Ellen Page and Julianne Moore On ‘Freeheld’
Directed by Peter Sollett and written by Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, Freeheld follows the true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police officer diagnosed with cancer, who’s blocked by county officials from passing on her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). Aiding the couple in their battle against the county is Hester’s longtime NJPD partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) and a group of vocal gay rights activists. Following in the footsteps of Cynthia Wade’s 2007 documentary of the same name, Freeheld tells Laurel and Stacie’s story not as one of activism, but of love.
In a roundtable interview, I spoke to Moore and Page during their visit to San Francisco to promote the film. Freeheld is out in wide release tomorrow, October 16th.
The script has been around for a while and the film’s finally been made. What sort of changes did it undergo over that period of time?
Julianne: This time last fall, we were shooting it. There wasn’t a whole lot of time between when I received the script and when we started shooting it. For me it was all fairly recent. That being said, it came to Ellen considerably earlier. She was attached right after the documentary won the Academy Award in 2008.
Ellen, you were attached from the beginning as a producer. Did you always see yourself playing Stacie?
Ellen: Oh, yeah. My first entrance to this was to play Stacie. Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher sent me the documentary and I wept. It’s amazing. I was moved by [Laurel and Stacie’s] story. I was moved by their love, their dedication to one another. I thought what they went through was just cruel. I just feel honored to be a part of telling their story.
Julianne, you said in an interview that movies aren’t necessarily meant to change things, but to reflect changes.
Julianne: What I said was that movies don’t necessarily change culture. I don’t know if we know for sure if movies change culture but we know for sure that they reflect culture. People will sometimes say, “This movie broke totally new ground.” You know what? The ground was actually already broken, and we made a movie about it. Sometimes something will be happening in pop culture and a movie will be right there, so you’ll have this perception that maybe the movie got there first. But in reality, culture gets there first. It’s like the Supreme Court. I feel like the Supreme Court usually makes a decision on something once popular opinion has actually swung. They very rarely lead with an opinion—they’re usually following the opinion of the American people. I feel like movies are like that, too.
The Kids Are All Right came out in a time when a lot of people wanted gay marriage to be passed. It showed a relationship that was very much a marriage to many people who hadn’t seen something like that. What do you want Freeheld to reflect back?
Julianne: One of the things that’s interesting about The Kids Are All Right is that they were living in a different place, a major American urban center, living in Los Angeles. They were wealthy. One of the partners was a doctor. They didn’t have a whole lot of political strife within the world they were living in due to their socioeconomic status. That story is also fiction. Freeheld‘s story is true, so when you see Laurel and Stacie, they’re living in a much different world, the most politically conservative county in New Jersey. They’re living in a time before domestic partnership was even passed, and when it was passed, it came with this loophole that allowed the county officials to determine the benefits package. You see a personal story being told within a very different political world and the ramifications of those political decisions on that relationship. It’s ultimately about how the personal is political. What does inequality mean? It means you can’t keep your house. It means you’re not recognized as a partner.
You’ve both expressed how deeply moved you were by this story, as is anyone who’s familiar with it. Were there times during filming when you actually had to stop yourself from crying in scenes when you weren’t supposed to?
Ellen: I had those experiences, more when we finished takes. I felt like it could keep going, like the stuff at the hospital and when Stacie gets the notice that they’re no longer looking to cure Laurel. Obviously, I cannot even begin to understand or have any concept of what that experience is like, but out of care for these people and what they went through there were those moments. I hadn’t had that experience shooting a film before.
Julianne: I think a lot of people on set [had that experience] too. We’d look around and our first AD would be crying, our wardrobe supervisor. People were invested very personally in the story and moved by it, even when they were making it.
Ellen: I think too for gay people in particular, even the smaller things that other people might not notice, like the nuances of being in a closeted relationship, are emotional.
What sorts of things did you do for levity on-set?
Julianne: What didn’t we do? [laughs]
Ellen: She is always singing and dancing. It’ll blow your mind, honestly. She’s literally, up until action, singing and dancing. And then it’s like, “Action!” JULIANNE MOORE. “Action!” OSCAR-WINNING PERFORMANCE. We had instant chemistry.
Julianne: It’s hard to say it because it’s a true story and it’s obviously devastating, but we just got along so well and had a special time together. It was great to have somebody who was my partner on-screen and my partner off-screen. We both had the same goals, the same desires, and the same relationship to the story. [We wanted] to make it feel alive and illuminate Laurel and Stacie’s partnership. That was exciting for me because you don’t always know if you’re going to have the same goals with the actor you’re working with, and we certainly did.
Michael Shannon’s also a notorious prankster on-set.
Julianne: He would turn over Ellen’s chair! [laughs]
Ellen: There was a scene where every time I’d come back my chair was turned over. We call him “Shanny.” We never call him Michael.
Julianne, you’re coming off of a lengthy awards season where you were called upon to speak about Alzheimer’s quite frequently. Now you’re on a press tour talking about marriage equality and struggles for LGBT people. Is that daunting to be a spokesperson for these major issues?
Julianne: Hell yeah. It is daunting, and one of the things I keep saying to people is that I’m not an expert on either one of these subjects. I’m speaking as an actor and a person. You learn as much as you can. The great thing about being an actor is that it does expose you to things that you maybe wouldn’t have been exposed to. You have the opportunity to learn and do research to really figure it out and speak to what it means to you as a person. I always stress that neither one of these situations has been my experience. Like Ellen was saying earlier, you can’t presume to have been through something like this personally. But you do try to give voice to something that you have an opportunity to learn about.
You’re an icon to lesbian women worldwide.
Julianne: Right on. [To Ellen] See? I told you! [laughs]
You said you’d spoken to Ellen about playing a closeted gay woman. What have you learned about lesbian women and yourself in playing these roles?
Julianne: When Ellen was talking to me about her experience as a young woman coming out in Hollywood I was really flabbergasted, really stunned. This guy was like, “Come on. You know all these gay people.” But I said, “They’re old!” They all came out a long time ago. To talk to someone who had recently gone through it [was different]. When Ellen told me that she felt uncomfortable having to dress a certain way, I was like, “Really?” There’s always something else to learn. It’s worth it to hear about someone’s personal experience being discriminated against. You learn more by being told.
What was it like watching the movie with Stacie?
Ellen: I felt kind of concerned for her. I have an emotional experience watching the film. Usually, when you’re in a movie, you’re disconnected from it. You’re never going to feel what you felt when you made it. This movie totally effects me emotionally. It was special to have made it and after all these years be at the Toronto International Film Festival showing it. It’s really special to share the story. But my main thing was concern. I think we all feel concern and care for Stacie and just want her to be protected.
Julianne: She’s super sensitive too. One of the things that’s so interesting about Dane is that he still protects Stacie. In the beginning stages of our research he’d be on the phone saying, “Listen—she’s a very special girl. I love this girl very much and I want to make sure that she’ll be okay through all of this.” I was so touched that, here was this guy, standing sentry over Stacie still.