Interview with Rachel Shelley
Photo credit: Max Vadukal/Showtime
First she was the reserved rich Brit, the pent up babe we loved to hate all the more when she stole Tina from Bette. But when season three of Showtime’s The L Word rolled around, Helena was a whole new person: sexy, sultry, nice. When Dylan — the gayest straight girl ever to hit the small screen — joined the cast and gave Helena a little boot knocking, well, this chippy fell hard. And even though Dylan turned out to be a bit of a cad, lovely actor Rachel Shelley, the woman who gave life to Helena, is still basking in that post-coital glow.
With dozens of TV appearances from Highlander to Miss Match and an award-worthy turn in the Oscar-nominated Bollywood film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India under her belt, Shelley is no stranger to Hollywood. But The L Word seems to have cemented her role as a leader of lesbian fiefdom; a fact further cemented by her upcoming turn, opposite Heather Graham, in this month’s much-talked-about lesbian film Gray Matters.
We caught up with the 37-year-old actor as she rushed from Vancouver production set to her home in London’s Notting Hill, to talk about The L Word’s fourth season, her newfound popularity and making love to Alexandra Hedison.
You played such a pivotal role on The L Word this year and it seems like you’re the character who is really gaining popularity.
[It’s hard] to come in and be the character that everyone hates. That was quite hard at the beginning, but interesting and different for me … because I was always pitched as the good girl before. I don’t know that I was strictly gaining in popularity [last season], but if that’s true, that’s lovely.
Fans often call you the most beautiful woman on TV. How does it feel when you hear something like that?
Oh, that’s ridiculous, that’s funny. [Laughs] That’s funny. That’s because they see me after seven hundred hours of makeup and hair. They don’t see me when I wake up in the morning and get out of bed. They wouldn’t say that if they saw that. That’s funny. That’s crazy.
You’ve had some really racy scenes on season three. Are they getting easier to film?
It’s funny. I talked about this last year with Alexandra Hedison, who plays Dylan. Actually doing them, filming them isn’t that hard. That’s not hard. But, sometimes, there, there’s like a hangover from it. There’s like a aftertaste, that you can’t get rid of. It’s not while you’re doing it, because I think you just get on, you know, you know what you’ve got to do. You have to throw yourself into it totally, otherwise it doesn’t work. And it’s afterwards, when you might feel a bit, just a bit weird. Like physically, I felt … kind of detached from my body after … you have to do a lot of intimate scenes with each other and I think afterwards we both felt a bit disconnected … your brain and your body have stopped talking to each other because they’re not, they’re not listening to each other anymore.
Because you have to turn it off while you’re filming?
Yeah, I suppose so. I suppose you have to, you have to just over ride that … you have to act all these things which normally are so natural, you know. Your body’s impulses tell you who you want to be intimate with and who you don’t want to be intimate with and suddenly you’re have to override that impulse. I did feel a bit jangled up after. I’m usually quite, physically, I’m quite free with my body, and I’m quite open and I found afterwards, I felt a bit, I felt a bit, what’s the word? Sort of shattered by it. And after that, for a good few days afterwards, I felt … inhibited, I felt like I wanted to curl up.
I think that scene with Alex was the most intimate and the most prolonged scene that I’ve had to do like that. And, God, I was glad it was with Alex because, she and I got on so well and still do, you know, so I was really glad it was with someone [where] we could look after each other and be very comfortable with one another.
Have you done love scenes with men before?
Yes, nothing quite that intimate though; nothing as intimate or as kind of prolonged as that was. We shot that for quite a while.
Have you learned anything from doing these scenes?
I’ve learned about how different positions makes your breasts look better than other positions on camera. I’ve learned that the other actresses, we can help each other a lot, I think. I’ve learned that they … can have an affect on you that you might not think they will.
You’ve been involved not just in filming these roles but also being a part of popular lesbian culture. has that had an affect on you, personally?
Oh yeah, I mean, in lots of ways. I mean, it’s all, for me, actually, it’s as much about lesbian culture as it is, I think, American lesbian culture. I have friends at home, obviously, who are gay but American gay culture, I think, is just that little bit different. I suppose it’s very L.A.-centric, obviously, cause the show is set there. one thing that I love about it is that so many gay women are so politically aware and so educated here. I guess when you’re in a minority like that … you’re forced to become politically aware. So that’s been interesting. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of the women that we’ve met. And, and not just the women that work on the show and the women who are involved in L Word, but we get quite a lot of visitors who come up, who visit the set and sometimes they do these walk-on roles and they’re always really fascinating to meet and to learn their stories. You know, like I’ve met so many women who have left husbands or [come out] quite late on in life, and now find this whole new lease on life.
Do you have one of the stories that’s really stayed with you?
There are, yes, but I wouldn’t really want to, to tell you about them to be honest. Because, you know, you meet these women … and you chat with them, and they tell you their stories and that’s it. They’re fascinating, but … they kind of tell you things in confidence. I think because if they watch the show they have a familiarity with us, the actors.
Sure, because you’re coming into their homes every week.
Yeah, exactly, so that we feel like a guest, like friends and we start talking to them and they often open up about things, which I’m sure they wouldn’t do if if they didn’t know my face and we’d just met.
