Actress Jennifer Beals

Beals describes the experience of returning to her hometown to play the first female police superintendent in the new Fox TV series The Chicago Code.

During her freshman year at Yale, Jennifer Beals landed the role that would give her instant star status. Her portrayal of a blue collar worker/dancer in the sleeper hit Flashdance also made her a teen fashion icon. After graduating, she continued her career with lead and supporting roles in many independent films and TV projects, including as a featured player in the popular Showtime series The L Word. She's back on the small screen in Fox' The Chicago Code, playing the first female police superintendent of the city that happens to be Beals' hometown.


Tavis: Jennifer Beals is a talented actress whose many notable roles include, of course, the film “Flashdance” and the critically acclaimed TV series “The L Word.” She is back on prime time TV now with a new series. It’s called “The Chicago Code.” The police drama airs Monday nights at 9:00 on Fox. Here now, a scene from “The Chicago Code.”
Tavis: So how surreal is it to have grown up in Chicago and now you’re starring in a TV series where you’re playing the superintendent of police in Chicago? (Laughter)
Jennifer Beals: It is very surreal. Every street corner is filled with a memory, and then there are some neighborhoods that just are unrecognizable, really, like Cabrini Green is gone. The projects are gone. Now there’s yoga classes and Little League field, and it’s interesting and fun.
Tavis: It feels how to be back on the streets, shooting it?
Beals: Well, the first month was really surreal. It was really kind of difficult to get back into the groove of being in the city. But I was really helped by my friends. I have friends from high school that still live there, so I spent a lot of time with them and my mom and my family, just reacquainting ourselves with the city.
Then it just got to be really joyful, and it’s fun, because I’ve run into people that I grew up with on the street. That’s exciting.
Tavis: There’s so many things – I want to go back to your childhood in a second – there are so many cop shows on television, obviously. There are so many shows about cops that we’ve seen over the years, shows and movies about Chicago cops.
When you get a script like this for a show, any hesitancy at all about whether or not you’re about to sign up for something that can give us something, offer something, show us something about Chicago, about the police department, that we haven’t seen in a million other movies or TV shows?
Beals: I think for me, when I’m looking at a script I really try to consider what experience am I embarking upon, because for me it’s really about the experience. I don’t usually see what I’ve done. I don’t often watch the film or watch the show. It’s really about that experience on-set and within the scene.
Because later, when the film comes out or the show comes out it’s the editor’s realm or the director’s realm. But that moment on set, that’s that electricity between me and another actor, and that’s really what excites me.
So for me, it was what kind of experience am I going to have, and who am I going to be working with? I have Shawn Ryan, who’s just extraordinary, and I get to work with Jason Clarke and I get to play the first female superintendent of the city of Chicago. I get to play a woman who is trying to define what her leadership looks like admits a group of people who are primarily men.
Tavis: I want to cut in right quick while this is up on the screen. This is a great shot here of a great actor, who I love, Delroy Lindo, who plays a Chicago alderman who’s a little shady.
Beals: A corrupt Chicago alderman. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was trying to be nice. I said shady; you called him corrupt. (Laughter) Tell me about – without giving too much away, tell me about the relationship between the two of you in the series.
Beals: Well, I’m the superintendent and I am brand new to the job. I was on a list of three people who were up for the job. The first two candidates, who were the first two chosen, weren’t able to do the job out of various misfortunes, so I get the job.
I wasn’t supposed to get the job, I was really the token candidate, and they figure that I can be their puppet, and they figured wrong. She goes into the job determined to not only take on crime on the streets but to take on the corruption that’s in the halls of power, and the corruption that’s within her own police department.
So she goes up against Alderman Gibbons, who’s one of the people who helped put her in the position, so.
Tavis: That’s not very nice.
Beals: Well –
Tavis: You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Beals: It was just very foolish of him. Very, very foolish.
Tavis: Foolish of him, not her, huh? (Laughter)
Beals: But I have to say I love working with Delroy.
Tavis: He’s a great actor.
Beals: He’s a great actor and we used to laugh on set, because I’d see what he’s doing, how he’s maneuvering his props, even, and what he’s doing to try to gain ground, (laughter) and he’d see what I was doing, and we’d just laugh, we’d laugh.
Tavis: To your point now about Delroy, after all the years of doing this, do you still find yourself watching and learning?
Beals: Oh, my goodness.
Tavis: Checking out other actors?
Beals: Delroy schooled me every single day – like, schooled me every day. I just learned so much from him. He’s a very powerful man, but just incredibly kind and incredibly generous to other people, and very dedicated to his work. I mean, really, like our last day of shooting at the end of the series, I just cried because I knew that I would miss going to work with him the next day. Hopefully, next season we’ll see what happens.
