Twenty-five years after her doe-eyed debut in Flashdance made her the pinup fantasy of men across America, 44-year-old Jennifer Beals is still making hearts skip a beat—only now it’s in the role of power lesbian Bette Porter in the sixth and final season of Showtime’s The L Word.
The Chicago native is the perfect choice to headline our Love Issue; she’s got the “L word” on the brain, as well as other “L words,” like life, lesbians, and her left-leaning political views.
And despite her whisper-soft voice, Beals has a lot to talk about: From campaigning for Barack Obama to growing up biracial in Chicago, from gay marriage to her dream of getting a part that brings her back to her hometown, we got her to deliver the straight scoop.
MICHIGAN AVENUE: Describe your career journey, starting with Flashdance—how were you discovered?
JENNIFER BEALS: It wasn’t like someone walked by and said, “I’m going to discover you.” I had an agent in Chicago, and when I was 14, I worked quite a bit with Victor Skrebneski, mostly doing catalog work. I saved my pennies and then went off to college, and I got Flashdance in my first week at Yale.
MA: In many ways that movie has defined your career. How do you feel looking back on it now?
JB: I look upon it fondly. It was the entrée into my professional and creative life.
MA: I was a kid when Flashdance came out, and I remember being struck by the fact that you were a dark-haired, dark-skinned heroine in a lead romantic role. I actually wondered if I was going to look like you when I grew up.
JB: It’s funny when you talk about not seeing yourself reflected back, because I spent my childhood not having anyone to identify with. There was no real person in the world that represented me, so I identified more with fictional characters, like Spock or Proteus.
MA: A lot of people don’t know that you grew up in Chicago—what was your childhood like?
JB: My father had a couple of businesses in Altgeld Gardens, where he was a community organizer. A grocery store is the one I remember the most. I was quite young. I just remember him coming home with all the coupons people gave him at the till, and it was my job to organize the coupons.
JB: I had the whole experience, from junior kindergarten through the 12th grade. I can still recite, “A school should be a model home, a complete community, an embryonic democracy.” That’s what Colonel Francis Parker said, and he was the driving force behind the school. Marie Stone was a teacher there who was incredibly influential for a lot of us, and really quite central to my experience at Parker. She taught American literature, but she also taught you about the world and your place in the world. Ideas like: If not you, then who? She said that it’s incumbent upon you to take part in the world and be a responsible member of the community and to help other people.
MA: You could have never predicted the impact you’d have on the gay community, playing a lesbian on The L Word. Were you nervous about taking on the role?
JB: I just thought it was a great part, and I didn’t even think about the love scenes. I was so committed to preparing for the whole work story, because so much of Bette’s life is work. What does it mean to run an art gallery? That was the focus—and then I realized, In two days I’m shooting a love scene and I don’t have a friggin’ clue what I’m doing. I’m going to be outed as such a hetero chump! And then I thought, I just have to relax.
MA: Does the title of the show stand for “Lesbian”? “Love”?
JB: Every episode is another “L” word—there’s a whole myriad. “Luminous” is a good one.
MA: How has playing a lesbian changed your views on homosexuality?
JB: Oh my god, it’s completely changed. There were issues I would have had no idea about. I had no idea that the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community is not included in hate-crime legislation. That makes hate codified within the culture. To say: All these people are covered but you’re not. What the fuck is that about? Pardon my French, but I was really upset. I became aware of the Matthew Shepard Act [to expand the 1969 US federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability], and hopefully that will pass soon.
MA: Your character is known as the “Big Cheater.” Has that been fun or difficult for you to play?
JB: When [executive producer] Ilene Chaiken first wrote it I was like, Really? Really, do we have to? I was so upset. But I thought, OK, all right, I’m not going to try to make it any less than truthful. But it was hard.
MA: Lesbianism seems to be more culturally accepted these days. Do you think The L Word is partially responsible?
JB: I think in some ways it has shifted, but with Proposition 8 passing it clearly hasn’t shifted enough. I was really disappointed but I also realized it’s a matter of education and exposure. For me it was a lesson in campaign organization—or disorganization, if you will. The opposition was fired up and organized. You can’t wait until you realize your opponent has $15 million in the bank; you have to frame your argument right away. All the numbers show the younger generation supports same-sex marriage, so it is inevitable. Someday people will look back and say, “I can’t believe there was a time all people couldn’t get married.”
MA: You were very involved in Barack Obama’s campaign—what drew you to him?
JB: I heard him speak in LA in November of 2007 and afterwards I got in my car and just started shaking. I’m such a hermit by nature; I’m not genetically encoded to speak. I realized I was going to have to change my DNA. This was something that was bigger than me and needed my attention. So last year I interviewed Tobias Wolff, the chair of the National LGBT Policy Committee for Obama’s campaign. We made a video about where Obama stood on policy issues, and posted it on Ourchart.com.
MA: Where were you on Election Day?
JB: I was in Vancouver, and when it was 16 to 3 [electoral votes] in favor of McCain, I called Tobias and said, “Direct me to a phone bank. Who should I call? What state is important right now?” He said Nevada, and I just got on the phone and started phone-banking to 77-year-old men in Nevada. Most of the calls were to assisted-care homes. I just couldn’t take it. I thought, There’s no way I’ll be sitting here when there’s somebody in Nevada who has to vote. So when I called, I asked them, “Do you need a ride? I’ll call and arrange the vehicle.”
MA: You’re such an inspiration! I hear you’ve also amped up your physical activity in the last couple of years.
JB: I’ve been trashing my skin the last two years, doing open-water swimming. Last weekend I did a swimming seminar—four hours each day of swimming technique, and I couldn’t have been happier. I did my first triathlon a year and a half ago—if somebody had told me that I’d do it three or four years ago, I would have told them they were nuts.
MA: You’ve been married since 1998 to a Canadian entrepreneur. You have one child together and he has children from a previous marriage. What are your feelings about blended families?
JB: You have to be respectful of your spouse, and their ex as well. It can be tricky when different belief systems collide. You have to take time to listen to someone else’s point of view. It’s too easy to start fighting. Listening is work.
MA: You’re quite revered in the gay community. There are websites, blogs, and a Wikipedia entry dedicated to your character. How does your husband feel about being married to a gay icon?
JB: We don’t talk about it—it’s just part of my work. I don’t say, “Hey honey, the gay icon is home!”
MA: I know you split your time mostly between LA and Vancouver these days. How do those cities compare to your hometown?
JB: You get so spoiled by Chicago… the architecture is so stunning. Then you go to Vancouver, which is a lovely city except for its architecture, and you stand there and think, Did nobody take time to plan the city? In Chicago, when you’re going by Buckingham Fountain and part of the White City area and downtown, it looks like all the architects had a conference and talked to one another to coordinate their work.
MA: Do you think you’ll be spending more time in Chicago now that The L Word has wrapped?
JB: I know that the universe is really good at surprising me, so we’ll see what the next gift at the doorstep is. I can offer my suggestions to God, but I’m sure God has a better plan. Who knows, if I get a series in Chicago, I could be in Chicago. I’m just suggesting, universe! I’m not demanding. It’s a thought.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON BELL
STYLING BY BASIA ZAMORSKA
HAIR BY JOSHUA BARRETT FOR ARTISTSBYTIMOTHYPRIANO.COM
MAKEUP BY ANTHEA KING FOR ARTISTSBYTIMOTHYPRIANO.COM