Guinevere Turner: from Go Fish to The L Word

Growing up in a commune didn’t prepare Guinevere Turner for the outside world. But the iconic Go Fish co-creator and L Word writer caught on quickly – and we have Lauren Bacall to thank for bitchy Gabby Deveaux.

Interview LYDIA BIGLEY

Depending on how old you are, you will most likely have been introduced to Guinevere Turner through either the lesbian cult classic Go Fish in the mid-90s or the first series of The L Word (TLW) in 2004. But between these ground-breaking projects, Turner honed her talents as a screenwriter, director and producer, as well as acting in diverse roles – from an SM dominatrix in Preaching to the Perverted to Patrick Bateman’s lover in American Psycho (for which she also co-wrote the screenplay). She wrote for Season 1 of TLW and played the part of Alice’s bitchy ex, Gabby Deveaux, in Season 1 and 2 before mysteriously departing the screen.

Turner’s a queer style queen too, looking effortlessly glamorous in her vintage-inspired wardrobe – the result of a childhood spent watching classic 1940s movies. To call her upbringing unusual would be an understatement. Turner spent her childhood completely isolated from the outside world, growing up in a cult commune that moved from place to place.

Speaking from her home in sunny LA, the lesbian polymath tells us how Go Fish became an accidental hit, that her character is set to make a comeback in Season 6 of TLW, and why she hated Leisha Hailey – until she met her…

Your childhood was pretty unusual. Tell us a bit about it
It was wonderful and horrible, just like everyone’s childhood. The hard part was the transition into the regular world. I was completely isolated; I didn’t go to school, or to the movies – I didn’t go out. I really didn’t know anybody apart from the people [in the commune], so I’d never had an acquaintanceship in my life.

How did your background affect your life today?
I don’t watch TV, because I was raised without one. I rent stuff on DVD and watch an entire series instead, because I have to. I learnt early on in my profession that saying you don’t watch TV causes problems. People say: ‘What? You’re on TV and you write for TV, but you don’t watch it?!’ In the commune there was a list of 100 movies that we had to watch, but they were all movies from the 40s and a couple from the 70s.

Your look is quite 1940s. Did the style rub off?
Yeah, I think I wanted to be Lauren Bacall. That was my aesthetic ideal. Sassy, sexy, femmey, hard-talkin’ bitches!

How did the film Go Fish come about?
I meet Rose [Troche] in Act Up! [Aids Coalition to Unleash Power], and we started dating. She had graduated from film school, and I said to her that we should make a movie together’. I was sick of not seeing any representations of myself. We started making a short, but then we realised it was a longer story, so we decided to make a feature. We didn’t have any money, so it took us three years to make – and we broke up in the middle of making it. My character’s home is actually where we lived, and when Rose moved out she wasn’t able to take any of her stuff with her because of continuity issues; the books on the shelves, the curtains, it was all part of the set. The break-up wasn’t pretty and we’d be fighting on set. I’d look at the back of her neck and want to stab her! It was intense, but I can say all this because we really are very good friends now.

Looking back at it, how do you feel about the movie?
That film just keeps on giving. Even 22-year-olds will say to me, ‘Oh, my god, I saw that movie!’ I was so young and stupid when I made it, but the fact that a younger generation still responds to it is incredibly satisfying. I recently re-watched it with Rose because we’re thinking of making a sequel, and we were like, ‘What the hell we’re we on about?!’

Wow, we’re looking forward to Go Fish 2!
The working title is Go Fuck Yourself. We know what the story is, but we haven’t actually written it yet. The idea is that all the characters from Go Fish have to be in a house together for a weekend for some reason. Ely and Max have long since broken up and one of them has a Chinese baby. They haven’t seen each other for a long time and in the course of the weekend they get back together, so the story is like ‘true love for real’. It’s going to be completely in colour. The reason we’re calling it Go Fuck Yourself is because Go Fish was such an earnest movie and, 15 years on, we just want to have fun with it and make everybody bitchy and mad at each other. The luxury today is that we don’t have to be political to be out and gay.

The film aimed a lot of humour at lesbian style and appearance.
It was just the way we looked back then. I was wearing the clothes I wore [in real life]. We couldn’t have afforded anything else! It’s so dated now; big T-shirts, baggy jean shorts and a backward baseball cap, Doc Martens. It’s funny in comparison with TLW where fashion is so specific and ridiculous – you have this character working in a grocery store, wearing a $3000 dress.

