Elliot Page on Juno, Hollywood’s dark side and coming out twice: ‘Living my life was more important than being in movies’

Elliot Page’s memoir is called Pageboy. At its heart is the story of his transitioning from an Oscar-nominated actress, best known for the wonderful coming-of-age comedy drama Juno, to one of the world’s most high profile trans men. He writes, rather beautifully, about gender dysphoria, top surgery and finally finding himself. But the book is so much more than a tale of transition.

Pageboy is a modern-day Hollywood Babylon, written by a sensitive soul rather than a scandalmonger. Page depicts a film industry even more rancid than we may have suspected. This is a world where it’s not only the Harvey Weinsteins at the top of the pyramid who get to abuse the young and powerless – just about everybody seems to have a go. It’s a world where most people appear to be closeted in one way or another, a world where more acting is done off set than on.

It’s also a love story, sometimes unrequited, usually closeted (of course) and occasionally full on. Throughout, Page is looking for love. There are a dizzying number of blink-and-you-miss-them relationships, often with famous people, some named, some anonymised. He’s looking for love from women he’s infatuated with, his parents and ultimately himself. For most of his life, the last has been the greatest struggle.

Page is now 36. He always looked young for his age. Today he is dressed all in black – cap, hoodie, glasses and cargo pants – and could pass for mid-20s. He’s Zooming from home in Toronto and, unsurprisingly, is a little anxious about the book: “I’m nervous, but grateful for the opportunity to have written it.” Unlike most celebrities’ books, there is no ghost involved – these are all his words. And it’s important to him that they are: “It was really healing getting a lot of stuff out. It’s been very beneficial for my relationship with my mom. It has allowed us to talk about things for the first time in a meaningful, sincere way.”

As an actor, it’s your job to feel and connect as much as possible. I was feeling things through my characters without permitting myself to do so in my life

It has also allowed him to reflect on other relationships. When he wrote about former partners, he showed them the sections in advance. Again, he says, in many cases it has enabled them to talk in ways they never did at the time. But he admits there are some relationships that, for now at least, seem to be beyond repair. While most people in his life have embraced his coming out – first as gay, then as trans – he no longer talks to his father and stepmother.

Page grew up as Ellen in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a graphic designer father and schoolteacher mother. As a youngster, he was a talented footballer – though not good enough to turn professional, he says. By the age of 10 he was working as a professional actor in the TV movie Pit Pony, then the Canadian TV series of the same name and in a number of demanding roles in well-received independent films. Despite the success, he never felt right.

Even as a four-year-old, he used to try to pee standing up. “I would press on my vagina, holding it, pinching and squeezing it, hoping I could aim,” he writes in Pageboy. He knew girls weren’t supposed to do that, but he didn’t consider himself a girl. He didn’t quite know what he was. All he knew was that he felt a huge amount of discomfort and emotional pain. He self-harmed from a young age, smashing himself in the head with a hairbrush when getting ready for school, failing to recognise, or accept, the face staring back at him in the mirror. He cut himself, got wasted and stopped eating, but none of it did any good. He wanted to obliterate himself.

Acting gave him the opportunity to get lost in pretend worlds. While he wasn’t capable of untangling his own brambled emotions, he loved doing it on behalf of his characters. “There was an element of escape. You’re going to a place where it’s your job to feel and connect as much as possible, and we live in a world that encourages us on some level not to. I was feeling things through other characters without permitting myself to do so in my life.”

He was 20 when he starred in Juno as the 16-year-old who found herself pregnant by her geeky-cool friend Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera. Juno was a huge commercial hit (it cost around $7m to make and took more than $230m at the box office), won Page a best actress Oscar nomination. The coming-of-age comedy drama showed off Page’s ability to play nuanced characters – Juno is a fabulous mix of precocious and naive, confident and vulnerable, gobby and withdrawn.

The same year Page played another 16-year-old with heartbreaking conviction. An American Crime is the horrifying true story of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death by a woman she was left in the care of. Two years earlier, Page gave an extraordinary performance in Hard Candy as a 14-year-old vigilante avenging herself on a sexual predator.

I was attracted to intense, traumatic work. As a teenager who dealt with a lot of predatory behaviour, it was something I was interested in tackling

From the off, Page had a rare ease in front of the camera. There was nothing actorly about his acting – which might have been part of the problem. Unsurprisingly, these roles ended up traumatising him, not least because they echoed what was happening to him in real life. “I was attracted to that intense, traumatic work at the time,” he says. “As a teenager who dealt with a lot of shitty predatory behaviour, it was something I was interested in tackling.”

