Making straights flush
20 February 2005
'The L Word's' Shane, brought to life by Katherine Moennig, touches a nerve.
HOW'S this for a parlor game: Which lesbian on 'The L Word' would you most like to sleep with?" It's a question that has begun popping up in certain social circles as women, gay and straight alike, speculate on the relative bedworthiness of the cast of Showtime's groundbreaking drama, which begins its second season tonight.
Centering on an eclectic and improbably glamorous group of lesbians living in West Hollywood, "The L Word" is something of a gay, 21st century "Thirtysomething," with fewer toddlers and a lot more sex. But while not many people talked about mentally undressing the likes of Michael or Elliot, "The L Word" seems to invite no end of experimental erotic fantasy.
The hands-down winner, particularly among straight women, seems to be Shane McCutcheon, the Lothario-like hairstylist whose smoky voice and boyish swagger present a version of female sexuality rarely seen on television. There's even a new T-shirt reading "I'd Go Gay for Shane" for sale on the Internet.
Shane's real-life alter ego, the inscrutable and unequivocally androgynous actress Katherine Moennig (pronounced MAN-igg), bears a disarming resemblance to the character she plays. Though not quite as severe and presumably less sexually rapacious than Shane (who, we learned last season, has slept with upward of 1,000 women), Moennig embodies a hyper-cool gender-bending that touches a nerve with viewers across the spectrum of sexual orientation. Dressed for a recent interview in classic Shane attire -- a short, tailored jacket, low-slung jeans and Vans sneakers -- and speaking in a throaty, unmannered drone, Moennig comes across as Shane Plus, a sylph-like, punk rock-inspired tomboy with an easier smile and quicker laugh than Shane, not to mention a penchant for eating lunch at the Chateau Marmont -- not necessarily Shane's kind of place.
"I'd call Shane androgynous," said Moennig, lighting up an American Spirit that a waiter will eventually ask her to extinguish (it seems last week fire marshals descended upon the famously fume-friendly Chateau). "I wouldn't call her butch at all. I don't think she has butch qualities, and she doesn't look butch. I think that's an easy label to make because she's not as feminine as the other girls. I'd call her androgynous because she is. And I'm androgynous."
She's the anti-starlet
Moennig, who recently turned 27, grew up in Philadelphia and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before working onstage at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Her mother is a former Broadway dancer, and her father, who passed away last spring, was the brother of actress Blythe Danner, which of course makes Gwyneth Paltrow her cousin. But the family resemblance seems to go only as far as the model-like bone structure and perpetually slouched shoulders. Despite certain celebrity-like traits (sunglasses worn indoors, personal life fairly off-limits), Moennig is in many ways the anti-starlet. She still occupies the same West Hollywood apartment she rented when she moved from New York two years ago, and her friends, not all actors, are spread out all over the country. And when it comes to choosing roles, glamour is not at issue.
"The characters I've played that people have noticed included a cross-dresser and a transsexual," Moennig said, referring, respectively, to her portrayal of Jake Pratt on the WB series "Young Americans" and a memorable appearance on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." "And now I'm playing a lesbian. So they were all characters who were on the fringes of society somehow."
Whether Moennig is gay herself is the subject of much (often hopeful) public interest. Only one "L Word" cast member, Leisha Hailey, is openly gay, and the show, with its svelte and well-heeled characters, has been criticized for being a little more "lipstick" than "lesbian" (we're not exactly in granola-scented Northampton, Mass.) or, worse, a cynical draw for male viewers. But the more traditionally telegenic qualities of her cast mates -- even the mulleted, transgender Ivan is played by Kelly Lynch -- has much to do with the traction Moennig has been able to gain with Shane. The performance, especially by TV standards, is startlingly subtle, so much so that it's easy to become mesmerized by Shane without realizing it right away.
"She doesn't say a lot," Moennig said. "The initial description in the pilot, when the character got introduced into the script, was a love scene in a pool. So for me that was a giveaway that this character was a very physical person."
Ilene Chaiken, "The L Word's" creator and executive producer, saw Moennig's audition tape and was "stunned by how fully she embodied the character."
"When I wrote the pilot," Chaiken said in Los Angeles, "Shane was so fixed for me that I was worried because there aren't many people who could nail it. And she was just clearly the one."
Though viewers are privy to only small, cryptic pieces of information about Shane's background, the show suggests she spent time on the streets. In the first season Shane, with her string of one-night stands and gruff refusals of affection, seemed emotionally barren, a less glossy version of Warren Beatty's classic womanizing hairstylist in "Shampoo." But a story line involving an entanglement with a socialite, played by Rosanna Arquette, took Shane in surprising directions. Amid the show's histrionics and neuroses (evidently, being a lesbian does not make one exempt from catty gossip, rampant materialism or baby-making insanity), Shane is arguably the most thoughtful, kind and level-headed of the group.
Both Chaiken and Moennig say we'll learn more about Shane's background in the second season. She also has a new love interest, someone who, as Moennig said, "doesn't put up with" her bad behavior.
As for the "I'd Go Gay for Shane" T-shirt, Moennig hadn't heard about it.
"What I'm hoping to do is present a character who you can't quite put your finger on. But I have fun with her. She's a really great time."