TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Writing a book never felt quite right for Academy Award-nominated actor and producer Elliot Page, although he'd been asked to write one on more than one occasion. The problem was, he says, is that he could never sit still long enough to complete the task, his brain consumed by his discomfort in his own skin. But now that he has come into his full self as a transgender man, Page has completed what he felt was impossible - writing a memoir, titled "Pageboy," about the joys and perils of fame, including pressures from Hollywood to conform into the gender binary. His memoir is full of intimate stories from secret love affairs to battling body image and his relationship struggles with family. Page is known for his roles in movies like "Juno," "Inception" and "X-Men." In 2020, he came out as a trans man, and soon after, his character in the third season of the Netflix series "The Umbrella Academy" also transitioned.
In addition to being an actor, Page is a documentary filmmaker. In 2019, he directed "There's Something In The Water," a film that explores the disproportionate effects of environmental damage on Black Canadian and First Nations communities in Nova Scotia. Page was born in Halifax and was a child actor in Canada before his breakout role in the 2007 film "Juno," in which he earned an Academy Award nomination. He has also been nominated for several awards, including a prime-time Emmy and two BAFTA Awards. In 2021, he became the first openly trans man to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Elliot Page's new memoir, "Pageboy," is out this week.
Elliot, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ELLIOT PAGE: Thank you so much. Hello.
MOSLEY: You know, every time I sit down to read a memoir, I think about something that writer Casey Gerald has said, that he does not recommend writing one unless your life depends on it. Basically, that the need to share his truth was just that urgent and that dire. I'm wondering, with you, did writing this book feel like it was an imperative to you, and if so, why?
PAGE: Well, I think there's a couple components here. I think, in many ways, there was some organic surge of words that did need to come out. Like, it felt like something clicked. And I sat down and I started writing and - like, for example, that first chapter in the book, "Paula," that is the first thing I sat down and wrote, and it did just come out like just sort of stream of consciousness. And then I kind of couldn't stop. And I think, in many ways, the feeling was so exhilarating because, like I say in the opening of the book, it really - anything like this felt impossible before and, quite frankly, was. Like, I was just so uncomfortable that literally the thought of sitting and being able to create for hours was just not imaginable. And also, in this specific time and climate just so rife with attacks against, you know, trans people and having this strange life that's ended up with this platform I have, it sort of felt like these two things collided in many ways, and the time felt right.
MOSLEY: That timing that you're talking about, this overemphasis on focus on trans people as an issue, as a problem in our society, it also converged with this time period of 2020 when we were all cloistered in our homes. It was such a dark period. What was it about that time period? I know many folks say that even despite the darkness, having that time to hear one's own voice allowed them to slow down enough. Was that also the case for you, you being able to actually hear yourself?
PAGE: Yes, absolutely. In many ways, I think not having a part to go play - you know, a female character, you know, having to be in that space and wear that clothing. And I - actually, I don't actually talk about this in the book, but I was attached to a film that was going to require sort of, you know, extra amount of specific, you know, femininity, feminine clothes or - and I was in, like, absolute distress, like, about, like, having to do this role, like, to such an extreme degree and noticing how profoundly it was affecting me and how I couldn't wrap my head around doing it. And then that sort of - you know, everything was put on hold because of everything we experienced during that time in the beginning of the pandemic. And then I did, yes, have this space to sit with myself and reflect, which became, you know, very difficult in some moments, but ultimately led me to be able to get quiet enough to finally allow myself to acknowledge and express my truth.
MOSLEY: That distress that you felt about that role that you were going to take on before everything was shut down during the pandemic, that was a feeling that you had felt for quite some time. Really, almost with every role that you took, you had to reconcile with yourself and have a conversation with yourself but also have a conversation with those who were on the set about what you would and wouldn't wear or do or portray. It sounds like it took an overwhelming amount of energy to push in that way.
