Even people who never watched The L Word remember Shane McCutcheon, the shaggy-haired, smoky-voiced hairdresser who bedded more than a thousand women. Shane, played with irresistible ease by Kate Moennig, wasn’t like any woman we’d seen on TV before: androgynous and self-possessed, an effortlessly seductive drifter who could never commit. “Whenever Shane walks into a room, somebody runs out crying,” her friend Bette, played by Jennifer Beales, once observed. She cheated incessantly, left her fiancée at the altar, wreaked havoc among her friend group, slept with a bride — and said bride’s entire family — moments before vows were exchanged. But we loved her in spite of all that, or maybe because of it. Shane was the sort of damaged heartbreaker that women rarely play, and in the decade since the show’s ending, there hasn’t been another quite like her. So the news that she’d be returning to the screen, along with Bette and Alice (Leisha Hailey) and a handful of new cast members in The L Word: Generation Q, was greeted with unique rapture.
In the premiere of Generation Q, Shane’s moved back to L.A. after a hiatus, far richer than she used to be, but still a heartbreaker. (In the midst of a divorce, she takes home the flight attendant who works on the private plane that drops her back in L.A.) Vulture caught up with Moennig to talk about how she learned to play a heartthrob, why she didn’t come out for years after taking the role, why she can’t bear to rewatch the original series, and what her wife thinks of her returning to the iconic role.
Let’s start by reminiscing. What do you remember about your audition? What was going on in your life then?
I believe it was in June of 2003 and I was living in New York and I was sent the script called Earthlings, a pilot for Showtime, and I thought, “What in the world is Earthlings?” I thought it was sci-fi, and I hate sci-fi. It was my manager who said, “It’s not what you think it is, just give it a read.” So I read it, and I thought, “Yeah, this is certainly not what I thought the show would be about.”
What originally drew you to the part?
Shane made sense to me. I admired her in a way, her self-possession and her unapologetic approach to who she was. She had a lot of male tendencies in a female body. You couldn’t really place her in this box of female characters that existed at the time. And that’s what I liked about her. Because I have a hard time when I get sent scripts and the character is overtly feminine, it’s not who I am as a person and it takes a lot of work for me to say, “Okay, how do I approach this?” And with Shane I thought, “Oh, I just get to be my tomboy self.”
I feel like there still hasn’t really been another character exactly like Shane on TV.
No, there hasn’t. Not in the things that I’ve watched. I always think about when we first started shooting the pilot, when we all first met each other, the producers took us out to dinner the first night we got into town and we all met in the lobby. And it was just this immediate synergy. We were all very different from one another, but it just made so much sense. I think that’s what made the puzzle fit so beautifully.
What do you remember most about that dinner?
It was at this amazing Italian restaurant in Vancouver, this long table in a private room, and I remember sitting next to Laurel [Holloman] and sitting across from Leisha — she was so adorable — and I just couldn’t believe that we were actually going to do this. I was so young. I remember going outside with Mia Kirshner to smoke cigarettes, back when you could still smoke.
How old were you?
I was 24.
And were you out at that point, even to yourself?
It’s wild to think about you playing that part and not knowing that about yourself.
Yeah. I’ve always been a late bloomer. I also didn’t live in L.A., I was a New Yorker, and the gay community in New York that I saw in the city when I was living there, I wasn’t really exploring it. I moved to L.A. after we shot the pilot, purely for logistical purposes, and my first friends in L.A. were Leisha, Ilene [Chaiken], Erin Daniels — the cast. And through Ilene, and Leisha, I saw this world of women that I never knew existed, and I thought, “Now this makes sense to me. This seems like my tribe.”
Do you think that that’s part of the reason that you wanted to play the role?
Maybe subconsciously, but no. The reason I wanted to play the part is because I could see that this was an original, unique character, and I thought, “Why would I turn this down?” I’m so glad that I never, ever questioned that.
It’s interesting to think about you having your own coming out experience as you’re playing this character who’s so incredibly sure about her sexuality.
Well I think a lot of the credit goes to Ilene, who created this character, that came from her brain. And she bestowed upon me this gift of playing her. But how do you play that, right? I remember thinking that to myself when we were shooting the pilot. My cousin has this great saying, “The best game is to have no game.” I think that was the origin of how I figured out who Shane was. She didn’t have a game. And that works for her, because people were always coming to her, and that’s why it’s effortless, right?
So when did you come out and start dating women?
Well, it happened throughout. Leisha Hailey called it out instantly, but it took me a second to catch up. Leisha is also a very perceptive person.
Was there a period of time between when you realized you were gay and when you came out to the world?
I was really just figuring myself out. And there was this fishbowl effect. There was a lot of conflation between myself and the character I played, and I was feeling pressure to acknowledge certain parts of myself, but if I didn’t have a clear understanding of who I was yet, then I wouldn’t have anything meaningful to say. And I think it’s important for people to come out, but it’s far more important to come out in your own time, because otherwise you’re doing it for someone else’s benefit and not your own, and then what is there to be said? That’s what I came to realize in reflection so many years later, but I never would have been able to articulate that ten years ago.
I would imagine that the public spotlight and this conflation between yourself and your character could make it even more confusing.