After moving to Toronto at 16, he was stalked by an older male fan he had befriended on social media to the extent that he feared for his life. When he told his parents, his father said: “I’m going to come to Toronto and kick your ass.” In the book, Page says his father’s response was even more traumatising than the stalking.

Then there was Hollywood. It’s hard to know where to start with the abuse there. As a lonely kid in a new city, he was the perfect target for predators. And so it proved. Page says one director groomed him as a teenager. Eventually, the director took him to dinner, stroked his thigh under the table and told him: “You have to make the move, I can’t.” He also describes two disturbing incidents, just before he turned 18, with members of the Hard Candy production team. There was the funny, kind man who drove Page home, then forced himself on the actor. “His voice sweet, his hands on my shoulders, he guided me to the bedroom,” Page writes. “I went stiff. Unsure what to do as he stood tall and removed his glasses. He laid me down on the bed. Starting to remove my pants, he said, ‘I want to eat you out.’ I froze. After it was over, he tried to stay in the bed with me. I had thawed marginally and told him he couldn’t, to get out.”

It sounds horrifying. “Apart from the power conversation and the toxicity that comes with that, it is just being a young person who’s in a space with lots of adults and in situations where people took … I don’t even know the word. I was about to say ‘advantage’ or ‘awful advantage’, but that just feels gross,” he says now. “I almost don’t have the words for it because it’s so fucking hard to wrap my head around why somebody wants to do that to some … ” He trails off.

I felt her grab me. She pressed her face into mine. The next thing I knew I was on the rug. I didn’t say no or resist, I just stiffened

At the start of shooting Hard Candy, a female crew member offered to take Page house-hunting. “I was standing in the empty living room, in front of the couch, when I felt her grab me. She pressed her face into mine, some version of kissing,” he writes. “That freezing coming over me again. The next thing I knew I was on the rug, the floor firm on my back. I didn’t say no, I did not resist, I just stiffened.”

At the time he never discussed the incidents with anybody. Somehow he’d conditioned himself, or been conditioned, to think it was the norm. “I didn’t know how to talk to people about it. I thought you just get over it and move on.” When did you realise it’s not something you just move on from? “It took me a long time to be able to sit and fully talk about these experiences or acknowledge that they were traumatic and had a significant impact on me.” He felt as if he would be making a fuss about nothing, so he brushed it off. “I’d sit in therapy and talk about these things, and my therapist would go: ‘That’s a lot, that’s traumatic,’ and I’d be like: ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I don’t know if that was a self-defence mechanism or just being made to feel it’s not a big deal.”

Years after Hard Candy, Page confided in an actor he was working with that he was gay. The actor told him he should never admit this in Hollywood and he didn’t want to hear about it again. After Page did finally come out as gay, a drunken actor told him: “I’m going to fuck you to make you realise you aren’t gay. I’m going to lick your asshole. It is going to taste like lime. You’re not gay.” He said it openly in front of some of Page’s closest friends. “Power works in funny ways,” Page writes. “He was, and still is, one of the most famous actors in the world.” Page is obviously aware that readers will play guessing games. You sense he would not be upset if the actor was exposed – so long as it’s not by Page himself.

Page stresses that Hollywood is not solely inhabited by abusers. He has made good friends in the film industry who have helped him through his toughest times. Who is the sanest person he has worked with? Page takes issue with the word. So we settle on balanced. “Someone like Hugh Jackman is lovely. He’s just so fucking cool.” Then there’s Julianne Moore. “I feel so lucky to have worked with Julianne and to have her in my life. She’s been an incredible friend to me, and so supportive and caring. So I’ve been really fortunate to have mentors in my life who’ve helped me a lot at certain times.”

When Page was cast as Sylvia Likens in An American Crime, he was struggling particularly badly with his mental health. Catherine Keener, who played Sylvia’s murderer, kept him from going under. After draining days on set, he would crash at her home, drink tequila and dance the night away. Today, he has C KEENS, his nickname for Keener, tattooed on his right biceps. “She is one of the absolute greats,” he says.

Please tell me that making Juno was an enjoyable experience, I say – it’s such an uplifting film that I’d hate to think anything nasty occurred on that set. He laughs. “Yes, it was a great experience. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had making something. It was an incredible group of people and I had a tremendous time. I remember Michael Cera and I were like: ‘This seems it could be kinda cool’ – but nobody expected it to blow up to the degree that it did.”

