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television: interview

After nearly three decades in film and television, Jennifer Beals has come home.

The striking actress has finally shed all vestiges of her Flashdance days with her new TV role as a tough lady cop on The Chicago Code, which, as the title suggests, films in her hometown of Chicago.

Born in the windy city to working-class parents, Beals was a model in her teens but also expanded her mind at Yale University, where she received her Bachelor's degree in American literature. She took on a small role in the 1980 filmed-in-Chicago feature My Bodyguard, but three years later she was the main attraction in Flashdance.

As the film's lead character, Alex, she played a feisty young woman who was a welder by day and exotic dancer by night. Flashdance was a global hit and thereafter Beals took on a steady succession of intriguing film roles, playing an undead beauty in The Bride (1985), a hot-blooded bloodsucker in Vampire's Kiss (1989) and a temptress in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995).

In 2004, Beals made the transition to TV playing the strong-willed Bette Porter on Showtime's The L Word, which ran six seasons. In recent years, she has done cameo turns in TV series including Frasier and Lie To Me. On Chicago Code, however, she's back home, back in the spotlight and loving every minute of it. She sat down for an interview last week in Toronto.

Who was the role model for playing the female police superintendent on The Chicago Code ?

There was no template, really. I mean, you look at women like Hillary Clinton. You look at her presidential campaign. How she was characterized if she was emotional, or if she wasn't emotional. Those criticisms wouldn't have come up had she been a man. It makes you realize that when a woman is powerful and in a position of leadership, the rules are very different.

How important is it for your character to keep up her tough outer veneer?

Well, she is tough, so that isn't so much a veneer.

Are you the type of person who pays attention to weekly Nielsen ratings?

It doesn't affect me. I know some people pay close attention to ratings, but it doesn't affect how I play the character. At the end of the day I have no control over it, so it's silly to give myself something else to worry about.

Is it a personal bonus to shoot in your hometown of Chicago?

Of course, but remember I haven't been back in 20-odd years. The city has changed a great deal. All the neighbourhoods have changed. But I still feel a protectiveness of Chicago. I feel a great love for the city that I don't have to feign, so that makes my job easier.

Is the show partly an homage to the city itself? Without a doubt Chicago is a character on the show. The amazing architecture and the discrepancy between the affluent neighbourhoods and the neighbourhoods that have nothing. And then there's the constant movement--the L train is in the background all the time. There's helicopters, buses and cars. All these characters are trying to stay ahead in this city that is in constant flux, not only physically, but politically.

Can you recall the moment or event that pushed you toward acting?

I remember doing Fiddler on the Roof in high school and I was playing Hodel. During my solo I had one little moment where reality was kind of muted. It was one tiny millisecond of being transcended. And I thought, 'Wow, that was amazing.' I also remember volunteer-ushering at the Steppenwolf Theatre and seeing Balm in Gilead with Joan Allen. It was so visceral and so present. It actually shifted the paradigm for me of what acting and theatre could be.

Looking back now, was Flashdance a curse or a blessing for you as a young actress?

Flashdance was certainly a baptism by fire. While all that was happening, though, I was still at university, so I was really quite unaware of what was going on. I was more concerned with my midterms and studying and where I was going to do my laundry.

How does your role on Chicago Code compare to your character on The L Word ?

In many ways it's a natural progression. Bette Porter on The L Word was very strong and grounded and righteous. She was very passionate about her job and always aware how deeply misogynistic that culture can be. Homophobia is a form of misogyny and I think Porter lived that. The L Word gave me the base of playing someone who is very strong and determined.

Was The L Word a career peak for you?

I always felt so fortunate to be part of the show. In some small way The L Word actually helped shift the culture and make people realize that the ways in which we are similar are much more numerous than the ways that we are different. The show really helped a lot of people, I believe.


For a lot of people, it gave them courage to come out. One of the more moving moments for me was when a couple came to visit the set. These women had been together 30 years and they had not come out at work or to their families. And after seeing our show they finally had the courage to come out, and people were very accepting of them. So they got to live their lives both authentically and openly.

Given your film résumé range - Vampire's Kiss , Devil in a Blue Dress , Book of Eli - is it fair to assume you try to never play the same character twice?

I just go to whatever moves me at the time. In most cases it's a character that has some unique quality. I always try to keep it interesting.

What was your most recent engaging movie role?

I did a film in Vancouver last year called A Night for Dying Tigers that turned out to be a seminal experience for me as an actor. It was a great cast and the crew was literally eight to 10 people. It was a very intimate film, and very tough to shoot, in terms of the subject matter, but also very freeing. It was at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall but I couldn't go because I was working on Chicago Code.

Like most TV crime dramas, Chicago Code seems built to run several seasons. Are you in for the long haul?

Yes, I'm prepared for that. I trust [creator/executive producer]Shawn Ryan completely and I'd like to see my character go different places and create a private life for herself. I'm ready for the challenge.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The Chicago Code airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox and Global