If you’re incredibly straight or haven’t watched TV in 15 years, the name “Jennifer Beals” probably makes you think of Flashdance, her star-making role as a steel-mill-dwelling dancer with a perennially ripped sweatshirt. If you’re queer, however, you’ll instantly picture Bette Porter, the self-sabotaging, power-suit-sporting, gallery-owning top who once brought Alice Piazecki to orgasm at the opera. Though Beals has nearly 90 TV and movie credits to her name, she cemented herself as a lesbian icon back in 2004, when she strutted onto Showtime’s The L Word and, over the course of six seasons, engaged in a dramatic psychosexual tango with her longtime partner Tina (Laurel Holloman), supported and aggressively judged her group of lesbian friends in equal measure, slept with multiple women who worked for her, grinded up against a jail-cell wall out of sexual frustration, had a baby, bought a gallery, and hosted a pool party that ended in suspected murder.
Though the The L Word was an incredible, game-changing look at girls in tight dresses who dragged with mustaches, it ultimately ended like a lot of Bette Porter’s sexual relationships: quite poorly. Even creator Ilene Chaiken herself openly regrets the series’ conclusion. Fortunately, Beals and her cohort will get a chance to set things gay again with The L Word: Generation Q, a reboot of the series that premieres December 8 on Showtime. The new season sees the return of Bette, Alice (Leisha Hailey), and Shane (Kate Moennig), plus a handful of new cast members and the promise of a course-correct that fans have been waiting on for over a decade.
In the first episode of Generation Q, we’re reintroduced to the central three: Bette is now running for mayor of Los Angeles for a mysterious personal reason, but she is plagued by a scandal dredged up from her past; Alice is hosting a gay talk show and dating someone new (WHERE IS TASHA?); and Shane is now internationally famous, but she recently sold her hair-salon empire, also for … mysterious personal reasons. Before Generation Q’s much-anticipated premiere, Beals called up Vulture to talk about the new show, Bette’s evolution, and how she defines her own sexuality after living inside of Bette’s extremely gay brain for so long. But first, we had to do a deep dive into the intricacies of the original L Word.
When was the last time you watched the original series?
Oh, wow. When we were preparing, we started to go over old episodes.
Any specific moments that stood out to you on the latest watch?
There were things that I didn’t remember! There’s a trailer for Generation Q where Bette’s in a bar with Shane and Alice, and I throw the shot glass over my shoulder. Somebody said, “Oh, you know, Bette would never do that.” And I said, “Yeah, actually, I would!” Kate chimed in and said, “Not only would she do it; she’s really done it in another episode from early on.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness, yeah, there was that moment where I wasn’t gonna have a shot.”
I remember that, too. I think it was at Jenny’s party.
There are so many instances where I’m like, “This feels familiar, but I’m not sure why,” and then I go back and I revisit the show and I go, “Oh, that’s why. Because that happened.” I feel like it’s in my DNA now.
Does the original series hold up on rewatch? Are there things that made you cringe or made you excited to remember doing?
The things that made me really excited to see were the friendships. These women’s friendships were so potent and joyful. And that was really the broader appeal of the show — the L stood for “love” as well as “lesbians.”
When you think back on the experience of filming it, what’s the first memory that pops into your mind?
I just start laughing. The minute you asked me that question, I just started smiling. We just laughed so hard. Especially when all of us were together at the Planet, I really always felt for the director, because it’d be like wrangling cats. We always had a terrific time. We had a very supportive crew up in Vancouver and fantastic directors who by and large were independent filmmakers encouraged to bring their own vision to the show, unlike many TV shows, where they’re a gun for hire. And it was a joy.
Who have you kept in touch with over the years?
Certainly I’ve kept in touch with Kate and Leisha, and we’ve talked quite a bit, obviously, about bringing the show back. Once we found out that the show was being talked about pretty consistently on social media, we realized there’s an appetite. When we went off the air was right when Twitter was starting. I remember Kara Swisher telling me, “There’s this thing called Twitter and you’re really gonna want to get on it, it’s 180 characters …” And I was like, “This sounds insane. Why would I do that? It doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t I send somebody an email?” [Laughs.] But woe to the person who disregards Kara Swisher’s advice.
This is a big question, but how did the show change your life?
Oh my gosh. In so many ways. First and foremost, it brought into my life a group of friends who are like family to me. Ilene, Kate, and Leisha are really like my family. It also introduced me to a group of activists who never cease to amaze me with their intelligence and dedication. Up until that time, I was really like a hermit. It’s not easy, necessarily, for me to be in a group of people that I don’t know, much less standing up and speaking out for certain things that I believe in. By virtue of being in proximity to these extraordinary people, they’ve helped me find my voice.