One of the many revelations in his memoir is that Page had a relationship with Olivia Thirlby, who played Juno’s dippy friend Leah, while making the movie. What did Thirlby think when you showed her the book? “I think she was surprised that it was so intense for me. We didn’t have the same comfort in relation to our queerness. I don’t think she knew the impact that relationship had on me, and how important it was. I was inspired by her and her ability to be herself.”

Cis, trans, whatever: the actor being told not to be your authentic self was a constant, and it made me extremely unwell

Page also had a relationship with Kate Mara, who was going out with the actor Max Minghella at the time and is now married to Jamie Bell. Again Page had never publicly discussed their relationship before the book. He describes being infatuated with Mara and how he couldn’t cope with having to share her with Minghella. Looking back, he says he didn’t behave well at the time. How do you and Mara get on now? “Kate is one of my closest friends. She’s moderating my book event in LA. She really loved the chapter and appreciated the honesty.”

Page’s most closeted relationship was with an actor he refers to as Ryan. He met her while making a film, and they were together for almost two years. By then Page was in his mid-20s and, he says, most people in the industry assumed he was gay. But Ryan passed as straight and was terrified of being outed. The degree of secrecy sounds painfully dysfunctional. Page literally hid in a closet once when room service was delivered to Ryan’s hotel room. At parties they ignored each other. Page says Ryan couldn’t cope with the shame and lies, went on to have a relationship with a cis man, and broke Page’s heart in the process. Is Ryan still closeted? “No, I wouldn’t call it that. I gave it to Ryan to read, and it was another example of getting to talk about things in a real way for the first time, and now we’re buddies again.” Does Ryan worry that people will be trying to guess who she is? “I don’t know how she feels about that deep down. I understand people will be curious. She can’t care too much, because people do figure things out.”

The book is punishingly honest in terms of his emotional needs and search for love. He nods. Are you a romantic? “Yeah, I think I am.” But he says there is more to it than that. For so much of his life, he says, love was a means of convincing himself things were OK or justifying to himself why he was unhappy. “Love was a way to escape, a way to feel less alone, a way to feel safe. I clearly didn’t love myself. I’d cling on and then end up in these co-dependent relationships – or getting completely lost in Kate and not staying centred on any level. I think it was a way of avoiding myself, going from one relationship to the next.” His voice wobbles. “This is the first time in my life I’ve been happy and able to just be on my own.”

Page at the Oscars in 2022.
Page at the Oscars in 2022. Photograph: Getty Images

The Hollywood that Page describes is frozen in time. It could be the 1950s – the same level of control, paranoia, abuse. The same homophobia. And the same blinkered argument: if the fans know you’re gay they won’t believe you when you play a heterosexual (though this is rarely the case when heterosexuals play gay characters). It’s hardly surprising in this culture that so few gay stars have come out. “I can obviously only speak to my experience, but yes, my experience is that there was intense pressure to be not only closeted but to act and appear and perform like someone I wasn’t and someone I’m not. Cis, trans, whatever – it doesn’t matter: the actor being told not to be your authentic self was a constant, and quite frankly it made me extremely unwell. I think back to the degree of how closeted I was and I’m just like: wow. It’s like watching a movie in my head. It was so extreme, and so were the feelings. I believed at certain points: ‘This is what my entire life is going to be.’”

He had never held a partner’s hand in public, never brought a girlfriend to an event, always got separate rooms. “There was this constant inherent anxiety when I was out at dinner. You become so profoundly isolated as a person, and also your relationship becomes very isolated. You’re in this bubble together.” Did it make you mentally unwell? “Yeah, mentally ill – depression and anxiety. But it also manifests itself physically, whether it’s vicious panic attacks, stomach issues, difficulties eating, chronic fatigue, just feeling in certain moments of my life it was very hard to function and operate.”

Did you want to walk away from it all? “Absolutely. Multiple times.” And did you ever? “Yeah.” By 2010, he was being cast in big-budget films such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and he decided he’d had enough. The funny thing is, he says he had a great time making Inception. “But after I finished that movie I was in Los Angeles and I just started packing my apartment. I was like: ‘I have to go back to Nova Scotia. I don’t think I want to act any more.’ I loved working with Chris Nolan and a great cast, but as a person I was just so not OK. I felt really guilty for feeling that. Here you are with all that dreams are made of – how the fuck could I possibly feel this way? I’m such an asshole – how can I be so ungrateful? I didn’t understand why I was so profoundly uncomfortable and feeling like this with all this privilege allowing me to do what I thought I wanted to do. But how I was feeling in my body, and being closeted, was eating at me to a degree that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it any more.”

