On June 26, 2015, in a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to all Americans, including same-sex couples. That morning, President Obama said in a speech to the nation: “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens.” The President could well have been referring in that comment to the remarkable, inspirational story of New Jersey police lieutenant Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree – a story which started out as an intensely personal experience of love and identity, but in 2005, became a flashpoint in the growing global battle for justice and equal rights.
The battle was joined in a transformative time for the couple. Newly, deeply and unexpectedly in love, Hester was hit out-of-the-blue with a staggering shock: she had Stage IV lung cancer. She had just one final wish: to leave her personal pension benefits to Andree so that she would be cared for in her absence. But her requests were repeatedly denied by the five Ocean County freeholders – the name for New Jersey’s elected county officials. One freeholder raised concerns that this simple act of love could threaten “the sanctity of marriage.” Unwilling to be refused what any heterosexual person would be granted as a matter of course, Hester undertook a bold grassroots campaign of advocacy in the toughest hours of her life. Even as she came to her own private crossroads with Andree, she channelled the power of her love and conscience towards a moment of monumental change.
Now this vitally relevant story is brought to life as both a riveting board-room procedural and a nuanced story of unanticipated, irresistible love overcoming intolerance, directed by Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and featuring Academy Award winner Julianne Moore and Academy Award nominee Ellen Page portraying Hester and Andree.
Says screenwriter Nyswaner: “The themes of Freeheld are universal. We all want to be treated with respect, we all want the right to love the person we choose to love and we all need our communities to acknowledge our work and our relationships. That’s really what Laurel and Stacie fought for with everything they had.”
INSIDE THE PERFORMANCES
Though the film touches on one of the most relevant topics of our times, the core of Freeheld is the characters and, as with any film about modern love, casting was absolutely critical. “Here we had a beautiful love story – one that could only resonate through two powerful performances,” notes producer Jim Stern.
With Ellen Page attached to the story from the outset, the pressure was on to find a woman who could play Laurel Hester, who is facing a human being’s most vulnerable moments at the same time as she is taking on the daunting powers of government over her personal decisions. To embody both Hester’s resolve and her tenderness, the filmmakers approached one of the most lauded actors of our time: Julianne Moore, who recently received the Oscar for her role in Still Alice.
Moore could not resist the challenge. “It’s a lovely, lovely story, and I really felt compelled to do it,” she says of her choice. “Love is such a huge part of any human being’s life. It seems ridiculous to deny that right to anyone at any time.”
As she always does, Moore approached the part with 110% commitment, beginning with an intensive period of exploration and inquiry into Hester’s life and community. “I did a tremendous amount of research on Laurel,” says Moore. “One of the things that really struck me about her was that she was someone who cared very much about getting justice in her work as a detective. But the irony is that after devoting her entire life to finding justice for other people, in her last year, she had to give everything she had to find it for the woman she loved.”
The more she learned about Hester, the more Moore was moved not so much by her audacity as by her humility. “Laurel had an extraordinary work ethic, but it was always behind the scenes. She didn’t take credit for a lot of things. She really just cared about the results,” Moore observes.
Page was thrilled to join with Moore in bringing to life the most unexpected element of Hester’s life – her relationship with a woman 18 years her junior. “Julianne is phenomenal in this role,” Page says. “She’s also the kindest and most generous person you can work with and a master at what she does.”
From the moments Laurel and Stacie meet at a volleyball game, their relationship is on rocky ground, but despite obstacles and seemingly obvious disconnects, they keep growing closer. Moore says that, no matter the people involved, love is love and portraying its overpowering depths is always about getting to the raw and elemental, to the undercurrents beneath words and actions.
“It’s always somewhat of a mystery what draws people together, and also what keeps them together,” Moore notes. “You always wonder ‘Why that person?’ ‘Why now?’ In the case of Laurel and Stacie, whatever the spark, the feeling was intense, dynamic and meaningful for both of them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual, meeting someone and truly falling in love like that are rare events and it’s something that we all value and cherish.”
Like Moore, Page committed herself full-scale to taking on the essence of Stacie Andree. She felt especially fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time talking with Andree – and in the very same New Jersey house Andree shared with Hester. “We even went to the place where Laurel used to get coffee every morning,” Page recalls. “When you have that intimate human experience to draw on, you see more of a person and you’re able to get to more dimensions.”
Andree enjoyed the chance to share her most treasured memories of Hester with both women. “Both Julianne and Ellen would text me during production asking how I would have said something or how Laurel would have said something,” offers Andree. “I got very comfortable with them.”