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.”
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.
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.
Everyone in the vicinity is shaken up, yet Beals, informed of her close call, is remarkably unfazed. She’s had near misses before. “I was supposed to be at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” she says, prompting Glatter to reply, “I’ve got chills going up my spine.” Beals and Dixon were visiting New York and had planned to eat breakfast at Windows on the World, at the top of the north tower, then watch the opening bell ring at the stock exchange. When she woke at 7:30, she noticed that her usually fastidious husband had left his clothes on the floor. Beals recalls that she heard a voice in her head say, He’s worked so hard, let him sleep. “Luckily,” she adds with understatement, “I listened.”
By the time filming wraps, it’s 10:30. She’s exhausted but still game to meet me for a late dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel. She has changed into straight-leg jeans and a soft gray Marc Jacobs knit top (“I stole it from Pam Grier during The L Word”), and she’s slipped her gold-and-platinum wedding band back on. We talk about the pleasures of her top-cop role in Ride-Along, which gives the actress, who has competed in triathlons, a chance to get physical, brandishing a gun and subduing suspects. “Teresa will throw down,” Beals says cheerfully. “I got to really clock someone the other day. I get to express rage, which women are often reluctant to do.” Comparing Teresa with The L Word’s Bette, Beals adds, “They’re both incredibly strong; they’re both righteous. Teresa is like Bette on steroids. She’s even more driven, not as tenderhearted.”
To prepare for the role, she did a real-life ride-along with Chicago detectives, responding to a call that a man had been shot. “He was bleeding profusely and about to pass out,” she says. “I got to see how a crime scene is set up, who puts up the tape barriers, the detectives following the trail of blood. I helped find the shell casings.” That search sparked a flashback. “I remember on New Year’s Eve, my dad and the people in the neighborhood on the South Side used to fire their guns,” she says. “In the morning, the kids would go out and find the shell casings.”
I ask if her father kept a gun at home to protect the family, and Beals laughs. “Yes. Are you an American? Is it a foreign idea to keep a gun?” she says. “I grew up in an apartment building, and everyone we knew had a gun. My mother taught on the South Side, where kids would bring guns to school on a relatively regular basis. One of the first lessons she would teach the kids was how to dial 911.”
Her dad is long gone, but she feels that his spirit is still with her. Small wonder it’s so emotionally powerful for her to be back in Chicago, a place she hasn’t lived in for nearly three decades but where she is confronted daily with her past. “The thing about death,” she says, grappling for the right words, “in some ways they are there; you just don’t see them necessarily. I don’t believe it just ends when somebody dies.”
Beals grew up in a nonreligious household; her mother is a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t let her daughter attend church or synagogue. “I really wanted to know who God was,” the actress says. “So I would read the Bible at night to myself. It horrified her that I was collecting different Bibles; I’d find them at the flea markets, and I loved the ones with family photos.” She even wrote away for catechism instruction. Beals’s friends describe her as spiritual—a woman who meditates, gives crystals as gifts and is interested in alternative medicine. “She knows everything about Tibetan herbs,” says Foster. Adds the actress Elizabeth Berkley, a pal for a decade: “She’s a seeker in a beautiful way.”
As much as she enjoys acting, Beals also likes looking through the other side of the lens. A talented photographer, she often takes her Leica to work and recently published a book of candid, luminous shots of the cast of The L Word, with proceeds going to charities including the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “She has such an eye,” Foster says. “The first photographs I ever bought, when I turned 21, were Jennifer’s. She wanted to give them to me, but I wanted to be the first to pay for them.” On 9/11, Beals tells me, she took her camera downtown to make her own record of that fateful day.
The waiter removes our plates. Beals orders cheesecake and then cancels: “I don’t want to desert you, pardon the pun, but am I going to regret this in two hours? I’ll stay with my green tea.” It’s now after 12:30 am, and she’s ready to go home, aware that she’ll be awakened early by her daughter. I ask whether there’s anything else we should know about her: Does she tap-dance at 3 am, collect stamps, have unusual hobbies? Beals gives a surprisingly serious response, circling back to her ongoing search for meaning.
“The impulse to want to know who God is, is kind of still there,” she says. But she stresses that she has made some discoveries in her quest. “Whether it’s that moment in acting when everything is suspended and you’re not yourself, or breaking through the veil of a very long run or swim, or hearing my daughter laugh—they are all pathways to what I think God must be.” She pauses, then says with a smile, “That original journey has not ended.”
Meryl Gordon profiled Laura Linney for the September issue of More.
Originally published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of More.