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Ellen Page in The Umbrella Academy.Christos Kalohoridis/Courtesy of Netflix

The wardrobe department on the Toronto set of the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, which dropped Feb. 15, is a full-on warehouse – row upon row of crammed, double-height clothes racks on one side, sewing tables staffed with busy seamstresses on the other. Each principle character has a rack of his/her own.

The rack for Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), patriarch and founder of the Umbrella Academy – co-star Ellen Page calls him “Howard Hughes meets Elon Musk” – is full of tweed suits with eccentric touches, such as leather lapels. The rack for Klaus (Robert Sheehan), one of the Academy’s seven superhero siblings – a.k.a. No. 4, a.k.a. the Séance, a sardonic rebel who can commune with the dead, and who dulls his inner pain with lots of illegal drugs – is mostly women’s clothes, sexy rock-chick stuff, leather, lace, fringed, transparent.

The rack for Page, who plays Vanya – No. 7, a violinist with no apparent superpowers – is the plainest. Striped shirts, classic blazers, straight-legged pants, all in muted hues. That look – practical, clean, the way a lot of women dress and also psychologically true to a person who doesn’t try to call attention to herself – is something Page saw in the character. It’s also how she, as a woman, “exists in the world,” she says.

Read more: The Umbrella Academy on Netflix: Maddening and lovely

But the cover of The Umbrella Academy graphic novel – written by Gerard Way, illustrated by Gabriel Ba – upon which the series is based, shows a very different Vanya: a Beyoncé body in a skin-tight white catsuit. That was one of the first things Page addressed in her initial, exploratory phone call with the series’ showrunner, Steve Blackman. (His writing credits include Fargo and Altered Carbon.)

“I said, ‘Just so you know, I would need to be able to decide how I want to dress,’” Page recalled in a phone interview this week. “He said, ‘Of course, I want you to be comfortable.’” She makes a small amazed noise. "In my experience, that’s unheard of.” On other projects, “I’ve had so many horrible misogynistic, homophobic debates about what I’m going to wear. TV and film can be so binary and gendered. To be able to have women in stories who exist in the way I do – that may sound small or insignificant, but it’s major for me.”

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The series is based on The Umbrella Academy graphic novel by Gerard Way.Christos Kalohoridis/Courtesy of Netflix

It would be corny to suggest that playing an atypical superhero may have emboldened Page, who was born in Halifax in 1987, to speak out more in the real world, but that is what she’s doing. On Stephen Colbert’s show earlier this month, moving in and out of tears, she called out U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence for wishing her marriage to the Canadian dancer and choreographer Emma Portner (they wed in 2018) wasn’t legal. On Twitter, she respectfully asked Chris Pratt why he wasn’t addressing his church’s anti-LGBTQ stand. Then she shook her head as some media outlets tried to whip that up, with phrases such as “she slammed him.”

“Too much of the media creates these fires, and then fuels them,” Page says. “But here’s the thing: This is life or death. We need to get past whatever is telling us that we can’t be talking about what matters to us, and share with each other how we really feel, in a deeply vulnerable way. What I’m trying to do now is communicate the amount of trauma I’ve seen around the world” – partly as host and producer of the Viceland series Gaycation, which details the struggles of queer people in many countries– “and share my own pain, in general, about what it means to grow up queer.

“I’m just – I’m over it,” she continues, suddenly exasperated. “I’m over it! I’m over the normalization of anti-LGBT behaviour. I’m over the fact that there’s so little representation, that I can be citing alarming, devastating statistics, and people have no idea. I’m over a media that makes things a debate that aren’t a debate – trans rights and marriage equality aren’t a debate. Whether you can treat LGBT children badly at school because of your religion – that’s not a debate. These are excuses, and the tricks that have been used throughout history to justify oppression. We have to state some major truths right now, because people are really suffering.”