What’s an example of how you’ve been encouraged to use your voice?
When the protests were happening with the water protectors at Standing Rock, I went down there twice. The second time I went down there, they were throwing everybody off of the site and threatening to shut down the camp. I said to my husband, “I have to go there, because I have to make it so there’s one more body that they have to deal with. And one more body who has a little bit of a platform.” So I got on a plane and went. I don’t know that I could’ve done that without [the L Word community]. I hadn’t seen that modeled in my own life.
To get back to The L Word: What frustrates you the most about Bette as a character, and what do you love most about her?
Oh my God. I mean, sometimes she just doesn’t learn the lesson. It’s incredible. It’s like, she’s on this never-ending wheel, like a hamster. [Laughs.] She just keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again. What I love about her is that she’s actually very big-hearted and unapologetic about her agency and her will.
What reminds you the most of yourself?
Our vulnerability. For sure.
Has playing her changed you on a personality level?
It really laid a pathway for me. She really laid the pathway for a whole host of other characters that I played who are very comfortable in their authority and in their will. Namely, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department for Chicago Code, which I’m pretty sure came right after The L Word. And she really set the groundwork for me to play Margo Taft [on The Last Tycoon], which was my favorite character I’ve ever played.
I have a personal opinion on this, which I won’t share until you do, but: Do you think Bette and Tina are meant to be together?
Oh gosh! [Laughs.] I can’t answer that question.
I always felt like Bette was too good for Tina, to be honest with you.
[Laughs loudly.] Ohhhh my God. You just pissed off a whole bunch of people. Somewhere, a band of them is very upset with you.
I have to live my truth. I just rewatched the whole series this summer, and something that struck me is that you were one of the only cast members who never did any nudity, which is especially interesting on a show where you had so many sex scenes. What was behind that choice?
Well, I have a rider that says, “I’m not doing any nudity.” I don’t think you need it necessarily to do the story. And frankly, when people think back to the first iteration of The L Word, they don’t really realize it because of the way that the scenes are filmed. I feel like sex scenes without story are porn. And sex scenes are really sold by the degree of intimacy which is relayed. I think that Laurel Holloman and I were able to portray that in a way that we don’t need the nudity to sell the intimacy.
Was it ever uncomfortable for you filming those really intimate scenes?
The first iteration of The L Word, they never felt uncomfortable on set. We had an amazing crew and great directors. We talked through every single scene. A love scene is a scene with a beginning, middle, and end. The characters want something. They want something from someone else, they want something for themselves. So you’re choreographing things to tell the story. Not to just be like, “Here’s some sex for everybody.” The story is the grand altar. So how do you serve it?
Which character do you feel the most similar to in real life?
I have no idea! I just feel so much myself.
When fans come up to you these days, are they speaking to you most often about The L Word? Flashdance? What do they want to tell you?
It depends. It’s pretty even. A lot of people come up about Taken, some come up about The Last Tycoon. Some people about Swamp Thing. But the people who come up about The L Word, their hearts are on their sleeves. They confide in you. And it’s a different kind of fan. It’s really extraordinary.
Have you seen the Bette Porter Gallery Instagram?
[Laughs.] No! That seems like a must-see. What is it? I’m gonna write it down.
@BettePorterGallery. It’s a lot of lesbian memes and news and gossip. You should check it out.
Oh, I had this fantasy that it was all the art that had been portrayed in the show.
That would be cool.
I’d like that. That’d be really neat. We had such great art on the show.
Let’s talk about season six. You’ve alluded to the fact that you and Ilene didn’t agree about its direction.
Yeah, that made me mental.
The whole death at the center of it, and the idea of “who’s guilty,” I didn’t love that idea. Ilene has since said she wishes that, I’m gonna paraphrase, “I’m gonna pretend the sixth season didn’t exist.” [Laughs.]
But in the pilot, without getting spoiler-y, Jenny’s death is referenced. So you guys didn’t erase season six entirely.
Yes, yes. It did happen. But also, Ilene’s not our showrunner anymore. Our new one [Marja-Lewis Ryan] gets to take the reins. We have to deal with Jenny’s death. We want to rewrite history, but we can’t.
I always thought Tina killed her. She pushed her off the ledge!
[Laughs loudly.] Oh my God. That’s so funny. Wow.
Can we talk about the clothes from the original series? They were extremely … of a time. On the rewatch, was there anything that made you feel like, Holy shit?
From the first go-around? There’s so many things. There’s a beautiful vest that ties in the back. And there’s this crisscrossing. You think it’s just a regular vest, but Bette turns around and it’s a masculine play on a corset, which is really pretty phenomenal. Any time there’s a cuff link, I’m really happy. [Costume designer] Cynthia [Ann Summers] did an amazing job.
