Ellen Page, the actress, found Ted Cruz, the presidential candidate, eating a pork chop at the Iowa State Fair. A cloud of barbecue smoke tumbled around in the pocket of air between them. Like all serious candidates, Cruz had come to Des Moines to speechify and work the crowd in hopes of eventually getting to the White House. Page had come in hopes of speaking with Cruz. A superstar of the Christian Tea Party right, Cruz was traveling the country preaching a gospel of border control, gun rights, the tyranny of the federal government and — with special passion — the growing crisis of gay marriage. Page was one of the most famous young gay people in the world — an Oscar-nominated actress who, after building her career in the closet, came out, very publicly, in an emotional speech on Valentine’s Day 2014. (It has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube.) Now Page and Cruz stood on opposite sides of a giant grill, in the midst of many camera crews, inhaling particulate pork. It was a strange new front in a very old culture war. But battles happen where they happen, and soldiers fight where they find each other.
Page was here in her capacity as the host of a TV show called ‘‘Gaycation,’’ still in development for Vice, for which she had been traveling the world to speak with friends and foes of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in such far-flung places as Japan, Jamaica, Brazil and now Des Moines. Cruz had refused the show’s request for an official interview, so Page and the crew tracked him down as he schmoozed across the fairgrounds — Page actually climbed a small fence to get close. Now she stood there wondering how exactly to start. Cruz wore an apron that said ‘‘Pork: be inspired’’; he held his foil-wrapped chop in one hand while making studied political gestures with the other. How do you properly interrupt a man performing presidential small talk? Page wondered. She didn’t want to seem rude.
‘‘Senator,’’ she finally said. ‘‘Can I ask you a question?’’
Ted Cruz turned to look.
Ellen Page is tiny; at just over 5 feet tall, she came up to the armpits of some of the people around her. She wore large sunglasses and a baseball cap.
‘‘Sure,’’ Cruz said.
What followed was one of the more remarkable moments of the election season: a back-and-forth about the nature of freedom and persecution that went on for nearly six minutes — not exactly Lincoln versus Douglas, but a sound-bite eternity.
Page prodded Cruz on the historical invocation of religious liberty to justify discrimination. Cruz countered that Martin Luther King Jr. had called upon Christians to help end segregation. Page pointed out that gay employees in the United States could be fired for their sexuality. Cruz invoked ISIS. They jockeyed over Jamaica, Uganda and Obama.
The exchange produced, to my mind, no clear winner — they were having different conversations, each refusing to accept the other’s terms. The most remarkable thing, to me, was Page’s composure. Among conservatives, Ted Cruz’s debating skills are legendary: He was the star of Princeton’s debate team in the early ’90s, a key player in the postelection wrangling of Bush v. Gore before he turned 30 and, in 2013, the man who shut down the United States government using only the sound of his voice. Page, who is 28, has been working as an actor since she was 10 — her newest film, ‘‘Freeheld,’’ is her 22nd. At the age when many kids go off to college, she was filming ‘‘X-Men: The Last Stand.’’ And yet, during the long conversation with Cruz, Page did not seem nervous, deferential, sniping or off-balance. In fact, she was alert, quick, insistent and polite. She seemed to be driven by a profound moral seriousness.
An hour later, as Page and the ‘‘Gaycation’’ crew sat eating sushi in downtown Des Moines, video clips of the exchange with Cruz had already begun burning across the Internet. Interpretations were fiercely partisan. ‘‘Leave it to a Libtard to ruin a pleasant occasion,’’ someone wrote on Facebook. ‘‘At least one thing is very apparent,’’ another commenter wrote. ‘‘Ellen is extremely smart and Ted is a complete moron.’’ Afterward, when Cruz was asked about the exchange, he said he hadn’t recognized Page. Once he learned who she was, however, he had an easy dismissal. ‘‘I don’t think it’s likely that a whole lot of Hollywood celebrities are going to get behind my campaign anytime soon,’’ he said in a subsequent interview. Page felt differently about the interaction. ‘‘I would love to get lunch with Ted Cruz,’’ she told me. ‘‘In a heartbeat. I would be thrilled to meet him and sit down and not have people around. Just talk. That would be really nice.’’
