For Beals, an acting job isn’t just a gig; it’s an opportunity to shape attitudes and break stereotypes. Which is why she remains upset over the controversial final season of The L Word, when this show about female love turned into a backstabbing murder mystery. “Do you know the lobster theory?” Beals says when asked about the series’ ending. “When you cook a pot of lobsters and they’re all male, you need to put the top on, because if one male gets out, he’ll try to help all the others get out.” She pauses, then adds, “But if you’re cooking a pot of female lobsters, you don’t have to put the top back on, because if one female starts trying to get out, the others will try to drag her back into the pot. Isn’t that awful?” She hated the way the plot forced the women to turn on one another. “My point is, we’re not lobsters,” she said. “It would have been nice to end it differently.”
Chaiken defends the plot (“I always did my best to tell the best stories, the right stories,” she says) and adds that she appreciated Beals’s passion for her character. “Jennifer can be very exacting. She’s constantly attuned to whether the words and the ideas are worthy of the character, worthy of her. It’s a lovely thing and a very challenging thing.” Beals was the first actress cast for the show, and her presence gave the series a huge boost, Chaiken says. “Showtime wasn’t sure I would get any big names. It really meant a lot to me to get someone who had a presence, a following. Jennifer set the bar, and she had no qualms about playing a lesbian.”
Beals used her star clout to help shape her character’s story line, requesting that she be explicitly biracial. “It became one of the most important aspects of the character,” Chaiken says. This is drama by way of autobiography: Beals is the daughter of an Irish-American schoolteacher and an African-American grocery-store owner who died when she was only nine. “We think it was a stroke,” she says. She lobbied to make her Ride-Along character biracial as well. “I think it’s interesting to explore, and it’s not explored very often.”
At the time we spoke, she didn’t know whether she would get her wish, but two weeks later Ryan tells me he has agreed. “I thought it was a perfectly legitimate question, since we planned to do a story line where you met her family,” he says. “Jennifer is biracial, she grew up that way, we’re playing it that way. Chicago is an interesting, complicated town in terms of race relations. It affects the character.”
Beals, who also played a biracial woman passing for white in the 1995 drama Devil in a Blue Dress, says she hasn’t experienced overt prejudice, but she admits that as a child she grappled with “feeling different.” She credits her mother with helping her create a positive identity by reading her stories from Greek mythology, in which “being different meant that you had some kind of gift. So it wasn’t a detriment.
“I’ve never lived my life to please someone else, trying to fit in,” she adds, “because that’s just a huge waste of time and causes all sorts of unnecessary anguish.”
It’s 7 pm, and the production has moved a few miles away to a modern municipal building masquerading as police headquarters. Sitting in “video village,” an area tucked into a ground floor alcove filled with TV monitors and director’s chairs stenciled with the cast’s names, Beals jokes with the dialogue coach about the Chicago attitude—smiling on the outside, scheming on the inside—she wants to convey in the next scene. She’s been snacking all day (“I don’t want to lose too much weight with this heat”), and now she wanders off in search of a plate of cottage cheese. Moments later, a five-foot-long metal pole comes flying off the balcony, landing with a clang on Beals’s chair.