PAGE: It did. And I also understand why people were probably confused and baffled by it, you know? You're an actor. Why can't you, you know, pardon the pun, but transform and - you know, and perform? And I was baffled, myself. I did and didn't understand it - you know? - why I was just so uncomfortable. And in particular, 'cause I would play roles where the clothes probably wouldn't even seem that, you know, femme, or what have you. But I was still just so uncomfortable. Like, even a warmup coat, you know, cut for, like - you know, would make me crawl in my skin. And it kind of just got worse and worse and worse.
But my ability to start saying what I could and couldn't handle, that strength came up. Like, when I did sign on to "Umbrella Academy" - and, you know, so lucky to work with Steve Blackman, the showrunner - one of the first things I said was I'd love to do this, but, like, I have to be in control of what I'm going to wear, you know, for example. 'Cause I couldn't have imagined doing something for years, like, having to wake up and go to work and dress a certain way.
MOSLEY: You just said something really important when you were saying that you couldn't even really figure out why you were so uncomfortable. Your book really lays out for us clearly, though, your evolvement of understanding of yourself, actually the steps that took you to your ultimate understanding of you as a transgender person. Can I have you read an excerpt of the book? To set the scene of this excerpt that we're going to read, you were describing those early years of your life growing up in Nova Scotia and the early feelings you experienced about your identity. Can I have you start with the word 11? Eleven was the age.
PAGE: (Reading) Eleven was the age I sensed a shift from boy to girl without my consent. As an adult, I would say, I just want to be a 10-year-old-boy whenever dysphoria belted out its annoying song, a pop hit that you know the words to and don't know why. It's hard to explain gender dysphoria to people who don't experience it. It's an awful voice in the back of your head. You assume everyone else hears it, but they don't. Eleven was when I last felt present in my flesh. Not suspended above, transient and frantic to return. It was a departure of sorts - a path to a false identity and a shell of a disguise. Entering witness protection - he'd seen too much.
MOSLEY: I never heard anyone describe an experience as a voice in your head that just won't stop, an annoying pop hit that you know the words to, but you don't know why. Gender dysphoria is this sense of unease a person feels because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. And what were those messages that annoying pop song in your head was telling you as you moved through the world beginning at 11, kind of this thing that you thought everyone else heard but only you could hear?
PAGE: Yeah, it's - how do you describe it? (Laughter) It's like a constant noise, a constant feeling that something's wrong, like a sensation and a voice that's, like, telling you to flee.
MOSLEY: One of the questions that trans and queer people often hear is, when did you know that you were trans or gay? And you write in the book that this question always feels like it's code for, I don't believe you. I think a lot of people think that they're asking the right thing when they ask that question. Can you explain that a little more?
PAGE: Sure. And I think it's possible to ask that question in a sensitive way - like, don't get me wrong. But I think in many ways it does feel like a, prove it, or something, you know? And you get tired of having to explain who you are or justify it or earn someone's, you know, approval in some sense.
MOSLEY: Yeah, before 11 years old - you know, that is kind of the marker. You're just a child before 11. There are gender expectations, but they really start to shift at 11. Can we talk for a moment about private play, as you would call it? It was a big part of your childhood. You go off into your room alone, and you dream up these scenarios. Do you remember what you'd be doing in private play, what some of your favorite things to act out were? What kinds of worlds would you create?
PAGE: Oh, my God, I love this. I'm like, oh, I wish as adults we could still do this. Because I think back to then, I'm like...
PAGE: ...That was so fun. Why can't - I guess I'm an actor, so I do it a little bit, but it's just not the same. Well, I would usually create, like - yeah, like, very elaborate adventures. I had a bunk bed, so I'd make really cool forts and, you know, with blankets or towels, like, create, you know, rooms. And then I'd go off on some expedition, you know, potentially trying to make, you know, my way through the lava floor, what have you.
And then I'd - it's like I'd be off away, and I'd write love letters and typically sign it, like, love, Jason, or, like, love, Jake, or, like, something like that, and go into these sort of really elaborate scenarios that involved adventure and love. And I have attributed it to potentially helping me with my acting in some level, you know.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Elliot Page. He has a new memoir titled "Pageboy," about his life, career and coming out as transgender. Elliot stars in the Netflix series "The Umbrella Academy." His breakout role in the 2007 movie "Juno" earned him an Academy Award nomination. In addition to acting, Paige is a documentary filmmaker, director and social justice advocate. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Academy Award-nominated actor Elliot Page about his new memoir "Pageboy," which chronicles his rise to fame in Hollywood and coming out as transgender.
