famous as a teenager can bring blessings and burdens, and Beals has experienced both. In 1983, Flashdance turned her into an international star and style icon overnight (that ripped sweatshirt! that sexy poster!) in her first year at Yale. A serious student who modeled as a teen to earn college tuition, she was startled by the media attention. “What’s surreal is that you experience yourself in the abstract,” she recalls. “People on the street think they know you, but they know this person that they visited with on the screen for an hour and a half.” She was never tempted to go the Hollywood wild-child route that has derailed such promising talents as Lindsay Lohan. “To get sucked into that, you have to believe the glamour is real,” she says. “If you have your eye on a different prize, you don’t get sucked in. I was so excited to go to college.”
Fellow Yale alum Jodie Foster, a friend who was a few years ahead of her, recalls that Beals downplayed her newfound fame. “She was a girl who played basketball and wore sweats and Converse sneakers,” Foster says. “She took photographs. I never believed she was going to be an actress; it didn’t seem to fit her personality. She’s not somebody who needs to dance on a table with a lampshade on her head to get attention.” That said, Beals is not shy about expressing her feelings. “What’s funny about her is that she can have a temper,” Foster says, laughing. “She can get into fights with cabdrivers. There’s a real fire in her.”
An entire generation fell in love with the fire Beals brought to her first major screen character, Flashdance’s gorgeous dancer-welder Alex, then watched her move to indie films (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Roger Dodger), TV series (The L Word, Lie to Me) and the occasional big-budget epic (The Book of Eli). “She has a profound, intuitive intelligence,” says Allen Hughes, codirector of The Book of Eli, in which Beals played a blind survivor in a postapocalyptic world. “She did this audition; it was so uncanny and different. It challenged me to look beyond my preconceived notion of what the part should be.” For Ride-Along, Ryan needed an actress to portray “a new breed of police leader,” he says, one who could navigate the “male bastion” of the Chicago police force. “As soon as I heard Jennifer saying the words, I knew she was right for it.” He also applauds the fact that Beals “isn’t completely tied up with the business and stardom. She’s a consummate pro on the set, but that doesn’t interfere with her being a wife and mother.”
Beals and Dixon have been married for 12 years (her first marriage, to director Alexandre Rockwell, lasted 10 years). “We met through a mutual friend,” she says of Dixon, “and when I saw him ice-skate—yeah, he’s Canadian—that sealed the deal.” She flashes a mischievous grin. “It was an ease, a body ease in the world.”
Outspoken and self-confident, Beals deals with public scrutiny by teasingly playing around with how much she will conceal. On The L Word, which featured a weekly cornucopia of breasts, “Jennifer didn’t do nudity,” says Ilene Chaiken, the series’ creator. “But she did some of the most compelling and sexy scenes, because she made them so real.” Says Beals, who declined to screen-test for Flashdance until the director said he’d use a body double for the sex scenes: “Usually you don’t need to do [nudity]. I don’t think it was necessary to the stories I was part of.” Similarly, in conversation with me she ducks some questions, such as those about her family (“Their lives are their own,” she says), yet offers up revealing anecdotes about her own experiences.