Jennifer Beals doesn’t go for halfway measures. When she turned 40, she says, "I wanted to be doing something I really loved. I didn’t want to be driving by some stupid ad for makeup and be seduced into thinking I should look younger." She gives a giant roll of the eyes. "So you know what I decided? I went to Patagonia. On my 40th birthday, I was riding a horse galloping at full speed across the pampas and laughing my ass off."
Beals, now 44, has always been into controlling her destiny, even before she won the role that made her famous. The Chicago native, daughter of an Irish-American mother and an African-American father, scored a small part in My Bodyguard in 1980 and had been modeling when she auditioned for Flashdance, about a sexy steel welder with ballet-academy dreams. But when she saw the full script, she didn’t want to do the nude scenes, and she was about to start her freshman year at Yale, so she turned down a screen test. "The director, Adrian Lyne, called and told me how tastefully everything would be done," Beals says. "And I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know you. I don’t know how tastefully you’re going to do everything.’" Lyne agreed to use a body double, and Beals deferred her fall semester.
A huge hit when it was released 25 years ago, Flashdance landed in America’s pop culture pantheon not so much for its rather standard Cinderella story line as for the fashion frenzy it inspired. Oh, those leg warmers, that ripped gray sweatshirt! "I thought everyone knew that trick," Beals says of the scene where she wiggles out of her bra without taking her sweatshirt off. "I did it all the time when I was a kid."
The attention that followed was intense: Beals’s sudden stardom, critical carping about the film, the revelation that much of her dancing was done by an uncredited double. So she retreated to Yale (nice fallback), graduating in 1987 with a degree in American studies. Back in Hollywood, she chose her projects sparingly; some were better received than others (notably, Devil in a Blue Dress and the indies Roger Dodger and The Anniversary Party). "Look, I’m not saying I haven’t done things I didn’t like," she says. "Most often it was to pay the mortgage. But I never felt uncomfortable doing them." And if she never revisited that first crush of fame, it was fine with her. "I don’t think I’d want to alter anything. That’s who I am and how I’m here."
Today Beals is back in the spotlight as one of the stars of Showtime’s smart, in-your-face hit The L Word. The series, starting its sixth and final season in 2009, follows the lives of a group of gorgeous, accomplished lesbians in Los Angeles. Beals plays Bette, a dean at an arts college who is at the center of it all. "These women live totally unapologetically," she says. "I think subconsciously everybody wishes they could do that, live the way their hearts tell them to. And then there are the clothes. And the sex."
Go-for-it love scenes and controversial content have ignited debate, which Beals enjoys, though she views the show in a different way. "Obviously for the lesbian community it’s an opportunity to see themselves represented," she says. "But the larger appeal is the strength of the friendships, the solace and power and support that these women derive from one another."
Beals is working with L Word creator Ilene Chaiken on a performance piece that will combine gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender narratives in a format similar to The Vagina Monologues. "At V-Day in New Orleans [April 11 and 12, 2008], we set up a tent where people came and told their stories, and we recorded them," Beals says. "I want to build an archive of those lives."