You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown
You know times have changed when not only are more and more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters appearing in film and on television, but more and more of the people playing those characters are LGBT as well.
Arguably, nowhere are those changes more visible than on Dante’s Cove, the LGBT-themed horror show that premiered on here! in late 2005. Some of the most newsworthy of the gay and lesbian actors on creator Michael Costanza’s supernaturally sexy show are Jill Bennett, Jenny Shimizu and Michelle Wolff, who become involved in one of television’s first lesbian love triangles this season.
All three have ample experience "playing gay": Bennett was the love interest of lesbian icon Mariel Hemingway in the 2006 release In Her Line of Fire, Shimizu had a small part in Ellen’s "coming out" episode and plays a supporting role in the recent Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and Wolff had a starring role in 2004’s lesbian romantic comedy Mango Kiss.
That doesn’t mean the actresses are blasť about their current roles on Dante’s Cove. On the contrary, each admitted recently to being blown away by the experience. They also opened up about why they prefer to play lesbian characters, what it’s like to be out in Hollywood and how they hope LGBT actors and actresses will be received by the film-going and TV-viewing public in the future.
Bryan Ochalla: So, what was it like for the three of you to get this opportunity to play gay characters and be surrounded by other gay actors on a gay television show?
Jill Bennett: I’ve played quite a few gay characters in the past and, personally, I have more fun when the set is gay. It’s more comfortable and everybody is speaking the same language. The most fun I’ve ever had as an actor has been in gay and lesbian productions.
Jenny Shimizu: I have so much gratitude that I’m alive and working in an age when we actually have a gay television network and we can be gay actors playing gay characters.
It surprises me when I think about how much has changed in the last 10 years. Work is work, definitely, but it’s so nice to be surrounded by people like Jill and Michelle and all of the boys, too. There’s no second guessing on this set-sometimes I feel like I have to watch myself when I’m in a different situation.
Jill Bennett: Yeah, it’s like being with family.
Michelle Wolff: I was the only lesbian actress on the show last year. This year I’m all of the sudden surrounded by gay actors. It brought a different vibe to the set. There were issues that never had to be questioned, which was great.
Bryan Ochalla: How do you think that feeling of camaraderie and comfort translates to what viewers see on the screen? The three of you, in particular, are involved in the same storyline. Does it help that you’re all gay?
Jill Bennett: I think it makes a huge difference. One of my issues with watching gay and lesbian programming is that chemistry is really important and I can immediately see if there’s no chemistry between two actors.
If an actor is really good, he or she can fake it and make us believe there is chemistry, but that’s not always possible. It doesn’t mean gay people can’t play straight roles and vice versa, but the chemistry comes a lot easier when you can relate to each other like we do.
There’s a comfort the three of us have with each other that hasn’t always existed when I’ve been in similar scenes with straight actresses. There’s a hesitation or something, which I think shows sometimes.
Michelle Wolff: When it came to the sex scenes last season on Dante’s Cove, I had to choreograph the whole thing and take control of that aspect of the show. I was working with someone who wasn’t sure what two women do together.
I have to say, it was really nice when things changed in season three and I didn’t have to go it alone. I actually had somebody who could say, "This might be hot," or, "Why don’t we try this?" It’s been much more of a collaboration, mostly because of personal experience. It made it a lot easier.
Jenny Shimizu: Because we all come from the same place, there isn’t much of a need to explain things. We’re pretty much like, "OK, we’re going into a sex scene," and be very natural about it rather than having to plan each hand movement, for instance. We don’t have to have a big discussion about what is sexy to lesbians.
Bryan Ochalla: Do all of you prefer to take on gay roles, or doesn’t it matter to you?
Jenny Shimizu: The funny thing is that I’ve either played gay characters or played myself in everything I’ve done. It’s not because I’m a "star," it’s usually that someone wants a "lesbian model".
I’ve gotten a little lucky because no one ever asks me to be a female detective who makes out with a guy in order to find a pimp, or some strange story like that.
Michelle Wolff: For me, it’s about the role and the project-that’s the main thing I look at. If it’s a great role, it’s going to go a lot further with me than whether the character is gay or straight.
That said, I’ve found that the best roles that have come my way have been for gay and lesbian television shows and films. Playing gay roles has just been much more fun, much more interesting.
Jill Bennett: Like I said earlier, I have more fun on the set when I’m working on a gay and lesbian project. It’s partially because this is my life and my experience, but it’s also because gay and lesbian stories and roles are the ones that tend to grab my interest. That’s not to say I’m not interested in playing a great straight role if it comes along, but what speaks to me is the life that I live.
Bryan Ochalla: Are gay and lesbian roles becoming more prevalent, especially good ones?
Jill Bennett: It seems to me there are more. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the industry, and it really seems like both of the gay networks are doing pretty well-they’re increasing budgets and bringing on more projects. The gay and lesbian film festival circuit is huge, too, which allows films to be made that never would have been made in the past.
It seems like there are twice as many opportunities than last year and it seems like it’s getting better every year.
Michelle Wolff: The gay community seems really hungry for it, and they’re supporting whatever comes their way. It doesn’t even have to be great and it becomes a hit. The more people that support gay and lesbian programming, the more money there will be for people to bring forward more of these projects.
It’s really exciting that there’s so much more content out there and in development. And I think it’s just going to continue to get better.
Jenny Shimizu: Mainstream television is playing a role, too. There are so many shows with gay characters and storylines these days. We’re so lucky to be here at this time.
Jill Bennett: Yeah, it’s perfect timing. We’re finally getting past the coming out stories, which was the big theme for so long. Thank god, because I’m over them. I don’t want to see anymore of them!
Now we get to be a part of everything else now. We’re no longer a question mark.
Michelle Wolff: Well, we’re on a gay soap opera-how great is that? It’s just another example that all of the genres are starting to get filled. And the people who feel they haven’t been represented in some way are going out and starting a project that accomplishes that.
Bryan Ochalla: Does all of this mean it’s easier to be out in Hollywood these days?
Jill Bennett: I think it is getting easier, but until the A-list group of closeted celebrities come out, it’s still going to be a stigma. It’s going to go away in the next decade, I think-it won’t matter anymore-but I think it still matters today.
There are some television actors who are out now, but most of them came out after their shows were a hit. We really need the A-listers to join the club. We need them to come out and push some of the less liberal people in the country to be more accepting and to realize gay people are everywhere. Otherwise the stigma is going to stick around.
Michelle Wolff: There’s still a stigma, absolutely. I’m asked all the time, "When did you come out?" or, "How did you decide to come out?" The fact that I’m still asked that shows it’s still an issue for a lot of people.
I look forward to the day when the stigma doesn’t exist anymore, but I’m not sure when it will happen. Going to take a lot of time and work in this country for it to not be an issue.
Jill Bennett: We have come a long way in even the last 10 years, though. Ellen coming out opened a can of worms, and look how far we’ve come since then. That’s a pretty short amount of time.
Michelle Wolff: Yeah, but we’re still a racist country. How long have we been trying to change that? We’ve seen a lot of progress and I look forward to even more changes in the future, but I hope it’s able to go more quickly that it has in the past.
Season Three of Dante’s Cove begins this week on here! TV. For more information, visit the Dante’s Cove website.
Playing November 21- December 31 at the Media Theater for the Performing Arts, 104 E. State St. Media, PA. For showtimes and tickets call (610) 891-0100, or visit www.mediatheater.org.