Last year, Ellen Page was staying with her good friend Spike Jonze in New York, when he made her an offer. “We’re launching a network, if you have any ideas for a show,” he told her. Jonze was referring to Viceland, the new channel from Vice that launched at the end of last month, and that focuses on documentary programming (Jonze is co-president alongside Eddy Moretti). It didn't take her long to come up with a concept that, two days later, she brought to Jonze. Page, a fan of Anthony Bourdain-style travel shows, suggested something in a similar vein—only it would focus on LGBTQ communities and cultures around the world. And so Gaycation was born, a docu-series that features Page and her longtime friend Ian Daniel on a globe-trotting mission to discover and explore queer stories across an array of countries.
For Page, hosting the show caps a remarkable turnaround. After living most of her life in the closet, the actress came out very publicly and very emotionally in 2014, and has since transformed into a leading voice of the gay rights movement. An instance which burnished that reputation was a video that surfaced last summer of Page confronting presidential candidate Ted Cruz about his anti-gay views. It turns out that Page was taping the "America" episode of Gaycation, and the segment is typical of the show's—and its host's—willingness to confront bigotry and hate that can sometimes seem unthinkable. We recently spoke to both Page and Daniel about how Gaycation gets created, and how the two rely on each other for support and how they process homophobia.
Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit? How do the episodes come together and how involved are you in production?
Ian Daniel: The producers at Viceland present us with a list of countries and a list of treatments for each country, and then Ellen and I dig into the individual beats of what the narrative might look like. They present us with an arrangement of stories so that we can then choose what we think is important and what we’re interested in. And then you kind of have to just let it unfold when you’re there. Some things fall through; people decide they don’t want to be on camera because it’s too risky, so you lose some interviews in certain countries where it’s more difficult to be open and LGBT. And then you have some really amazing things that just sort of unfold when you get there. It’s a combination of proper planning and educating ourselves, and then really trying to live in the moment and be as authentic as possible.
Do you guys have a set of rules or requirements that each episode needs to meet for you to be satisfied?
ID: I don’t know if there are rules. We’re trying to cover a lot, so we go as deep as possible. But I think you’re also trying to cover the spectrum of the LGBTQ experience and what makes it unique in that country, so you don’t want to only just talk about gay men, or only about the trans experience. You want to have as many layers as possible about the community. Any other rules, Ellen?
Ellen Page: No, I think we just want to have something that is whole, and do our absolute best to also reflect the context of the country or situation, the variety of the experience depending on the socioeconomic situation, and to make sure we’re showing the whole picture as much as possible in the amount of time that we have.
On the show, you come in contact with a disturbing level of hate and bigotry. How do your brains process that when you’re face-to-face with it?
EP: You know, I’m not sure! I don’t know how one could have a clear answer. It’s disheartening because you could be talking to people who are very lovely and welcoming, but they are looking at you and thinking of you as wrong, or that you’re a sinner. And then obviously, when you’re speaking to someone who wants to murder LGBT people, that’s a moment where I think your brain doesn’t really know what to do with that information, to be honest with you. That is a situation where you feel it in your body.
In the Jamaica episode, you encounter a Rastafarian elder that comes off as very warm and friendly, until he suddenly starts sharing some shocking, anti-gay views. How do you reconcile these two very incongruous aspects of the same person?
EP: It’s hard. The way I look at it, in a lot of these situations, is that it’s beliefs like those that are the symptom of a core problem. And the core problem is that we live in a homophobic, transphobic, biphobic society. People are growing up in different communities, with different influences and different situations. Hopefully, things will happen in their life, and maybe they’ll be exposed to LGBT people more, that will change that perspective. The problem is that it is so disheartening and saddening because you directly see how that manifests, and particularly amongst the most vulnerable, it’s really devastating. You try and find the compassion or empathy, but then when you see how those sort of beliefs affect people’s lives, it’s of course hard to not feel angry.
Have you been able to find a unifying thread that ties together all the homophobia you’ve encountered?
ID: It’s a big question we keep reflecting on, and I think one answer is misogyny. Colonialism is a thing we talk about. Religion. These systems that on some level oppress people. That’s the thread.
EP: And obviously, in regards to the religion aspect, let’s be real—it’s obviously been a huge force of liberating so many people and empowering so many people that in some places, it’s human beings doing that thing where they’re warping a message, and sadly that reflects in creating discrimination towards other people. I don’t want be making some broad statement about religion, because obviously there's many positive aspects, too.
