Ask Jennifer Beals what she’s learned playing a gay gal on “The L Word,” Showtime’s sexy melodrama about lesbian life in L.A., and she sizes up the human condition: “There are more similarities among us than differences.”
One notable example is how all manner of girls and boys will join in welcoming “The L Word” when, back for its second season 10 p.m. ET Sunday, it reunites the dishy sapphic sisters played by (among others) Mia Kirshner, Katherine Moennig, Erin Daniels and Leisha Hailey. And finds Beals’ character, Bette, in a real stew.
This season Bette will face fearsome funding problems at the art museum she runs. Worse, it looks like her relationship with Tina (Laurel Holloman), her longtime partner now pregnant with the child they had dreamed of parenting, is on the rocks.
“What a brutal year! It’s awful!” Beals chuckles. “There’s this moment in the eighth episode where Bette has one little moment of victory and joy. I burst into tears when I read it. ‘Something good happens to Bette, everyone!’ I was so excited.”
A veteran actress who at 41 appears barely older than she did as the welder/would-be ballerina in 1983’s “Flashdance,” Beals says she originally came to “The L Word” far less focused on portraying a fashion-forward lesbian than on the challenge of depicting an art museum boss.
A lesbian relationship “is about love and it’s about attraction,” she reasons. “I understood love and attraction. I didn’t know anything about art.”
A spicy recipe for successThe art of “The L Word” has been its spicy recipe of girl-on-girl explicitness blended with a hip California lifestyle anyone might fantasize about.
By design, the series is au courant. But thanks to Bette and Tina, with their ups and downs, it has scored a bit of unsought currency: Since “The L Word” premiered, gay marriage has been certified as a wedge issue splitting the nation.
“I’m always shocked that gay marriage is such a big deal,” says Beals over coffee in a Lower East Side patisserie she loves visiting when she’s in town. “You have to realize how precious human life is, when there are tsunamis and mudslides, when there are armies and terrorists — at any moment, you could be gone, and potentially in the most brutal fashion.
“And then you have to realize that love is truly one of the most extraordinary things you can experience in your life. To begrudge someone else their love of another person because of gender seems to me absolutely absurd.
“It’s based in fear, fear of the other, fear of what is not like you,” she says. “But when you are able to see lives on a day-to-day basis, rather than reducing it to politics, then it humanizes a whole community of people that were otherwise invisible. I think pop culture is really helpful in letting people see another side of life.”
One side of life she had a personal stake in displaying: “I requested that we make Bette biracial,” says Beals, herself of mixed-race parentage.
This gave the series another useful twist, allowing Kit, a straight friend played by Pam Grier (“Foxy Brown”), to become Bette’s half-sister. “A biracial character is something I would have liked to have seen on TV when I was a child.”
A long way from ‘Flashdance’Since she took a break from Yale to make off-the-shoulder sweat shirts de rigueur in “Flashdance,” Beals has logged dozens of films. Among those for which she feels special pride: “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Roger Dodger,” “Twilight of the Golds” (a 1996 Showtime movie) and “In the Soup,” an independent feature released in 1992. Also “Flashdance,” which she made, then — refusing to bank on its spectacular success — followed up by heading back to Yale.
“I never wanted to be a superstar,” says Beals, flinching. “My heart just did an ‘uhhhhhhhhhh’ at the thought of it.” No wonder. This is a private person who identifies her husband only as Ken, and loves describing the Philosophy of Sanskrit class she’s currently enrolled in, but declines to say where.
Hers is a career she’s happy with, she says, “and I hope I’ll be acting till the day I die. It’s something you can never finish, never get to the center of.”
Happily, she isn’t finished with “The L Word”: It’s already renewed for a third season, which means the series’ sisterhood will reconvene in Vancouver, where it’s shot, in a few months.
Then Beals can again rely on one more thing she’s learned playing a lesbian: That in their shared state of undress, actresses will protect each other from the camera’s prying eye.
“You can say, ‘I don’t feel so great about this part of my body today. When we roll over, can you make sure your hand is covering that cellulite?’ And you can have her augment things: I’ve had scenes where I went, ‘Can you just lift it up, so I look a little bit more ripened?’
“Every guy I’ve ever done a love scene with has forgotten. But women understand what you mean, they understand how important it is,” says Beals, smiling at this case of sisters doing it for themselves: “I’ll cover yours if you cover mine.”