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Committed, and not just acting

Mia Kirshner reaches into her pocket -- and her resolve -- to create a book bearing witness to troubled lives in places of upheaval.

October 19, 2008|Kate Aurthur | Times Staff Writer

If YOU get annoyed when actors engage in activism, Mia Kirshner is right there with you. The 33-year-old actress -- who played a stripper in the revered 1994 movie "Exotica" and has worked steadily since, most often in roles as sexualized smarty-pants, like her character Jenny Schecter on "The L Word" -- said recently, "I think some actors have exploited their philanthropic efforts to promote a film."

Kirshner was saying such things because her book, "I Live Here," released last week, is unmistakably philanthropic. Over the last six years, she traveled to four messy and malignant parts of the world -- the Russian republic of Ingushetia; Burma; Juarez, Mexico; and Malawi -- that have large disenfranchised populations. "I Live Here," is the product of those trips: Its four separate volumes, one for each region, tell stories about the women and children in these places through journal entries, collages, photographs, paintings, graphic novellas and images of found objects. Kirshner wrangled many collaborators; J.B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons are the co-authors, and there is a boatload of other contributors, including some of the subjects themselves.

Elaborately designed in its look, knottily layered in its content and far afield from the entertainment world in its subject matter, the Pantheon-published "I Live Here" is no vanity project. Kirshner had the idea for it after the attacks of Sept. 11, while she was working on a television series she wouldn't name, but made her feel, she said, "pretty dead inside," and that she was "just working to work." (International Movie Database evidence points toward "Wolf Lake," a short-lived CBS series about werewolves in a Pacific Northwest town. But it could also be "24," in which Kirshner has had a recurring role as Mandy, a diabolical lesbian terrorist.)

After Sept. 11, she organized a benefit for Afghan women, and realized she wanted to do more, focusing, she said, on "people who are in war or displaced or living, basically, in an extremity." She then began doing research, her own mock-ups of what a book might look like and arm-twisting to get other people involved. Since then, Kirshner paid for the trips, her co-authors' salaries and the Vancouver office space for the project. "I did this in the most foolish way," she said over drinks in a Los Feliz cafe. "I met with my business managers this morning, and it's very clear that I sac-." She cut herself off before completing the word "sacrificed."

After a beat, she finished the sentence. "I spent my savings on the book."

"But, you know, it's worth it," Kirshner continued. "And I also felt like I didn't really want to ask for outside funding until I knew I was proud of the material. Because the last thing I would want was to spend somebody else's money and do something that sucked."

Joe Sacco, the acclaimed comics artist, accompanied Kirshner on her trip to Ingushetia, and did a graphic novella about Chechen refugees for that segment of the book. In a telephone interview, he said that he had gotten involved after exchanging letters with Kirshner about what she wanted to do. She told him she would arrange everything, fund all of his travel and not interfere with the creative end of his contribution. The issue of a deadline, though, was another matter.

"She really wanted you to prioritize things around her project, which is probably a good thing," Sacco said. "Whatever she thinks about herself, she has an incredibly forceful personality. It's about her passion, that's where it comes from."

Dan Frank, the editorial director of Pantheon, said: "This is the extraordinary thing about Mia: her ability to get artists and writers with full-time lives to commit to this, to agree to do work. That's what she wanted, she wanted a symphony of voices. And I think she would have been happiest if her voice wasn't here at all."

(Frank is certainly correct there. "I never wanted to write for this book," Kirshner said. "That was like an albatross to me." But at Frank's insistence, she agreed to contribute deeply personal observational writings that serve as a narration because, she said, "I couldn't be careful with it, because the thought of not having it published would be devastating.")

Kirshner's parents immigrated to Canada from post-Holocaust Europe (her father was born in Germany in a displaced-persons' camp, her mother was from Bulgaria). She was raised in Toronto -- "a Jewish, middle-class upbringing," she said.

She was obsessed with old movie stars, and as a teenager began acting by doing extra work, which led to jobs on Canadian television series. Atom Egoyan's "Exotica" and Denys Arcand's "Love & Human Remains" happened in quick succession while she was in her late teens. She played a stripper in the former, a dominatrix in the latter, and got a lot of attention for both art-house films.

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