.”
Instead, Page says, the focus of The Umbrella Academy is about family. “For these characters, being a superhero has ultimately been nothing but damaging. They’re basically a bunch of struggling child stars, in a way. I think that it’s all these elements that make this project so new and multi-layered.”
Indeed, the show really is about understanding your potential, both as a superhero and as a human being. “A lot of superhero narratives, particularly in this show, are so much about feeling like an outsider then going on a journey where you have to discover your own power,” Page says. “I think a lot of people in the LGBTQ community can relate that.”
“Vanya’s experience is similar to that,” Page continues, noting that it was this that drew her to the role. “Her experience aligns with any repressed element of yourself that you’re trying to deal with. Of course, she doesn’t necessarily get the support that one reaches out for in that situation. For me, when I was going through that in my life, I was lucky that I had the ability to reach out to a therapist. I had people who I could actively work through that pain with.”
Given that popular culture is saturated with superhero stories, The Umbrella Academy stands out because of how it approaches queerness. While Page’s character doesn’t appear to be LGBTQ, one of the siblings, Klaus, played expertly by Irish actor Robert Sheehan, is. Refreshingly, it’s a complete non-issue, and while important to his character it’s not the defining aspect, which is actually the fact that he can commune and call upon the dead. It was another aspect that made Page grateful for the project.
“There is a lack of queer narratives in superhero universes, but also the very narrow idea of how a woman can look in those movies,” she posits, noting that she was able to choose the costumes for Vanya. “I didn’t have to deal with any fucking bullshit or ridiculous arguments about that,” she adds. “But for all of that to change, there needs to be a conscious and systemic change. If you’re not inclusive and you don’t have LGBTQ people working on your projects or developing your projects, you’re enforcing storylines that people aren’t going to want to do. It’s unfortunate.”
With this in mind, however, Page is cautious when quizzed about her thoughts about casting queer actors in queer roles. While Sheehan has said that he experimented with his sexuality in his youth, he told Hot Press that his same sex experiences weren’t for him. “I think what this show is trying to do, and in general with Rob’s storyline, is to include it in this way that does hopefully just become a part of the story and narrative,” Page says. “But as a gay woman in this industry I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, hire queer people!’ My experience has not been that the film business is progressive by any means, and that has been really challenging and painful. It was quite damaging, actually.” She pauses: “But yes, I think it’s always great when queer people canplay queer roles, but I think that Rob is superb in the show and I don’t want that to be misconstrued.”
Clearly, Page doesn’t want to call out a castmate, and she’s right – Sheehan is superb in The Umbrella Academy. Nevertheless, she usually isn’t as trepidatious when it comes to putting people on blast. In the past, she has taken on former Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and even a Brazilian serial killer of LGBTQ people, both in her documentary series Gaycation on Viceland. Indeed, following the recent vicious homophobic and racist attack on Empire star Jussie Smollett, Page went viral after appearing on the American chat show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where she chastised President Trump and Mike Pence, whose anti- LGBTQ track record is frankly appalling. “If you are in a position of power, and you hate people, and you want to cause suffering to them, you go through the trouble, you spend your career trying to cause suffering – what do you think is going to happen?” Page said on the show in an fiery and incredible speech. “Kids are going to be abused, and they’re going to kill themselves. People are going to be beaten on the street.”
Page’s sentiments aren’t wrong. According to figures released by the FBI in 2018, there has been a 17 percent increase in reported hate crimes in the United States since 2016. Likewise, GLAAD’s 2018 Accelerating Acceptance report, which examines the public opinion about LGBTQ people in America, found that there had been a decline in people’s comfort with LGBTQ people; individuals who once described themselves as “allies” are now just “detached supporters”. “Obviously, nothing that is happening to marginalised people right now is new by any means, but we are seeing this sharp rise in hate crimes. And of course they are,” Page warns, “Mike Pence is so extremely anti- LGBTQ. He always has been.”
There’s another area where Page has made headlines in the last few weeks, too – her stance on religious liberties and their impact on LGBTQ people. On Twitter, she called out Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt for attending an “infamously anti-LGBTQ” church. If you are a famous actor and you belong to an organisation that hates a certain group of people,” she tweeted, “don’t be surprised if someone simply wonders why it’s not addressed.”
The church in question is Hillsong, which is a contemporary evangelical church that has drawn celebrity followers such as Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, a number of the Kardashian/Jenner clan and Pratt. There have been numerous reports of Hillsong recommending conversion therapy to its members, and the church’s founder, Australian pastor Brian Houston, has said that he believes that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and that Hillsong does “not affirm a gay lifestyle”. Pratt has since defended his church, denying that Hillsong is anti-LGBTQ and noting that “I am a man who believes that everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgement of their fellow man”.
“This industry is not progressive,” she repeats. “I deal with a lot of ‘progressive people’, powerful people, who have said ridiculous shit to me. Harmful and hurtful stuff but began the whole thing by telling me how not homophobic they are. It’s constant, you know? Sure, there are some changes that are being made towards LGBTQ people, but those are still few and far between. And because we have such little representation, people don’t have a grasp of the community’s experiences. We’re not taught about LGBTQ history. There’s a chain of silence. I grew up with a lot of, ‘Oh we get it, you’re gay’ kind of vibe. Especially after making Gaycation and going around the world and the United States and seeing the reality of people’s situations – people need to wake up, they need to educate themselves, they need to step up and they need to be allies. We really need allies. We really need people to show up.”
Page suggests that, given that politicians and the public figures can no longer be brutally homophobic, “they’re going the religious liberty route, which is the oldest trick in the book. It’s the argument used against me just because I asked why something wasn’t being addressed about an actor.” She gives out a sardonic laugh: “People really cling to that. They cling to this idea that they have the religious right to be awful to people and to cause suffering. They use their religious rights to promote inequality. That excuse has been used constantly throughout history to excuse and justify oppression, and I do think that it’s something that we need to be ready for. That’s how [people] want to package hate.”
I draw comparisons between the fundamental religious right in the United States and the rise of trans exclusionary radical feminism in the UK. “You mean TERFs?” she asks. “Look, it’s not like people didn’t use the same arguments for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but people are also using that rhetoric to make trans people seem like predators. It’s demonising and dehumanising. It’s deplorable. In regards to those conversations in the UK, and the treatment and attack on trans rights in the US, it’s utterly cruel.”
The rest of the queer community have a role to use our positions to raise up and support trans people, Page argues. “I wanted to say, too, that it’s so important to educate ourselves,” she continues. “We need to understand that trans women, particularly trans women of colour like Marsha P Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, helped give the rest of us the privileges that we have because of the sacrifices that they made. We need to realise that a lot of the most marginalised people in our community have been left behind. We need to step up for trans people because they’re under attack.”
It’s at this point that Page has to go – the promo trail for The Umbrella Academy continues and the world is still not right. But while we only managed to get a short amount of time to speak, I feel like I understand that Ellen Page, like her character in The Umbrella Academy, is still discovering her power. Her acting, while important to her, is a means for her activism. After spending years repressed in the closet and after facing prejudice in Hollywood, she’s using her privileged position to further her influence and instigate change by highlighting and advocating for the queer experience. It’s understandable, then, that her time is short and that she’s so busy. It’s because she understands just how much is currently at stake. The world needs superheroes like her.
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Photography Taylor Miller
Words Alim Kheraj
Art Direction Mollie Shafer-Schweig
Fashion Sam McMillan