Julianne Moore holds nothing back in the social justice film about a South Jersey cop and her same-sex partner

There are actors, and then there is Julianne Moore. In her new film “Freeheld,” Moore stars alongside Ellen Page, Steve Carell and Michael Shannon as the late Laurel Hester, the South Jersey cop who battled cancer – and injustice.

There are films “inspired by real events;” and then there is Freeheld, a film that Moore calls beautiful, moving and, above all, true.

Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree are the real-life heroes of “Freeheld”

Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree are the real-life heroes of “Freeheld” (Photo: Heidi Gutman)

A decade ago, Laurel Hester, a lieutenant and 25-year veteran detective with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. One year earlier, New Jersey had passed legislation that allowed state employees to assign their benefits to a same-sex partner. The law applied to county employees as well, provided they had the approval of county officials.

But when Hester went before the Ocean County Freeholders to request her pension go to her domestic partner Stacie Andree, the Freeholders said no.

Outraged newspaper editorials followed. Cynthia Wade, a documentary filmmaker living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, read Hester and Andree’s story and knew she had to act.

“I’d been making documentaries for like a decade, but it had been a few years since I’d done something I truly loved,” Wade remembers. “I’d just had my second child and was drowning in the demands of early motherhood. I just kept thinking, ‘I want to be in love with a film again.’ I wanted a story with a strong woman at the center. That’s what I do – strong, fearless women. I read an article, and I rented a car and drove down there with a camera. Within the first 10 minutes of that first Freeholder meeting, I knew the whole trajectory of my life was about to change.”

Wade moved in with Hester and Andree part-time, chronicling the battle Hester continued to fight against the Freeholders’ decision, even as the cancer spread to her brain and her life ebbed away. The result was Freeheld, a 38-minute film that took the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won a 2008 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.

Wade’s responsibility to Hester and Andree didn’t end with the completion of the documentary. She needed their story to be heard by as large an audience as she could reach.

Filmmaker Cynthia Wade knew filming “Freeheld” would change her life (Photo: Heidi Gutman)

Filmmaker Cynthia Wade knew filming “Freeheld” would change her life (Photo: Heidi Gutman)

“When we won the Oscar, I didn’t spend time thanking people,” Wade says. “I told them in advance, ‘I’m not going to thank anyone; I’m going to use it as a chance to talk to 40 million people for 30 seconds about equality,’ and that’s what I did. I knew I had something really special, and I loved it like you love a child. I also felt a responsibility to Laurel. I thought if it could get bigger – if a teenager in rural Texas could see this at the multiplex and realize she’s not alone – then I had a responsibility to make that happen, and I knew the best way to do that was Hollywood.”

Wade found a team of producers, including Ellen Page, who came out in 2014 at a conference for LGBT youth, and who plays Stacie Andree in the new film.

“Ellen signed on right away, and then it took seven years,” Wade says. “It was partially a budget thing – this film was made on a very tight budget – and it was also the fact that Hollywood has no interest in a script about two powerful lead women, who are in a lesbian relationship no less.”

The pieces fell into place last year when megastar Julianne Moore signed on to play Hester. The film was shot in 27 days and had its theatrical release last month. The feature film adaptation of Wade’s documentary premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Moore spoke about how audiences might connect to the film and its characters, knowing their struggle was very real.

“The great thing about movies is they make you feel less alone,” she says. “Every time you see a human experience reflected in a film you might say, ‘Oh, that’s just like me!’ I think it’s much easier to discriminate when you perceive someone or something as ‘other.’ But when you are exposed to it, this is your sister, your neighbor – these are the people you live with, and everyone’s just the same – I think that will hopefully change things. I do feel in my heart that when people discriminate, it’s because they haven’t been exposed properly. Sometimes maybe it’s a matter of education. I hope it is, anyway.”

Often, films based on true events are fictionalized to create additional levels of drama. Wade says that wasn’t the case with Freeheld. Laurel Hester’s story was powerful enough for Hollywood just the way it was.