In 2007, Page experienced the charmed trauma of becoming a Hollywood star. This was thanks to the extremely improbable and sudden success of ‘‘Juno,’’ a low-budget indie film, made in Canada, that wound up conquering the world. Page played the film’s title character, Juno MacGuff, a high-school student who, after an unglamorous episode in a sofa-chair with a friend, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Juno handles this existential crisis with wisecracking ennui. ‘‘I’m just calling to procure a hasty abortion?’’ she says, casually, into a phone shaped like a hamburger, as she sits in her teenage bedroom, speaking to a women’s health clinic. Instead of getting an abortion, however, Juno makes her own arrangement: She finds adoptive parents in the Pennysaver and becomes emotionally entangled with them both. The film received a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and — despite opening in extremely limited release — eventually made more than $230 million.
At the center of that enormous pop-cultural fireball was Page. She was 20, yet she ruled the film with gusto and charisma. ‘‘Has there been a better performance this year than Ellen Page’s creation of Juno?’’ Roger Ebert wrote. ‘‘I don’t think so. … Page’s presence and timing are extraordinary. I have seen her in only two films, she is only 20 and I think she will be one of the great actors of her time.’’ A.O. Scott, in The New York Times, called Page ‘‘frighteningly talented’’ and said she was ‘‘able to seem, in the space of a single scene, mature beyond her years and disarmingly childlike.’’ This, indeed, is Page’s defining talent: the fusion of innocence and experience. She is archetypally pretty, like a child in a Victorian woodcut, with big eyes, a little upturned nose and a small chin. But Page speaks with the intelligence and world-weary affect of an adult.
I often find myself, while watching Page’s films, staring at her forehead. It’s like its own system of expression, signaling with surprising quickness and muscularity. A small bit of emotion or perplexity will produce, over the bridge of the nose, two distinctive vertical lines, neat and straight. When Page’s emotions begin to rise — skepticism, distress, anger — the forehead becomes correspondingly complex. Those two neat parallel lines swell, protrude and start to entwine. As things progress, the agitation between the eyes rises farther up the forehead, creating a series of concentric arcs that suggest geological diagrams: ocean ridges, crustal folding. Then, as Page’s emotion begins to burn off, the wrinkles thin and travel in a crowded bunch all the way up to her hair, like pond ripples heading for shore. And then the forehead returns to absolute unwrinkled smoothness. That is the essence of Ellen Page: the face like a doll; the gnarled sophistication of the forehead.
After ‘‘Juno,’’ Page was suddenly famous. The public performance of her life for the media became for the first time a major part of her job. She was interviewed by Oprah, whose couch seemed to render Page so nervous that she turned into a human live-blog. (Oprah: ‘‘What do you make of all this?’’ Page: ‘‘I don’t know. I’m sitting next to Oprah right now on a couch.’’ Oprah: ‘‘Now there’s all this Oscar buzz — which feels like what?’’ Page: ‘‘Um. It feels like what.’’) Page became one of the youngest-ever nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. She began to see herself on magazine covers and billboards. She seemed to have crossed over an invisible threshold: from a normal, local human being into some kind of globalized fame cloud whooshing around the ionosphere.
