Kate Moennig: "I've always been an outsider"
Read our interview with The L Word icon taken from the DIVA vaults
It’s fair to say that the enigmatic Katherine Moennig has made more of an impact on dyke dressing and ‘tude as The L Word’s Shane than any other celebrity this century. She tops your list of style icons and she’s back in full effect in Season 4 of LIVINGTV’s hit show. Perfect timing then to ask her a few questions and capture her iconic image on camera.
So, Katherine Moennig – wearing nothing but a pair of pyjama bottoms – is sitting up in bed at home in LA, during a week’s break from filming Series Five of The L Word in Vancouver. It’s 10.30 Wednesday morning, the sun is streaming through an open window, and she’s just reaching for the copy of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows that lies, half-read, on her bedside table when the phone rings.
How do I know all this? Because it’s me phoning. And during our transatlantic one-to-one she tells me everything. Well, not everything, but surely we expect that by now.
What you might not know is that Kate’s dad is a respected violin-maker who still runs the family business in Philadelphia, and her mother, Mary Zahn, is an ex-Broadway dancer. Kate is the niece of actress Blythe Danner (who played Will’s mum in Will & Grace) and cousin to Gwyneth Paltrow. In spite of her artistic pedigree, Kate tells me, "I never felt pushed into performing. In fact, I always wanted to be a doorman when I grew up." Living on the 12th floor of an up-market apartment block in Philly, Kate spent a lot of time hanging out with the guys who ran the building: "They were my friends, I thought the uniform was cool and it seemed like an easy job."
As a child she preferred this adult company to that of her peers and, like her achingly aloof screen persona, Shane, Kate grew up as quite the outsider: "I was kept back a year in Second Grade, which really didn’t do me any favours. Because I was the runty, skinny girl I got picked on a lot by the older kids." She graduated from grade school to a strongly academic high school: "Again, I was the black sheep because I wasn’t into studying and always felt I didn’t quite fit in. I couldn’t relate to the other students and I didn’t really hang out with them. Instead, I spent a lot of time sneaking out to parties in New York."
It wasn’t until Kate started at drama college that she began to find her focus. "From then on I knew I wasn’t going to be a doorman, or more seriously, a partner in my father’s violin business. I wanted to get out of Philly and acting seemed the best possible route."
THE BIG BREAK
Her first TV role was as a girl masquerading as a boy in Dawson’s Creek spin-off The Young Americans. Minor film parts followed, most notably Grace in The Shipping News.
Then, in 2004, The L Word came knocking. "I’ve had a complete personality overhaul since working on The L Word – I was 24 when it started, now I’m almost 30. I’ve grown up on that show." Kate explains that it’s something the entire cast feels: "In fact, Leisha [Hailey, Alice], Mia [Kirshner, Jenny] and I were talking about this recently. We were saying that it’s really made us aware of who we are, what women are and what we stand for."
Working every day on a character has also taught Kate a lot about acting and "what not to do on screen". She says, "We’ve all grown and changed so much as people during the show – of course that affects how we portray something. The more we learn about ourselves, the more raw and authentic our performances can be."
If Kate could start over in The L Word she’d audition for the part of Jenny: "I really admire what Mia does on camera. She’s created such a layered and multi-dimensional character. Jenny’s not a stereotype, you know, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t like her – she’s complicated."
It might be too late to swap roles, but she’s certainly being given more freedom to develop her own character by the scriptwriters, who, she claims, "are very accommodating. If we don’t like a line, we change it. I also improvise dialogue in scenes with Leisha and Mia. We trust each other so much – honestly, we’re like a family – that we’re not afraid of making mistakes."
So if the scriptwriters left it up to Kate to decide on a wipeout ending for the entire show, what would it be? (I suggest that Shane wakes up in bed with a man and it’s all been a dream, à la Dallas, but she has something darker in mind): "Someone burns down The Planet cafe. We’re all in there, talking some crap about waxing or pubic hair, and the place just spontaneously combusts."
