Rachel Shelley interviews The L Word's Jennifer Beals
The actor behind Bette Porter, The L Word’s alpha female, talks to her friend Rachel Shelley about her book, L Word nostalgia and her need for privacy.
It was on the red carpet for the second season L Word premiere that I first realised how exceptional Jennifer Beals is. She was mid-interview with E! Channel or some such, and had just expressed her very real grief at the death of actor Ozzie Davis who played her father in the series. Barely acknowledging her words or giving her space to draw breath, the interviewer was straight in with his next question - what was she wearing tonight? Jennifer paused. Amidst the madness of flashbulbs and cacophonic name-calling that is a crazed red carpet experience, she had the wherewithal to fix the guy with a hard stare. Struggling to be heard over the hubbub, she chided him concisely: did he not hear what she had just said? How could he plunge into inanities when she had been marking the life of a great and esteemed man?
I was blown away. Those red carpet interviews represent life at its most vapid, yet it didn't deter Jennifer from her true nature. The easier response may have been just to name the designer. To give good interview and pass it off as a Hollywood moment. But Jennifer's not prepared to reduce her life or emotions to a series of easy sound-bites for media satisfaction. Everything she is or does is without compromise, and with total commitment to the truth.
So I have to admit, I was a little trepidatious about interviewing Ms Beals. As much as I've come to love you, dear DIVA reader, I'm not about to ruin a valued relationship by (asking the wrong question and) blurring the lines between journalist and personal friend. There have been, of course, many conversations and experiences she and I have shared over the years that would be unsuitable for a magazine article, whether she was famous or not. Most are obvious, others are wonderfully weird, like the names of her pets. She is, by her own admission, a very private person. But more of that later.
Of course, there's no hiding one thing about Beals, and that's her abundance of creativity and talent. Her latest and highly anticipated project, The L Word Book, has been so popular, the printers are struggling to keep up with demand. Jennifer describes it as an attempt to archive her experience in the form of a photographic journal, going behind the scenes of the show. It includes cast commentary and assorted ephemera - bits of scripts, call-sheets, production memos. Only available to order online, the book reflects the intimate nature of the L Word fan-base in that it can be personalised with a dedication page or by adding private photos. This is exceptional in the world of publishing. So I was curious - what had inspired her?
"It first started as an impulse to create a family album for the cast and crew. I'm very particular about memory, and very aware that mine's quickly eroding. Then at the convention we did together [L5 in Blackpool, November 2008] I saw how interested people were in the minutiae of the show, and how generous they were. So I thought, here's an opportunity to provide the fans with a different experience of the show and to continue our tradition of fundraising."
With all proceeds going to charity, the book was a total labour of love for Beals. I know from phone calls over the past 18 months that it's gobbled up her spare time, as well as some of her patience. She compares getting the L Word cast together to wrangling cats: "My fantasy was to have everyone at a round table and show the photos, to have this dialogue with one another. But that's just not possible - everyone is at every corner of the earth and doing a whole manner of things. I managed to get Rose, Mia, Kate and Leisha together. Pam was the most difficult, I was begging her - Pam, give me something, anything!"
Her perseverance paid off, ultimately securing revealing interviews, particularly when it comes to the controversial show finale. "[The cast] are very forthright in the interviews, specially about the sixth season. I think for some people it gives them a sense of closure that they didn't have when watching the show, to experience how we, the cast, were processing it. Everyone came back to the fact that it was a fantastic experience, that it was a Utopic project."
Flicking through the book, the photographs transport me back to those Vancouver summers so vividly I can almost hear Leisha's gurgling laugh or Floyd barking. Moments of candour return alongside the height of posturing, images that only a confidante could witness or an artist capture.
Amidst all this nostalgia, who could blame Jennifer for missing The L Word? "I miss Bette sometimes. Especially when I'm in the middle of an argument with someone and I think - I know she would know what to do." In fact, we both get a little wistful about that aspect of our characters. She continues: "I miss my clothes, let's face facts. I miss hanging out on set with the other women, doing the Planet scenes. Leisha could make me laugh so easily it was just fun. [I'm] just really, deeply appreciative of the experience and so profoundly grateful to Ilene for letting us share to the degree she did with her process."
So does that make Bette Porter the defining role of her career to date? "It's very fluid. I don't think that anything that has to do with identity is that solid. Also, it's not for me to decide, it's for other people. It's not as if I go around thinking - hmm, what's my defining role?" When I mention to Jennifer that some people actually do spend time debating that very question, contrasting the merits of Bette Porter versus Alex Owen (her break-through role in the movie Flashdance), she's genuinely surprised. I think we can safely say she doesn't read any of the myriad websites that analyse every breath she takes. "No, I don't. It's just too self-reflective and bizarre. I can barely figure out how to use my iPod, much less someone's blog."
And here we are at the delicious dichotomy at Jennifer's core: a self-confessed hermit who's happy to share her personal photographic journal with the world. When she filmed last year in New Mexico for The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic film starring Denzel Washington, she rented an adobe cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the quiet and amongst trees. Why the solitude and privacy? Is it from her childhood, because of her fame maybe? "Well, doctor…" she laughs. "I have no idea! This morning I went for a run in the forest and apart from having my dogs with me, I was alone. It was wonderful. I like the quiet. You can hear who you are, you can hear who the trees are. It's a different perspective that's not dictated by the media."
