HOW THE SCHOOLGIRL STRIPPER FROM ATOM
EGOYAN’S EXOTICA BECAME TELEVISION’S MOST
UBIQUITOUS LIPSTICK LESBIAN
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
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
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
“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
“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?”
“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.