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Woman on top: in a lean time for gay and lesbian characters on TV, ER's Laura Innes digs deeper into her role as a lesbian doctor--and her understanding of the gay experience. (fall TV preview) (Cover Story).

"Whenever I'm talking about this stuff, I always feel a little strange because I'm not actually gay. But I've had this [coming-out] experience that feels very real to me in a lot of ways," says Laura Innes, who has spent the past two years exploring the lesbian awakening of her TV alter ego, ER's feisty Dr. Kerry Weaver.

During seven years on NBC's powerhouse medical drama, Innes has convinced TV fans all over the world that she is Weaver--smart, workaholic, unfazed by the disability that requires her to walk with a crutch--but ripped wide-open by the dawning awareness that she's gay.

Now, with the departure last season of ER's longtime leading character Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Weaver is stepping up to take the lead in her emergency room and to chart her future as an out lesbian. In a season of few bright spots for gay and lesbian viewers, it's worth noting that NBC is putting Weaver front and center. As for Innes the heterosexual married mom in her mid 40s is reacting to her heightened visibility by doing what she's always done: embracing and defending her character.

Sitting down with The Advocate in a cafe in Santa Monica, Calif., Innes is so much more striking than the lab-coated Chicago surgeon Weaver that she evokes double takes. She's not going down the vanity road, though. "If you play a character who people don't perceive to be a babe, then if you even look OK in person, people think you look great," she says, smiling.

She laughingly admits that her protectiveness of Weaver considerably predates the character's sexual awakening. "When I first got the part, I didn't think I should be doing off-the-set publicity," she says, smiling at her own naivete. "I asked my publicist, `If they see me without my crutch, won't it break the whole deal?'"

Innes has long since realized she should capitalize on the advantages of the visibility afforded by a top-ranked TV series. And unlike some gay-friendly celebs, she has a knack for addressing our issues without flowing over into Hollywood hot-ha. "My higher priority is that [Weaver] be dramatically true and interesting," she says frankly. "But I'm certainly interested in whatever positive cultural effect the character has."

Out in the world, sad to report, Kerry Weaver gets mixed reviews, and Innes hears them all. Many lesbian viewers are delighted by their positive representation on TV--so much so that numerous Internet sites offer fan fiction celebrating Kerry Weaver love fantasies. But some fans are less impressed. And Innes finds herself--as at a May 2002 Hollywood panel on lesbian media images--fielding passionate complaints from lesbians who feel that progress is too slow.

Then there's the public at large, where Innes sometimes meets ER fans who are downright squirmy about the sapphic turn her character has taken. "One thing that has really surprised me is the degree of ambivalence that still exists in the general population. I'll be on a plane with my husband and family, and people realize, She's not really gay, so they talk about their feelings a little more freely," says Innes, whose husband, actor David Brisbin, has appeared on ER as well as in the miniseries Tales of the City and such films as Erin Brockovich and Forrest Gump.

"Oftentimes," Innes continues, "there's a discomfort and a sort of disappointment that the character is lesbian. And that's difficult for me to hear, because I live in a sheltered world in terms of the people I know."

Encounters like these have given the actor a valuable glimpse of the world as seen through gay eyes. "Obviously, the political and legal aspects, protection of rights--all that is essential," she points out. "But the subtle ways that people disconnect [from gay people] sometimes feel more hurtful. These little ways of shutting down around somebody, shutting down around the subject."

She pauses. "You know, I have two children. I don't know what their path will be, but I would hate to think that in any way they're predisposed to diminishing their choices in terms of marriage, family, career--especially having children, having a lifelong partner. That's to me the deeper danger: that self-marginalization and self-denial of all that life has to offer you."

That thought dovetails with one of the main homophobic complaints Innes says she has heard from ER fans: "I just don't like it shoved in my face."

Innes gets a kick out of that. "We haven't really shoved anything in anybody's face," she says. Aside from a few kisses and a truckload of longing, in fact, the character of Weaver has mostly displayed her own discomfort rather than a wild lesbian libido. Two seasons ago her self-loathing drove the stunning psychiatrist Kim Legaspi (Elizabeth Mitchell) from her arms, and this past season she nearly repeated that mistake with the appealingly butch firefighter Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal). Finally Weaver stopped fighting her feelings and settled into the new relationship.

"This is what Kerry's drawn to and needs now, because this person is so incredibly direct," Innes says. "That was the point of introducing this character [Lopez], who was in a way the opposite of her. Legaspi was this pre-Raphaelite beauty, thoughtful and articulate. And Lopez is like, `Cut the crap, let's figure fids out.'"

As for actor Vidal, who also stars on the Lifetime series The Division, Weaver describes her as "a total pro and a very joyful person. She's great. She's smart; she communicates; she's a beautiful girl. She has a couple of kids too, and we talk about our kids a lot. It's like, we kiss, and then we'll say, `So what school are your kids going to?'"

Innes can't reveal how their fictional relationship will unfold this season other than to say that it will continue and that Weaver will consider achieving something in common with Innes: motherhood. "Hopefully, [Weaver's] gayness won't be less of an issue," says the actor. "But it will be more integrated in a real way in the workplace. When things happen that reverberate in some way with that, they'll be part of the story."