A little bit. And I don’t even know why. But I do remember feeling uncomfortable. I remember a magazine offering me a cover if I came out, and I thought, “Why on Earth would I do that? To help you sell a magazine and for you to take credit in getting me to say it first?” I’m not going to play that game. I’m going to figure out who I am first. When someone pushes you to do something, what’s your immediate reaction? You repel. I think that’s human instinct. At least, it’s mine. When someone is pushing me to do something, I’ll always push back and resist.
That feels very Shane.
Well, we’re one and the same. [Long pause. A brief laugh.] In some ways.
Did you feel like the persona of Shane bled into your life as the show was becoming more popular?
Not in my real life. My friends know me as who I am. But would I get called out on the street as Shane? Yeah, all the time. I don’t even know if people know what my real name is sometimes. I even did an interview the other day where they said, “Hey, it’s so nice to have Leisha and Shane here.” I guess I did my job if people are conflating the two. But if you get to know me, I’m not her. She’s way too cool for me.
In what ways do you relate to her, and in what ways do you feel you’re nothing like her?
Things just come to Shane, and I don’t know if I have that Midas touch. I feel like I have to work for the things that I do. I will say playing such a self-possessed person for six years really brought me into my center. It gave me the inner confidence to embrace who I was.
Over the first six seasons, did your feelings about playing the character change at all?
I was always looking for, What’s the saving grace of this person? Because all her relationships would end in heartbreak. Characters that the audience loved would leave the show, then the new one would come in, right? And then that relationship has its issues and would inevitably end, too. What are her redeeming qualities among all of these emotional flaws that she has? How do you sympathize with someone who cannot, for the life of her, commit even to someone who’s incredible? Like Carmen for instance.
Sarah Shahi is one of my favorite people in the world. Sarah is just magic. She’s just a little piece of magic in human form. And when Shane left Carmen at the altar, that was pandemonium. I didn’t want Sarah to leave either. And how do you redeem yourself from that? I was always trying to find the humanity, because if you can find the humanity, you can relate.
So when it first seemed like the revival was gonna happen, what were your feelings about coming back to the role?
I had every emotion you could think of. I think it was the overthinking that gave me apprehension. I don’t think Shane is a very easy character to write. Where was she now? Leisha had an idea, she knew that Alice was going to be running a talk show. Jennifer knew that she wanted Bette to run for mayor. Those two had their thing, and with me, it’s like, Shane could really just be anywhere.
So you got married in 2017. What does your wife think about you returning to the role?
Oh, she’s fine with it. [Laughs.] She’s from Brazil. She used to watch the show back in the day. She says Brazil has the wildest fans, they’d find a way to get bootleg copies even when there weren’t any subtitles. Mercifully, she’s super supportive, and more importantly doesn’t get hung up on the fact that I have love scenes to do. She’s confident. She’s like, “I know what you’d be missing if I left, so that’s your problem if I ever chose to do that,” and she’s totally right.
Is there any character on the show that she reminds you of?
Oh, Bette. She’s incredibly intelligent. Incredibly strong.
At least financially, in the revival, Shane seems like she’s in a very different place now. But romantically, she’s kinda back where she used to be. Her marriage has fallen apart, and she’s drifting again.
At the end of the day, at your core, you are who you are. Now Shane’s dealing with later-in-life responsibilities and problems — the dissolving of the marriage, and suddenly she owns a home. But she still is who she is. She can’t have it all together. Just because you made some money, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean the rest of your life is working beautifully and you don’t still have those demons that you’ve been fighting your whole life. That doesn’t just go away, and I don’t believe Shane sits there in therapy and tries to figure it out and I don’t think she wants to, necessarily. So that’s how I approached it: At her core she continues to be who she is.
It seems crazy that there hasn’t been another lesbian ensemble show since the original L Word went off the air.
When we were talking about rebooting, that was a main point we kept going back to. Nothing has really come in to take its place. Orange Is the New Black touches on it, but they’re in prison so that’s not exactly aspirational. We always thought it’s so strange that nothing has ever come in to feed this new world that we’re in, so we thought, why the hell don’t we do it?
Did you all stay in touch?
Oh yeah, for sure. Leisha is my best friend, we talk every morning before 9. Mia Kirshner used to call us pants, because you couldn’t have one leg without the other. And Jennifer always stays with me when she comes to L.A. She’s my big sister.
Did you rewatch the show to prepare for coming back?
Well, Leisha and I tried to about a year and a half ago. We forgot about it for so many years. We said, “Let’s get together and watch a few just to remember the tone and the energy within it.” But we only could get through a couple of episodes and we were sweating. I think I got the flu. We were both just like, “We can’t watch this, it’s not helpful.”
Why was it so hard to watch?
It’s hard to watch yourself with that hair and those outfits and see you clunking around trying to figure out how to act. I don’t like to watch myself.
So what was it like slipping back into this role after all these years?
It was a lot of trepidation. You’re thinking, “Oh God, I did this however many years ago, and it was different. I was younger and I was in a different place.” But then you get to set and you’re wearing your costume. And the first day at work, I had a scene with Leisha and Jennifer at a café. I’m looking at Jennifer playing Bette, I’m looking at Leisha playing Alice, I’m playing Shane and all the dynamics are still there — it’s like we haven’t missed a beat.