‘I’ve had letters from klansmen’: Jennifer Beals on Flashdance, The L Word and fighting to get diverse stories told

Show caption Jennifer Beals … ‘Let me put my hand on the hilt, I will show you the sword is mine.’ Photograph: Jill Greenberg The G2 interview ‘I’ve had letters from klansmen’: Jennifer Beals on Flashdance, The L Word and fighting to get diverse stories told The actor, who broke through in 1983 playing a welder who dreamed of being a dancer, reflects on a life of activism, why gen Z give her hope and joining the Star Wars universe Zoe Williams @zoesqwilliams Mon 7 Feb 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Jennifer Beals is talking to me by Zoom from … “Do I have to say?” she asks. Not really, I tell her. “I can tell you there’s a blizzard outside and it’s really beautiful.” Her reticence, which lasts about 30 seconds, is because she is in New York, filming a yet to be announced new season of Law & Order. You could imagine her taking a friend’s secret to the grave; she is very cagey about where she lives, tending to call herself “nomadic” and describing her home as “the middle of nowhere” (in reality, somewhere near Los Angeles). Commercial discretion, though? Not so much.

It is creepy to go on about how young actors still look, as though that were a goal in itself, but Beals, 58, is so unchanged – since she first played Bette in The L Word in 2004; since Devil in a Blue Dress in 1995 – that my brain thinks it is making a mistake. She definitely, positively starred in Flashdance in 1983, her breakthrough role after a tiny part in My Bodyguard three years earlier, yet that can’t be right – it was 40 years ago! It is like walking past someone you think you knew at school, then realising that it can’t be them because this person is 21.

She grew up in Chicago, her Irish American mother a primary school teacher, her African American father a shop owner who died when she was nine. Beals was bookish, not a stage school kid, and it is not obvious how she landed the role of the welder turned dancer Alex in Flashdance when she was 18. She was still at Yale, studying American literature, and had to defer for a term. It wasn’t part of a grand plan, put it that way.

“I didn’t even feel like I wanted control or impact,” she says, “I wanted joy, full stop. It was completely pleasure principle: ‘This is fun. I enjoy this. And I can feel myself expanding – it’s really exciting and totally terrifying.’” Flashdance was massively successful. It is an interesting film to watch now, partly because it is brilliant, but also because the intensity of the objectification is so 80s. Possibly because she had not one but four body doubles, and maybe because she went straight back to college afterwards, Beals never seemed to be defined or boxed in by her sex-symbol entry point.

Beals in Flashdance. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Paramount/Allstar

Now, she has entered a franchise with a fractionally longer Hollywood pedigree than her own, as Garsa Fwip in The Book of Boba Fett, a spin-off of The Mandalorian – itself, of course, a spin-off of Star Wars. It takes a while to get your ear in to her natural register, which is playful, very literary and full of bathos. “It’s so exciting to be part of the lineage,” she says of Boba Fett. “It feels like a calling, like there’s some reason that the universe has decided that you’re going to enter into these stories.”

Later, talking about the roles she has longed for, she says: “Sometimes, I can taste a part in my mouth. I know that part is mine. It’s like a sword-in-the-stone scenario. This is mine. I’m coming to claim it. That’s all I’m asking. Let me put my hand on the hilt and I will show you this sword is mine.” Half of her is deadly serious, half is definitely joking. You can hear her academic hinterland not so much in her references – everyone has heard of King Arthur – but in her insistent ambiguities and cool irony.

On the one hand, she is hard-boiled about Boba Fett. “It’s a business thing: studios and networks are trying to find something that is a sure-fire hit, so they’re appealing to nostalgia.” From an audience perspective, “obviously, during the pandemic, there’s a desire for comfort”. She wouldn’t say it was all Covid-driven, though: “When have studios ever been interested in taking a risk?” But there is nothing hard-boiled about her attachment to Star Wars, which she describes in a self-mocking cascade. “I remember seeing Star Wars; I was 14. They were talking about the Force and I thought: yes. This is what I’ve been looking for.” The films chimed with her amorphous spiritual fervour. She has said if she wasn’t an actor, she would be a Buddhist nun. It is a joke, but is it?

“I was never that kid practising an acceptance speech in the mirror, holding an award. I was the kid who wanted to know, who was God? What is God? That was my obsession. I mailed away for catechism lessons from an advertisement in the back of the Silver Surfer comic, but that wasn’t what I meant. Then I started collecting Bibles. Then I moved on to tarot cards. My mom was just horrified. Cut to two years from now – I’ll have started a religion based on Star Wars.”

Beals’ trademark may be ludic ambiguity, but on politics she is deadly serious. Boba Fett slots into a career-long determination to foster diversity, in terms of who is telling the stories and which stories get told. “I look to tell underrepresented stories, and sci-fi is such a wonderful way to explore those ideas – to explore those on the outside, redefining their power, finding their path and perhaps even lighting a way for others.”

