Lisa Ray on Playing it Gay... Twice
Canadian film star Lisa Ray stars in two of this year’s lesbian-themed films but watch closely or you just might not recognize the stunning actress who disappears so seamlessly into her roles. In director Shamim Sarif’s cross-cultural, lesbian-themed romantic comedy I Can’t Think Straight, in theaters Nov. 21, Ray plays Tala, a free-spirited intellectual Londoner of Jordanian heritage who falls for co-star Sheetal Sheth’s Leyla, a British-born Indian writer.
But Ray also retreats into her role in Sarif’s The World Unseen, released earlier this month. In that film Ray portrays Miriam, a repressed housewife in Apartheid-era South Africa, who’s lifted, however momentarily, out of the binds of her abusive husband and familial obligations by the free-thinking, men’s’ clothes sporting Amina, also played by Sheth. In both films with Sarif and Sheth, Ray excavates the underpinnings of culturally forced repression with varying degrees smoldering nuance.
Already an international success, Ray, whose parents are of Polish and Bengali descent, cemented her appeal in acclaimed director Deepa Mehta’s heart-rending study of Indian widows confined to a life of self-denial in the 2005 Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language film, Water. Her other projects include the CBS mini-series The Summit and the upcoming noir Kill Kill Faster Faster.
An international star with a devoted following, with two gay-themed roles under her belt, Ray is destined to build out an ardent lesbian fanbase. SheWired chatted with Ray about her projects, Prop. 8 and how her lesbian sex scenes were really just “punch in, punch out,” as it were.
Tracy E. Gilchrist: Hi Lisa. Thank you for chatting with me. I’ll jump right in to these films I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen. You worked on both of them with director Shamim Sarif and your costar Sheetal Sheth. Did you do them back to back?
Lisa Ray: We started out shooting I Can’t Think Straight, so no; it was not shot back to back. Shot in London and then the World Unseen came about six to eight months later.
TEG: How is it that you came to work with the same director and co-star / love interest in both films?
LR: I have no clue. It was just sort of the way it turned out.
TEG: I think they are really interesting bookends. Obviously different cultures and time periods. I saw The World Unseen at Outfest this summer and watching I Can’t Think Straight there's an oddly satisfying resolution wathching these characters, however in different films and times, coming into their own. Is there any sort of bookending that went on for you and you co-star in doing these films.
LR: I don’t think so at all. It wasn’t’ planned that we would do two films.
TEG: It seems completely intentional.
LR: Yeah. That was completely unanticipated. It just unfolded that way. Anyway, I see sort of every project as a one-off as an actor. I mean you’re just in it and in that particular character. You can’t really see it from the outside or really analyze it when you’re doing it.
TEG: Formerly it was a taboo to play gay, although some great actresses have flocked to The L Word but you’ve played a woman involved with another woman twice now. Is there any fear that you’ll be pigeonholed?
LR: Hardly because I’ve done such a variety of things in my career. So, no. Fortunately I don’t think that way. And you know, a role is a role is a role.
TEG: In getting Water made I know there was some controversy around that for the director, Deepa Mehta. Did any of that trickle down to you as an actor.
LR: By the time we got around to filming it, the production really cushioned us -- in terms of the creative team --- from any potential repercussions, but it was also very smooth sailing. It was kind of a dream shoot because we ended up shooting in Sri Lanka. There were absolutely no problems.
TEG: You’ve starred in Water and The World Unseen, both period films, and I Can’t Think Straight is so contemporary. Do you have any preference as to the types of roles you play?
LR: Period’s more challenging sometimes. I’ve done such a wide variety recently. I’ve done a Canadian film where I played a farm girl. Everything from that to this. I enjoy the diversity more than anything else, so that’s the challenge.
TEG: Were you able to hit up any of the film fests with either The World Unseen or I Can’t Think Straight?
LR: I’ve been traveling for most of last year so I’ve been off the continent and off the grid. So, I haven’t been able to participate in a lot of that.
TEG: The reason I ask is that, if you do get to do the film fests, having done these two films, you will certainly discover that you've become a lesbian icon. Lesbian audiences are wildly devoted.
LR: (Laughs) I’m happy for that. I’m extremely grateful. That’s actually what my director was telling me. He said you’ve got a new wave of fans and a new audience base. And I’m more than kicked about that, you know? If you can imagine. I think it’s fantastic.
TEG: I got away from it for a minute, but what sort of research did you do for the role in The World Unseen? It was really multi-layered.
LR: Well, just being in South Africa and absorbing that atmosphere was a good launching pad to the time and the place. Talking to people…I read a lot. I read a lot about Apartheid. It was more about situating Miriam in a time and a place…understanding her world. And after that, sort of letting go and finding the character. So there were two different kinds of prep. Maybe that’s what makes period a little more engrossing. You have to find the period in time and then you have to find the character. Yeah. You know, it’s double the work. I should have gotten double the salary actually.
LR: Next time I’ll remember that. Now I should know.
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