Kate goes on to tell me how "gruelling" the filming schedule is. A typical day on set starts in hair and make-up which, by the look of it, involves Kate getting into a bed, writhing around in it for a bit and coming out as Shane. Then there’s lots of waiting around, then the cast all sit down together for an hour lunch break, then: "Maybe Leisha and Mia will come round to my trailer and we’ll all watch a movie... Honestly, it’s like camp!" It sure sounds hard work.
But in among the fun, the long lunches and the lounging around watching MTV mock-reality show The Hills (“I like Lauren and Leisha likes Whitney”), some serious filming must be happening because Series Five promises hot new characters, some surprising returns and the usual mix of high drama, high jinks and the LA high life. It’s exhausting just thinking about it – but maybe that’s because I’ve still got to get through Series Three and Four.
Back in bed with Kate, we’re talking guilty pleasures: "I’m totally addicted to Perez Hilton!" – no, not the airhead socialite Paris ("oh, she’s hideous") but the irreverent blogger who’s shamed and renamed many of Hollywood’s biggest stars: "He’s a highly entertaining person and has a wicked sense of humour." As anyone who checks the site will know, Perez can either be bitchy, brutal or gushingly sycophantic when it comes to his celebrity du jour. "If I saw a picture of me on that site and Perez had written something awful about me, I really don’t know how I’d feel. It could be devastating but I guess it would depend on the context."
Moving from trash culture to something a little more highbrow, Kate tells me she’s just finished Anderson Cooper’s autobiography (Dispatches From The Edge: A Memoir Of War, Disasters, And Survival): "It totally blew me away." Interestingly, Cooper was one of Out magazine’s "Top 50 Gays", although he, like our cover star, refuses to talk publicly about his sexuality.
Has a book ever changed her life? "A lot of books have really inspired me to go to different parts of the world, like Indonesia and Africa... I wouldn’t say his novels are life-changing, but I also love Augusten Burroughs (the bestselling author of Running With Scissors). He has an amazing sense of humour." No doubt Kate was suitably amused by the anecdote in Burrough’s latest book, Possible Side-Effects, where he helps his "lipstick lesbian" friend write a personal ad.
She goes on to wax lyrical about the Harry Potter novel, which I’m currently keeping her from getting back to. "What would you do if I told you the ending?" I venture. "I’d hang-up the phone, no question!" comes the quick reply.
We’ve established that spoilers seriously piss her off: "And so does technology. It drives me mad when electronic stuff doesn’t work." On the subject of everyday trials and tribulations, I ask Kate if she’s ever sought solace from self-help books: "They’re just a lot of verbal masturbation. Most of what you’ll read in those books is common sense. I’ve never read one from cover to cover, but when I need to hear something I already know, I guess they’re reassuring to turn to."
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Katherine Moennig. I hate to admit it, as I can’t bear the thought of being lumped together with all those super-fans who set up camp outside her house and mob her at conventions. But I’m secretly quite pleased that she’s charming and chatty on the phone, and I’m secretly even more pleased that she’s lying in bed wearing nothing but pyjama bottoms (I’m glad I had the gall to ask).
So when she says in that husky, just-woken-up voice, "Hey, let me ask you something now... what are you wearing?" I first thank God I’m in Paul Smith boxer shorts and a sexy vest top, not my usual round-the-house garb, and then I go a little bit weak at the knees: "Are we having phone sex?"
I laugh, she laughs, and I hear her publicist – who’s been silently listening in to the call the whole time – take a sharp intake of breath: "Two minutes of the interview remaining," she chimes in. So, no time to ask Kate about her charity for gay homeless kids, what she makes of being voted a style icon by 44% of DIVA readers and how she likes her latest hairstyle...
"Be well," she says, signing off. Thanks Kate – I’m feeling better already.
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, November 2007.
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