Jennifer Beals & The Final Season of The L word

by Jason Dean, photos by Robert Todd Williamson

Jennifer Beals is, by her own admission, fascinated by mythology. “What is it about vampires? There are so many metaphors,” she says, considering her own question. “It’s incredibly alluring, especially to young girls.” She has a point. Look no further than the “Twilight” books and movie and HBO’s new series True Blood, and one will notice that vampires are in vogue once again. “There’s that sensation of coming into your authenticity and being introduced to your own mythic power.” Beals is still talking vampires, but her words could easily apply to the phenomenon of the Showtime series The L Word, now in its sixth and final season. Since its debut in 2004, the show has been a beacon of empowerment for young women while dispelling myths about lesbianism and gender roles. The storylines have never ceased being provocative. In the current season, pre-op transsexual Moira/Max (Daniela Sea), finds out she’s pregnant as she prepares to undergo gender transition.It’s been 25 years since Beals lit up the screen in Flashdance, as she helped to popularize leg warmers, loose-neck sweatshirts, and to a lesser extent, barely legal steel-mill welders. She’s stayed busy over the years, populating her resumé with interesting roles in eclectic films (The Bride, Vampire’s Kiss, Devil in the Blue Dress, Runaway Jury, Twilight of the Golds), but her turn as Bette Porter on The L Word has solidified her standing with a new generation of fans.

It’s been 25 years since Beals lit up the screen in Flashdance, as she helped to popularize leg warmers, loose-neck sweatshirts, and to a lesser extent, barely legal steel-mill welders. She’s stayed busy over the years, populating her resumé with interesting roles in eclectic films (The Bride, Vampire’s Kiss, Devil in the Blue Dress, Runaway Jury, Twilight of the Golds), but her turn as Bette Porter on The L Word has solidified her standing with a new generation of fans.

After taking some time to decompress following her h photo shoot, Beals emerges from her dressing room to meet me. She looks stunning: Her smooth, flawless features seem impervious to the passage of time. Soft-spoken and verbally precise, she projects a cultured elegance befitting a museum curator. It’s a testament to how thoroughly Beals embodies her character, who has been portraying a dean of arts at a California university in the series. Picking up on the parallel, I ask her if she catches herself doing or saying things that are decidedly Bette Porter-esque. “Definitely,” she responds. “There are certain words that I don’t normally say. Intractable. Six years ago, I wouldn’t have used that word, but it’s found its way into my vocabulary.”

Beals says she did not consider her character’s sexual orientation in her initial research of the role. Instead, she delved into Bette’s professional identity, “because work is paramount to her.” The L Word’s fairly graphic portrayal of its characters’ relationships did not faze Beals. “I didn’t really think about it,” she insists. “I imagined it would be as graphic as a heterosexual show would be.” As for preparing for a gay love scene as opposed to a straight one, she says, “There’s no difference at all, other than just trying to figure which position technically works. For me, when I’ve done love scenes or intimate scenes - however you want to characterize them, because they’re not always about love and they’re not always intimate - it’s just about the story. I didn’t think about it until the time came that I had to do the love scene. Then I thought, ‘Let’s just hope I don’t
come off as a total chump.’”

At the outset of Season One, Bette Porter seems to posses the most even-keeled presence in the cast, even though it’s perpetually career-absorbed. She’s in a committed, seven-year relationship with girlfriend Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman), a driven Hollywood professional with a high-profile job; she and Tina are preparing to start a family. But over the next few seasons, their well-manicured façade begins to crumble, culminating with Bette kidnapping her and Tina’s child in the midst of a bitter custody dispute. This season, after a few ups and downs, Bette’s life has stabilized: She and Tina are a couple again and are trying to adopt their second child.

Working on The L Word has been a gratifying, collaborative process, says Beals. Because the show uses different directors during the season, the actors bear some responsibility for maintaining character consistency. “Obviously, [series creator Ilene Chaiken] does that, but she’s taking care of lots and lots of different characters. You’re sort of the keeper of the flame—the heart and truth of the character,” she says.

One of the greatest triumphs of the show is the fluid interaction of its ensemble cast: a collection of vivid personalities, not drenched in stereotypes, that are authentic and believable. Whether it’s a delicate balance of female energy or just guilty-pleasure frenemy drama, the chemistry is still there. Five of the core actresses – Mia Kirschner, Katherine Moennig, Leisha Hailey, Holloman, and Beals – have been with the show from the beginning. Another central figure in the show, around which intrigue and occasional controversy revolves, is “The Chart”. Created by quirky journalist Alice (Hailey), The Chart is a massive “hook-up map” that diagrams relationships and connects people like a series of gigantic constellations. The idea is that there are traceable degrees of separation within the lesbian community among commonly shared sex partners. One of the main hubs on The Chart is the androgynous Shane (Moennig), whose reputation as a serial heartbreaker has only fueled her legendary status.

