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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TEG: For I Can’t Think Straight, you played a Jordanian woman. Did you do much research to play her?
LR: Well, no, because, I mean, how do you play a Jordanian?
TEG: Too true. You got me there.
LR: It was really more about the place and the time and the situation. And I’ve lived in London for a couple of years so I’m kind of familiar with that vibe.
TEG: Was there a shorthand after shooting Think Straight that you enjoyed with your director and costar working with them again on Unseen?
LR: No, because they were such different projects. There were pretty different demands. I like to experiment with my acting techniques. It’s kind of maneuvering yourself to a different place. With one it was kind of like wind myself up and go.
TEG: With I Can’t Think Straight…
LR: And The World Unseen was more contemplative and there was more breathing space.
TEG: I just watched I Can’t Think Straight on a screener and saw The World Unseen at Outfest in July. I also saw Water in the theater. It took me about a good 20 minutes into Think Straight to realize you were the same actress because the characters are so profoundly different.
LR: I’m really happy to hear that. I’m really flattered to hear that. It’s a huge compliment because that’s what I want to do is disappear into every role.
TEG: I have to say that some of those scenes with you and Sheetal…very hot, very steamy.
LR: Yeah. I know.
TEG: Was that fun to shoot?
LR: That was….another day of work. That was punch in, punch out I’m sorry to report. Literally or metaphorically but it was.
TEG: Very funny. You also shot Kill Kill Faster Faster over these past few years, which is film noir? How was that experience?
LR: That was cool. That was thing, coming out of Water I wanted to experiment with a lot of genres. My work in the last two, three years has just been a lot of fishing in a strange way. I wanted to stretch myself as much as possible across genres and characters. That character in Kill Kill is a huge leap from that to playing a farm girl or a simple school teacher, which I’ve done. And then going on to these two projects, which are great. That’s really what I’ve been filling my time with over the last two years and it’s been really full. And now it’s sort of maybe stepping back and just taking a little bit of a breather before I jump back in.
TEG: This is a byproduct of you as an actress and doing your work. And, I don’t know if you even realize this but your being in these films where you play a woman involved with another woman, is actually really important to the gay and lesbian community, especially now that California is dealing with Prop. 8 and being stripped of civil rights.
LR: I know. What’s with that? What is with that?
TEG: It's insane.
LR: I can only express shock and surprise at that.
TEG: Well, and you’re Canadian where you've had gay marriage for several years. I imagine people there are just wondering how backwards we are down here.
LR: To me it doesn’t vibe with California’s vibe and outlook.
TEG: Well, there are a lot of small towns people forget beyond LA and San Francisco.
LR: I guess so. Yeah. You’re right.
TEG: It’s not a question. I want to thank you, whether or not it was your intention... It’s important for our community to have great actresses who are willing to take on roles that not everybody in the world is going to love, for example, playing gay.
LR: Thank you. These are great roles and it’s a great privilege and honor to play these characters. Again, it’s going to sound really simplistic but love is love and its time we stop defining our partnerships on the basis of anything other than if there’s love. Hopefully there’s a bit of a shift going on now with the whole big year of O.
TEG: And you don’t mean Oprah.
LR: (Laughs). Well, there is a triumvirate I’m sure. I’m not leaving Oprah out of it. Look at this man…what he’s accomplished. Hopefully helping to redefine how we see ourselves…the fact that we don’t have to define ourselves right? That’s a very key issue for me. It’s something I’ve always fought for in my life because I’m really hard to put in a box. I fought that my whole life being from a mixed heritage, not really living in any place. It really used to frustrate me when the demand that you define yourself. I think slowly that’s loosening. For me that’s the biggest triumph when people start dropping all of these mindsets.
TEG: Well put. Thank you. So you are taking a break for a bit having been so busy?
LR: I’m taking a mini breather before diving back down to LA.
TEG: Well, your fans will be cheering for you if you make the LGBT film fest rounds.