Did you ever think a show such as TLW would be possible?
If you’d told us back then that we would be working on a [mainstream] lesbian TV show, we would have been like – no fucking way! Rose shot and directed the pilot, and said to me, ‘You should really interview to write on this show’. At first I was pissed off because I had auditioned for the parts of both Bette and Tina and didn’t get either. I was like, ‘Fuck this lesbian bullshit, I’ve got other stuff to do, I’m not working on your stupid lesbian show.’ Then Rose sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is going to be a landmark, ground-breaking show. Don’t you want to be a part of it?’ [puts on a weary voice] ‘OK, alright, I’ll do it’ – and she was right. [The show] was such a big deal.

Are you sick of talking about it or happy with the new exposure it’s brought you?
Last fall I was at lunch with someone, saying, ‘I wish people would stop fucking talking to me about TLW, I haven’t worked on that show in three years,’ and then when I got home there was an email asking me to attend the TLW convention in London. I said to the organiser, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little pathetic me being there?’ And he said, ‘It’s just an offer’. So I went and, you know, it’s fresh for some people! Also I’ve just found out that my character [Gabby Deveaux] is coming back for Season 6, so I’m not over it at all. It’s like Go Fish; it’s a landmark thing and I’m really happy to have been a part of it. I haven’t watched it for the last few seasons, although I really should – there’s a character in the script that Gabby is with, and I don’t know who she is!

Gabby appeared in Seasons 1 and 2 of the show, and you did some writing for it. Then suddenly, you were nowhere. What happened?
She [Ilene] just didn’t ask me back. She never explained to me why – I just didn’t get rehired. Rose [Troche] said that I was speaking ill of Ilene, and it got back to her. But she’s fine now. She actually asked me back [as Gabby], and she’s directing the episode that I’m in, so that should all be incredibly awkward! [laughs]

How much was Gabby based on you? You’re a big hit with the ladies in real life…
The character was created by Angela Robinson, who was working on the show that season. I developed stories for all the characters, but Gabby was a fully-realised person before Ilene asked, ‘Would you like to play this character?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ But other people wrote for her. I asked, ‘Is this how you see me? A cold-hearted bitch?’ But she’s such a fun character to play and gets some of the best lines. Villains have come and gone on the show, but I was the first.

Are you friends with any of the TLW cast members?
I actually haven’t hung out with [the cast] for a long time and I’m excited about seeing them all again.

I knew Leisha [Hailey] from before – because I got dumped for her! I really didn’t want to work with her. Then when I did, she wasn’t going out with my ex any more, and she’s possibly the loveliest person I’ve ever met. Writing for her was great because you know that she’ll make anything you write even funnier. She has really good comic timing.
I thought, ‘I’m such an asshole that I’ve hated this person I didn’t even know for years. Now I’ve met her, and she’s one of my favourite people!’ It was really hilarious the first time Gabby and Alice kissed on camera. Rose was directing it, and it was even more awkward that it was someone I knew. We were both like, ‘Ugh, that’s so weird that we have to make out,’ and Rose said, ‘I know this is uncomfortable for you, but if you just go for it, we’ll only have to do one take. Just go for it!’ So we did.

You were at the TLW convention in London in March. What do you make of the fans – bordering on stalking, or all good fun?
It’s easy to be judgemental, but actually there’s so much good energy. It’s hard not to love walking into a room full of excited women. I make jokes about it: who’s more geeky? Me for going there, or them for paying for the tickets?’ It makes me realise how much lesbians are underrepresented. It inspires me to do more.

A lot of people go just to meet up with other lesbians. There’s a definite social aspect to it, too…
Yeah, that’s true too. When I saw Desert Hearts I was 19, in college, and I went to an afternoon screening of it to escape the world. I didn’t really know it was a lesbian movie and as I started watching it I was like, ‘Oh, my god, it’s a lesbian movie!’ Then I looked around, and I couldn’t watch it any more because I suddenly realised all the gay women who were at my college were there. It makes you realise that when you create stuff like that, you also create a culture around it.