Tavis: For those who watched the Super Bowl, which I guess that means most all of us watched the big game on Sunday, Fox is promoting the heck out of this series. They obviously expect a lot out of you and the cast in terms of delivering here – no pressure.
Beals: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, me personally, yeah, because I had everything to do with everything.
Tavis: Yeah, Fox is expecting something big here. The first thing I thought, though, when I saw who the creator was, the creator of “The Shield.” So you came from cable – I say came; you did “The L Word,” which is on cable, “The Shield” was on cable, we all know. A lot of actors love cable these days because it allows you, shall we say, more liberties, in a lot of ways.
Beals: Right, like swearing. (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah – more liberties than you have on network television. So you think this show, for those who are fans of “The Shield,” and obviously they’re trying to pull us in with the fact that the guy who did “The Shield” did this, can it grab us in the same way, given that you don’t have necessarily the same latitude on network that you have on cable?
Beals: Well, I think he’s able to walk the line really well, and I think he’s so great with language that he doesn’t need to have people swearing to get to the truth of who they are. One of the things that I really love about Shawn, and we worked together on “Lie to Me,” that’s how I mean Shawn, was that he makes it really clear that the characters lead the plot and not vice-versa.
So that’s exciting, because you’re not then just having to deliver plot at the expense of your character.
Tavis: I said I wanted to get back to your childhood earlier, in two regards. Number one, you are biracial, as we say, in real life. (Laughter) I love that phrase.
Beals: And I play one on TV.
Tavis: And I play one on TV, yeah. You’ve played biracial characters in a number of projects. We just mentioned “The L Word” a minute ago. Has that been your choice, has that been by happenstance?
Beals: Well, with “The L Word,” when I first met with Ilene Chaiken about the role, I asked her to consider making the character biracial because I thought it would be an interesting way to talk about race and quite frankly, when I was a child, there was nobody on television who looked like me.
I had Spock. That was kind of it. I was hoping to give somebody some other kind of representation, maybe with different ears.
Tavis: Speaking of ears, now you’ve got a biracial guy from Chicago who’s president of the United States.
Beals: I know. (Laughs)
Tavis: So the biracial thing has worked out okay. The other thing I wanted to ask about, and I had forgotten about this, it’s been so many years, because we’re all “Flashdance” fans, huge movie, makes you a pop and cultural icon and fashionista and all that stuff.
I had forgotten, though, that when you became a star with that movie you were not just at Yale, you were really just getting started, freshman, at Yale when that movie comes out.
Beals: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: You decided, when all the hype and the success of the movie happens, to not move to Hollywood but to stay in school and finish up your degree at Yale. I assume – I could be wrong – after all these years you still think you made the right decision to stay?
Beals: Oh, gosh, absolutely. Yeah, I think you need that cocoon for a while. You need to figure out who you are and what you think and what you believe in. You need to have a life before you start acting, and I wasn’t ready to jump into Hollywood.
Tavis: Speaking of Hollywood, this town is predicated upon the fact, though, or the belief, at least, the notion that you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot. You don’t become a hit in a movie and disappear to finish up your degree. (Laughter) You’re a star now, let’s get this money now. You can go to Yale any time. But you bucked against that, though.
Beals: I know. I just wasn’t – yes, I know it sounds so perverse, but I wasn’t that into money, which is crazy, because I had no money growing up, but I believed that I could make money at any time. There’s this perverse belief that you can’t – you have to strike while the iron’s hot because you won’t be able to make that money later on down the line.
The fact is, you can make the money later down the line. Like I was at Oprah’s show, my friend Pam Grier did her show and I went with Pam to go cheer her own, because she’s really like my sister, and MC Hammer was on the show. He made money and he lost it all, and then he made it again.
I really felt like at that time in my life I needed to go to school because I enjoyed going to school, and I was just pursuing really what gave me such deep, deep pleasure.
Tavis: There have been periods of your career where we’ve seen a lot of you; other moments, not unlike a lot of actors, where we don’t see or have not seen a lot of you at certain periods. How have you navigated those periods where we weren’t seeing a lot of you? What were you doing in those moments?
Beals: Well, I was still working. I’ve always been working, but I’ve never sort of based my identity on what other people think of me or how other people perceive me, because that’s just too dangerous and crazy.
You do all the preparation, you get ready, you study how people walk, you study how people sound, you get this sense of your internal life, and then there comes a moment when you have to let go, and that, to me, is so delicious, I just love it, because it’s terrifying as well.
Tavis: Well, she’s let go, and we’ll see how delicious it is. It’s called “The Chicago Code,” as if you didn’t know that; it’s being advertised everywhere. Monday nights on Fox, starring one Jennifer Beals. It’s good to see you.
Beals: Good to see you, thank you.
Tavis: All the best on the show.
Beals: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm