Jennifer Beals, 57, is an actress and producer who appeared in “Flashdance,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and the TV series “The Last Tycoon.” She currently stars on Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q.” She spoke with Marc Myers.
Just before my 10th birthday, a family friend picked me up at school. When we arrived outside my home, he told me my father had passed away. My mind wouldn’t accept he was gone.
My father, Alfred, had been a successful entrepreneur who owned three small, conjoining apartment buildings and several businesses on the South Side of Chicago.
His sudden death of a stroke at 61 left a huge void in our family. He made friends easily, and was loving, athletic, stylish and graceful. My father was the center of my universe.
Before he died, our family lived in one of the buildings he owned. Among his businesses was a grocery store. He’d take our orders and return in the evening from work with bags of food. He’d also hand over bags of food coupons for me to sort.
My mother, Jeanne, is one of the most brilliant and bravest women I know. She was a schoolteacher for over 30 years. She loves classical music, speaks Japanese and, at 85, still plays bass in an amateur orchestra. She made sure I knew that I had to ask for what I wanted in life.
After my father died, my mother moved me, my younger brother, Bobby, and older brother, Gregory, to the North Side.
I was ancient as a child. In my little room, I surrounded my desk typewriter with candles, pretending to be Abe Lincoln in his log cabin. I was introverted.
At age 12 and 13, I held down two jobs—at ice cream shops. Managers thought I was 16. I wanted to make money to avoid burdening my mother and to secure my independence.
My mother remarried when I was 15. Edward was a doctor and very encouraging of my adventures. He has always been proud of me. When I wanted to go to New York by myself when I was 16, my mother was terrified. But my stepfather trusted my judgment and they let me go.
In school on the North Side, my best friend was Page Hannah, Daryl Hannah’s little sister. Their stepfather was Jerrold Wexler, a businessman and film producer who was my family’s guardian angel. Page and I remain very close.
I became curious about theater in high school, seeing my brother Gregory get involved. I played Hodel in “Fidler on the Roof,” and another world opened for me.
I went with Daryl and Page to after-school auditions and kept them company in waiting rooms. I soon realized acting was a way to make a living. They had an agent, so I got an agent.
As a young girl acting in school and at the Goodman Theatre Young People’s Drama Workshop, something shifted. By opening myself to another character, I connected to something bigger than me.
I did well in high school, but I didn’t tell anyone that I had applied early admission to Yale, not even my mother. For some reason, my desire was deeply personal.
One day, I overheard kids talking about being accepted at college, so I called Yale to find out my status. The woman on the other end looked at my paperwork and said, “Welcome to Yale.”
I hung up the phone and told my mother. She started crying. I had enough money saved from work to pay my freshman tuition.
In the summer before college, I lived in Paris in a tiny apartment. My Chicago agent sent me a letter saying she wanted me to audition for a film similar to “Saturday Night Fever.” It was called “Flashdance.”
I flew to New York on my way home to Chicago to audition. When I returned to Chicago, they wanted me to fly to Los Angeles for a screen test, which I did. But the studio wanted me to sign a nudity clause, which I refused to do.
Back at Yale, I assumed my refusal meant I’d have to find a way to pay my tuition the following year. I figured I’d model and act. When I called my agent, she told me I got the “Flashdance” part. Before I accepted, I made sure I could return to Yale after filming. The dean was understanding. He let me defer a term. I graduated in 1987.
Today, my husband, Ken, and I live with our daughter in Western Canada. I love the sound of humpback whales going by and bears in our backyard. It’s a continuation of my love of nature.
I think about my father every day. When I meditate each morning, his picture is on my altar. I know he’s with me.
What’s the “L Word: Generation Q” about? The series follows a group of lesbian and bisexual women who live in West Hollywood.
Is the role challenging for a heterosexual woman? I take the responsibility of LGBTQ representation very seriously.
How so? In trying to do right by my character, Bette Porter, I hope I can continue to do right by an extraordinarily supportive community.
Upcoming project? Netflix’s “Luckiest Girl Alive,” due in 2022.
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