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:: M I A  K I R S H N E R  I N  T O R O ::
By Stephen Hunt
Toro Magazine
March 2004 Issue




Casbah café, located on the far-eastern end of Sunset Boulevard, seems to have been pulled straight out of a Byzantine fever-dream. There are Moroccan olives and figs for sale at the counter, alongside big chocolate chip cookies. Huge, moody, maroon paintings that look as if they were lifted from some Tunisian sultan’s rec room hang from the walls. It’s sort of dark for Monday at noon. On first glance, the café evokes one of those places where Indiana Jones hung out in Cairo. An almost too perfectly shady establishment in which to exchange letters of transit, or a Maltese Falcon, I think – and then she walks in.

Mia Kirshner, who gave new meaning to the tantric possibilities of the tartan skirt as an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl stripper in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, stands before me, apologizing for being late. This is totally unnecessary. She’s fifteen minutes behind schedule, which counts as being on time in Los Angeles, where negotiating the clogged freeways is such a nightmare it ought to be the next Olympic sport. Dressed in a shear white blouse and skirt, with long black hair and grey eyes, Kirshner offers to buy me coffee, then explains she’s tired because she just got back from Ciudad Juarez.
Did she say Juarez?

Beautiful, enigmatic actresses are always just back from somewhere, but usually it’s Cannes, New York, Sundance, or even Toronto. Not Juarez, Mexico, which is one of those seedy border towns where Texan teenage boys go to drink and maybe lose their virginity. Not Juarez, where every Latin American refugee who ever dreamt of escaping into the US goes to sneak across the border.

“Yes,” Mia Kirshner says between sips of cappuccino, looking every bit like one of those women who appear in sexy French summer-romance movies – the ones you can never quite get a handle on. “Do you know what’s happening in Juarez?”

Mia explains that she’s working on a book that is being put together by Mike Simons, the creative director at Adbusters. The book will feature both photographs and diary entries by local Juarez women, in addition to contributions from some of the leading graphic comic artists of the day, such as Joe Sacco, Phoebe Glockner, and Kamel Khelif.

The book, Kirshner elaborates, is a tribute to the everyday lives of the women of Juarez. More then 350 of them have been murdered over the past decade – with theories ranging from the black-market organ trade to the drug wars. (The proceeds of the book will go to Amnesty International.) “Journalists aren’t interested in how a poor woman spent her day,” she says. “They just focus on dismembered body parts and numbers.”
Mia Kirshner is twenty-seven now. She started acting at fourteen. She made Exotica when she was seventeen. She has always worked, since the days of Road to Avonlea in 1992 to her latest series, Showtime’s The L Word, but never to the exclusion of all else in her life.

She attended high school in Toronto and then went on to study nineteenth-century Russian literature at McGill University in Montreal. I observe that it must have been difficult, coming of Exotica, to put a blossoming career on hold – especially in an industry where careers have the shelf life of short-stemmed roses – but Mia doesn’t think it was hard at all.

“I have always had this normalcy,” she says. “When I started [acting], I always got work, but not so much I had to be pulled out of school, so I always had my regular girlfriends and parents who kept me grounded.”
Her dark Slavic good looks – her mom is originally from Bulgaria, while her dad is from Toronto – have somehow translated into a career spent playing sexual subversives of one kind or another, from dominatrix and stripper to the recent run of lesbian roles in 24, New Best Friend and The L Word.

When I ask her about this, however, she begins by challenging the premise of my question. Kirshner hung out with lots of gay friends while growing up in Toronto and attending McGill. She never had then sense that someone’s homosexuality was in any way “subversive.” She acknowledges, however, that a few people have pointed out the lesbian trend in the parts she’s played lately.

“This is where I’m supposed to say something witty about why I keep getting asked to play lesbians, isn’t it?”
“It would help,” I say.
“Well, I can’t think of a thing.”
Then how about this: Does she feel typecast?
“You mean do I resent the fact that I tend to play characters who are open?” she asks.
“The answer would be no. I think it’s wonderful.”

On The L Word, her new series which made its debut on the American network Showtime in January, (and in Canada in February), Kirshner plays Jenny, a recently graduated fiction writer who moves to L.A. to live with her fiancé, Tim. The show features an ensemble of actresses (rare) playing gay women (very rare) whose lives revolve around the couple next door, Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), a long time pair who have spent seven years searching for the perfect sperm donor to inseminate Tina.

The L Word is not only the first-ever TV series about a group of lesbians, but it was also made by an almost all-female crew – unheard of in show business, which is about male-dominant as NASCAR. The show was created by Ilene Chaiken, the pilot directed by Rose Troche (Go Fish), and subsequent episodes involve such esteemed indie figures as director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and writer Guinevere Turner, formerly Troche’s partner on Go Fish. The result, Kirshner happily explains, is a set that – unlike a television series, where the clock is always running to get the next shot and actors constantly bemoan the lack of time to do their very best work – feels a lot more like an independent film project. “It never feels rushed,” she says. “There is always this vibe of, if you need time to get to a certain place, take it. Part of that comes from working with a lot of people who have a film background, and part, I think, comes from having this very supportive, all-female set, which creates a completely unique feeling.”

In fact, The L Word pilot has a nice, loose feel to it, unlike the packaged, homogenous world of network television. The world of the show looks and sounds a lot like certain neighbourhoods of East Vancouver, where it is being shot, although it’s set in Los Angeles. Watching The L Word – in which the emotional moments feel real, and the sex scenes feel sexy – one is reminded that the term “good television” isn’t an oxymoron.

Kirshner’s Jenny is the catalyst that sets off all sorts of emotional upheavals after she finds herself rapidly falling in love with beautiful café owner Marina – a mild conflict considering Jenny’s engaged. The promo line for the series is “Same Sex. Different City.” Better yet, Queer as Folk meets a lesbian version of Maupin’s Tales of the City.
“It is a lot like Tales, but grittier. Less froth,” Kirshner says.

What comes next for Mia? She claims to have no real desire to direct – unless the project is a documentary. Listening to her stories about Juarez, and her travels in Istanbul, Paris, and the Balkans, I get a sense of a writer urging to break out of the actress’s elegant shell – but she says she doesn’t write, except for personal stuff. Some of her favourite films are Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 films, the dark Belgian film Rosetta, and the documentary Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have).

When I ask which actresses she admires, she references Isabelle Huppert and Charlotte Rampling, two of the European greats. One is renowned for her elegant simplicity onscreen, the other for her timeless beauty. Come to think of it, if you made a composite of Huppert and Rampling, what you might come up with is Mia Kirshner – a complex beauty who has spent her youth keeping it real in order to bring to life some of the most complex dirty girls we’ve ever seen onscreen.


** Thanks to S.C.


The L Word Online has been designed by Oz and Slicey.  Unique images designed by Oz.  Site maintained by Oz & Slicey.  This website is intended to be fun and informative, and was created with respect to show appreciation for the women and men involved in the creation of TV's first real lesbian drama.  This site is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with Showtime Networks Inc., the television series "The L Word," or any person involved in the making of the show.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Images and other borrowed content are copyright their respective owners.  Credit is given where due.  All original content is the sole property of  the creators of The L Word Online copyright October 2003.