L IS FOR LEISHA by Dennis Hensley
It’s not quite Christmas but Liesha Hailey is talking about toys; specifically about how she thinks future episodes of The L Word, Showtime’s new drama about the lives and loves of a mostly queer gaggle of L.A. women could benefit from showcasing a few more toys. Yes, those kinds of toys. “We need more of that on the show,” the out actress muses, over tea and cookies in the garden of Melrose Avenue cafe. “I mean, it’s part of that world.” When told that her gay brothers could stand to be more educated about such accouterment, Hailey raises her hand and proclaims, “And I’d like to be the one to show ya!” The 32 year-old Fellview, Nebraska-born actress, pulls a lock of newly brown hair—she’s blond on the show—from her face and giggles. “Actually, I just watched the pilot with two gay men,” she reports. “It was really fun to watch their reaction because they were screaming at the TV, like, ‘She did not just say that?’ They especially loved to scream at me.”
As ambassadors to Lesbian-ville go, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Leisha Hailey. We first fell in love with her pixieish charm—she’s one of those girls who could dye her hair shocking pink and still look adorable—as one half of the pop-rock duo The Murmurs, a West Coast favorite with three albums to their credit. Then, in the late 90’s, we saw her on the arm of lesbian sex symbol k.d. lang. (The couple ended their relationship three years ago after nearly five years.) In ’97, Hailey made her own splash as an actor, playing and out-and-proud rocker in the popular indie, All Over Me. And wait a minute, wasn't that Leisha Hailey looking so cute and so gay in that long-running series of Yoplait yogurt commercials? Yep. And all that was before Hailey became the one out lesbian cast member on The L Word.
Hailey’s key role in the gay cultural zeitgeist was affirmed recently when she was asked to take part in the skin-soaked 24-person photo shoot for Vanity Fair's cover story on TV's Gay Heat Wave. In a slinky dress and strappy heels ("I really into exploring my femininity right now. I was just out buying a garter belt to wear under my dress at the premier") she was one of five leggy lovelies representing The L Word. "I feel so honored to be a part of this movement," Hailey says. "I mean, when I was like ninth grade, I remember running home every day after school to watch Cagney & Lacey, just to get the gay fix. Now, I feel like I'm a part of something really big, something that can help millions of people understand what it's like to be gay, curious, bisexual, transgendered. The L Word, this is one of the top five things I'm most proud of in my life."
Given that Hailey is the only out lesbian in the series's principal cast, it's ironic that her character, Alice Pieszecki, a spunky journalist who's always ready with a well-timed quip about such subjects as "nipple confidence" and the debauchery of Dinah Shore weekend, is the show's one avowed bisexual. It's a calling Hailey takes seriously. "I want to represent bisexuals as well as I want the straight girls on the show to represent lesbians," says the actress who read up on bisexuality before shooting began. "I've really come to learn that bisexuality is a true, legitimate sexual orientation. It's not about crossing over from straight to gay, which is an idea that Alice has to argue a lot with her friends. They all want her to stay in their camp, but Alice is looking for love, and she literally doesn't care if it ends up being with a man or a woman. I think that's beautiful."
Given that this is TV land, Alice's beautiful quest for Mr./Ms. Right is going to have plenty of complications. An ex-girlfriend, played by Go Fish star Guinevere Turner-who's also a story editor on L Word-keeps turning up with other women on her arm. Then there's My So Called Life's Devon Gummersal, who plays what Hailey cryptically calls "a special kind of male" with whom Alice gets involved.
Alice's pals could help her sort through it all, but they have problems of their own. Marina (Karina Lombard), the exotic owner of the gang's favorite coffeehouse, the Planet, has her hands full seducing a new-in-town, straight-but-maybe-not-that-straight writer named Jenny (Mia Kirshner) behind the back of Jenny's devoted swim coach boyfriend Tim (Eric Mabius). Then there's burgeoning tennis star Dana (Erin Daniels), who is determined to stay professionally closeted at any cost. Meanwhile, Type-A career gal Bette (Jennifer Beals) and her stay-at-home partner, Tina (Laurel Holloman), are struggling to survive the seven-year itch long enough to start a family, all the while dealing with the surprise return of Bette's more-or-less-recovering alcoholic musician sister Kit (Pam Grier). And finally, we have Shane (Katherine Moennig), the show's resident Lothario, who gets so much tail her pals need a giant dry erase board to keep track of her dalliances.
"We actually had a real life chart of our own in the writer's office," reveals out executive producer and series creator Ilene Chaiken, "then we just decided that we had to use it in the show."