Just before the pandemic, Beals reprised a different role – not perhaps the one for which she is most famous, but the one with the most committed fandom: Bette, the alpha art dealer in The L Word, light years away from Beals’ serene real-life personality. “If I just played who I was, I would play somebody who lived in a cave most of the time. I’m not sure how many roles like that there are.”

As Bette in The L Word: Generation Q. Photograph: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Showtime

The show was first aired in 2004. I suppose the elevator pitch would have been “Friends except they are lesbians”. That proposition alone, nearly 20 years ago, was radical. Beals remembers: “When we were about to shoot the pilot, I was in a restaurant with my husband [the Canadian businessman Ken Dixon]. I leaned over to kiss him and it dawned on me at that time: if two women had been kissing, it would have been seismic in its effect on people.”

It turned out to be impossible to break those conventions on sexuality without breaking a whole host of conventions on race, class, parenthood and society. The L Word is technically sitcommy, warm, human and funny, but, stripped of the cliches of the format, it became something much more searching and original. It returned in 2019 as The L Word: Generation Q, bringing in transgender and non-binary characters, the writing recognisably subtle and fearless, the arcs and dilemmas novel.

“We took the three characters from the original iteration and tried to usher in the newer stories of this new generation. It’s so fascinating – an entire generation said: ‘Your words are not commensurate with our experience. Therefore, we will change the words.’ Whereas, in the past, people would have just tried to squeeze themselves into those words. In my generation, you were this, or you were that, and there was nothing in between. As many Rocky Horror Picture Shows as you saw, as many different people as I met, I was still in this very binary mindset. This generation blew that to smithereens and it’s really exciting.”

She hesitates, as if weighing up whether to say something a bit schmaltzy, then goes for it: “I really think they’re the hope for the planet.”

That show was also the first time Beals “came into contact with so many extraordinary activists who were thinking politically. That started to shift my perception, and I understood how important it was to become involved, to move the needle a little bit.” She is now involved with a range of charities and campaigning organisations, from GLSEN – which fights harassment of LGBTQ+ students – to more general movement-building against Donald Trump.

The L Word’s original showrunner was Ilene Chaiken, who is known for being ahead of her time (she executive-produced The Handmaid’s Tale, having fought to make it for years). The L Word was as groundbreaking on race as it was in its approach to sexuality – it featured thorny, challenging conversations between the biracial Bette and her white partner, Tina (played by Laurel Holloman), about whose sperm to use for their prospective child and what that meant for identity. This was, bear in mind, a time when entire dramedies could be set in New York with barely a black character. In terms of representation, it feels as though TV and film have changed a lot.

“When I was a young girl, I didn’t see myself represented,” Beals says. But there is a rather chilling detail from Devil in a Blue Dress, the neo-noir film that also starred Denzel Washington, in which Beals played Daphne Monet, who was biracial but passed for white. It is a trope she returned to 20 years later for The Last Tycoon, a series based on the F Scott Fitzgerald novel, in which she played Margo Taft, a movie star, again passing for white.

As Garsa Fwip, right, in The Book of Boba Fett. Photograph: Lucasfilm/Disney

Monet was one of Beals’ sword-in-the-stone parts, but originally the studio felt that – since she had been Flashdance-famous for 10 years – too many people already knew she was biracial and it would signpost the twist. I suggest that this was discrimination – or attempted discrimination – that surely couldn’t happen today, or if it did, they sure as hell wouldn’t admit to it. “Who knows?” she says. “I don’t know. I’m in the forest most of the time. How do I know what the world is? I can tell you what the trees look like.” Be cautious with this, I think is her implication: things haven’t moved on as far as it might seem. At times, whether as an honorary gay icon, a successful biracial actor or a campaigner, she has been a lightning rod for bigots.

“I’ve had my letters from klansmen, believe me,” she says. “I could always navigate it. I don’t know if that’s just because I was conditioned to navigate it. But I always could. It just made me determined to work even more.” There is something else driving her, a belief in the importance of storytelling so deep that it blurs or even erases the line between her self and her work. “Every single thing is narrative. Our understanding of things is a narrative. It’s the narrative of who’s in power. It’s the narrative of the person in the bodega down the street. What is the story that I’m telling myself? Am I telling myself the story that my teachers told me that I was? Am I telling myself the story that my parents told me that I was? How do I come to the narrative that serves my highest good?”

Aside from being in Law & Order, Beals is producing a number of projects, only one of them nearly ready to be talked about. It is a film that circuitously began with an idea about social media that she and another producer, Tom Jacobson, commissioned two YA novelists to write as a book, which “did very well and got a bunch of prizes”. She is poised, always, between the drive to create more, different, better stories, narratives that meet the demands of the age, and her Buddhist/wood-nymph desire to “stay in the cave and enjoy the forest. But it has some meaning, me working. So I might as well.”

The Book of Boba Fett is streaming now on Disney+