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Our Ms. Beals

Jennifer Beals’ second act, starring in Vancouver-shot The L Word and so unexpectedly becoming a beacon for gay rights, suits the actress/activist who stumped for Barack Obama and sees his election as something bigger than politics as usual

photography by KHAREN HILL

Jennifer Beals found her second act in Vancouver.

Most actors wait forever for the iconic role that never comes. For Beals, though, stardom came early, with Flashdance, the 1983 hit dedicated to the proposition that dancing will set you free.

Despite strong work in other films over the years, Beals continued to be identified with Flashdance. Then, in Vancouver, 20 years after her first iconic role, she created a second one – starring in The L Word, the television phenomenon dedicated to the proposition that all lesbians, and everyone else, are created equal.

So popular is the shot-in-Vancouver Showtime series – which has just begun its sixth and final season (airing Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Showcase) that its name has become a widely-used euphemism for lesbian.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” says Beals. “Really, globally, it’s been a really incredible response.”

Beals first told me about The L Word over a lunch-time interview at the Kitsilano Milestone’s in 2003. The show had just gone into production in Vancouver. With its groundbreaking premise (a Sex and the City-style relationship series but with lesbian characters) and quality cast (for starters, Beals, Pam Grier and Mia Kirshner), it seemed destined to become one of the benchmark Vancouver TV series, alongside The X-Files and 21 Jump Street.

At the time, Beals was just beginning to grapple with the larger meaning of The L Word, and she would pause after some questions, as if unwilling to say anything until she’d found words with a ring of truth. That search for clarity is part of what makes Beals so unique in a profession that celebrates celebrity and self-absorption. She is acutely aware that the world is larger than her profession and herself, which brings her to campaign for Barack Obama, study Buddhist philosophy and take roles in no-budget indie films. But there are other sides to Beals, too, and the one that first responded to The L Word was all about her.

“To be totally honest, when I first read the pilot, I didn’t really think about what will this mean socially, what will this mean culturally, what will this mean for the gay community or for the community at large,” she now says. “I just thought very selfishly as an actress.”

Beals was drawn to the complexity of her character, Bette Porter, a strong-willed woman who worked as a curator at a Los Angeles art museum, but she had done some tepid television and was wary about jumping into the small screen. So, she met with The L Word’s creator/producer Ilene Chaiken, was impressed with her smarts and integrity, and signed on.

“When Jennifer and I both started this show, we had no idea it would have the impact and the reach that it’s had,” says Chaiken. “Jennifer has had a tremendous impact. She has become such an inspiration and role model to so many women who never have seen themselves or their lives or their aspirations represented on television.”

Growing up in Chicago, the daughter of an African-American father who owned a grocery story and Irish-American mother who taught school, Beals was more voracious reader than star-struck movie fan (“I remember having a big crush on Huckleberry Finn,” she says). She also acted in student productions and by 14 had an agent. Beals had barely started first-year classes at Yale University when she was cast in Flashdance, as a welder with dreams of dance school. During her second term at Yale, the movie was released to tremendous fanfare. Beals was an instant cover girl, her bare-shouldered sweatshirt the style of the day.

When a movie makes a splash like Flashdance, its young star can keep doing what she’s doing or move to L.A. to pursue the opportunities.

“I had no intention of dropping out of school,” says Beals, “and woe to the person who would suggest it to me. It’s just something I really loved.”

With her considerable acting chops and unique beauty, had Beals relocated to L.A. during the Flashdance mania, she might have wound up a Julia Roberts-sized star.

“What’s the point of being a big movie star?” she says. “I mean, literally, at the end of the day, what’s the point of it?”

Beals, at 19, was more interested in exploring herself than chasing fame. “If you’re interested in inquiry, a movie star isn’t perhaps the best path. But if you go to university and you are exposed to a myriad of subjects and extraordinary teachers, then you’re more likely to go on that path of inquiry. At least for me. I don’t think I could have made the pursuit of movie stardom anything other than a misery.”

So, Beals finished her degree in literature. She met New York filmmaker Alex Rockwell, and the two were soon married, living in Manhattan and working on In the Soup, a comic look at movie-making that would be a Sundance hit in 1992. The sensibility that kept Beals at Yale put her in sync with the independent film world, and she has kept one foot in indies, appearing in such films as The Anniversary Party and Rodger Dodger.

Beals is also a working actress with a long resumé of TV and film work between Flashdance and The L Word – some forgettable, some exceptional. In the noirish Devil in a Blue Dress, for instance, Beals delivered a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance as a sensitive-but-tough fatale enmeshed in intrigue with private investigator Denzel Washington.

Beals’ home is the next place a good script takes her, so she is reticent to says she lives any place. But not long after her breakup with Rockwell in the mid-1990s, she got a place in L.A.

Her ties to Vancouver started shortly after when she met Maple Ridge-reared Ken Dixon, who had worked on film crews. They married, and had a daughter in 2005.

These post-L Word days, Beals moves between homes on the west side of Los Angeles and the west side of Vancouver, undecided whether they’ll maintain a place in Canada if she’s not shooting here.

“We haven’t really made a plan,” she says. “When I’m not working, I do spend time here. Well, because my husband’s from here, we have family here. I love Vancouver. I would love to do another series in Vancouver. I discovered triathlons in Vancouver – swimming in the ocean and running on trails and biking and . . .”

Maybe it’s a lesson derived from Beal’s onetime Yale classmate David Duchovny, who found that joking about Vancouver, especially its weather, can provoke the inner lynch mob in local rain-soaked media, but Beals seems hard-pressed to find anything wrong with the city. (“I was in New York a couple weeks ago and it started pouring down rain and everybody started panicking, and I was like, ‘So what, it’s just rain.’”)

She can’t, however, resist mentioning just one thing: “I think somebody could help the architecture along,” she says. “Coming from Chicago, it’s just really deplorable. It’s crazy because you have this amazing backdrop of the mountains and the ocean and you have so much to work with, but nobody, I think, has given it the thought. It seems quite expedient. So ... but I do love being here.”

Having a black father and a white mother and being from Chicago, voting for Obama must have almost been like voting for herself.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” Beals says with a laugh. “But it certainly resonated with me in a very personal way, especially since he was a community organizer in Altgeld Gardens, which is where my father had a store when I was a girl. But obviously you don’t campaign so hard for someone – especially when you’re so much of a genetic hermit as I am – just because they have a similar background.”

Beals activated for Obama last year and was invited to be on his women’s policy committee. She saw in Obama an exhilarating way out of the Bush years.

“It was this amazing possibility to have the dynamics of politics, as they had been practised for the last eight years or more, completely changed, because we were just in the politics of fear and there was no sense of the community or a government for the people and by the people. And here was an opportunity to have someone who would lead but who would also listen.

“I’ve met him on several occasions. And he’s really the person who looks you in the eye and talks to you and listens to you, and remembers what you said the last time that you met. And you just can’t even believe it because he’s met thousands upon thousands of people. ... It’s more about a movement than a political campaign.”

Beals did not realize it at the time, but when she signed on to The L Word, she was also signing on, in a sense, to the gay movement. Once she knew what she had gotten herself into, she relished it, knowing that somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, some girl who had identified herself as gay would find strength seeing herself represented on TV.

“It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me – I had had no idea this was the first show of its kind and what does that mean. And for me what it meant was that you have an enormous opportunity to be helpful to another group of people. That doesn’t mean that you in any way colour your performance to be helpful. You be as honest as you possibly can be. And the truth will be helpful.” mv


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