Your acting career began at 9 years old. There was a casting call at your school for an after-school special on Canadian TV called "Pit Pony." Had you conceived of being anything else before then? Did you have any other dreams for yourself as a kid?
PAGE: Nothing actually very concrete, now that I think back. The thought of being an actor wasn't something that was remotely on my mind or what felt like a part of reality that felt like a very distant world, you know? I really loved acting. I was in the drama club at school and very invested in that. My mom recalls me really young, wanting to go see plays that I wouldn't have understood, but was, like, very adamant about going to see them, you know? So there was clearly something about it that really drew me in. And then it kind of just happened.
MOSLEY: It's really interesting, you going back to thinking it was always there - your understanding of yourself. There was just a block and a barrier. You actually say in the book that it was during the making of "Pit Pony" that you intensely felt your gender dysphoria. You describe that discomfort of having to wear tights and dresses and barrettes in your hair.
MOSLEY: Do you remember voicing it to the adults at the time, too?
PAGE: Yeah, and I think that was such an interesting time because I sort of pushed it enough, like, how I wanted to look, to the degree that my mom did finally kind of go, you know, OK. So by, like, 9, 10, I really was, you know, in some periods, existing really how I wanted to. I think I say in the book, it was just this sort of, like, recital or Christmas party or, you know, these various occasions where I'd be sort of forced into a dress or something. But the age of finally sort of looking how - I shouldn't say finally. Obviously it's, you know, a young age - at 9, 10 to becoming an actor and playing these female characters that I felt that significant shift. And going to work every day and, you know, enjoying it - what an incredible opportunity. It's like I loved it in so many ways, and then there was this aspect that was not enjoyable. And again, that feeling of just utter confusion - I would just look at my, you know, co-stars who were boys my age and just - you know, sorry to repeat myself, but just baffled. I just - I couldn't understand it.
MOSLEY: Because they were allowed to be who they are. They were just allowed to be...
PAGE: They were allowed to be who they were. And part of me knew, like, it wasn't just about clothes.
MOSLEY: There was this media frenzy around your sexuality after "Juno" came out in 2007. You play a pregnant teenager, and ironically, you write that the role made you feel a sense of autonomy. What was it about playing Juno that made you feel that way?
PAGE: Well, I think, you know, firstly, when I - like, I remember when I first read the script. I was in my bedroom in Halifax, and I just couldn't put it down. And just the first few pages - I was like, oh, my goodness, this is something - you know, this character was just so fresh the way she spoke, her humor, her agency in many ways. And, you know, when I was fortunate enough to get cast in that movie and in pre-production and wardrobe fittings, I, you know, literally went to used clothing stores with the producer, and, like, pulling out, you know, how I thought she should look and dress and all these things and felt like it was a real collaborative process in, you know, bringing that character to life and off the page. And at the time, you know, it did feel like something relatively new or something that - a certain representation that wasn't, you know, frequently available necessarily. And I think that aspect of the character did seem to connect to people, especially a lot of young women.
MOSLEY: Yeah, it was a breakout role. It was - it really - it made your name then more of a household name in many ways, but it wasn't a celebration of who you were. So you were able to have this collaboration with the folks you worked with to create the character in the way that you felt was - as true to the character. But then when you had to promote the actual movie, you were forced to be or conform in a way that was not who you were. You actually suffered from panic attacks during this period, so much so that you'd sometimes pass out.
And you write that there was a major disconnect over your dreams of success and what others wanted for you as your star was rising. What would have been your dreams for success at the time? What would have success on your terms at that time - now knowing what probably the heart of the issue was, but what would success at that time have looked like?
