Jennifer Beals: Shy as a Fox
Jennifer Beals will always be “the girl from Flashdance.” After making her film debut in one of the defining hits of the decade, Beals went off to college and was more or less forgotten by Hollywood. In the August 1995 issue of Movieline, Martha Frankel asks the actress what happened. According to Beals, she is painfully shy and never tried very hard to have a big movie career. But when she really wants a part, she prays 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 anyone 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 prepared 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.
“While I was waiting to get the part,” Beals continues, “I devised this plan. I prayed to the Shoe God, because I decided that the Shoe God was very powerful. And I told the Shoe God that if I got the part, I would get shoes for all of my girlfriends … wait a minute, maybe you shouldn’t write about this, I’m going to sound demented.”
“You think there’s a possibility that I’m not going to write about this cockamamy story involving a Shoe God?”
“Well. I just assured him that if I got this part, I would go out and buy any pair of shoes that my friends wanted. And every time I’d pass a shoe store, I would raise my hands and say, ‘All Hail the Shoe God.” I know that’s sick. And then Jennifer Jason Leigh said that she had a special candle … I stayed at her house a couple nights when I was in this process. She said she had a special candle that she used to get the part in The Hudsucker Proxy. She gave me this candle, and I memorized this whole ritual around this friggin’ candle. I was doing the thing with the candle, praying to the Shoe God. It was pathological.”‘
“Sounds completely sane to me. Although the Beverly Center must have been a nightmare.”
“You bet. There must be two dozen shoe stores in there. Once I got the part, I came through with the shoes.”
“Let’s see, Jennifer [Jason Leigh], I owed her big time, because of the candle. My agent at the time got shoes, I still owe shoes to Gwyneth [Paltrow]. Some of my friends wanted me to get the part because they had their eye on a pair of Manolo Blahniks.”
“So the Shoe God came through and you got the part…”
“The day I was waiting to hear, Alex and I were sick to our stomachs. Alex was even more nervous than I. He has this little mobile phone and I said, ‘We gotta get out of our car, because I just feel sick.’ And he said, ‘I do too, let’s go for a walk.’ And we were walking around with this phone, and every time the phone would ring we would just go into convulsions, and of course it would be somebody else. But yes, in the end, because of the friggin’ candle or the Shoe God or whatever, I did get that part.”
“I read this piece in VIBE that referred to Denzel as the Black Gable…”
“No,” says Beals, “the Dark Gable. Isn’t that fabulous?”
“I watched some of your movies this week,” I say.
“Poor baby,” says Beals without sarcasm.
“One of the people from Movieline called and read me the titles of your films and we were howling with laughter. I mean, of course there was Flashdance, In the Soup, Vampire’s Kiss and The Bride, but there was also Blood and Concrete, Cinderella, Club Extinction, Day of Atonement, Split Decisions and, my all-time favorite name for a movie, Terror Stalks the Class Reunion.”
“You should have called me,” she says. “I would have told you what to see.”
“What would you have suggested?”
“I would have said to see In the Soup, Vampire’s Kiss and, of course, Flashdance is important.”
“Do you still get recognized from Flashdance?”
“Oh, absolutely, I went to Haiti with my friend Phil Parmet, who was the cinematographer on In the Soup. We both do photojournalism, and we knew this would be a fabulous opportunity. We got in to see this guy who was under house arrest, this guy who had committed these terrible atrocities–one could only imagine what havoc he had caused. And I’m snapping away, really thrilled to be getting these shots, when the guy looks at me and says, ‘Wait, aren’t you the girl from Flashdance?” And I said that I was, and he called down his wife and kids to meet me. He was overwhelmed with excitement. It was so sick.”
“Are you a good photographer?”
“I think I’m OK, and getting better. I own Garry Winogrand’s camera, and I shoot all the time. I think it helps with my shyness, because when you’re shooting, people are looking at you, but they’re not really seeing you. I like that part.”
“You just did another dance movie, Let It Be Me. Is this going to be another Flashdance?”
“I did it because I wanted to work with Campbell Scott again. I loved the idea of the film. We’re not. supposed to be professional dancers, we’re learning ballroom dance. No, it’s not the same kind of movie as Flashdance. It was hard for me to do because I was also filming Four Rooms in L.A. while we were shooting Let It Be Me in New York. Plus, I had gained all this weight for Devil in a Blue Dress because it takes place in the ’40s and I wanted to be a little bit more womanly. You don’t want to look like some kind of dilapidated pony. My face gets really, really gaunt, and I look like Mister Ed after a while. But for Let It Be Me I had to get back into shape. I’d work on that film from Monday to Friday, take a plane to L.A., work all weekend, and then take the red-eye back to New York. Plus. I had to learn the samba, the mambo, these really hard dance numbers.”
“Were you good?”
“Well, I’m no Ginger Rogers …”
“Four Rooms has different segments, directed by Quentin Tarantino, Alex Rockwell, Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez. What was that like?”
“I’m in Alex’s room and Quentin’s. And I did a little bit for Allison. All the stories are different, and all their styles are different. The premise is that we’re in this old hotel, and it’s New Year’s Eve. In Alex’s room, I’ve been tied to the bed by my husband. We love each other, it’s a comedy. It’s not some kind of wife-abuse story.”
“No,” I say, “I thought of it in a good way.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve, you know, so of course he’s got his wife tied to the bed. What else is new? Quentin’s room is a den of machismo. Quentin’s my God now, by the way, because he’s directing an episode of ‘ER.’ which is the best thing I’ve ever watched on television.”
“Let me ask you about…”
Beals groans. “Do we have to talk about me?” she pleads.
“Well,” I venture, “we could just shut up and go play poker.” I’ll admit it: I mean this as a joke. But 20 minutes later, Beals and I are barreling down the freeway to the Hollywood Park Casino. Which turns out to be full of very intense looking people playing poker. When we walk in, an older man looks up from his hand and spots Beals. “Hey,” he yells, “aren’t you that girl from Flashdance?” My face turns beet red, but Beals turns to him with a beatific smile. “That’s me,” she says.
Martha Frankel interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio for the March Movieline.