You’ve started doing The L Word conventions too. I imagine those are a lot more intimate than say a sci-fi con.
I’ve never been to one of them, but that’s what they say. It was wonderful, actually. There were a lot of different women who had come from all over the world actually and I think they all had a wonderful time, too. there was this one woman who’d come from an island called Malta, which weirdly, I used to live on — a tiny little island in the Mediterranean — and she was a teacher, and she was gay and she’d come on around and she said that [since Malta is] a Catholic country, she could never be openly gay there and keep her job, [but] it was just so heartwarming to talk to these people, these women who’d traveled to be at a convention with like minded people. you could see, for her, it was such an amazing experience just to be around all these other women. And, she watches the show, and so it was just, really, really quite beautiful actually, very touching. And that is really nice to sort of meet the people who, cause it’s one thing being an actress who makes shows to entertain people, right? And it’s another thing altogether to feel like you’re part of a kind of political movement that is helping in some way. That’s amazing, and unusual.
Has the show changed how you perceive yourself?
You mean my gender or my sexuality? Well, I have quite a few friends who are gay … maybe that’s a cliché to say, but I’ve never really felt there’s much of a boundary between us. Some of my closest friends at university were gay – are gay… I’ve always just thought that … you’re attracted to a person rather than a gender. I have a lot of gay friends, so I don’t feel that I needed to do this show to sort of, start to realize that.
Is sexuality is something that you can control?
Do you mean controlled by the individual, like their sexual preference? I doubt it. I’d never feel like I can control mine. [Laughs]
You’re also in the upcoming film Gray Matters in which Heather Graham’s character realizes that she’s a lesbian. Do you get to help her down that path in the film?
Yes, you could say that. [Laughs] It’s a bit of a cameo role for me, that that film. But it was great fun to do and we shot it up here in Vancouver at the same time as we were doing The L Word, so it was very easy to go between the two sets. It was exhausting. Alan Cumming also did the same. I haven’t seen it but yes, I do help her along the path of discovery.
Now with your role with Helena on The L Word, do you feel like Helena helped Dylan discover that she was a lesbian or bisexual woman? Do you think she helped her discover that?
Yeah, I think so.
A lot of lesbians have a fantasy about helping straight women discover their sexuality.
Oh, really? [Laughs]
Do you think that’s possible?
That straight women can be turned? Wow, I don’t know. I mean, these are such huge questions you’re asking me about humanity. You know what? I think … you can make rules but then there is always the exception to the rule. And I think that, that can be true of people who, you know, might be in their forties, fifties, who … might be gay and never think that the would have a straight relationship. They might be straight and never think that they could have a gay relationship … and then something can just knock you sideways. we all know people who have been in a heterosexual marriage, brought up kids, and when their kids are 20 they sort of come to this huge realization. And that’s kind of one of the stories that we do this season. I’ve seen it happen, first hand, with friends of mine, so, who knows?
There were changes in store for Helena this season.
Oh my god, there’s so many. It’s more of a journey than we’ve seen in previous seasons.
It must be fun to play that.
Really good fun. It’s been nice cause I’ve also got to work with some of the other characters that Helena hasn’t really cast off with before, which is nice. I’ve done stuff with Kate [Moennig], who plays Shane, and it’s just been interesting to watch her try and find a path that is going to help her now that her life is so radically different. And you know, she hasn’t had that much success actually, a modicum of success, but not much. I’ve had quite a lot of comedic stuff, which has been great. and a lot of it with Leisha, who plays Alice.
What do you find sexy that would surprise most people?
Oh, man. Um, well this won’t go down well with lesbian readers but I like a little bit of a belly on a man. [Laughs] I don’t know why I like that.
And I’m sure lesbian readers are a bit, “Oh no!” It’s really quite horrible but I don’t know where that comes from.
You know that you populate the fantasies of perhaps a fourth of the lesbians around the TV viewing globe, at this point. Are there women who populate your fantasies?
Women who populate my fantasies? OK, who do I think are the hottest women? That question I will answer.
The hottest woman, I think — and I think everyone on this show agrees — Kate Moss, is up there with all of our top fantasies.
I think we were all just saying this morning that, you know, that, there were a couple of us talking, and we were saying if we were gay, that’s who I’d go after.
Wow. A lot of people say Angelina Jolie, right off the bat.
Really? I mean, she’s absolutely stunning, that goes without saying. I think she’d scare me. [Laughs] She probably wouldn’t scare old Helena but she’d scare me. Who else? Beyonce is gorgeous. She’s like, perfect body, she’s sassy, she’s all of that. you know who else is really cool? Who we have on the show, actually, at the moment? Annabella Sciorra. She’s on the show, she’s amazing!
She wasn’t in scenes with you though.
No, unfortunately. I don’t get to do scenes with her but she’s great, lovely, and beautiful. And yeah, I watched her on The Sopranos and was like, [she gasps] “Who is this woman? She’s fantastic!” And now she’s on the show, and I kind of went up to shake her hand, and I was like, “Oh my God. Hello.” [Laughs] And I think, I think there were, there were quite a few actresses who were like, “Ooh. Am I going to have anything, am I going to have a thing with her?” [Laughter] Who, who, who is she for?