Page clung to her privacy, and her self-protection had a special edge. She had known for a while that she was attracted to women. But she wasn’t entirely comfortable with how to place that fact in the world. Juno, in her hoodie and her Chuck Taylors, with her messy ponytail and whimsical pipe, was a hipster dream girl who, in many ways, resembled Page herself. But Juno was also explicitly heterosexual. The film’s opening sequence features her mounting her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) — sex she describes, to a friend, as ‘‘magnificent.’’ Later in the film, Juno says she might give the baby to ‘‘a couple nice lezbos’’ and, with a sour face, dismisses the name Madison as ‘‘gay.’’ Hollywood, despite widespread accusations of liberal bias, has always been powerfully heteronormative, and Page, now that she was in the system, was ushered into a tradition that had reigned for decades, the sexy young ingénue with smoldering eyeliner and spilling cleavage — a slow-motion striptease performed, over months and years, in magazines like GQ and Maxim, complete with hot dating rumors and paparazzi beach pics. Page was expected to walk red carpets, to model and discuss the kind of fashion that has creeped her out since childhood: dresses, purses, heels. For two years after Juno, she made FHM’s list of the ‘‘Sexiest 100’’ women. But she didn’t play along, and soon she dropped out.
Page was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about as far as you can get (geographically, historically and spiritually) from Hollywood. The city’s downtown wraps around a central hill; its North End was largely destroyed by a freak explosion nearly 100 years ago. The harbor is occasionally punctuated by breaching whales. A few years after Page was born, in 1987, Nova Scotia’s fishing industry hit a hard spell. The region still has one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada.
Page’s parents — a schoolteacher and a graphic designer — divorced when she was a baby; she has no memory of them together. She grew up moving, every two weeks, from one house to the other. Page does not appear vexed by this arrangement, which seems to have been civil, supportive and stable.
As far back as Page can remember, she was a tomboy. She loved street hockey, Sega Genesis games, snowboarding and wrestling with her stepbrother. She wore her hair so short that people often called her ‘‘Allen.’’ At McDonald’s, when Page ordered a Happy Meal, she would always ask for the boy toy — the cashiers sometimes ignored her and gave her some kind of Barbie-style doll instead, whose hair she would immediately cut off. In her teens, she dated boys, but when she kissed them she felt nothing. It wasn’t until the end of high school, when Page finally kissed a girl, that she realized why humankind was obsessed with romance. She started dating other girls, but didn’t advertise the fact. She devoted herself to soccer, acting and schoolwork. In high school, she wrote a long paper about the absurdity of a binary gender system.
Page got her first big acting break when she was 10. A local actor named John Dunsworth was scouting Halifax’s elementary schools for talent. When he approached the drama coach of the Halifax Grammar School — a prestigious private institution on the south end of town — he heard about a remarkable little girl who had recently played the lead in the school’s production of ‘‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’’ Dunsworth, who is now 69, still remembers the story: All the other kids brought their script to the first day of rehearsals, the drama coach told him, but this little girl left hers behind — she had memorized it. ‘‘So she was a committed little thing,’’ Dunsworth told me. This was the beginning of Page’s career: ‘‘Pit Pony,’’ a local TV movie about early-20th-century Nova Scotia mining life. (You can still find footage of the young Page on YouTube saying vaguely Canadian ‘‘abouts.’’) ‘‘Pit Pony’’ led to a whirlwind of local productions, which led eventually to bigger films, including the lead role in a movie called ‘‘Mouth to Mouth’’ — for which Page, at 16, playing a young anarchist, had to shave her head and travel to England, Germany and Portugal.
Acting was beginning to look like a viable lifelong pursuit, and so Page devoted herself to it completely; she decided to give up soccer and move to Toronto, more than a thousand miles from home, to attend a special program for kids with all-consuming careers: future Olympians, Drake. During this time, Page starred in a creepy indie film called ‘‘Hard Candy,’’ in which she played a teenager who traps and tortures a grown man stalking children in Internet chat rooms. It was the dark expression of the talent she would later show in ‘‘Juno’’: an innocent, seemingly vulnerable girl stepping into the world of adult sexuality — this time not quirkily, but with malevolence. That performance is what led Page to be cast, immediately after high school, in ‘‘X-Men: The Last Stand,’’ and not long after in ‘‘Juno.’’ Page wonders, sometimes, what kind of life she would be living if she had happened to be sick that day she was scouted at Halifax Grammar School. College, she thinks. Soccer.
