Netflix’s revival of Tales of the City, based on the beloved books by Armistead Maupin, invites viewers back to Barbary Lane and a San Francisco that’s changed quite a bit since the days of the original 1993 series. Thankfully there are still a few familiar faces — Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis both return to their roles — alongside a cast of new characters including Shawna, played by queer actress and activist Ellen Page. Shawna is Mary Ann’s (Linney) adopted daughter, who has channeled the pain of growing up without a mother (Mary Ann left San Francisco when Shawna was young) into an intense love for the family of queers centered around Anna Madrigal (Dukakis). Page’s Shawna is seemingly fierce, fearless, and extremely sexually liberated.
Ahead of the premiere of Tales of the City on June 7, Out spoke with Page about her work as an activist, the importance of chosen families, her viral Stephen Colbert interview, and which of her past characters might also be queer.
Tales of the City is refreshing in how it centers the idea of a queer chosen family. Has finding your own chosen family been important to you in exploring your own queerness?
Yes, absolutely. That's been a huge part of my life and that's evolved over time. I feel so grateful to have extraordinary people in my life and a lot of people who helped me and helped guide me through difficult times. And I'm incredibly grateful for that and that, that's displayed so beautifully in the show, I think.
San Francisco has changed so much since the original iteration of Tales in the City, and there's an ongoing conversation about gentrification and the mainstreaming and commodification of queerness. That's a conversation that seems to be especially poignant during Pride, so why do you think that dialogue is necessary?
It's really important because when you look at a place like San Francisco in terms of the growth that has happened and then you look at the rise of homelessness and then the criminalization of homelessness, and as we know, LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately homeless. And those are all, the thing we need to talk about, how the most marginalized are not living in a place that's friendly to them at all. And so many of the people that are homeless now in San Francisco used to live in San Francisco. You look at these issues and they're really serious and they cause us tremendous harm. And I hope we start to talk about these issues more and, yes, highlight the situations for marginalized members of the community.
Over the past few years you've become very vocal about queer advocacy. Why did you decide to use your platform that way?
With the privilege and the platform I have, I absolutely have to use it, particularly after making a show like Gaycation, and traveling around the world, and quite frankly seeing so much joy and beauty and strength and courage, of course, but also so much trauma. It just feels crucial to me, it feels absolutely crucial because it is life or death, especially right now when trans life is being brutally attacked, just absolute cruelty. Those of us with privilege have to step up, we have to step up.
Navigating queer joy and trauma is something the new Tales of the City does really well. We're so used to queer narratives in film and TV centering on trauma, but Tales of the City gives a lot of space to queer joy. Is that something we need to see more of?
That's what's so important in terms of the representation we need and, of course, it's important to tell stories about our history. It's also still crucial to have these stories that are queer characters, you know, living their lives and having relationships and having the struggles and obstacles that people have etc, etc. So yeah, I feel so happy that Tales offers that and allows people to see a future where they can live their truth and feel happy about who they are. Yeah, so I figure, obviously, an important part of representation.
Your character is this very sexually liberated woman; what was that space like to play in, to get to depict this very confident queer woman who very much owns her sexuality?
I think she's a lot more comfortable than me, in many ways, and confident than I ever was. But I feel like playing a character that exists in the way that she does and how she ... her sense of freedom and her ability to have that confidence with her truth, and yeah.
Tales of the City certainly stands out because it features mainly queer actors playing queer characters. Do you think it's important that queer characters are played by queer actors?
Yes, absolutely. I've worked with people who aren't queer and who have played queer characters and have done a great job. Part of the conversations in rehearsal are about that or talking about different dynamics. Yes, I think it's absolutely crucial for queer people to be playing queer characters. We absolutely need more representation. We can see that this is something that's changing, but it needs to change, I think, a lot quicker, so yes.
When cishetero actors defend their right to play queer roles, the thing that they miss is that queer actors rarely get the chance to play straight characters. Is that something you see happening in the industry?
It's obviously changing and there are so many more people and role models, and it's amazing. But yes, I really hope that that keeps changing. Quite frankly, the people who feel that way just don't understand and maybe they could just open their hearts a little bit more and hear the words of large numbers of marginalized communities because no, it's not proportionate. Yes, it would be beautiful if it was equal and maybe there was more of a ... but it's not, and we need to focus on this. It's important. Even with Tales, this crew is extraordinary, so a shout out to the extraordinary crew, but also, the crew is so inclusive.
You recently were a guest on Stephen Colbert’s talk show and got very emotional talking about Mike Pence. Can you tell me about that moment and why you felt you had to make that statement on television?
The reason, again, comes back to privilege and the platform I have. Always, I guess, we, marginalized communities have been treated systemically aborherently in many ways. And right now, obviously, we are in a time where rights are being stripped away. Children are dying in custody at the border and I think if I'm on a show like that, I want to say something. I just wanted to try and communicate what people go through, and because there's such a lack of representation, so many people don't know. So that's why they can just be so dismissive when people are trying to share their feelings. And to be sitting on a stage and literally just talking about forming equality and not wanting people to suffer, to get so much hatred for saying something like that, does break my heart.
But that's why we need to keep pushing and use our privilege and hopefully continue to make things change. I'm grateful to everyone who sacrifices a lot more than me and all those who continue to sacrifice so much more than me to allow me to be in the position I'm in. So kind of down straight, I'd better use it. You know?
Do you wish that more people in your position would be more vocal about using their privilege?
Well, I don't want to be too self righteous about it because it's been an evolution for me to get to a place of this degree, making Gaycation, etc. But I think we're in a time where people with privilege need to step up, so that is what I believe. I believe if you have privilege, you need to use it right now. So much of our privilege is unearned and is causing a lot of suffering. Yeah, that's my choice, I'm going to use my privilege in terms of work I make, and hopefully, continuing Gaycation.
This Pride season, what can queer people with access to privilege be doing to support those in our community without it?
First, we need to educate ourselves. Obviously, it's changing a bit, but then again, it causes massive controversy just to talk about LGBT people, the kids in school. We're not learning about the reality of so many members of our community so, in terms of helping, it's supporting by calling politicians, writing letters, being mindful of what's going on. If you're able, donating to a charity, volunteering, you know, all the things that we're able to do and support LBGT organizations, donate your old clothes that you don't need anymore and all the stuff you've bought that you don't need. I think there's so many things that people are able to do in their day-to-day lives. And if you have an enormous amount of privilege, please, please use it, if you know what I mean?
Do you think Juno eventually grew up to be a lesbian?
Yeah. Yes. So many of my characters, quite frankly.
Tales of the City premieres on Netflix June 7.