Laurel Holloman: "I shouldn't identify as bisexual"
The former L Word star speaks to Rachel Shelley about identity politics and her creative career change
The sirens are wailing on the streets below Laurel Holloman's downtown LA studio, and she's struggling to make herself heard. But she really wants to set the record straight.
"I think maybe I shouldn't identify as bisexual. I'm just not sure it'd be right to use that label again. I used it in my 20's because I was trying to be honest. I had an experience after I shot Two Girls in Love [Laurel's breakthrough film role over 15 years ago] and I thought it was a possibility. I guess I thought I could be bisexual. But then it never happened again. I've never had a relationship with a woman so all my gay friends are like, you can't use that label. You're a straight girl that had a bi-curious hic-cup. That's what Leisha [Hailey, aka The L Word's Alice] says."
I don't need to tell you that this is sensitive ground. For six seasons on TV'sThe L WordLaurel formed half of the sacrosanct relationship at the core of the show's beating heart. She was Tina, indivisible from Bette for TiBette fans the world over. Tina was, however, a bisexual character. The show's fan-base is predominately a lesbian one, an audience who was previously starved of any media presence, real or fictional. So when Tina Kennard returned to men in Season 4, seemingly trading Bette Porter in for, heaven forbid, Henry, most of her screen friends and some of her fans gave up on her. Albeit temporarily. Laurel now says of this storyline "it wasn't a story that was explored. There are always shades of grey." Bisexuality, it seems, can be a political minefield. So Laurel's keen to extrapolate:
"Thing is, I know that by backing off that label, it could look like I'm afraid. But, as an older woman I'm very clear about my sexuality. I'm more solid in my identity, I never question it. But I'm also a very open person, maybe naively open… I'm comfortable in my skin. I don't need a bunch of smoke and mirrors. I consider myself straight, I guess, but… I hate that label too. I hate all labels!"
Something Tina Kennard would no doubt agree with. But more of her later.
It isn't surprising that Laurel Lisa Holloman, a southern belle from North Carolina who is yet to turn 40, hates labels - the more open she is, the harder it gets to pin one on her. And she is very open. She's even an avid Twitterer. At the time of press, she and her husband of nine years are in the midst of a trial separation, so she's not entirely sure if that classifies her as a single mother to Lola (aged 6) and Nala (2 and ½) or not. She's spent the last 20 years carving a very successful niche for herself as an indie film / cutting edge TV actress. And yet here she is, keeping us all on our toes by suddenly this summer reviving a prolific passion for abstract art and creating enormous, stunning, colour-rich canvases that are selling to collectors the world over via her studio website. Which begs the question, were the enormous upheavals in her personal life what sparked this seismic shift in career?
"I was in the middle of a transition. I went back to [Tribeca in] New York where I first started acting and felt most creative, got a painter's loft and single parented. I didn't go out a lot - there was a lot of loneliness. It was like a cocoon. I created this art cocoon where I forced myself to paint every day. In it I purged a lot of the sadness, which possibly could be the pain of my separation. All I know is that it was like a clinging on to whatever my identity was before I got married and had kids. This creative person. I felt I was getting back almost to the person I was right out of college. And that's why I was painting."
So she shunned everything except her inner life. It sounds therapeutic. "Completely therapeutic. The two things that make it really therapeutic are the music and the repetitiveness of the brush strokes. And just the richness and the sensuousness of the colour. When I'm painting and I'm in a groove, I have music on really loud.Bulletwas one of the first paintings I sold, it's all based on this Damien Rice song 9 Crimes. All I did was listen to Damien Rice all summer. It was ridiculous how much I listened to it."
If you know the album, you know how heart-wringing yet beautifully sad it is: Rice's tortured voice quivering with emotion alongside that of his estranged girlfriend Lisa Hannigan. Refreshingly, Laurel doesn't flinch from owning such emotional rawness: "In the Tribeca Series there's a lot of sadness. Tons of sadness in those paintings. I listened to Radiohead, to Travis… I'm an emotional person. I operate from my heart, from a spontaneous place. I don't always react from my head. I think if I want to act or paint it's not a bad thing."
For a moment I'm worried, is this an either / or situation, the acting or the painting? "I'm hitting a spot in my acting career where I need to combine it with something else if I'm going to stay happy. I don't know what the future holds but I do see myself painting as an older woman. I don't know how it will manifest. All I know is I can't stop. I feel like I did when I first started acting. God, I have so much to learn - that craving of the learning and the newness of something.