But it would be wrong to think of Jennifer as a solitary, unsocial person who never shares her feelings. If you've seen her at a convention or heard her deliver a speech, you'll know she's not afraid to show her vulnerability or happiness, that she's ebullient in nature. In fact, this is part of what makes her such a compelling actor: her face is constantly awash with fleeting emotions. She has a family - her nearly-five-year-old daughter and her husband - and an array of intimate friends with whom she's loquacious, funny, entertaining. And always truthful. "I'm the small dinner person rather than a club person." Quality over quantity, I offer? "Yes, exactly, exactly!" she laughs. "I have been more sociable of late, you'd be surprised. We're letting loose! [As a kid] I spent a lot of time by myself in the garden getting dirty." That may sound like an only-child talking, but she has two brothers, one older and one younger.
Beals was, famously, still a freshman at Yale when she was cast in the 1983 movie Flashdance. Catapulted overnight into being an icon for the decade (there's a club night in Hoxton named after the film), she even kept this life-changing news secret for as long as possible. "I got the call and got the movie and the first night in my hotel I called my mom and said, 'Guess where I am...?' They didn't know half the time what I was doing… I didn't tell everyone right away. Like three people, then I just held on to it."
Yes, having gone to Yale does mean she's exceptionally intelligent. She speaks four languages, and I remember her taking Sanskrit classes at some point. She's intellectually curious, which makes her stimulating company, and capable of great dedication (she's an accomplished tri-athlete, who learnt open-water swimming just months before completing her first race). Taking this into account, she could have turned her hand to almost anything. So is acting enough for her? "Yes, I love it, it's really fantastic. When you get a great role and a great scene and a great scene partner and you're just in that little pocket and everything just floats away and you're in that kind of dream…" She breaks off, with a small sigh. And if she hadn't become an actress? "A photo journalist. It's about encountering people and being open to their story and how they articulate their story. I think the most attractive thing is being involved in some sort of story-telling. Whether it's through film or television… Acting makes me feel more alive."
Which is lucky because I don't need to tell you how in demand she is. Since The L Word, she's appeared in TV's Lie To Me with Tim Roth (she compares her four episodes on this to TLW as "like writing a haiku instead of a novel"). She played Gary Oldman's blind wife in the The Book of Eli. She starred in the indie movie A Night For Dying Tigers, capturing one evening in the life of a highly dysfunctional family. It also stars Lauren Lee Smith (TLW's Lara Perkins), of whom Beals says, "She's a frigging genius. Watching her blew my mind, it was so subtle. She brought so much more to the part, she was tremendous and gorgeous, to top it off." And next up for Beals is the female lead in a new TV show for FOX called Ride-Along.
"Shawn Ryan is the show runner; he did Lie To Me, that's where we met. He's very good and very smart and I feel very lucky. I play Chicago's first female Chief of Police, Superintendent Teresa Colvin, much too young and not of the chosen gender for the job, helping clean up the corruption in the city of Chicago. I feel incredibly grateful and honoured as Shawn is such a great writer. He also did The Shield."
The Shield, if you don't know it, is an amazing cop show, and it'll be exciting to see Jennifer in a similar role to the one Glenn Close played - tough, competing in a man's world, with glimpses of vulnerability. Maybe she'll even be wielding a gun! Ride-Along, which co-stars Jason Clarke of Brotherhood, means relocating to her old hometown of Chicago and might seem to be a big change of direction for Jennifer. As a huge Shawn Ryan junkie, I'm thrilled for her, but when I ask if she's played a cop before she says, "Oh yeah, but don't even take me there, Rachel!"
So I don't. I know better than to push it. This is an interview and some subjects are off-limits, and this is one of them. As are pet details. "My dogs take their job [of security] very seriously. They're our pets and our friends but there's no calming them down if there's someone in the yard." Can I include their names in the interview I wonder? "No. What a surprise, right?!" She laughs wholeheartedly. Then offers up a tale so intimate, it paints a dreamy portrait of a young Jennifer Beals who's already self-sufficient, already brimming with confidence. She's protecting her cherished emotions and experiences from prying eyes, keeping them private even at this tender age.
"Can I tell you, when I went to camp as a kid I would get letters from friends or family and while all the other kids were tearing open the letters and devouring the words from their families, I would not open my letters for like two days. I would just savour the fact that I
had them. It was insane. It was this delicious prolonging of the joy, in a way. By telling everyone about it, sometimes for me it dissipates the joy." So you've always been secretive? "It doesn't feel like secretive, it just feels like holding onto something that's mine, that I savour. Not very conducive to interviews!"
At this admission, she laughs shamelessly and I laugh along with her. You've got to love her. I suggest it makes her more mysterious, more enigmatic. "I don't mean to be secretive," she states, very matter-of-factly. "I just… enjoy what I enjoy."
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, August 2010.
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