It is all so very Rosedale in Sonja Smits's Rosedale house, set back from the street in the forested upscale neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Her dining room is a dark red and decorated with loud contemporary art. The foyer floor: marble. The elegant staircase: banisters laden with scented pine boughs and small, perfect red ribbons.
It is lunch hour, but we don't eat. She sips cranberry juice and soda water. I work on soda water with a wedge of lemon in a heavy glass tumbler. Seated in the back part of the yellow house, in a huge, sun-filled, two-storey atrium with full-grown spindly trees, a fireplace, a towering Christmas tree, folk art and a tweeting blue budgie in a cage, we have a long discussion, which begins with feminism and ends with vaginas.
It happens, you know, and it's really quite amazing. Women, strangers even, can openly talk about their bodies, as if they're a country with a complex and mysterious geography each person has come to know.
I suppose I should mention why we're on this subject. It's not as if we just settled down on the wicker chairs with our ladylike drinks and began talking about our sexual parts for no good reason. Smits appears this week in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues at The Music Hall along with touring performers Starla Benford and Sherri Parker Lee. It's a role that makes Smits seem, well, a little more unbuttoned than usual. The television characters she played for several seasons on both Street Legal and Traders were hard-edged professional women. They had a certain inscrutability, a certain chill.
"Sexually remote," she interjects helpfully. "Yeah. You could say that."
And she can appear that way in person, too. It took a while for her to warm up. It's not just her sculpted white-marble cheekbones that make her so refined. Or her patrician beauty, the kind that could make her the face behind an expensive brand of chocolates, or maybe some exclusive linen. Something, anything, that her perfect smile would convince you to buy even though you don't need it. Her manner exudes class. When I arrived, a smiling Filipina nanny opened the huge heavy door with the big brass knocker, and showed me to the living room at the front of the house. I was left alone for at least 20 minutes, waiting for Smits to appear while I contemplated a large Freeman Patterson photograph, brushed leather chairs, two perfect arrangements of flowers, curtains with luxurious puddles of fabric on the carpeted floor, Thai sculptures, and a big, poofy Turkish-looking footstool. "Mommy's getting ready," I heard the nanny explain to one of Smits's two young children, home from school for lunch. Then suddenly she appears, floating down the staircase, her floor-length Jean-Paul Gaultier pleated skirt ballooning out as she rushes in stocking feet to the foyer. She moves to the kitchen to talk briefly to her children, then she enters the living room, a perfect Rosedale hostess, apologizing that she's so late, that she didn't know I was here.
Her natural grace is a trait she has learned to live with, and which has determined -- not always to her liking -- many of the roles she has played. "I tend to play strong women," she says somewhat ruefully. "When I was at theatre school [at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University] we were doing a Greek tragedy, and I was cast as Athena, goddess of wisdom, and I was really pissed off, you know? Because here was this big play. You had Cassandra, who saw visions and the Fates and the Furies, who were, like, slicing heads off their kids and stuff like that. They were up to their elbows in gore. And what do I get? The goddess of justice. But the director came to me, and said, 'I know you're disappointed. But there are lots of character actresses. You're a leading lady.' "
Still, she hesitated about The Vagina Monologues, her chance to be less ladylike. (Since Traders wrapped last year after five seasons, she has been trying to "clear myself mentally," she says. She has appeared in Judith Thompson's play Perfect Pie, and this summer starred alongside Judy Davis in a television movie for ABC, Me and My Shadow, about Judy Garland's life.) "I guess, in a way, it's a dare," she says of her decision to do The Vagina Monologues. "And it's good to shake things up in terms of how I am often cast, as well as for myself." She figured the material was varied since a diverse cast of performers had taken part, but then she read the script. "I thought, Oh my God. I'm not as cool about it as other actresses. I thought I couldn't possibly do it. But then after seeing the show, I thought, you know, it would be fun." She went to the preview night with her husband, Seaton McLean, head of film production at Alliance Atlantis Communications, and actor Gordon Pinsent. "Gordon stood up after and said, 'Well, I learned more things. I thought I knew everything. But I didn't. And now I do.' " Her husband enjoyed it too, even though he thought he would feel excluded.
In the performance, during which the three women take turns delivering monologues (which are based on interviews with women), Smits does "The Moan," a rather self-explanatory piece, a testimony about rape in Bosnia, and a story called "The Flood" about a 72-year-old woman who recalls her first and last sexual experience as a teenager in her boyfriend's car.
So has Smits been practising her moans?
"Oh, my voice is, like, wrecked. Because you have to have 19 different kinds." She couldn't watch Sherri Parker Lee, who performed "The Moan" last week, because she'd heard she was really good. "It would be like comparing your sexual performance to someone else's," Smits says. "Forget it. If I see her, she's always going to have moaned better than me."
Is she a moaner in real life?
"Well, I don't have the variety," she says coyly, as she tosses her coifed hair from her porcelain face.
Yes, little by little, demure sip of cranberry juice by sip, this is turning into a vagina interview.
Beneath her chilly beauty and statuesque presence, Smits, who is of Dutch descent and in her 40s (although she won't be specific), is surprisingly down-to-earth. "Myself and other women, I think, don't like the word vagina," Smits continues as the conversation progresses. "It's an ugly word, and it's probably associated with other things." She hesitates for a moment, unsure how much to say. Then she blurts: "It's not like we're taught that it's a thing of beauty. A mother never tells you it's a beautiful part of your body. We disassociate [from]it to an extent," she carries on. "It's, you know, down there. You make love but it's not that you think about it, really. We have an uneasy relationship with it." And what do boys learn about their genitalia? "Our society is pretty much phallo-centric. I think men are impressed with themselves. They don't need anybody else to tell them. They already think they're fabulous."
We get very gynecological after that. She tells me her children are adopted because she suffered several ectopic pregnancies. The first time, she was on the set of Street Legal and had to be rushed to the hospital. She had begun to hemorrhage, and could have died. Her doctor had misdiagnosed her condition as ovarian cysts.
"Wanna hear the best phrase for the clitoris?" Smits giggles toward the end of our conversation. It's a wonder what a vagina dialogue can do. The icy Rosedale hostess has become the sister you never had. She is completely girlish and at ease. "My girlfriend told me." She pauses for effect, then leans forward. "Little man in a canoe," she whispers, falling back into her chair with an uproarious laugh.