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Despite a New Yorker spitting at her, Ellen Page loves being out and her first gay role in ‘Freeheld’

Ellen Page

“People close to me keep remarking on how different I am now,” Ellen Page says.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m freezing,” Ellen Page said, tucking her hands inside her sleeves. She shrank down in a conference room chair, looking pained until a hotel attendant arrived with a pot of tea.

“I needed to heat up,” she said, cupping the drink in her palms. As she drank, she suddenly appeared less small. Her clothing no longer enveloped her. She held her shoulders back and made forceful eye contact.

Page, 28, has recently become acutely aware of how she carries her body. In the year and a half since she publicly came out as a lesbian, her posture has morphed. There’s less hunching over now, less looking at the ground.

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“People close to me keep remarking on how different I am now,” she said. “And honestly, my body was different. I think I had just become really closed off. It’s a feeling that existed within me. Shame, I think. The word would be ‘shame.’”

Letting go of that feeling has proved transformative for the actress, who rose to fame in 2007 as the fast-talking pregnant teenager in “Juno.” She does not feel the need to hide who she is dating anymore; last month she walked down a red carpet with her girlfriend of nine months, visual artist Samantha Thomas. And for the first time she’s playing a gay character in a movie.

That film is “Freeheld,” which opened in theaters Friday. The movie is based on the story of Laurel Hester, a New Jersey police lieutenant who fought to leave her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree, while battling stage four lung cancer in 2005. Hester, played by Julianne Moore, repeatedly saw her request denied by five elected Ocean County officials called freeholders. Page, who produced the project, has the role of Andree.

Coming out has clearly liberated Page, but she was cautious when talking about LGBT issues, choosing her words carefully so as not to offend. She repeatedly emphasized how privileged she was and listed statistics about homeless LGBT youth and the low life expectancy for transgender women of color. She downplayed any hatred spewed her way — sometimes quite literally — explaining that it’s relatively insignificant in comparison to the positive feedback she gets.

On Twitter, for instance, she is regularly told that she is “going to go to hell” or she should “just find a man.”

“I’m on Twitter and I’m gay, and I talk about gay rights, so that’s what’s going to happen. And it’s very minimal. Part of me is like, I don’t even want to give it the time of day. As a gay person living in Los Angeles, I get to do a job that I love that’s given me — let’s just be honest — money. I think it really is easy to forget what a lot of LGBT people face.”

She had a stark reminder recently while walking in New York City’s East Village with her arm around her girlfriend. A man spit on the couple, she said, imitating how he aggressively hocked a loogie in their direction.

“He was so loud,” she said. “Like, so loud I can’t explain it. It was actually really scary.”

Even so, she stressed, she wished she’d come out years ago.

“I look back now, and I’m like, ‘What was I so afraid of?’ But I was really scared. And what a ridiculous thing to be feeling. It got to a place where it actually felt wrong. It was unequivocally not only the right thing to do — but the thing to do. To be out. So I could live my life and be happy and be in relationships and be happy. And I couldn’t be happier. I could not be happier. I don’t know why I waited so long.”

Beyond the terror

Page has been attached to “Freeheld” since she was 21, not long after a short documentary based on the couple’s story won an Academy Award. Back then, of course, she was terrified by the prospect of anyone in the business finding out her sexual orientation.

The longtime vocal activist on the environment (she’s appeared, for instance, on “Real Time With Bill Maher” to talk about the vanishing of bees) was silent on LGBT issues. She can recall wanting to tweet about gay rights and feeling too anxious, fearful that fans would subsequently ask if she was gay. Every documentary she watched about oppressed individuals — “God Loves Uganda,” “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” — made her feel guilty about hiding her identity.

“It was like, ‘Dude, come on. What are you doing? What are you afraid of? Look what true, brave, courageous people do in the world. Just tell people you’re gay! What the heck?’” she recalled as she sat in that cold hotel conference room recently.

“I think a big part of why I wanted to come out was I did feel guilt. I felt guilt about not being a visible person for the LGBT community and feeling actually quite disconnected from the LGBT community and not wanting to feel that way anymore. Not wanting to feel how I felt, which was sad.”

So on Valentine’s Day in 2014, she gave an impassioned speech at a Human Rights Campaign conference, revealing she is a lesbian. The YouTube video of the talk quickly went viral and has since amassed over 5 million views. While there are a handful of middle-aged out lesbian actresses — Jane Lynch, Portia de Rossi, Cynthia Nixon — Page suddenly became one of the only well-known lesbian stars who was also a millennial.

Since “Juno,” Page has been a busy working actress, with roles in high-profile studio movies including “X Men: Days of Future Past” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” But up until now, her sexuality hadn’t been reflected in her role choices.

“There are so many straight love stories sent to young actresses in Hollywood,” noted Page’s “Freeheld” costar, Moore, who has become a close friend. “All these years, she’s pretending to be in love with men in movies. To be able to play your own sexuality when you never have before? It made her feel grounded. She felt celebratory.”

Page shared her contentment often with her “Freeheld” collaborators, telling director Peter Sollett after the first week of filming that she’d never felt so fulfilled on a set. He said it was as if he were discovering a new talent at an open casting call.

“It was amazing how her physicality changed, and part of that was feeling less guarded psychologically,” said the filmmaker. “But she was also wearing the clothes of a mechanic character, and she was so much more at home in that costume. She’s been wearing these beautiful suits on the red carpet and dressing in a more masculine way, so that clothing was familiar and comfortable to her. It freed her up.”

Effect on roles

Page still isn’t sure whether coming out will affect the types of roles she is offered. She doesn’t feel like it has so far but calls it a “we’ll see” situation. What she is certain of, however, with the clarity of hindsight, is that “being closeted affected my career way more negatively, even if being an out gay actress affects my career.”

“If you’re unwell and sad, if you’re not feeling inspired creatively, that shows. I wasn’t feeling the love or excitement I used to feel about my job. And now I do feel that way.”

She’s especially amped on an Anthony Bourdain-inspired travel show she’s making with Vice, in which she’ll travel around the world exploring LGBT culture in different communities. And she and actress Kate Mara have teamed up with producer Christine Vachon to make a film that features a love story between two women.

Indeed, she plays straight characters in two of her upcoming films: “Into the Forest,” which she also produced, is about two teenage sisters facing the apocalypse. It was just picked up at the Toronto International Film Festival. And she recently wrapped “Tallulah” with Allison Janney, a movie about a woman who steals a baby from a capricious mother.

Casting based on sexual orientation is a topic that makes her visibly anxious to discuss. She said she understood, for example, why some in the transgender community are upset that straight actor Eddie Redmayne was cast in a transgender role in the fall release “The Danish Girl.”

“I think it’s hard in the sense that Eddie Redmayne is a superb actor,” she said. “But it’s tricky, because I totally understand that there’s so little opportunity for trans people, and they’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we need to be represented.’ But I personally am excited to go see Eddie Redmayne in that role. I’m excited to see [straight actresses] Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in [the lesbian love story] ‘Carol.’ I love ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color,’ and as far I know they’re not gay.

“I want to tell LGBT stories because I’m gay. I want to play a gay person. But I would never read something and be like, ‘Oh, she’s straight. I don’t want to play that.’”

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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