How comforting is it to have each other during these often experiences? Can you imagine doing it alone?
EP: I don’t think there’s any way that I would’ve been able to do this alone. Ian is someone who I love so, so dearly, and to get to do this with him and to feel protected by him, and also to feel like I can protect him or be there for him. Even now, just reflecting on it, I can’t imagine who I would be in life, just as a person, without Ian, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do something like this without him.
ID: It’s the same for me. Ellen’s really leading the way on the show, and I’m there to just be me. And Ellen really allows me to be myself, and I feel empowered being around her because she’s allowing me to be authentic. I can really rely on Ellen to be intelligent and to be respectful, and she’s also very, she’s very comprehensive about the situation. I think we’re really there to feed off each other’s energy, and I think that’s why we really work well together. We have different talents and different strengths. And also, we’ve been reflecting on it a lot, but we have a way of reading each other’s energy without speaking, so I know when Ellen’s going to go in for a question, and she knows when I might make a joke. It’s kind of a magical scenario, and we’re fortunate to be together.
How have your travels colored your perspective on the climate back here in the States?
EP: Good question! So the fourth episode is in the United States, and that decision was made while we were making the show, to be honest with you. We didn’t really know what the fourth one was going to be and we were talking about a lot of different places, and, at first, it was like, "Oh, it’s a travel show! We’re international!" And while we were making it, we couldn’t help but always be reflecting on the climate in the United States. And also while we were making the show, the historic Supreme Court ruling happened, and we really felt like it was important to make a show in regards to that, to celebrate the progress, and also really look at how much more we need to do, and at whether that progress is reaching everyone in the community. When you’re going around the world, you don’t want to feel like you’re walking into a different country or culture, and being judgemental. We really do want it to be an exploration, and the show is not [about] us. The show is all these extraordinary people we’re meeting all over the world, and people who are risking a lot by sharing their stories, and being so vulnerable and generous. So I think that’s also why we wanted to do America—we wanted to reflect on the issues that this country’s facing.
Although you can’t tell when watching the show, many of your interactions are filtered through a translator. Has that been a challenge?
EP: That is something to get used to. I’m a little used to it from doing press in different places around the world. It really is just a part of it. I wish I spoke Japanese and I wish I spoke Portuguese, because sometimes it’s like, maybe I would have interjected at that moment, or people talk for a long time, so you’re like, "Is this all getting translated?" Which I’m sure it is; we work with great people.
ID: We put a lot of trust in our translators. For me, it’s definitely taken some time getting used to it. On some level, it’s hard, because you’re questioning if you’re having an authentic interaction with a person. What you do learn is how to read people’s energy. We’re just trying to pick up on, are they excited that we’re here? Are they happy today? Are they sad in this moment? From an interview standpoint, you get less in—there’s not enough time to have a full conversation—but on the positive side, I think the delay allows you to process what you’re talking about and maybe come up with better questions on the fly.
This show—not to sound too dramatic—has the possibility of acting as a beacon of hope for people who might be struggling with their sexuality. Was that ever something you thought about?
EP: For me, the show is a way to have representation. Even when I was growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at 14, stumbling upon But I’m a Cheerleader on television, that meant so much to me. It meant so much to me to recognize something. So to have the opportunity and the privilege to make a show like this, to be able to show these stories, it means so much to me, and I will say, now that the show’s airing, we’re getting some responses that are just so incredibly moving. Particularly, a young man came out to his mother, and just these sort of incredible responses that would bring tears to our eyes. Again, it’s not us. It’s all these people who are sharing their stories, and we’re just able to help create a way to have those stories reach more people. And if that helps anyone in any way whatsoever, then I feel so absolutely grateful and humbled.
ID: I’ve never really been on camera before, so when Ellen presented me with the idea, I did, of course, think about what it would mean to be another representation of a gay man on television, and, of course, I hope that that’s positive. I hope that there are young LGBT people, around the country and around the world, that can relate to not only my experience, but the way that I experience the profound stories that we’re hearing. For example, The Real World really helped me. As a young gay kid in Indiana, having my own struggles and just seeing real-life gay people on The Real World, really helped me understand that I can get out of my current situation—that there were cities that might be more open-minded. I just hope that my participation can also be inspiring on some level.