Marja-Lewis Ryan has a clear message to die-hard fans of Showtime’s original take on The L Word: She is one of you.
The 33-year-old New York native moved to Los Angeles because of Ilene Chaiken’s groundbreaking original. Ryan, who serves as the showrunner on Showtime’s newly ordered sequel to The L Word, watched the show in college and emulated Bette (returning star Jennifer Beals). Now married with her first child due in May, Ryan is aware of all the things the original series got right (depicting the daily lives and loves of lesbians) — and what it got wrong (casting a cis actress to play a trans character). And she is ready to move do right by the LGBTQ community and devoted viewers as well.
Showtime’s eight-episode L Word revival — which arrives as the series finale marks its tenth anniversary on March 8 — will feature returning stars Beals, Katherine Moennig (Shane) and Leisha Hailey (Alice) moving to Silver Lake and exploring how their lives have changed in the decade since Chaiken’s original went off the air. The original trio will join a roster of new faces as Ryan looks to explore what L.A. really looks like, as well as issues within the LGBTQ community.
In her first interview since Showtime picked up The L Word sequel to series, Ryan speaks exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about the pitch that got her the job, how she’ll avoid the mistakes of the original (trans characters will be played by trans actors) and the one thing she won’t do (bring back characters from the dead. Sorry, Jenny.)
Let’s start at the beginning. What was the pitch that helped you get this job?
The pitch was that I grew up watching the show. I was in my late teens when it came out — and it changed my life. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I didn’t know who Ilene Chaiken was. Knowing that I could write stories about lesbians made me become a writer. The show went off the air in 2009, and my first movie [The Four-Faced Liar] came out in 2010, and it was very much because of that show. My pitch was to honor the spirit of the first and make it more inclusive. All the problems that we all saw with the original — I was there, too. I was right next to you at East-West, watching that episode, too. I moved from New York to L.A. when I was 21, and I used to hang out at East-West and watch The L Word with everybody else in the back bar like an adult.
I was a regular at those screenings!
I bet you were! We were all there! Anytime I bring that up, I wonder how many of us were there. There were 12 or 15 of us.
And most of that crew now have their own shows — like Liz Feldman.
Exactly. My pitch was to make it more representative of what Los Angeles looks like: a little browner and a little less cis.
Who was the first to hear that pitch?
My very first meeting with with Ilene. And the second was with Ilene, Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig and Leisha Halley in the back of an Indian restaurant in Hollywood. I was sweating! (Laughs) It was incredibly surreal. I called my wife afterward and said, “I’m not getting this job. I didn’t speak! I just sat there because I couldn’t catch up to the moment.” But I was listening, and what I heard from them was this sincere love of the show and its fans. My third meeting was with three Showtime execs — and Ilene.
The LGBTQ community has changed considerably in the decade since the original went off the air. And the TV landscape has as well. How much will you explore gender politics and other issues in the community? I mean, if you drive through West Hollywood now, there are no longer any lesbian-focused bars, now that the Palms and Normandie Room are gone. How much will your take reflect the way West Hollywood and the community as a whole have changed?
When I moved to L.A. in 2006, I went to West Hollywood. I dated the door girl at Here bar. I was in that world in a real and what seemed like an urgent way. And I’m not invested in that world anymore. I wanted to write something that felt reflective of where I am now, not where I was when The L Word was on the air. So one of my big parts of the pitch was to move it to the East Side so that I could explore a slightly different queer community — not unlike what we saw in the original. Even though it’s shot in Vancouver, it actually felt pretty West Hollywood to me. When I moved here and discovered The Planet wasn’t real, I was very sad. I would like to be able to come into a space that’s a little closer to something that I actually live in, because I do live here.
So is that the jumping off point? Bette, Alice and Shane have moved from West Hollywood to, like, Silver Lake?
Maybe! (Laughs) One thing I learned from Ilene is that the first season The L Word was shot on film. There’s a new world technologically that’s available to us. So to be able to make this show look cinematic is an accomplishable dream on the budget that we’re on. Another thing that I was really excited about was to give depth to the space and to make the space feel as welcoming and as much part of the wish fulfillment as the characters always did.
So the sequel is set in Silver Lake, and you’re introducing a largely new cast, too. What are some of the larger themes you’re hoping to explore?
I think that making the show is a political act. I’m not that interested in talking about the politics of being queer. Do you know Fortune Feimster?
Yes! You’ll never believe this but we played on a softball team together!
