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The word is out on `The L Word'

With tempting roles for even `older' actresses, the lesbian-centric Showtime series pulls in stars.

January 28, 2007|Kate Aurthur | Times Staff Writer

IN 2004, "The L Word" was hailed as a groundbreaking look at the sexed-up lives of lesbians in Los Angeles. Now in its fourth season, the Showtime series' cast has expanded to the point where its women seem to constitute a small city unto themselves.

Increasingly, "The L Word's" new additions are well-known actresses who have found themselves outside of the narrow range of options available -- or, rather, not available -- to them. Kristanna Loken, the Nordic cyborg from "Terminator 3," plays a single mom beginning tonight. Cybill Shepherd joined the Sapphic ensemble in this season's second episode, playing the boss of Bette (Jennifer Beals -- an "L Word" star since it began). And to heighten the nostalgic "I love the '80s" vibe evoked by the very idea of Shepherd and Beals acting together, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin also makes her debut tonight as Bette's new love interest.

Twelve of "The L Word's" 13 regular cast members, who now include Shepherd and Matlin, are women. That represents an unprecedented majority for a television series, particularly when you consider that other female-driven shows, such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," usually require that each woman has a male counterpart.

And if "Desperate Housewives" was praised from its start for offering meaty parts to actresses, the "The L Word's" casting in Season 4 is an example of a series that keeps doing it -- and adding them as flamboyantly sexual characters, to boot. (It's a strategy that is not without risks, if you ask Loken: Assembling all that greviously ignored female talent offers a unique creative opportunity, but also, it must be said, a certain built-in combustibility.)

In a telephone interview, Ilene Chaiken, the series' creator and executive producer, said, "We all know that there is an incredible dearth of roles of substance for actresses in every single age category." She continued: "It gets truer as women get older."

From the inception of "The L Word," Chaiken has taken advantage of Hollywood's penchant for ageism, and more broadly, the film and television world's static idea of who can play a romantic lead. Showtime executives had told her that they expected her to cast only unknowns, and they were enthusiastic about the show despite that hurdle. Chaiken recalled: "I said, 'That's great, I'm really delighted by your support for the show and the premise and really thrilled to know I can make it regardless of the actresses available. That said, I wager you that we're going to cast some stars.' "

Her confidence was borne out when Beals accepted the part of Bette, and Pam Grier was cast as her sister. Both actresses had experienced ups and downs after starring in iconic projects early in their careers: Beals as the leg-warmer-wearing welder/dancer of 1983's "Flashdance," Grier as the gun-wielding vigilante of "Foxy Brown" in 1974. The two had carved out a space for themselves in independent films, but being able to cast them as leads, Chaiken said, was "a great opportunity once we started putting the show together."

Since then, Rosanna Arquette, Anne Archer, Sandra Bernhard, Dana Delany and Kelly Lynch, among others, have done guest stints on "The L Word."

For her part, Shepherd said that she had been interested in the series since she first heard about it, and met with the producers when it was being cast to discuss whether she might play Kit, the part that went to Grier. "Usually when they say they're 'going in a different direction,' they mean they're going younger," Shepherd said. "But when I found out it was Pam Grier -- well, maybe she is younger -- but I realized they actually meant it."

Shepherd plays Phyllis, a WASPily buttoned-up academic administrator who realizes that she has always been a lesbian, though she has a husband and children. Through Bette, Phyllis meets Alice (Leisha Hailey) and is voraciously making up for lost time.

Sitting on her couch, clad in blue silk pajamas, a robe and Ugg boots, Shepherd sounded gleeful about the opportunity to play a sexualized character. Her only stipulations were, she said: "No nudity. And it's simulation. Otherwise, it's up for grabs -- I'm up for pretty much anything."

It had been awhile since she had been asked to be so free-spirited. Shepherd said: "I've told the truth about my age for too damn long to lie about it now, so I'll be, in February, 57. How many parts for women that age -- where women have love scenes, period -- do you see? Can you think of one?" She stopped talking and began cackling.

When Shepherd came to Los Angeles at age 22, she was told "you're over the hill when you're 25." While that clearly did not apply to her -- "Moonlighting" and "Cybill" both occurred long after that -- Shepherd said she has not always been sanguine about being an aging actress. She said there are only "five parts" for actresses her age, and they go to Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston, about whom she said, "It's hard not to wish that they didn't exist."

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