Before coming out as queer in 2014, I’d made the decision that living my life was more important than being in movies

He took some time off and returned in 2012 with Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. A couple of years later, aged 26, he came out for the first time – as gay. “That decision was scary and intense.” Did it change the way the film industry regarded you when it came to casting? “I mean, probably! I’m not in the rooms where those people are having those conversations, but I would imagine so.”

Six years later, in 2020, he came out as trans and changed his name to Elliot (ET is one of his favourite films – as a youngster he wanted to look like the film’s protagonist, Elliot, and he has a tattoo on his biceps that says “EP phone home”). He had never stopped questioning how he identified, and this intensified in the years between coming out as gay and trans.

In the Netflix superhero series The Umbrella Academy, Page plays a character who transitions from Vanya to Viktor and writes a warts-and-all memoir about his family. Is this a coincidence? He says the memoir element is (the character was created before he wrote Pageboy), but obviously the trans element is not. When Viktor tells his superhero siblings he has transitioned, they respond with approval verging on indifference: “Cool,” “I’m good with it,” “Yeah, me too,” they say, unfazed.

Was it as easy for you to tell friends and loved ones when you transitioned? “For people super-close to me it was definitely not shocking.” Because you’d been talking about it for so long? “Yes. I was hanging out with a friend the other day, and they were telling me something I said when I was 27 and we were working together. I realised just how much I had been talking about it. For years! And then proceeding to talk myself out of it.”

Why did you talk yourself out of it? He pauses. “Erm …… Gosh … It came mostly from internalised shame, internalised transphobia. I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was a known actor, and what is that going to mean? I was trying to wrap my head around it.” In terms of how people reacted to you or in terms of your work? “Both. But before coming out as queer in 2014, I’d already made the decision that living my life, to me, was going to be more important than being in movies. I was like: ‘What am I doing? This is my one chance to be alive; like, this just isn’t fucking worth it. It’s just not.’ So I thought less about the work and more about what does it mean to transition publicly and felt overwhelmed by it.” He tried to convince himself he could make do by wearing tighter sports bras to flatten his chest and saying nothing publicly. Try as he might, he says, the issue wouldn’t go away. “It just kept coming up. It was not letting go.” In Pageboy, he says he doesn’t think he would be here today if he hadn’t transitioned.

While his relationship with his mother has never been better, he writes in the book with huge regret, and some anger, about his father and stepmother’s inability to accept him – to the extent, he says, that his father has supported transphobic comments about Page. I ask if they have seen the book. “If it’s possible, I’d love not to talk about my dad and Linda,” he says with endearing politeness. There’s been no reconciliation? “No.”

Do you think film-makers are less willing to cast you since your transition? “Again, it’s so tricky because I’m not in the rooms where people are chatting.” But, he says, he’s got more than enough to be getting on with. He’s just worked on an improvised film directed by Dominic Savage, creator of Channel 4’s I Am … series: “That was a highlight of my life as an actor.” He has started his own production company, dedicated to telling stories about and by marginalised people, and hopes to do more writing.

I’m trying to embrace the fact that I feel good on my own. But I’m definitely not against falling in love

A while ago, he said he fancied having children. Now, he says, that’s not a priority. “I’m trying to embrace the fact that I feel good on my own, and that’s very important for me.” He suddenly giggles. “But I’m definitely not against falling in love. I think now I’m a little bit more mature and centred.” He pauses. “I think.”

We hear so much about gender dysphoria, I say – have you experienced any body euphoria since transitioning? His face creases into an ecstatic smile. “To be honest, Simon, I experience it every single day when I wake up in the morning. When I say that I was always consumed by discomfort, I mean it. So the fact that I get up in the morning and get out of bed and stretch like this [he extends his arms to their full length] – that to me is body euphoria.” Soon after transitioning, he showed off his new six-pack. Does he still have it? “Yes,” he says proudly. “Working out this morning without my shirt on, and just being sweaty and jumping in the shower, just being able to be present in my body and the joy of it … When I say I never thought I’d feel this way I really, really mean that. I never thought I would just feel: ‘Oh here I am and I’m going about my day.’ So for me body euphoria is the most obvious stuff – getting out of the shower, seeing myself in the mirror, walking down the street with my shoulders back and just feeling like I can engage with the world in a present way.”

It’s great to see you in such a good place, I say. Listen, Page says, he knows there will be bad days – and plenty of them. “I’m a human being. Of course we all have our days. But they won’t even be comparable to how I felt before.” Another ecstatic smile. “Not. Even. Comparable,” he says.

Pageboy: A Memoir by Elliot Page is published by Doubleday (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.