When The L Word went off the air in 2009, it was the only show of its kind. There was no one else depicting queer sexuality or the beauty and drama of women falling in love with other women. Sure, there were other gay and lesbian characters on TV — Modern Family and Glee would premiere that same year — but the landscape was dominated by American Idol, not Ru Paul’s Drag Race. In fact, it would be a full decade until Pose, Vida and Euphoria would show up to portray members of the LGBTQIA+ community as fully-formed and nuanced (and diverse) human beings.
“The culture is so different now from when we went off the air,” says The L Word star Jennifer Beals on the phone from L.A. while on her way to a photoshoot in support of The L Word: Generation Q. (Beal calls the show more of a “rebel yell than a reboot.”) “There has been a gigantic paradigm shift. For me, it’s tremendously exciting to have our show come back on the air to try to be a part of that conversation and to try to give visibility to people who didn’t have as much visibility in the past.”
Back in 2004 when the show first aired, Beals was already a superstar for starring in Flashdance and Devil in a Blue Dress, but it was her formidable portrayal of the ambitious and affluent biracial art director Bette Porter that catapulted her to TV icon status. In The L Word: Generation Q, she reprises her role (Porter's now a politician), reuniting with co-stars Katherine Moennig (Shane McCutcheon) and Leisha Hailey (Alice Pieszecki) and a cast of newcomers for a more inclusive, less problematic and younger look at queer life in Los Angeles. Here, we talk about how U.S. President Donald Trump inspired The L Word’s return, what doesn’t hold up from the original series and how playing a gay character made Beals realize how straight she is.
When did you decide it was time for the show to come back?
In 2016 [during the U.S. federal election], we could tell that the ground was shifting. We were also made aware that The L Word was still alive and well and robust in online conversation and it had become a deep part of the culture, particularly in the LGBT community. [The L Word creator] Ilene [Chaiken] and I were texting each other [on election night] watching the results come in. We realized we had to do something, and we met again on November 18 — I know that because I have a photo from the meeting — and we decided to really dedicate ourselves to the show. We knew what was coming in the way that [Trump] was campaigning. It was very divisive culturally, and we wanted there to be push against the tsunami that was coming and did come. He took office and he attacked the LGBT community immediately. I think there’s a really interesting cultural tension going on. We wanted to err on the side of love.
Like any reboot, this show has a lot of pressure on it. There has been a lot of talk about what doesn’t hold up from the original series. Did you feel the responsibility to course correct this time around?
I don’t think the word is responsibility. We have the opportunity to reflect the times in which we live. I don’t feel any pressure about it at all because nothing stays the same. You can try to ensure certain integrity that you have from the original show, but you have to jump in with absolute joy that the world is not the same and therefore you get to explore different conversations and different ways of being. That is really exciting. Certainly, [this time around] you have trans actors playing trans roles, and a more-diverse cast.
Let’s talk specifically the portrayal of trans people on the show, specifically Max’s transition, and the fact that the character was not played by a trans actor. It's the number one thing people criticize about the original series. How do you feel about it now?
It’s really easy to look back in hindsight and be critical, but Ilene was a pioneer. Even in her flaws, she’s forwarding the cause because now we get the opportunity to say “no, this isn’t how we should it. We should do it this way.” Still, she did it when people weren’t doing it. When people in the trans community were on TV shows, they were always mentally ill or there was some criminal aspect to them. She already started to change the conversation and I think people are forgetting that. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Was it hurtful to some people? Absolutely. But the fact is, she laid the ground to further the conversation, and now here we are in 2019 and we have the opportunity to not only have trans actors in trans roles, but we have trans actors playing cis characters and that’s incredibly progressive.
Along those lines, you’re a straight woman playing a lesbian. You’ve said in recent interviews that this character made you realize how super straight you are. How?
Oh my God, I’m so square. I’m surrounded by the coolest people ever. This is the fact I just realized. It’s hilarious to me when I see how I speak — it makes me laugh.
Since the first iteration, there has been more of a conversation about straight actors playing queer roles. Since you are a straight actor, what do you think of it?
I recognize in 2019 it’s a tremendous responsibility to have a straight, cis woman playing a lesbian character. I take that very seriously. I know that I’ve set the groundwork for a really powerful and empowering character and I’m very proud of that.
What does being an ally mean to you?
It means that you use your voice whenever you can to set something right. For me, if I have a platform with which I can be helpful then it’s incumbent on me to be helpful. I do that with gratitude, and I find it to be an honour, honestly. To have been called an honorary lesbian makes me very, very happy. I hope that there’s a ceremony at one point that goes with that.
With your honorary lesbian title?
Yeah, like I get a pin or something. I’d really like that. [laughs]
When did you feel like you had slipped back into the character of Bette? Was it putting on her power suits?
For me, it’s usually in wardrobe. The moment the cufflinks matched the gold, I was like "here we are." I don’t have to wear them all the time, but for the pilot and getting her boat back in the water, I think I needed the cufflinks.
Without spoilers, can you tell us how Bette has evolved in the past 10 years?
She’s suffered some terrible challenges and that has given her a sense of mortality in a way. I think having a teenage daughter who is figuring out her own independence forces [Bette] to be less controlling, which is certainly a challenge. She’s making the same mistakes in her private life over and over again. There’s still the occasional rage. Not quite as much in this iteration right now, but there’ll still be the occasional Bette rage.
Some of the new cast members grew up with the show and have said it changed their lives. How did that make you feel being on set with people who have been so influenced by your work?
It makes me really happy to have been a service in some way. I’m really happy that they’re there and get to serve as well. I’m sure that’s gratifying for them. Our main priority and responsibility was to welcome the new cast into the new iteration of the show. We would have cast dinners all together and talk through issues that were going on in script. We just let them know if they have questions at all about anything to please reach out to us. We didn’t want them to feel like they were in isolation, or that they were jumping onto some legacy that had no place for them. This is a new show. We celebrate that.
Absolutely, and I also have the band jacket. The original Flashdance sweater was my own and I have that. The other one from the film is a replica.
Do you wear it?
Oh gosh no. It’s in storage. If you ever saw me wearing that, you should have an intervention.
The L Word: Generation Q premieres on Crave December 8.