Page doesn’t like to complain about the inconveniences of her glamorous fame. But that doesn’t change the fact that, at the height of her post-‘‘Juno’’ success, she was suffering. She felt thoroughly alienated — living in Los Angeles, far from home, famous almost overnight, and closeted. Instead of going on some kind of Angeleno child-star bender, Page removed herself: She traveled to rural Oregon to study permaculture at an eco-village called Lost Valley — a place that was not quite off the grid, but close. Residents slept in rustic dorms, with sheets hanging down as walls; they shoveled goat feces, trudged through mud and urinated in buckets.
At Lost Valley, Page met Ian Daniel, an affable, blue-eyed, red-bearded gay man from Indiana, five years older than Page, who had come to Oregon after traveling the country in a school bus powered by vegetable oil. Page recognized him immediately as a kindred spirit; she describes the moment he walked into her permaculture class as love at first sight. Daniel concurs. ‘‘We’re not lovers,’’ he told me. ‘‘We’re not in love. But it is kind of a love story.’’ When Daniel met Page, he hadn’t seen ‘‘Juno.’’ This made him the rare person who didn’t know the actress, first and foremost, as Juno MacGuff.
When he first saw Page, Daniel told me, he was ‘‘struck by how sort of average she was.’’ He had heard she was a movie star, but she was dressed ‘‘like any other young hippie on the commune’’ — jeans and hoodie. Something about her intrigued him, however. ‘‘She emanated this power,’’ he told me. It seems to have been something like the quality she showed at the Iowa State Fair: a quiet, focused, confident seriousness.
At Lost Valley, Page and Daniel talked about being gay in a predominantly straight culture, about the pressure Page felt at having to wear dresses and heels and hide her girlfriends from the press. Page returned to Hollywood after a month, and fell into a depression. Her role in “Inception”— in which she played a character named Ariadne, the architect of Leonardo DiCaprio’s convoluted action-adventure dream worlds — introduced her to a new audience, raising her profile and putting even more pressure on the fault line between public and private life. But her conversations with Daniel, among other friends, had helped sow the seeds of her future life: her public coming out, the fight for L.G.B.T. rights, the making of ‘‘Gaycation’’ (which Daniel would co-host) and ‘‘Freeheld,’’ the first film in which Page has played a gay character. At the Toronto film festival this year, she walked down the red carpet with her girlfriend, wearing a black suit.
Many of Page’s films have been about splitting the atom of the nuclear family: the fallout that occurs when parents or children fail or refuse to fill expected roles, the ways everyone can survive and build something new. Even the ‘‘X-Men’’ films, in which exceptional mutants attempt to reach an equilibrium with the ‘‘normal’’ humans around them, are practically an allegory of gay life in a straight culture. How do we build a close, supportive community out of outcasts? How can people in unorthodox situations improvise some measure of stability?
‘‘Freeheld’’ is another entry in this tradition. It is based on the true story of a landmark fight for equality in New Jersey: a police detective, dying of cancer, who asks that her pension go to her life partner. (The women have a civil union but can’t be legally married.) This request is met by bigoted resistance that must be righteously overcome. ‘‘Freeheld’’ has been a passion project of Page’s for many years. She wept when she first saw a documentary about the story, and has since guided the film through all its various phases. The final product is a pure declaration of justice, an unapologetic ‘‘issues’’ movie. Although the battle depicted is relatively new in the story of civil rights, the film itself feels strangely generic: Hollywood heroism, broadcast in bright colors and clear moral lines, with simple maps of who is right and who is wrong. It lacks some of the driving curiosity and insistent intelligence that makes Page, in person, so interesting.