"And I paint with everything. From sable brushes that cost $100 to brushes from the hardware store, my hands and fingers and everything from a diaper to a baby wipe. It's all very tactile for me. I get real messy. It's so opposite to acting in that way."
Listening to her talk I realise the painting is not only an artistic passion, but a personal rediscovery, as hokey as that sounds. A reaction against her alter-ego, the perfectly groomed Angeleno she played for six years on TV. Tina's Hollywood vibe was probably spilling over into Laurel's own world with all those red carpet appearances. Laurel's painting allows a private return to the passionate, feisty, jeans and t-shirt indie tomboy who's desperate to get her hands dirty, only this time not with the contents of a stinky nappy. She once described her southern childhood as "very Sally Mann, i.e. lots of childhood skinny-dipping, painting fences, catching snakes. Somehow painting brings all of that back for me." To paint, and especially to paint large, bold, complexly layered canvases, is to be free of those prissy Hollywood expectations about appearance that taint the creative process. Yes, her work is still judged, but she owns the work completely in a way an actor never can:
"I really love painting because it's 100% mine. I wanted to have something where I was being creative but I could also have control over two things: the time it takes to create and complete creative control over what it is. You don't have that in film-making. In film-making you have to collaborate with everyone else."
Does that make it more scary? "Yeah, oh yeah. It's always really hard for me to show a painting. I think at the beginning when you're putting yourself out there and you're scared to death and you're worrying you're going to be judged, you have to say 'am I happy?' And if the answer is 'I'm happy', you just keep going. I've picked something that is incredibly subjective, and the thing is, I'm totally happy."
That said, Laurel isn't about to walk away from her Hollywood profile and its initial role in the success of her art website. "In some ways it's a blessing as it's a wonderful launch for this. The fans have been amazing. But as an artist, to keep painting and producing work that I'm proud of… I want it to be just about the art. I feel very adamant about learning and improving myself and studying. Instead of using the semi-celebrity of The L Word."
That admirably modest attitude to her work brings us back to Tina Kennard again. It's true that L Word fans are known to be fiercely loyal, which only makes the very vocal abandonment of Tina by a few when she had her bisexual hic-cup all the more surprising. But Laurel is quick to defend their reaction:
"I don't think Tina would be with a guy who cuts his toenails in the living room and watches that much football. And had the most boring straight friends in the world! I think Tina was truly a bisexual in that she had real, long-term relationships with men. But the love of her life was Bette. Politically she identified as being lesbian, sexually she was comfortable with men. That story was very plot driven. It created this massive crazy division between the straight and the gay friends. I found it a little unbelievable that Tina's friends would change because she was with a man."
Not a great depiction of a bisexual's experience, you could say. "The important lesson is that we need to accept the fluidity of people's sexuality. I wish in several places we had worked a little harder to find out what the truths are. Like the Kinsey Scale - you can move along it and you're more gay or move the scale back and you're right in the middle and bi. There's fluidity. Labels don't always apply to everybody."
Ah, those labels again. And that's one of the things I love about Laurel - she won't settle for an easy one-size-fits-all label if she can deconstruct, analyse and dissect a subject down to its barest bones. Exposing layer upon layer of diverse texture and colour, just like in her paintings, with the honesty and curiosity of an artist's mind. And if you're wondering where this drive to analyse comes from, then once again look no further than her childhood: "You could say I've been in therapy my entire life because my mum is a psychologist and she's my best friend. You get free therapy the whole time."
Maybe that's what makes Laurel such a rigorous actor, such a passionate artist and such a wonderfully comfortable person to spend time with. She's already processed so much of the dross that can clog up a Hollywood existence. She doesn't need that bunch of smoke and mirrors because she's dealt with the crap, she's solid in her identity. Does she have a personal mantra to keep her on track, to navigate the cacophonic Hollywood highways that have brought her to this point in life?
"Every day I strive to get to a place where I'm not effected by the external world, and I don't use the external world to define or tell me who I am. I strive for a state of equanimity and calm and a state of grace, so I can be free of definitions. If you are free, then you can create beautiful things. It's really just shutting out the noise."
We hear you Laurel.
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, December 2010.
Only reading DIVA online? You're missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It's pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.