It was kismet for Jennifer Beals when The Last Tycoon came along.
The 53-year-old actress, best known for her roles in Flashdance and The L Word, plays the fierce and in-demand Hollywood star Margo Taft, who comes into the fray in the original Amazon series’ third episode and proves a strong woman isn’t to be toyed with.
As Margo, Beals showcases a woman — who keeps her biracial identity a secret — unafraid to demand what she’s worth and even forces directors to show their private parts before she begins filming their movie.
Beals recently jumped on the phone with ET to discuss her exciting new role on the 1930s-set The Last Tycoon, which also stars Matt Bomer, Kelsey Grammer and Lily Collins, and offers an update on the long-awaited Showtime revival of The L Word.
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ET: How did you come to this role?
Jennifer Beals: It just landed in my lap. I had a call from my agent that [writer-director] Billy Ray wanted to talk to me about a character he conceived of for The Last Tycoon — it’s not a character in the book — and could he present it to me. This was a little bit before Christmas last year, I believe. And he told me what he had in store for Margo Taft and I basically started shaking because I was so terrified.
You mentioned that you started shaking. Is that a sign that you should jump on board?
That’s a whole other thing. That’s only really happened to me involuntarily like that when I was giving birth. (Laughs.) So it was a really good sign that I needed to dive in.
What was it about what Billy Ray was telling you about your character that made you have such a visceral reaction?
To place that storyline in that historical context with all of those things going on with a single person was just so extraordinary. I knew that I would have to be exploring all kinds of different themes and that’s not something that you do superficially. You have to go in there and dig. It was really, really fun. There’s layer after layer of performance that Margo Taft’s giving at any given time — there’s covering up who she is on the most basic level, there’s creating the woman that she wants to present to the world, there’s the actress she wants to present to the world. All of these masks are paradoxically donned in order to attain a certain semblance of freedom to be who she truly is as an artist, which is incredibly passionate and powerful. You’ve got this paradox going on and you have to keep on peeling every layer and seeing how they all connect. She’s a master strategist.
Margo was originally described as someone who is “manipulative.” Is that an accurate description?
I really think that manipulative is reserved for women who are strategists and that we need to rethink that. Because she’s a woman, even today, people described her as a manipulator and that’s nonsense. She’s a master strategist and she uses whatever she has to get what she wants, like Pat Brady [Kelsey Grammer’s character] or Monroe Stahr [Matt Bomer’s character], will use whatever they have to get whatever they want. She has no love life. There is really only her career and her path as a performer. That’s it. All roads lead to Rome. Every road she is on is about that, is about being able to fulfill herself and rewrite the history books in a way when it comes to performing. Even though all of society has told her that she is less than in every possible category, her response internally is, “Screw you, I am going to get what I deserve and what I deserve is extraordinary.”
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Was there freedom in playing someone who wasn’t in the original Last Tycoon story?
Oh, absolutely. I am a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, like, I would categorize myself as a groupie. So to not have to have his voice in my head is great — that there’s respect for the style and the era and everything. I think it would have been hard. He’s just so beloved; I really do adore [Fitzgerald].
What about your character do you respect the most or grew to appreciate that you weren’t expecting to?
The depth of the love for her mother, that she would do anything for her mother and that, in fact, so much of this is being done for the both of them to assure their financial freedom and ascension. That’s not to say that it’s not a complicated relationship, obviously, but she’s the one who knows her and there’s nobody else who really knows who she is. And she’s the center of her life, really. But I love her way with words. I love that she could easily go into any situation and wield words like samurai swords. (Laughs.)
What areas do you think Margo could improve in?
Humility. She can’t believe her ego. The ego is really important for some things, but to be mindful that it can be your undoing.
What was it like working with Matt Bomer and Kelsey Grammer?
My scene partners predominantly were Matt Bomer and Kelsey Grammer from the main cast and to work with them is an incredible gift at every single moment of every day. To go from the beginning of the day, working with Kelsey, and then to go to the afternoon, working with Matt, it’s just this fantasy. They’re so accomplished and they’re so generous and facile.
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What was your most challenging scene to film?
When I find out my mother’s died and it’s just awful, like I could just start crying right now just thinking about it. When we were done, I did a little dance. I was so excited to be finished because it had been weighing on me. To lose her, it was excruciating.
What did you take away from your experience on The Last Tycoon?
First of all, it’s my favorite character that I’ve ever played — ever, ever, ever. To the point where I missed her so much when I was away from her that I was driving down the freeway and was just missing her like you miss a friend who’s just passed away. So I pulled over and I called Billy Ray and I said, “I know this is a really weird question, but do you happen to have any monologues for Margo that you never used that you could send to me?” And he said, “I don’t, but I’ll write you one,” so that I get to go visit with her by working on it.
Is this a rare occasion where you felt so deeply connected to a character that you wanted to stay with her?
Not being able to let go in this capacity was really unusual and bordering on an illness. (Laughs.) Yes, that was unusual. I don’t normally have that.
You’re also on NBC’s Taken. What are you excited about jumping back into that world for season two?
Any day I get to act is an exciting day. I don’t know what I’ll be jumping into. We have a new showrunner. We have a new cast. We have a bunch of new elements. You just have to be open to what the universe is sending your way and see how it goes for a bit.
We have to talk about The L Word revival at Showtime. Did that take a long time to manifest itself and get to a place where it was close to getting greenlit, especially with the original cast?
Well, I’m not officially allowed to talk about it, but Showtime is very committed to bringing it back. There’s not an if, and, or but — they’re very committed to bringing it back. It’s monumental; it’s epic in the truest sense of the word. I’m so happy. There’s so many great things going on, truly my cup runneth over.
All episodes of The Last Tycoon are now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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