Julianne Moore credits Canadian actress Ellen Page’s openness about her own coming out with helping her get to the heart of portraying terminally ill New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester in love-and-rights drama Freeheld, having its world premiere at TIFF Sept. 13.
It’s based on a true story about a lesbian couple’s battle “to be treated like everybody else,” said Moore.
It’s set in the early 2000s and Page, who is also a producer on Freeheld, plays Hester’s partner, Stacie Andree.
Hester’s request to make Andree her police pension beneficiary upon her death was denied. Their ensuing battle, reluctantly taken on by the very private couple, makes Hester’s sexuality — long kept private for fear of repercussions on the job — dramatically public.
“I really didn’t understand the pain that a person feels when they’re closeted,” said Moore from Los Angeles ahead of arriving in Toronto for the premiere.
“She (Page) was very frank about absolutely everything and I would ask her tons of questions,” said Moore, an Oscar winner for her portrayal of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.
“I am lucky I got to know Ellen the way that I have.
“Here is this young woman closeted for such a long time in a professional environment who was not able to describe her difficulty and her pain, and it was so generous of her to explain it all to me and to share it, and she was so incredibly vulnerable in her explanation of it,” Moore said of Page, who came out in February 2014.
“I love her to bits and we were instantly friends and partners, and it was just great to go to work everyday and have her there,” continued Moore, affection and admiration evident in her voice. “She really did a beautiful job portraying that quality of Stacie’s, that gentleness and reticence and the fierceness of her love for (Laurel) as well.”
It’s not the first time Moore has played a lesbian onscreen or filmed an intimate scene with another woman, including The Kids Are All Right and Atom Egoyan’s thriller Chloe.
Andree also provided her with insight into playing Hester, said Moore.
The 2007 Oscar-winning short documentary, also titled Freeheld, provided a visual record of part of Hester’s life but only her final months.
“I couldn’t figure out who Laurel was,” said Moore. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on Laurel. I was really trying to find her.”
When Andree showed her photos of Hester before her chemotherapy with long, Farrah Fawcett-styled blond hair, something clicked.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, her hair!’” said Moore. Andree told Moore that Hester had worn her hair like that since she was a teenager and she was very proud of it.
That helped Moore film a poignant scene in Freeheld, where Andree holds Hester in her arms and uses clippers to tenderly remove the final, wispy remnants of the painfully frail woman’s hair. It’s juxtaposed against a noisy demonstration by Hester’s supporters outside a political office.
“How intimate the scene is, how much care Stacie takes with Laurel and how much love you feel between them,” Moore marvelled of the moment. Putting it with scenes of the civil rights fight “is when the personal becomes political.”
Moore said the time is right for a drama like Freeheld because “women haven’t had a movie like this.”
“The gay male community had Philadelphia, but female couples have not had this movie.”
(Ron Nyswaner, who won an Oscar for the 1993 Tom Hanks drama about a lawyer fighting wrongful dismissal after being diagnosed with AIDS, is also the screenwriter on Freeheld.)
Moore’s hope for Freeheld is that it finds its place in the multiplex with all the other fall releases when it opens Oct. 9, that “people would go and watch it as entertainment and say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is how we all feel about each other and how we all feel about our loved ones.’”
Casting Steve Carell
Julianne Moore responded with an enthusiastic, drawn-out “Great!” when asked what it was like to work with Steve Carell again in Freeheld (they were in Crazy, Stupid, Love. in 2011). And she helped make sure he’d take the small but influential role of gay rights activist Steven Goldstein in the civil rights drama.
Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) offered Carell the part and asked Moore to follow up with an email.
“I said, ‘Hey Steve, they sent this to you and we hope you’ll do it, and we know it’s a tiny part and you’re so, so busy.’ And he emailed me right back and said, ‘I’ll do it. I’m in.’
“We were all so delighted,” Moore continued. “He brings such light and talent and passion to everything he does.”
Carell plays Goldstein, a self-described “big, loud, gay Jew” whose in-your-face style of activism comes as a shock to Laurel Hester (Moore) and her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), as well as Hester’s police detective partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon).
His full-on portrayal of Goldstein is passionate and often hilarious.
“We were blown away by everything he did,” said Moore of Carell, adding a scene where Goldstein outlines his protest plan for Wells and the couple “was like sitting in an audience. It was phenomenal.”