“I did worry about doing it justice,” Wade says. “But the film remains very true to life. They kept the title, and I was glad. The producers kept going back to the raw material. They only changed the tiniest details, and those were really just plot devices. A lot of the lines came straight out of the mouths of Laurel and Stacie and Steven [Goldstein, the founder of Garden State Equality played by Steve Carell].”

With the exception of Hester herself, the people depicted in the film are still alive to see the Hollywood version of their story.

“They opened their lives to us and told us all these things so we’d be able to represent them authentically,” Moore says. “As an actor, you have a tremendous responsibility to represent them correctly, and we feel so privileged that they entrusted that to us. These are real people, and we’re depicting their lives onscreen in a big, almost incomprehensible way. So to remember to keep our humanity during all of that, and know that this is so personal – almost unbearably personal – is just an important thing for us to remember.”

While Page, Carell and Shannon met with their characters’ real-life counterparts, Wade says Moore utterly immersed herself in the role of Laurel Hester. Her appearance in this film is not a performance; it is a transformation.

“Julianne needed all the material,” Wade says. “She watched every minute of film I had of Laurel. She was so into the details. She’d see a necklace Laurel was wearing and tell the art department, ‘I need you to make me that necklace.’ She went to New Jersey to the house Laurel and Stacie built. She met with Laurel’s siblings.”

JULIANNE-POSTER“She embodied Laurel in such an intense way that it became almost uncomfortable,” Wade continues. “Julianne physically became Laurel, to the point that there were moments when I had to turn away because I felt like she’d come back to life. Laurel’s sister came to the set one day, when we happened to be filming one of the hospital scenes. I had to prepare her. I told her she might have some really intense feelings when she saw Julianne, and that if she needed to take a break that was OK. She did need to leave the room. She kept saying, ‘That’s Laurie, Laurie’s back’ [her nickname for Hester]. She said it was such a strange experience because she just wanted to hug her sister.”

Wade says Laurel’s story was marketable as a feature film in part because it has an almost-happy ending. For nearly three months at the end of 2005, the Ocean County Freeholders denied Laurel’s request again and again. In those same months, the Freeholders of Mercer, Monmouth, Union, Passaic and Camden counties passed resolutions deeming domestic partners eligible to receive the benefits of a deceased county employee.

“While I was filming, it looked really unlikely that Laurel was going to win,” Wade says. “I was racking my brain trying to come up with what else I needed to ask her, because I knew my time with her was limited. It was clear she’d never see the finished film. It looked hopeless, up until that last emergency vote.”

Pressure mounted from civil rights groups, Ocean County residents and then-Governor Jon Corzine, and the tide turned. On January 25, 2006, three weeks before Laurel died, the Freeholders passed the resolution, granting her pension to Stacie Andree.

“These women were the ones who really determined the domestic partnership ruling in New Jersey and changed it for the state and for much of the United States,” Moore says. “One of the things I find so inspiring about Laurel Hester is that she was a passionate believer in the justice system. She believed in the system and believed she was a good guy. By acquiring justice, she also moved it along for everybody else in the United States.”

A few months before Freeheld hit theaters, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling that marriage is a right for same-sex couples throughout the country.

“When the Supreme Court decision came down, we’d finished the film and were in the final editing process. We had to add a new title at the end to reflect the decision,” Wade says. “You can never rest too easily. There are still things that need to happen to protect these rights, and we still have a way to go. I think the next horizon is trans people and gender. I think there’s still a lot that needs to happen for women.”

Moore says the timing of the film’s release makes it a celebration of progress to a present where gender equality and LGBT rights can seem like a foregone conclusion.

“When the Supreme Court passed marriage equality I think we all breathed a sigh of relief,” Moore adds. “It was time for our culture, it was time for our nation, and it was also a sign that public opinion had shifted. I always say art imitates life. It really reflects what’s going on in the culture. I think popular opinion has changed, and this movie is a celebration of that, and a celebration of the incredible distance we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. What Laurel Hester did, which was based on a personal instinct to find justice for the woman she loved, made history. She managed to change the world.”

November 2015
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