PAGE: Gosh, just being able to celebrate the wonderful experience that it was making that film, and the fact that - you know, the degree that it was connecting with so many people, and being able to experience all of that as my authentic self, you know, and not have, I think, this certain element that I brought to the table that really benefited that character in that film and then, you know, have that be squashed in the name of conformity, in the name of gender expectations.
MOSLEY: Did you ever feel like quitting at that - at any point during that...
PAGE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I thought about quitting all the time.
MOSLEY: What stopped you?
PAGE: I didn't know what else I'd do (laughter). I didn't go to - you know, I did think, like, oh, maybe I should - I didn't - you know, I didn't go to university or anything. So I thought, well, maybe I'd go back to school, but I didn't necessarily know what I'd - not back to school. I didn't - but, you know, go to school. I didn't - but I didn't know what I'd want to study. And then I think it was actually after finishing "Inception," even, I packed up my apartment in Los Angeles and went back to Halifax and was like, I don't think I want to do this.
But then I just - I always kept coming back and doing it. But in many ways, I think I just - I did love the actual aspect of acting, the incredible magical sensation that it can allow for these moments you create with other people and feel - you know, it's an escape. And also you feel more present than I was probably feeling in life in many moments. And so I also sort of, like, resented that the joy I felt in that aspect of the job was disappearing or felt like it'd been taken away in some ways.
MOSLEY: Our guest today is actor and director Elliot Page. He has a new memoir called "Pageboy," which chronicles his rise to fame in Hollywood and coming into his understanding of himself as a transgender man. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. If you're just joining us today, our guest is actor and director Elliot Page. He has a new memoir called "Pageboy," which chronicles his rise to fame in Hollywood and coming into his understanding of himself as a transgender man.
You came out as gay in 2014. Society still conflates sexuality with identity. But it seems like, in the case of coming into your gender identity, and for many trans people, sexual orientation might be one of the first steps to getting to that point. We watched you in real time first come out as gay and then come out as trans, almost like you were searching for the right fit. Is that how you would describe it?
PAGE: Yeah. In some ways, I think coming out as gay as - was a massive step for me to getting closer to my truth and where I ultimately needed to be. It really, really was. I mean, I felt, like, just a huge weight lifted immediately, like overnight, because that really was just so challenging and insufferable, being as closeted as I was and for as long as I was, you know? I didn't come out until I was 27. But that wasn't the end of the story, you know, and did it - it made a drastic change in my life. But the sensation I have in terms of the relationship with my gender was not going away. And in some ways, you know, I felt so much more comfortable in many ways with queer women environments, with queer women.
But then there'd also be this aspect where in a certain way, things would start to feel worse in moments because I expected to feel at home. I expected, you know, the sensation of, oh, finally. And I still knew something about me was different. And I really did have an idea of what it was. It's like, I think back or friends bring up me talking about saying how I think I'm trans - I feel like I really want to transition - like, in moments years ago that I'm like, wait, what? I said that when we were down by the river, you know? (Laughter) And just, like, I realized the amount that I actually was talking about it, and then the amount of, you know, that I would talk myself out of it, you know? I'd figure out ways around it because it did just feel like, that's too much. That's too big. I can't - and just shove it away, and shove it away, and shove it away, until finally I stopped doing that.
MOSLEY: I just want to talk a little bit about the depictions of trans and queer people in Hollywood, because that's also part of it. If you can't actually see yourself as a working actor if you were truly yourself, then what will you do? And so, like, first the is he or isn't he around sexuality seems to be oppressive and oppressively pervasive, almost like queer actors have to sign a pact of conforming to the binary in order to be successful. Were you aware of the intensity of scrutiny over sexuality before "Juno?"
PAGE: Yeah, I experienced it a bit, like, when I made the film, the - an "X-Men" movie when I was 18. And it premiered at Cannes. I'm not sure why. And I remember just being in this, like, very tight, like, gold dress, you know? And my publicist at the time, like - the face just brightening up and, you know, people just going on and on about how you, like, look, like you'd accomplished this feat, you know, like given a reward for, like, you know, donning this, you know, what felt like a costume for me, essentially. But it wasn't until "Juno" where that was just taken to a whole new level and, you know, intensely pressured to dress a certain way and act a certain way and not be seen with my girlfriend, you know? I didn't go to the Oscars with my - who I was in love with at the time, you know? She didn't come.