As she has from the start, Innes will be intimately involved in the creative decision-making. Aside from her work as an actor, she has become a respected TV director, with an Emmy nomination under her belt and plans to direct episodes this season of three of ER executive producer John Wells's shows--ER, The West Wing, and his newest series, Presidio Med. She's even landed a "little development deal" with Warner Bros. and is exploring potential feature-film material to direct.

It's from that perspective that Innes evaluates the significance of her show's outreach to gay fans. "I've really examined--because now I know more about the producing end--how much was at stake when John Wells and the other producers of ER decided to pursue this stow line," she says. "And how much was at stake for NBC. ER is a huge moneymaking show, and for them to do this is really a big deal. It's great that there are gay and lesbian characters on shows like Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk, but there's nothing that compares to this battleship that is ER in terms of the mainstream nature of it, the economic tentacles of it, how many people it reaches."

Despite its still-whopping viewership, its longevity has had a settling effect on ER, Innes says. "That's one of the good sides of a show that's [no longer so] white-hot but still holding strong. There's now a kind of an absence of ego. You get back to being there for the reason you were there to begin with, which is to tell the stow. The people who are there now--Noah and Alex Kingston and Maura Tierney, Sherry Stringfield, Goran Visnjic, Paul McCrane, a couple of the newer characters--they're very happy to be there, happy and in flow with each other."

Innes has become a leader among the cast along with Noah Wyle (as Dr. John Carter). They're the only early birds left, Wyle having been in the original lineup and Innes joining the cast during the second year. "Noah and I kind of emerge as the people on the set who--if something's going on that ruins the good vibe--have to step in and say, `That's not how we do it here,'" she says.

In order to play the complex, conflicted Weaver--who's variously backbiting and cold or heroic and sensitive--Innes invented her own elaborate back stow about Weaver's parents being medical missionaries in foreign countries and Weaver's having contracted polio. Regarding the lesbian stow line, Innes has profited from the wisdom of ER writer Dee Johnson, who is a lesbian. "She obviously is a big voice in the writers' meetings in terms of the sort of sequence that the character went through and experiences the character has had," Innes explains. "And she's somebody that I go in to consult--`Does this feel accurate?' `How could we do this better?' She's definitely a touchstone for me."

Innes also checks things out with other gay women in the work world. "I have over the years talked to people who I know who are lesbian, and I get a lot of mail from people," she says. "About working within the bureaucracy and all that, I talk to a couple of doctors who are lesbians."

As compared with Weaver's imagined foreign upbringing, Innes's own background is straightforward Midwestern: She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., the youngest of six children. Her father worked in the tool and die business, but his passion was great literature. "We lived in this little house, and the TV would be on, and the kids would be running around, and he'd be reading Shakespeare," Innes recalls. "I was watching Bewitched, but I was aware that somebody was reading Shakespeare in the room."

Innes went on to earn a bachelor's degree in theater from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, and began working in Chicago's fertile performing scene, then moved on to New York theater. At a summer development workshop for new plays in Woodstock, N.Y., she met fellow thespian Brisbin.

After becoming parents of a son, Cal, in 1990, they figured they needed to earn more money, so they decided to test the TV and film markets in Los Angeles. Innes played a small role as the mother of a hemophiliac in the AIDS-related TV movie And the Band Played On but was usually pegged as more of a comic actor, thanks in part to her recurring role as the promiscuous Bunny Mather in the TV comedy Wings. Then came the ER audition.

"There were lots and lots of women, all different shapes and sizes and young and old and beautiful and not beautiful," she remembers. "I thought, I'll never get this. I went in there and felt it went really well, but you develop this really thick skin because most of the time you don't get the jobs.

"When I got the part I was absolutely thrilled. But my first thought was wishing my dad were alive so I could tell him." The rest of her family has been extremely supportive (her mother is still living) but not "inappropriately excited" by her success. "They're all pretty centered, so they take it in stride," Innes says. "It's great for your family, though, which I had never thought about. It's this thing that you're just lucky to be able to do, and everybody else is able to get on the fun boat for a while."

Besides her character's controversial awakening in the past two years, Innes has had a few great changes in her own life to report. She satisfied her itch for another child by following what ironically happens to be the lesbian fashion of the moment--adopting 1-year-old Mia from China. (She didn't want to risk another birth since her first pregnancy required a long hospital stay and her son was born prematurely.)

Now Innes is reading up on Chinese history. "Five thousand years--give me a break," she says. "I started by just getting out a time line."

Meanwhile, she's proud to be perhaps the only lesbian who comes into some people's homes, if only on the tube each Thursday night. "I guess if anything could come out of it, I would hope that people would just get to a place where they're not so afraid or have less judgment or at least realize, Wow, that's none of my business," says Innes. "I think having a relationship with somebody is the key to that. In some ways the viewers are having a relationship with me. They watch me on the show; they knew me before; they know me now. They see I'm still the same. And they see that basically I'm a really good person."

Kort is the author of Soul Picnic (St. Martin's) and coauthor of Chastity Bono's The End of Innocence (Alyson). Additional reporting by Anne Stockwell.
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Article Details
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Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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