How often does an actress get a chance to play a part that could be taken out of her life?
"I am a lesbian playing a lesbian," notes Portia de Rossi of her new role on Nip/Tuck. "But she’s a different woman than I am, so the most surprising thing is how emotional it’s been for me." It is the first time de Rossi (Arrested Development) has played a lesbian on screen — a risk she was willing to take only now, three years after she went public about her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. De Rossi’s character, Olivia Lord, an acupuncturist with a teenage daughter, made her first appearance last week as the girlfriend of Julia McNamara (Joely Richardson).
"I talked to Ellen about it," says de Rossi, "and I realized that I spent so many years downplaying that side of me, just to forward my career. I could pass as a heterosexual and it would have been easy to stay that way, except that I didn’t feel honest as an actor because I wasn’t honest in my personal life."
It’s a cool October night and De Rossi’s relaxing with Richardson in her trailer between takes of a scene in which they’re held up at gunpoint at an ATM. As they sit facing each other, it’s remarkable how much they look alike — which is not a coincidence. "Since the show is always about the search for identity," says creator Ryan Murphy. "I just thought it would be great fun to explore the world of Julia, a late-in-life lesbian, who falls in love with somebody who looks like her."
Julia’s coming out to Sean (Dylan Walsh) and Christian (Julian McMahon) stands as a major plot point for November sweeps. In one episode the men hurl vile anti-lesbian insults to deal with the shocking news. Reading the scripts brought back some of De Rossi’s own early traumas. "It makes me remember all the people I had to come out to and how often I had to come out," says De Rossi, 34.
"People think you just hold a press conference, but you don’t — you tell individuals. And you cross your fingers with every single person you care about, hoping that they’ll love you just the same." Since this is Nip/Tuck and pushing sexual boundaries is the show’s mandate, should we expect steamy sex scenes?
"You’ll have to wait and see," demurs De Rossi. "But I think our characters have a deep emotional connection and that might be shocking for some people."
"There is such a thing as lesbian chic," adds Richardson, 42. "Am I allowed to say that? I think it turns men on. You can see it on the set — there is this sort of sexiness to two women being together that men respond to. When I was playing Julia the housewife, always chopping vegetables, people were sweet and lovely. But now when I play Julia as a sexy bitch in a dream sequence with a big padded bra and a short skirt?" She pauses as the two women crack up. "Well, I got a very different reaction when I walked onto the set!"
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