She doesn’t do nudity, but she’s filmed some wildly sexy scenes. She gained international fame as a teen (in Flashdance) but never became a tabloid fixture. Meryl Gordon spends a revealing day with a stunning star who’s always had her feet planted firmly on the ground.
On a scorching hot day in Chicago, Jennifer Beals is standing on a bridge that overlooks a river and a dusty boatyard, preparing to film a scene for her new series, Ride-Along. In her role as Teresa Colvin, the city’s tough-minded police superintendent, she is wearing heavy cop regalia (black leather boots, pants-and-vest uniform, maroon shirt), and her long curly hair is tamed in an ornate bun under a police cap. She’s about to witness a car being dredged up from the river below with a dead body inside.
This tough cop is a 180-degree career turn from her last major role: the lipstick-lesbian museum curator Bette Porter, whom she played on The L Word for six years. For the new show, premiering on Fox in early 2011, Beals has uprooted her life, moving with her husband, Canadian entrepreneur Ken Dixon, and their five-year-old daughter from Vancouver to her hometown of Chicago, a place filled with echoes from her past. “Oh my God, my younger self is around all the time,” she says. “I’ll get a memory of a certain place. I may not remember precisely what happened at that location, but I’ll have a feeling about it.”
Ride-Along creator Shawn Ryan (The Shield) views Beals’s local-girl status in Chicago as a plus. “Jennifer is steeped in the city and the culture,” he says. But there’s one native advantage that Beals is comically lacking. “In the fourth grade, I decided that I would never sound like I was from Chicago, so I erased my accent,” she says. “For this show, I need to relearn it.”
With the heat index expected to reach 105 degrees, newscasters are urging people to stay inside, but Beals and the rest of the cast and crew are spending five hours under the sun’s brutal rays, without air-conditioned trailers or even bathrooms nearby. Knocking back Gatorade and joking with crew members (“Are you looking for an even hotter place to stand?”), Beals exudes good cheer. “I love the heat, I really do,” she insists. She knows that this is an impromptu character test, since the top-billed actors set the tone of a production. “How do you treat people around you as you are experiencing discomfort?” she says later. “Do you take it out on them or try to help them through it?” She chooses to be as upbeat as possible, cavorting in the actors’ “cooling tent,” a flimsy three-sided canvas area with two hoses ineffectively shooting out chilled air. “Jennifer and Jason [Clarke, who plays a detective] are dancing in front of the hoses, trying to cool off, while running their lines,” says the episode’s director, Lesli Linka Glatter, who’s also co–executive producer on the series. “She’s been outside on the three hottest days shooting in these disgusting places. She’s been extraordinary.” As Beals is summoned to the set again, a makeup artist rushes over to mop off the sweat, then powder her forehead.
Unlike so many other actresses, she has a face that moves freely, and when I mention this later, she says with a laugh, “Yeah, everything’s moving—frankly, downward.” But she does not see Botox or plastic surgery in her future: “That’s not what I wish for myself.”