For Chaiken, whose other credits include the Showtime movies Damaged Care and Dirty Pictures, as well as the Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, getting The L Word on the air was a dream five years in the making. "Back then, I knew nobody would ever go on this ride with me," says Chaiken, who lives in L.A. with her architect partner of 20 years and their twin eight-year-old girls. "When I sensed that the time was right, I told Showtime my stories, and they just said, 'Yes, we've gotta do this!'" Chaiken allows that the breakout success of Queer as Folk kicked open the door for her show, but hopes audiences won't regard The L Word as just a lesbian knock-off of QAF. "That comparison is inevitable," she says, "and to the extent that it gets people there, I welcome it. But I really believe that when people see the show, they'll see that they couldn't be more different."
For starters, The L Word has more familiar faces in its cast than Queer as Folk did, a lot more, from principals like Beals (Flashdance), Kirshner (Exotica) and Grier (Jackie Brown) to a guest star roster that includes Kelly Lynch, Ann Archer, Tami Lynn Michaels, Julian Sands, Lolita Davidovich, Rosanna Arquette, Ossie Davis, and Snoop Dogg. Yes, that Snoop Dog. "Showtime said to me in the beginning, based on their experience with Queer as Folk, 'Nobody with a name is going to want to do this. It's too scary'," recalls Chaiken. "Well, Jennifer Beals was the first person we went to, and when she said yes, it really set the tone. For some reason, it seems women are less judged and stigmatized for playing gay than men are. I think it has to do with the idea that it's not a turnoff for men."
“Nobody batted an eye,” says Jennifer Beals, when asked what the people in her life thought of the idea of her playing gay. “Not an agent, not a manager, not my parents, nobody. People were excited that I was going to be playing a character that I liked. I thought the writing was so strong and I loved the dichotomy of my character, Bette. She appears to be this Type A personality, but she’s really struggling in a lot of ways.”
Beals and the rest of the cast had to be willing to bare more than their souls, for The L Word, like Queer as Folk, doesn't pussyfoot around when it comes to depicting its characters as fully sexual creatures. "As far as having lesbian sex, everyone's completely a hundred percent gung-ho about it," Hailey says proudly.
"We did so much to make it real," adds executive producer Larry Kennar, the show's highest-ranking gay male, "including having speakers come in and help some of the straight actresses to really understand what goes on during lesbian sex."
“For an army movie, you would have boot camp,” reasons Beals. “Well, we had our sex seminar.” So did she learn anything she didn’t know before? “Oh yeah,” she replies. “I remember something about a dam.” A dental dam, perhaps? “Yes!” she exclaims. “I had no idea. It’s fascinating.”
The homework paid off. "I mean, I'm very into men," allows Kennar, "and I just watched some sex scenes from our final episode and it was just like 'Whew!'"
Of course, arriving at the Whew! place takes considerable trust and patience, on both sides of the camera. "You really have to open up a dialogue with the actors," says director Rose Troche (The Safety of Objects), who helmed the two-hour pilot and three of the subsequent 12 episodes. "You can't do it like I did Go Fish, where people get drunk and make out and you just shoot it all." One of Troche's favorite memories of shooting involves an on-set pow wow with a certain straight actress who was about to simulate oral sex on her scene partner. "She said, 'Rose, I don't mean to act like I know nothing about this, but could you just tell me like how to want my head to move?' I said, 'Just don't give me guys-in-a-porn-video-licking-from-side-to-side kind of movement,' and then I looked up and all the male crew members had this look on their face like, 'Oh my God. I'm not supposed to do it like that?' It's going to be very educational, this show."
Given that Showtime prides itself on its cutting edge "no limits" reputation, one might assume The L Word creators were under strict orders to keep things as spicy as possible. Not so, says Chaiken. "When we began, I think Showtime felt sex was going to be one of their selling points, and that we would-probably to a lesser extent than Queer as Folk-always have to deliver on that. But the minute they saw the pilot, they realized that that was not what the show was about, and they never pressured me." Troche puts it more bluntly: "We do sex when the story needs sex, not because it's time for some tits."
Speaking of time for tits, are the creators expecting much of a straight male crowd? If Howard Stern and his ilk have taught us anything, it's that horny heteros love them some lesbians. "I think that straight men who are consumers of that particular brand of entertainment might want it in a different package," says Chaiken, with a laugh. "But hey, it is a sexy show, and the women are beautiful."
Some might argue too beautiful. "When we made Go Fish, people were like, 'Why are all the lesbians so ugly? Some of us wear make-up and dresses'," recalls Troche. "Now, probably after The L Word, people will say, 'Why is everyone beautiful and why do they all have amazing jobs?' These characters are not every woman. They are not every lesbian. They're a very real depiction of a group of L.A. lesbians based on Ilene's own experiences."