The show makes reference to the fact that there aren’t any gay bars left in L.A., and in earlier press, Ilene and the cast were talking about how no show had really taken The L Word’s place. Why do you think that is?
Well, there’s a lot of things on the air that start talking about queer culture. You have Pose, which you never would have had before The L Word was on. The conversation has definitely broadened. Queer characters are much less likely to be the serial killer or some other nefarious character. There’s so many stories to tell.
Tell me about the initial conversations about the reboot. How did you all decide you’d actually do it?
First we reminisced about the show, and then you figure out there are conversations going on online, referencing The L Word. So we start saying, “What if, what if?” And we approached Ilene and she was very much into the idea. She was busy on Empire but still completely game. And then the 2016 elections happened and we realized we had to do something. We realized we’re storytellers. Everything in life, really, is based on a narrative. It’s the narrative your parents tell you, or that your school may tell you, that you tell yourself, or your community at large tells you about who you are. It’s important to add our own narrative because visibility helps give agency to the community. And it helps us open our imagination not only to what is but what could be.
Did you talk about the criticisms that people had about the initial series? Like, for example, the way the show dealt with trans characters.
I think the most important thing is that we make sure to have trans actors playing trans characters. Ilene was really at the forefront of having a trans character on the show, and even in our flaws, you’re furthering the cause. You learn from possible mistakes, you try to correct those mistakes, and you realize that the ground is shifting between us and beneath us. The lexicon is changing, and it’s extremely exciting. It’s what should be happening. What’s exciting is this new generation is refusing to be identified by anyone other than themselves. We have to figure out, “How do we enter into that conversation and honor that change in the midst of this tumult of language?” Perhaps we’ll again do it imperfectly, but I think we’ll come much, much closer.
How difficult or easy was it to slip back into Bette’s skin?
The authoritative part, like I said, paved the way for other characters, so there’s practice with that aspect. But I was in wardrobe fittings early on and I wasn’t feeling it. You want to experiment with how this character might dress differently, given these ten years, and that she’s running for office. But it really wasn’t until I got back my power suit and my cuff links. The moment I put the cuff links on, I went, “Ahhh, now I can breathe. That feels right.”
How has the show, if it has at all, changed the way you feel about or define your own sexuality?
It made it really clear that I am so super-square, so super-straight, and so super-cis. I feel incredibly old-fashioned and so uncool. By far, the most uncool person on set. By a long shot. Like, really. So square that I actually have Top 40 hits on my playlists, which pains Kate Moennig to no degree.
She roasts you for your music?
Yeah, I stay with her sometimes. I have my playlist with artists that I won’t name because I don’t want to make them feel bad. And she’s like, “Really?” She’s also a DJ, so she has very elevated and knowledgeable music selection. And I apparently don’t. [Laughs.] But I still love a good banjo.
How has it felt, being witness to the Kate phenomenon?
She’s everything you imagine and so much more. She’s so smart and so funny. Searingly smart. She has a very astute eye for story.
In an alternate universe where you’re not straight and you have to pick a character from the show, who do you pick?
I don’t know! I’d have to really think about that. So many are so dysfunctional that I just go, “Oh gosh, no, this would end in tears.” I don’t know if one has been introduced yet who I’d date.
Not even Bette?!
Oh, gosh, no. No, no, no, no, no. She’s nothing but trouble. A hot mess.
She really hasn’t learned.
It’s really unbelievable. But fun to play! Fun to play somebody who’s a hot mess, for sure. And by hot, I mean, fetid. Not sexy.
We can agree to disagree. Okay, a few non-spoiler-y questions about the pilot: Where is Alice’s tribal tattoo? It’s gone.
A lot can happen to people in ten years. Lots of things happen!
Will we ever get justice for Dana?
What do you mean by justice? Define justice.
Will we get a retcon and learn she actually survived breast cancer?
[Laughs.] Do not hold your breath for that. Generally when people die, unless it’s magical realism, they do not come back. I’m sorry to be so harsh.
Half of the comments on the Generation Q trailer are about how you haven’t aged. Why don’t you age? What is the secret?
I completely do age. It’s a testament to our DPs and our gaffer if there’s any kind of magic going on. Believe me, I definitely do age. And I wouldn’t want to remain the same.
Well, thank you for chatting. I’m very excited to figure out where Kit is. I’m stressed because she’s not in the pilot or on the cast list.
I hope we can talk again after the series. Because it would be really fun to do a revisit. There’s so many things I want to talk to you about, but I can’t.