In “Freeheld” a Real-Life Fight for Civil Rights in New Jersey

“It’s a love story and a civil-rights story,” Julianne Moore says of her new film, “Freeheld,” whose dual elements go well beyond that. Fiction mingles with fact in the drama, based on an Oscar-winning short documentary also called “Freeheld.” Ms. Moore plays Laurel Hester, a veteran police detective in New Jersey. In 2005, when same-sex marriage was still on the horizon, she fought Ocean County officials for the right to make her legal domestic partner, Stacie Andree (played by Ellen Page), the beneficiary of her pension.

“It’s the ultimate moment when the personal becomes political,” Ms. Moore says. That Ms. Hester had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer creates a double-wallop on screen, as Ms. Moore’s character fights for equality even while she is dying.

In a coincidence of timing, “Freeheld” (opening Oct. 2) arrives in a social landscape altered by the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, a situation the filmmakers could not have foreseen. It is one in a cluster of movies with gay or transgender themes. The coming months will bring: “The Danish Girl,” with Eddie Redmayne as a transgender character; “Stonewall,” about the beginning of the gay-rights movement, and “Carol,” with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as a 1950s lesbian couple. “About Ray,” with Elle Fanning as a transgender teenager, will open next year. The films will play to audiences more conscious of those issues because of the Supreme Court ruling and Caitlyn Jenner’s visibility.

The feature version of “Freeheld” began with the 2007 documentary by Cynthia Wade, who filmed Ms. Hester in the last weeks of her life. Because New Jersey law left decisions about pensions up to the county, Ms. Hester and her supporters had to try to convince the officials, called freeholders, to change their position.

Ms. Page came onto the project early, as a producer and to play Ms. Andree, a mechanic nearly two decades younger than her partner. The film was especially personal because in 2014, not long before making the movie, Ms. Page came out as gay.

The screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, also wrote “Philadelphia,” which similarly puts tear-inducing emotions at the center of a plot about social equality. In both films, a terminally ill gay character (Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia”) fights for legal rights, supported by a faithful lover, family and friends. “My challenge as a dramatist was to tell a bigger story about their lives and love affair,” beyond the political fight captured in the documentary, Mr. Nyswaner says of his main characters. “They were funny together, and there were serious obstacles —the age difference, their different attitudes toward being out or not out.”

Director Peter Sollett says his goal was to get the audience to connect with the two main characters, even if they didn’t immediately recognize themselves in Laurel and Stacie. The film begins with Laurel on assignment with her police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) and moves on to her meeting and romance with Stacie. With Laurel still closeted at work, they buy a house together and register as domestic partners shortly before Laurel is diagnosed with cancer. Steve Carell arrives later as another real-life character, Steven Goldstein, a boisterous but witty activist who wears a purple yarmulke with the name of his group, “Garden State Equality” written on it. Ms. Moore did extensive research for “Freeheld,” as she did for her Academy-Award-winning role as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” last year. “Laurel was so honorable, she believed in the justice system. I owe her as exact a representation as possible,” Ms. Moore says. She relied not only on the documentary but on conversations with people who knew Ms. Hester. “Stacie opened her home to me. I went down to Ocean County and sat in her living room, and she pulled out boxes of photographs and letters that Laurel had written. Dane took me through his whole history on the police force with her. So much of who Laurel was, was in her language. I loved her police lingo, that she used male and female instead of man and woman.”

Mr. Nyswaner says, “I had a ton of transcripts from the documentary, hours of interviews with Laurel and Dane and Stacie and Steven Goldstein. Where I could use their actual words I used them.” He took some dramatic license. In life, Mr. Wells left the police department years before Ms. Hester’s death, but on screen they are still partners.

Mr. Wells and others in Ms. Hester’s life were consulted on the production and can even be spotted in the movie. In a scene in which activists disrupt a meeting, “the real Steven Goldstein is seated behind Steve Carell, chanting and making a ruckus,” Mr. Sollett says.

“None of us could have predicted what happened this summer” on the Supreme Court, Mr. Nyswaner says. “I don’t think the gay rights struggle is over,” but the film may be perceived differently as a result of that change, he says. “Now it’s a little bit less of an issue movie and more of a love story.”

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