Then, of course, there’s Jenny (Kirschner). She comes to L.A. a naïve – if not completely innocent – heterosexual waif who discovers her inner lesbian early on. In the fifth season, her thinly-veiled memoir of her life with the rest of the series’ cast, Lez Girls, is developed into a movie. All the while she has fluctuated from being a sympathetic figure to being a cold, calculating manipulator. And so, no huge surprise, in the final season opener, Jenny has turned up dead. The answer to who offed her and why (there is a veritable tool shed of axes to grind) will be ostensibly revealed in the remaining episodes. Plans are already in place for a spin-off series, The Farm, which is centered on Alice and set in a prison. (Whether this is a plot giveaway or coy misdirection is anyone’s guess.)

Over the years, Beals has been taking various photos on the set of the show. She’s planning on putting a book together for the cast and crew to commemorate six seasons of memories. While attending an L Word convention recently, she got the idea that making such a book available to fans could be a good vehicle for raising money for various organizations. She’s since gotten other cast members to contribute text commentary for the book as well.

Beals has become much more informed on LGBT issues due to her association with The L Word. “I had no idea – no idea – that the gay and lesbian community wasn’t included in hate-crime law,” she says. (Legislation that added gays and lesbians to federal hate-crimes law finally passed in May 2007.) On a broader spectrum, Beals believes ensuring the rights of any minority has an overall positive effect on the majority. “Once one part of the collective sees themselves represented and is given permission to celebrate their own authenticity, then it helps the rest of the collective to see how everyone is connected,” she reasons. “It behooves all of us to have everyone experience their deepest, most beautiful, most profound and powerful self, because those people are more apt to give their gift to everyone else rather than shudder in fear.”

I ask Beals if her experience on the show has caused her to reevaluate what a modern “birds and bees” talk should entail. (She has a three-year-old daughter, so the subject is still a few years off.) “It’s more inclusive,” she says. “There used to be whole realms of people who weren’t talked about—whose very existence didn’t seem worthy subject matter for pop culture. Now that’s starting to change a little bit. And so those conversations we have at home with our children about love and about sexuality will then therefore change. The first question of sexuality comes from love—who loves whom—and you realize that is the unifying principle.”

Beals is clearly energized by the new direction the country is taking, and the positive impact the Obama administration can make on the world stage. “I think we hit the breaking point and the paradigm needed to shift or we all would have perished. I know that sounds so dramatic,” she acknowledges. “The biggest shift was for people to understand that they are all agents of change.”

Beals volunteered for the Obama campaign early on in the primaries. She went to Ohio and Pennsylvania twice, working phone banks and knocking on doors. “As much of a hermit as I am, I realized after the first time I heard Obama speak that I had to become involved. He was the only candidate I saw that could bring everybody back to their most powerful self.”

A Chicago native, Beals got pegged for the career-launching role of aspiring dancer Alex Owens in Flashdance while she was studying American literature at Yale. After allowing herself a moment to recall frat house floors coated with the sticky residue of keg beer, she says, “That girl – who I was – is very dear to me,” she says. “In some ways, I was older than I am now.” An admitted perfectionist, the actress rarely watches her own work. She’s seen Flashdance “maybe one-and-a-half times.” During filming, she likes watching the dailies, because the creative process is in full swing. “I like working with the director and carving out a communal point of view,” she says. “But when it’s all put together, there’s nothing left for me to do…. I’m too harsh on myself.”

As for what comes after The L Word, Beals replies that she would consider another series if the writing measures up. Beyond that, she’s not sure. “I don’t know what the next thing is for me, what way I can be useful and creative. I’m sure it will be revealed to me—sooner rather than later.” (Sooner, indeed. Just a few days after our interview, Beals signed on to star in The Book of Eli, an action/thriller that reunites her with Devil in the Blue Dress costar Denzel Washington.)

I ask the former American lit student to name some of her favorite works. She’s a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and deems “The Great Gatsby” one of the greatest books ever written. When she’s traveling, she’ll usually have with her Walt Whitman’s “The Leaves of Grass” or Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Lately, her shelves have become populated with child psychology books. Then there’s the “Twilight” series. She’s read them all. “I’ll take that to read in the trailer during shooting,” she says.

So the question remains: What is it about vampires that makes them so intriguing?
“When I was a little girl, I was afraid of the vampire, but I still didn’t understand why Lucy didn’t want to let him in.” she recalls, referring to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. “It’s like, he’s so much more interesting than the fiancé.
So…what’s the problem?”

While the myth of the vampire will always be cloaked in mystery, The L Word has done more than its share to bring lesbian issues and discussions of sexual identity into the light of day. And that’s a good thing—for the gay community and for society.


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