The suffering caused by unaddressed childhood trauma is a theme that bubbles up throughout The Umbrella Academy. The backstory: One day in the 1970s, 43 women around the world gave birth – without being pregnant. Hargreeves offered to buy their babies; seven agreed. He took the infants home to his stately mansion in an unspecified American city, discovered that each had a superpower, and then ruthlessly trained and exploited them, giving them uniforms, sending them on dangerous missions and making them famous.

“If you had special powers, it wouldn’t be all fun and games,” says Cameron Britton, who plays Hazel, a time-travelling assassin. “There would be regrets for things you’ve done. We show that.”

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Page, left, plays Vanya – Number Seven, a violinist with no apparent superpowers.Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix

We meet our heroes as 13-year-olds in the midst of their training – the hallway in their bedroom wing is lined with Dick-and-Jane style drawings of cute children performing ninja moves, such as Silence (a child slams her hand into another child’s throat) and Gouge (a child digs her thumbs into another child’s eyes). Then we meet them again nearly 20 years later – they’ve drifted apart, but they reunite for their father’s funeral, begin to explore old wounds and (oh, yeah) team up to save the world from an apocalypse.

During my set visit, Netflix’s bottomless pockets were evident all over the many sound stages: There was a huge green-screen room with aerial equipment. There was the Hargreeves mansion living room, a two-storey affair with an upstairs gallery, dressed every inch with parquet floors and animal heads, velvet chairs and Old Masters paintings, along with portraits of the kids in their school uniforms, little masks on their eyes. There were cases of plaques and trophies, all engraved (“First Place in Interactive Tactics at the 2004 Night Fighting Games,” reads one).

Each of the children’s bedrooms told a full story, as did the rubble-strewn lot that plays the world postapocalypse. There were state-of-the-art cameras so crisp that the production needed state-of-the-art atmosphere machines (healthier than smoke machines) to fog the air, and the music budget appears limitless: Every super-stylized scene is accompanied by terrific and surprising music cues. (Watch for the Bay City Rollers number that comes on in a bowling alley.)

The cast is equally rich and layered. Tom Hopper, the English actor (Game of Thrones), plays Luther, a.k.a. No. 1, Space Boy, who has superstrength. Emmy Raver-Lampman, who plays Allison, a.k.a. No. 3, The Rumor – her superpower is persuasion – came from the cast of Hamilton. Britton starred in Mindhunter and The Girl in the Spider’s Web. His fellow assassin, Cha-Cha, is played by the musician Mary J. Blige.

Fantasy is not Page’s go-to genre, but the intimacy of the story drew her in. “It’s ultimately about child abuse,” she says. The seven siblings “had this horrible narcissist for a father, and now, as adults, they’re really struggling, Vanya in particular. I relate to that, and I think a lot of people will. It’s about what it means to dig deep in those layers of ourselves, explore the parts of ourselves that we’re afraid of, that are painful.”

It also speaks to anyone, Page adds, “who finds themselves alone in this world that’s constantly trying to make us feel we’re not good enough. Loneliness, isolation, confusion and worthlessness feel rampant for people right now, particularly in this wild political climate. These belief systems that make you feel like you’re wrong or you need to be fixed are incredibly detrimental to an individual, and to society.”

Equally important to Page, The Umbrella Academy is queer-positive (Klaus’s love story with a male soldier is particularly touching). Although Vanya is straight, “One hundred per cent, I would always rather play queer characters,” Page says. “Because I’m queer! When I first came out, people would ask me, ‘Oh, are you sure you want to play more than one queer role, because you’ll get typecast?’ I said, ‘You are not asking one heterosexual actress whether she’s concerned that she’s going to be typecast in hetero roles.’ Yes, I’d rather play queer people! It’s my experience in life, that I had to repress and shut down for so long. It’s a testament to Netflix and Steve Blackman that moving toward a second season, we’re continually talking about how to make the show even more inclusive.”

It can be “really painful to fully explore who you are,” Page concludes. “And becoming your full self typically does involve going to some difficult places. But I think people can change. I do. It’s rare, but I’ve seen it.” The changes can be as broad as a social policy, or as specific as a white suit. But Page is going to keep fighting for them.

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