4 min

The B-Word

Teaching straight actors how to play lesbians

Credit: Xtra West files

One fine afternoon a couple of years ago I received a phone call from one of my most beloved people, the one and only Janine Fuller, from Little Sister’s. She told me that I was about to receive a call from a production company, and I should just play along, because there would be some money in it for me.

I told her I was trying my hardest to avoid working on set lately, but she reassured me I wasn’t wanted for my props department knowledge-that it was some of my other skills that they were looking for.

“They need someone to teach a workshop to a bunch of mostly straight actors on how to play lesbians on TV.” There was laughter in the background. “We thought you would be perfect.”

The phone rang again the second I hung it up.

In true film industry style, it was a rush job. “Can you come in tomorrow?” The soft-spoken and overly polite producer’s assistant sounded a little stressed out, and she had to put me on hold twice to answer other calls. They could pay me $300 for a two-hour gig.

The next afternoon, I swung by the bookstore on my way to the fancy hotel to borrow a couple of how-to manuals and a less dog-eared copy of Anal Pleasure and Health, in the interests of providing the ladies with a well-rounded education.

My eight years in the film industry have taught me a few tricks I utilize when working with thespians. Generally, in my experience, the really big stars like to be treated like any other normal human being, and excessive fawning or ass kissing tends to vaguely annoy them. The result is they don’t respect you, and they end up treating you like a half-witted servant, which makes your job harder and more tedious.

Fortunately for me, I was born without an ass-kissing gene, a mutation I inherited from my father, and I am actually physically incapable of even feigning willing servitude. Nor can I lie and tell someone I love every movie they ever made, especially when it would be in my best interests. It’s my nature.

Also, I have this weird thing where I can rarely recognize an actor, or remember what movie I saw them in. I never forget a face; I just assume I know them from high school or the farmer’s market, or something.

That is why I didn’t recognize Jennifer Beals when she came in to the conference room 10 minutes late, on her way from Pilates class.

There were about seven of them, and almost all of them were late. Almost all of them were straight. They didn’t seem as excited to be learning about lesbians from a real life lesbian as I had hoped they might be-even though they were about to play one on TV.

They were tanned and lean and drinking bottled water. The producer was there too, and her assistant, and snacks were provided. We talked about lesbian stereotypes, about the old-school days in the bars before Stonewall, about butch and femme and separatism and SM. I tried to pack as much in as I could while sounding professionally detached yet approachable.

I attempted to keep my shoulders chip free, even though none of them had even a smidgen of butch potential.

So this was who Hollywood had hired to play dykes on the very first lesbian television series ever, unless you counted Cagney and Lacey?

Not a crew cut in sight, no boots, no belts, and no butches.

I tried to make myself feel better by telling all of them that their French manicures had to go, immediately. This caused some concern.

They started talking about their characters, and asking me questions about how to make them more believable.

“My character is a closeted tennis star,” one explained, “So she’d probably drive something sporty, like a Beamer, or a Jaguar.”

“Mine is European,” said another, so she’d drive, like, maybe an Alpha Romeo.”

I was forced to interject. “You’re lesbians, remember? Your character has a bus pass, yours rides her bike everywhere, and yours drives a beat-up Valiant with no floorboards, or maybe a brown Honda Civic hatchback that leaks when it rains.”

This unglamorous reality didn’t go over very well, and the conversation stalled for a minute.

“My character is kind of a hippie, so she might have one of those gas-electric hybrids,” the blonde said meekly from the corner.

I shook my head. “Those things are way too expensive. Can you say 60 cents on the dollar? I’ve never met a dyke in my life who drove a hybrid.”

The producer leaned forward and spoke for the first time. “I drive a hybrid.”

That was my first really big mistake. My next one was monumental.

The thespians asked me what good lesbian movies they should watch, for research. I told them there was that one scene in The Hunger between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, and that was pretty much it.

“What about Go Fish?” someone piped up.

I snorted a bit and pretended to feel nauseous. “That movie was a painful exercise for me to sit through.”

The producer’s ears turned pink and she cleared her throat. “That was our director’s first feature film.”

This would have been a great time to possess an ass-kissing gene, or at the very least finely honed backpedaling skills, but alas, I had neither.

We wrapped it up pretty quickly after that, and I was not asked back for a follow-up lesson.

I was relating the tale to an editor buddy of mine a couple of weeks later. It made him suck chamomile tea into one lung and he choked for a bit on the other end.

“Dude, you totally have to write that story down for the paper.”

I reminded him of the litigious nature of film folks, and that they tended not to like being made fun of, even when they really deserved it, especially the Americans.

What if they sued me or made it so I could never work in this town again?

“You don’t have to use the show’s name, or name any of the actors. It’s not about that. It’s about straight women with manicures playing dykes. It’s about the comedy.”

I told him that I didn’t know who any of the actors were anyway, but that I would call the production company and run it by them, just as a courtesy. I left a message with the producer’s lovely young assistant, and I got a call back minutes later, from someone in their legal department.

* To be continued… Check the next Loose End for part two of The B-Word next month.