MOSLEY: That had to be painful. Did you celebrate even the nomination?
PAGE: I'm going to be honest, not too much. And it feels like such a complicated thing to talk about because you realize, like, who wants to hear an actor who got nominated for an Oscar be like, oh, that was a difficult time. Like, I get it. Like, I do understand where, like, oh, boohoo, you had to put on the dress. Like, I don't not get that. But I wasn't happy. I was not having a good time. I just wanted that period to be over, you know? It didn't mean it wasn't cool. Obviously, it drastically impacts your career and helps your career. But I was not doing so well mental health-wise.
PAGE: It was not celebratory.
MOSLEY: When you received that call, it was just a feeling what?
PAGE: Thank goodness this thing, I guess, happened that we've been (laughter) basically, like, you know, you - it's - I think it's, you know, obvious. People see that whole kind of award season time, you're essentially campaigning. You're going to all these parties and all these events. It's this build-up. People - everyone has this expectation. And, you know - and it happened. And that's really cool. Don't get me wrong. It's like, I really loved that film. I loved making it. I loved playing that character. I loved that people still, when I'm walking down the street, want to come up and say, oh, my God, "Juno's" one of my favorite movies. Like, how cool, you know? It's really special. But that whole aspect of it, when it was doing well and what have you, it wasn't something I could really feel at the time. And I just felt very overwhelmed and very quite lonely, I think.
MOSLEY: In the book, you share a few vivid stories of groomers in Hollywood, directors and people in power who took advantage of you when you were underage or barely 18. One woman that you worked with, she was a crew member on a production with you. You were barely 18. She basically forced herself onto you. And a few years later, you all were on a set working together. And she came to you and said, we had fun, right? We listened to music and we had fun, right? What did you think she was trying to say to you when she came to you and made those statements?
PAGE: To me, that sounded like, you're not going to tell anybody, right? (Laughter) You know, that, to me, was the subtext of that. What I could sense is her knowing that that was wrong, that she took advantage of someone who was quite young, and I'm sure felt bad about it, but instead of having that conversation, I think, panicked. And at least to me, that's what the subtext felt like. We just had fun, right? You're not going to tell anybody about what happened?
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Elliot Page. He has a new memoir, titled "Pageboy," about his life, career and coming out as trans. Elliot stars in the Netflix series "The Umbrella Academy." His breakout role in the 2007 movie "Juno" earned him an Academy Award nomination. In addition to acting, Page is a documentary filmmaker, director and social justice advocate. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Academy Award-nominated actor Elliot Page about his new memoir, "Pageboy," which chronicles his rise to fame in Hollywood and coming out as transgender.
Can we talk - 'cause I have to ask you - can we talk for a moment about your chosen name of Elliot? Please tell me that it's true that you were inspired by the character Elliott in "E.T."
PAGE: Well, I very much was. That's - when I was a kid and still is - one of my favorite movies. And I always loved Elliott and envisioned being able to - you know, when I was a kid, be like him, look like him, etc., and, obviously, what I related to so much. So it's not necessarily why I named myself Elliot, but, you know, it's always been so special to me, that movie.
MOSLEY: Why did you choose the name Elliot?
PAGE: Well, I really love the name and always have and also realized that even in the past had, like, used the name sometimes, whether it was, like, a Facebook account or, you know, an email address or something. And I almost had forgotten about that. It's - and, of course, it's, you know, similar to my old name, and it's just always been a name I loved. I even used to think like, oh, if I did have a kid, I'd love to name them Elliot. But it seems to similar to my name. That seems sort of - you know? But, yeah, here I am.
MOSLEY: After you came out as transgender, Netflix's "The Umbrella Academy" changed the gender of the role you were playing from Vanya, also known as No. 7, to Viktor. What was the process of crafting that episode to make sure that it was done right?