"I think we show a spectrum of lesbian life while still making it believable that all of these people could be friends," adds Turner, "but people still may say, 'That's not me. Where's the truck-driving butch? Where's the New York artist'?"
And where's the appeal for the gay male audience? This question's a no-brainer, as far as Hailey's concerned. "There's great hair, high drama, great sex, and amazing stories," she says, ticking off points on her fingers. “I really think it shows more about what being gay feels like, and less about what it looks like."
"Gay men have been great lovers of good serialized drama," adds Chaiken. "Plus, we're telling stories about issues that are really the substance of all of our lives. One of the show's major themes is that cultural divide that we all are living on the brink of right now, the divide between Biblical America and the rest of us. And I feel that we very much take that on, and we try to humanize those stories and, you know, make the case."
And let's not forget the considerable charms of star-in-the-making Leisha Hailey. "She's an absolute natural," gushes Chaiken, who reconceived the part of Alice to better suit Hailey. "One of the network executives said, 'Leisha is the arbiter of hip.' And this was a very un-hip guy who said it."
“Leisha has so much beautiful positive energy,” gushes Beals. “Not to sound so Californian, but it’s true. She can’t help but be creative in every aspect of her life.”
"Leisha's timing is impeccable," adds Kennar. "I've heard people call her the gay Lucy."
The gay Lucy? The arbiter of hip? That's mighty high praise for a woman whose acting resume consists primarily of a handful of indies and those yogurt commercials. And while we’re on the subject, are those Yoplait spots super gay or what? “I think so, too,” Hailey chortles. “What about the one where there’s me and three other girls at a beach house and one of them says, “This (yogurt) is like a weekend-with-no-boys good,” and we all laugh. I mean, what straight women would be excited about a weekend with no boys?”
Hailey’s off-screen lesbian tendencies kicked in right around the same time as her thesbian ones, when at 17, she left Nebraska to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. “Soon to follow was my whole evolution,” she explains. “I mean, I had fantastic boyfriends in high school who I loved very much, but I started tapping into my true sexuality in my later years in high school; basically falling in love with my best friend but I wasn’t sure what it all meant.” Hailey eventually graduated from the Academy, but by then, she'd already hooked up with fellow acting student Heather Grody to form the alternative band The Murmurs. Her music career took precedence, as the pair recorded and performed together for the next 12 years.
Hailey was open about her sexuality from the get-go. "I feel like being out of the closet has done nothing but reward me in my life," she maintains, adding that she never felt pressure from the music industry to be anything other than who she was. "I feel like if you're comfortable with it yourself, then the way you're perceived in the world is very open." Though the Murmurs recently decided to break up, the musician/actress claims it's all good. "We're still best friends," stresses Hailey, who’s been dabbling in songwriting during her downtime from The L Word, “but we felt like it was time let ourselves grow in our own directions musically."
Hailey's less comfortable discussing the break up of her nearly five-year romantic relationship with singer kd lang. "It's a very private matter for me," she says when asked if the pair are still friendly. "I learned a tremendous amount from that relationship, and I'm very sentimental about it and look back on it with beautiful memories." Was it ever difficult for Hailey to be involved with sex symbol, to be Jennifer Anniston to the lesbian Brad Pitt? “That’s funny, the lesbian Brad Pitt,” she says, with a laugh, “but no, I never felt threatened. We were very close and connected and I suppose that aspect of it didn’t really affect the two of us. A relationship with any two people comes down to trust and security and if you have that then nothing else really matters.”
Though lang and Hailey broke ground by being one of the first gay couples to be covered in the mainstream media, Hailey shrugs off the idea that that visibility took guts on her part. “All of the sudden being hurled into being with a celebrity was very weird and hard to get used to,” allows Hailey, who is currently involved with a woman who works in the fashion business, “but as far as being out publicly, it felt the same as my everyday life.” So did she learn anything about fame from her years with lang? “Not really,” she says thoughtfully, “because kd’s a very down-to-earth person and didn’t really live her life by the book of fame. Our lifestyle really was about being at home and being with our dog. I'm very private, so (the attention) is nothing I sought after, but I was very proud of kd and all her accomplishments and never felt squashed by her fame in any way."
It's good Hailey's cool with the idea of fame, as she may soon be getting a big dose of her own. "I want everyone in the world to watch it," she says, when asked what her hopes are for The L Word. "But at the same time, I'm scared of what comes along with all that. It's gotta be a life-changer." She realizes it may also be a life-changer for those who tune in. "I love the thought of someone in Nebraska or wherever watching and realizing that they're not that different from anyone else," says Hailey. "I wanted the weight on my shoulders to represent the gay community. I'd be kicking myself right now if I wasn't a part of this."