Back in Iowa, a few hours after the Ted Cruz pork-chop showdown, I followed Ellen Page and Ian Daniel into an air-conditioned bus parked in the middle of a huge empty lot. This was their next ‘‘Gaycation’’ interview: an evangelical Christian band called the Bontrager Family Singers — a family of 12 that had come to Des Moines to perform, that night, at Cruz’s Rally for Religious Liberty. The Bontragers live in their bus for much of the year, driving from city to city, plucking banjos and guitars, harmonizing about the gospels, ‘‘road schooling’’ the 10 children. They looked like a magazine advertisement for heterosexual procreation: handsome, clean-cut, toothy, bright-eyed and abundant. Watching them grin and chat, I felt as if I were watching a black-and-white film that had been colorized.
It was unclear if the Bontragers realized what ‘‘Gaycation’’ was about. They talked affably for a while about the logistics of life on the road, then a little less affably about the current state of America. The father said that the country had turned away from God, that Obama was anti-Christian, with a socialist agenda, and that Ted Cruz was the most inspiring presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. In fact he said — and here his voice took on an air of confidentiality — Cruz was actually more inspiring than Reagan.
After a while, the ‘‘Gaycation’’ hosts turned the conversation to the reason for their visit. How did the Bontragers feel about L.G.B.T. issues? What would the parents do, for instance, if one of their children turned out to be gay? The father said he had never thought much about it. He guessed that people living this lifestyle made up no more than 1 or 2 percent of the total population. Page said the number was actually 10 percent, probably higher. There was an awkward silence, during which the father simply grinned.
Page was quiet for long stretches of this conversation. She looked deadly serious. I wondered if she was seething, too angry to speak. During difficult interviews, Daniel told me, he and Page often fall naturally into complementary roles: Page challenges and argues, while he tries to bring everyone back together with mellow good humor. Men, in particular, Daniel said, can be thrown off by Page — the way she talks to them as equals, pushes back, refuses to give into intimidation. An anti-gay Rastafarian in Jamaica, he remembers, was so angry that Daniel felt as if he had to step in and calm him down.
When Page finally spoke on the bus, however, it was not with anger, but with deep emotion. The family had been so kind to welcome them, she said, and they seemed like good and generous people. So it was hard for her to understand why they couldn’t respect her desire to get married to someone she loves. She wanted the same things, after all, that they seemed to value so highly: a lifelong partnership, beautiful children. Page went on for a rather long time. ‘‘That’s just speaking from the heart, as a gay person, to you,’’ she ended.
There was silence. Page’s little orb of emotion sat, cool and fragile, in the center of the bus.
Finally, one of the teenage sons spoke. If gay marriage were legalized, he said, then marrying your dog could not be far behind. The father nodded. If gay marriage were legalized, he said, what would stop a grown man from marrying a 10-year-old girl?
The discussion had hit ideological bedrock, it seemed, beyond which persuasion was impossible. ‘‘We follow the Bible,’’ the father said, and added that they could probably talk about the subject for five hours straight and never agree. No one was angry, but soon the conversation petered out, and the crew left the bus. Page seemed crestfallen that she hadn’t been able to get through to these nice people.
This is what most impressed me about Page: her radical empathy. Radical because it didn’t extend only to her allies. (I was struck, even when she told me about the heartbreak of losing her final soccer game in a late comeback, that she took a moment to acknowledge the joy of the other team: ‘‘It was dope for them,’’ she said.) Page seems to believe that the ultimate good, and the strongest possible argument for tolerance, is genuine human connection. At the end of our final conversation, a nearly three-hour talk about gender fluidity, queer theory, Halifax, Kim Davis and the ripple effects of intolerance, Page summed it all up with: ‘‘Let’s all just, like, love and be chill. Right?’’
‘‘Just be chill?’’ I asked her, thinking of the arguments, riots, demonstrations, persecutions and demonizations that have dogged the history of human sexuality.
Page laughed. She was joking, slightly, and aware of how naïve this sounded. But she also meant it. So she went ahead and said it again.