MOSLEY: Well, we were really fortunate that Thomas Page McBee became involved, who I actually first met because he wrote on "Tales Of The City." He's a stunning writer. He has a very gorgeous memoir called "Amateur." If you haven't read it, I highly, highly recommend. And so he became involved. And essentially, really, myself, Thomas and Steve, we just, you know, talked about what could be a cool way to do it and to, you know, make it this moment that is a moment. And, of course, the character still has these sort of, you know, sweet, emotional interactions with their - you know, their siblings and what have you.
But ultimately, it's - they come out and we move on, you know? I mean, that's - you know, it's not some massive, huge, you know, long plot all surrounding, like, sort of turmoil or people's reactions or, you know - wanted it to be this sort of very natural, organic process, which, in a lot of ways, it is, you know? Doesn't mean it's not without its certain difficulties or obstacles, of course. But wanted to have this just sort of genuine, sincere human experience and then let Viktor be Viktor - you know? - and get back to saving the world.
MOSLEY: Your mother was a public school teacher, and you mentioned to us most of your mother's responses to your identity. You've reconciled. It comes from her desire to protect you from this world. There is a passage in your book that is really moving about your mother's evolved understanding of who you are. You write that the movement for trans liberation impacts us all because it gives us all the freedom to explore what it means to be ourselves. And you saw this in your mother. You saw her evolving into her being able to be more liberated and come into herself. In what ways?
PAGE: Gosh, I just - I don't know, like, something in my mom just, like, through all of this, I've just seen someone blossom in so many ways. She seems more embodied. She seems less self-conscious. There's something in her that's shifted and opened up. And I do think, you know, it does correspond to my journey and our journey together in a lot of ways.
MOSLEY: People who read this book will find out just how much you love romantic love. But you detail a lot of juicy bits in the book, which will be fun for readers. But the purpose of these stories, I'm guessing, is not to offer the salaciousness around that, but to show the internal damage of being closeted. You call love an irresistible escape because it's transcendent, but you don't think you've ever really felt it before. Have your feelings changed now that you are living as a truer version of yourself? Have you experienced - are you able to accept or feel deep love?
PAGE: Yeah. And I think in many ways, like, I have in my life, absolutely. And for me, that passage in the book is so much about, is it real love if you did feel like you weren't there? Is it real love if you did just feel like you were, like, clinging because you didn't know what else to do, you know? Like, what is it actually? Is it drug-like - you know, the serotonin highs and lows of, you know, either being in something closeted and the parts that are brutal and difficult and then the parts where you're in your bubble and it's the best, you know? And you do love each other, and there is the healing and the beauty and the joy in it, of course.
But now I think the big difference is I'm really able to be alone, and I love it. And I didn't know how to function by myself before. Like, I really didn't. So this newfound sense of being able to sit with myself and exist on my own is very - it's quite thrilling, actually. And so I'm liking being alone right now. And, you know, I - look, you know, falling in love sounds great. That'll come when it comes. But I am enjoying being alone right now.
MOSLEY: I've heard gender non-conforming writer and activist Alok Vaid-Menon say that when they are called brave and revolutionary, it's painful because the implicit message is that it's brave to be yourself in a world that doesn't actually want you to exist. And it's painful because it's a constant reminder that you are other. Is brave the right word for you? And is there a better one?
PAGE: I mean, I think I feel similar to what they said. And also I can't help but just think of, you know, the position I'm in and the resources I have and the access to health care I've had. And if something drastic happens, if I get death threats, I can hire security, I can - you know, I don't represent the majority of realities for trans people, who disproportionately deal with unemployment, experience homelessness, incarceration, violence, you know, particularly Black trans women. And, you know, that's the complication, even with just visibility itself, that I have. And so words like brave and whatnot, I suppose. I guess, yeah, it can make me feel uncomfortable, if that makes sense.
MOSLEY: Elliot Page, it's been a pleasure to talk with you, and thank you for your book.
PAGE: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
MOSLEY: Elliot Page is an Academy Award-nominated actor, director and producer. He's written a new book about his life and coming out as a trans man titled "Pageboy." Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews two new suspense novels with a twist. This is FRESH AIR.
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