Jennifer Beals: Shy as a Fox
Jennifer Beals, ever on the verge of returning to the glory days of the Flashdance era, has three new movies coming up. To hear her tell it, she got these parts by praying to the "shoe God."
Two things I know about Jennifer Beals before she even walks into The Argyle hotel.
Number one: men adore her. "Gorgeous" and "transcendent" are just a couple of the words they've used to describe her to me since learning I was interviewing her. And number two: if she ever gets wheeled onto the stage, old and frail, for an honorary Oscar, they'll play "What a Feeling," the theme from Flashdance, no matter what Beals does between now and then.
It's hard to believe it has been 12 years since Beals faced that welder/ballerina dilemma, 12 years since every 14-year-old in the country owned at least three ripped sweatshirts. 12 years since the end of the disco era that Flashdance so deftly defined.
"Oh God," says Beats, eyeing the tape recorder with fear, "I hope we don't have to spend this whole time talking about me. I hate this. I'm not good at it and I always feel that the interviewer is going to be disappointed in me because I don't have really juicy stories to tell. I'm so shy that I always just want to disappear."
"Not to worry," I say. "We can always gossip. But I'm interested to know how someone could be comfortable doing the half-nude dances you did in Flashdance--which millions of people saw--and still say that they're shy."
Beals doesn't hesitate. "When Alan Rudolph asked me to read for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, he told me that Jennifer [Jason Leigh] was playing Dorothy, and that Lili Taylor was playing Edna Ferber, and he wanted to know what interested me. And I said Gertrude, the wife of Robert Benchley [Campbell Scott]. And he said. 'Really? Are you sure you don't want to be at the Table?' Because the Round Table was where all the action, all the wit was. But I said, 'No,' because I really understand being outside the circle more than I understand being inside the circle."
"Did you stay outside the circle in real life?"
"When I got to Montreal where we were shooting, I was so nervous, because there were so many wonderful actors there. And I did feel incredibly intimidated. But the center of our activities was poker, which we played till all hours of the morning."
"Are you a good poker player?" I ask, thinking maybe we can play a few hands.
"When I was really young," she says, "every Sunday was our Olympics day. We'd have events all day long, my two brothers and my father and me, and it was who could do the most sit-ups, who could do the most push-ups. Then we'd go outside, do the 100-yard dash, and then we'd come inside, and the last event was seven-card stud. What about you?"
"In my family you learned to play poker, or you sat alone in the dark. We talked about Vegas the way other families talk about Jerusalem..."
"I remember that we had our meccas to Vegas every now and again, too," Beals says with a smile. "My dad was very, very charming. Once we stayed at Caesars Palace, and he somehow convinced the hotel to give us the most incredible suite for nothing. He could convince any-one to do anything."
"Did you know that there were all these poker rooms in L.A.? Legal ones..."
"Really? We should get a group of people together and go down one night. Alex would love that." Beals is referring to her husband Alex Rockwell, the director of In the Soup. "You really should be interviewing Alex," she says. "He's the one with the interesting stories. My life is comparatively dull."
"No," I assure her, "my life is comparatively dull. You're an actress whose first film was huge. You couldn't go anywhere in 1983 without hearing a song from Flashdance, and videos still seem to be ripping off the movie. With the right roles and the right maneuvering, you could have been the biggest star in the world. Instead, you virtually disappeared."
"The minute we stopped filming Flashdance, I left for college. Do Not Pass Go, do not take a second off. I couldn't wait to get back to school. As for my career... oh God, I haven't pursued it very hard. I wasn't ready. It's very trying, and the truth is, I wasn't willing to try that hard. Some people are perfect at it. Look at Quentin [Tarantino], He's ready for it, he uses it well, and he doesn't get taken in by it. He's having a ball, I am not like that, although I'm certainly better pre-pared now than I was at 19."
"Is this your 'comeback' year?" I ask. Other people have wondered that about Beals several times over the last decade. Beals looks like she might jump out of her skin.
"What does that mean? All I know is that I wouldn't want it to get to the point where I couldn't drive cross-country by myself. Because my dog is too old to fly, so I drive her back and forth when I'm doing a picture. I would like to be more involved in my career. I've always just let it go along on its own path. So, who knows?"
"I know your father was black and your mother is white. Has that been a casting issue for you?"
"No, not really. I've been told that I'm not Midwestern enough, but I just say, 'Hey, I'm from Chicago, how much more Midwestern would you like?' But it's not as if I looked like so-and-so I'd have a better career. My parents being different races didn't seem like a big deal to us, because that's all we knew. Both of my parents were fantastic, and that's all you really see when you're a kid. My dad was funny and charming and sweet. He owned a really big grocery store in Altgeld Gardens, outside Chicago. So we ate very well! And we traveled a lot. My father loved to travel. He died when I was about 10. And I love my mother. She's really strong, and very, very smart."
"So it rubbed off?" I say, referring to Beals's own education at Yale. A slight blush creeps up her neck. "If you mean, do I love to learn, then the answer is yes."
"OK," I say, "tell me about Devil in a Blue Dress. Do you get to romance Denzel Washington?"
"No. My character is in love with another man. I had to fight like crazy for this part. Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. I must have read three times and then had a screen test."
"Yes, with Denzel. I had read the book and I read the screenplay, and I had met with the director, Carl Franklin, before he even started casting, because he's a friend of my husband, and Alex said, 'When you go out to L.A., you should call Carl Franklin, he's a really nice guy." I just called him and had lunch with him one day, and he was talking about the project. Usually it's very hard for me to fight for a part, even if I love it, because I think that I don't deserve it. that there are so many other people who are so much better. But for this one I just thought, I really, really want this. I was supposed to play this part. My character's very much like Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. She's a romantic, but she's also willing to do anything to get what she wants. She doesn't always tell the truth, not by any stretch of the imagination. Carl Franklin used to say that she's got a lot of game in her.
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