Are people surprised when they find out that you act, write and direct? Some might just be familiar with you from Go Fish or TLW, and others will know from your work on more mainstream films such as American Psycho.
Yeah, it’s weird. It’s like I have two completely separate kinds of fans. The average person who knows me from Go Fish does not know I wrote American Psycho, and most American Psycho fans haven’t heard of Go Fish.

How did the part of Mistress Tanya Cheex in Preaching to the Perverted (1997) come about?
Well, if you were a dyke in Chicago (where I was living at the time) in the 90s, you couldn’t really avoid a pair of handcuffs here and there! It just came to me through my agent. The director was holding auditions in England. I couldn’t be there, but I thought it sounded like fun, so I auditioned on tape and wrote him a letter. I think it was the letter that did it. I said, ‘I wish I could be there to spank someone in person for you!’ And because I was working on the Bettie Page story at the time, he knew I knew a lot about fetish and bondage from doing my research. I had so much fun doing that movie. It was gruelling because of the costumes… I played not only a dominatrix but also a club diva, so I had to wear all sorts of amazing corsets. Inside [the costume] it was either fucking hot or fucking freezing. I spent some time in NY with a woman who is a professional dominatrix and learnt all about the world [of SM]. I also spent a lot of time with the fetish community in London.

Was it a chance to get in touch with you inner dom and have a bit of fun?
Absolutely! I got treated like a queen on set because a lot of people didn’t realise I wasn’t a dominatrix in real life. It’s a really campy, over-the-top movie, but I don’t think the fetish community found it fetishy enough. It’s really more a fun piece than truly perverted.

The Itty Bitty Titty Committee was the last project you worked on.
The director Jamie Babbit [But I’m a Cheerleader] is a friend. We wanted to do a movie about Riot Grrrls, but realised that it was a dated concept and we didn’t want to do a period feature. So we decided to do one about young lesbians who are freshly into politics. I made up the title, which I’m proud of. It’s very common to make fun of girls whose breasts haven’t developed yet in American middle schools.

You seem unafraid of being ‘out’ publicly, and it hasn’t restricted you professionally. How do feel about the veil of secrecy that still surrounds gay and lesbian actors in Hollywood?
Every few years the landscape changes, thankfully, for what it means to be an ‘out’ actor. When we made Go Fish we had no idea how big it was going to be, so I always have to say – in case I seem like a hero – that in no way did I know that I was coming out in such a public way! [laughs] It was never really a conscious decision for me to be out in my career because I didn’t know it was going to become my profession. I thought I was going to write novels. I didn’t even understand how the industry worked. It never occurred to me until it was far too late that I had officially become a ‘lesbian actress’ and a ‘lesbian film-maker’. I know a lot of closeted actors, but as much as I wish everybody would come out, I’m not going to out anybody. It’s hard to know where people are coming from; for all we know, it could have everything to do with their family and nothing to do with their career.

We want a British TLW!
For once you’d be copying us instead of us copying you. TLW would never have happened without Queer As Folk USA, and that wouldn’t have happened without the British Queer As Folk. So we owe you guys one! I’d love to create the next lesbian show, but it’s going to be difficult because everybody’s going to be worried about just copying TLW. There’s obviously going to be a huge void [when TLW] finishes.

What sort of relationship do you have with the UK?
On Preaching to the Perverted I worked with an actress named Julie Graham (Bonekickers), and she became a really good friend of mine. Even though she’s not gay, she seemed to know every lesbian in London, so through her I met some great, fun women. Then I dated someone who lived there – I wouldn’t recommend long-distance between London and LA! For one reason or another, I seem to end up in London every couple of months. I was just over at the Role Model contest [in May], which is great. I love it there. I’ve always said that, aside from New York, London is the only other city I’ve been to that I felt I could live in. I feel very at home there.

What do you like about British women?
They drink more and are less judgemental about drinking than Americans. The drinking culture is more acceptable and social. Americans either turn their noses up at drinking, or we’re drunk 24/7. Everywhere I’ve gone and gotten to know the lesbian community, it’s always shockingly the same, which is both hilarious and depressing. Dyke drama, no matter where you go!

You’re over in October for YLAF. What will you be doing there?
I’m just putting on the ‘me’ show, the easiest job in the world. You just get up on stage, have somebody interview you and get asked questions from the audience. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m going to try and drag some of my London friends to it.

Published in Diva magazine, October 2008, issue 149

Lydia Bigley © 2018