That’s hilarious! Fortune said something like that The L Word portrayed lesbians doing normal things, like drinking coffee and having jobs. I got really choked up reading that, because there’s something really empowering and political in its own way about just making the thing rather than talking about the problems within a community. There’s something really powerful about seeing people function well when all the things we read tell us that we don’t. When I saw Bette and Tina [Laurel Holloman], I wanted to be Bette and Tina. And now I am married, and my wife is due in May. Those things were not possible [to me] before I saw them; that narrative did not exist. I still think that there’s plenty of room for that inside of all of our communities. Including the trans community inside of our storytelling is important. I write a lot of political pieces that don’t mention politics, but they’re stories about gun violence and long-term jail sentences. I write about characters that exist inside a world where those are problems.
Hypothetically speaking, Pam Greer said she won’t be in the new series. So you could conceivably have had Kitt killed by gun violence and have Bette be an activist?
Exactly. They’re involved in a political space because we all are, but I don’t need to talk about gun violence, I can just watch people be sad and understand what gun violence is.
How closely are you working with Ilene on these stories?
I smile anytime somebody mentions her name. Like, I knew that woman before I ever moved to Los Angeles. I knew her face, I knew her name, I knew what she was doing. To be tapped by her to be like, “You can do it next”? It’s insane. She’s extremely deferential and always answers my calls if I get stuck. She cares, and she really cares about the characters and these stories. She cares about the community a lot. This is the show that put her on the map, too. This show means a lot to a lot of people, and I hope I don’t drop the baby.
In your meetings with Jennifer, Leisha and Kate, what were some of the things that were important to them to see in this new take — whether it was character specific or larger themes?
They wanted to make sure that I had free will to let those characters grow up. The ten years between the time we’ve last seen them and now have affected them. They wanted to let the stories unfold from there but also to stay true to their characters.
For Leisha, comedy is really important — which is fun for me. I had a strong sense of Bette’s voice because I emulated her so much. And we all know Shane and understood that character in a real way. Coming in as a fan is useful because I know them just as well as they know them in a lot of ways; I’ve been there with them. That’s what it felt like — I thought they were my friends.
Right! Who didn’t want to be Shane and have everyone orbiting you?
Absolutely, that’s what I thought [West Hollywood] was going to be like. But as someone who hadn’t lived here yet [while still watching the original], we could tell that it was almost real. That’s what I’m excited to continue. I write everything for my 16-year-old self, and this is the ultimate love letter to my 16-year-old self.
Everyone has elements of the original that they loved — and didn’t love. For me, it was Dana’s death and the “You Are My Sunshine” song that played while Alice broke down — that took me right out of it. What were some of the things that you liked or didn’t like in the original that you’re going to incorporate or address?
Thematically, the thing that I’ve always explored in all of my writing is people who are searching for family. When I was a kid, my dad used to take us to go see Death of a Salesman. My dad would always walk out of there to say that the search for family and family identity is really the only universal story. And as a gay kid, you’re missing something when you’re born into a heterosexual family. There is something that we long for, and that’s why the show meant so much to me, because I got to see what my family could look like. That’s the thing I loved most. Anytime all of the characters were on screen together, it would give me this giddy feeling — even if nothing was really happening. Just having them all close was important to me, and very important to my formative understanding of what lesbians could look like.
While the show was super sexually charged, they were all really friends. And that was interesting to me as a young person, because all I knew was that I wanted to sleep with women; I didn’t have an understanding that I needed them in this other way [as friends]. I needed to be held by them. That’s one thing I’m excited to bring back, because that for me is the thing that’s really missing from television. There are way more queer characters now than there were then, but we still don’t get to see this group. And that’s huge for me.
And the flip side?
In terms of what I didn’t like, I don’t think anyone at the time knew any better than to cast a cis person to play a trans person, and that that wasn’t good and didn’t send the right message. I felt weird about it but I didn’t have any words to describe how I felt, and I didn’t have a solution for it, either. It wasn’t like I was like, “Why didn’t they just cast a trans person?” We didn’t have that word. The idea of being able to have words for things and to be able to represent people in a more realistic way is something I’m excited to do as well.
So if you have trans characters, they will be played by trans actors?
I will have more than one trans character, and all trans characters will be played by trans actors. I just shot a show for Amazon and I was looking for an Asian trans male actor. And fuck that shit when people say they can’t find somebody. You can find somebody. My wife said the most brilliant thing when I was looking for this kid before we found him. She said, “How could he have been an actor?” Of course, he is indeed an actor, but he didn’t know he could be one. That’s my job: to show a kid you can be an actor if that’s who you want to be. There are parts for you. That’s what seeing yourself does. It’s just opening the doors.
Without reading your casting breakdown aloud, who are the other characters you’re going to populate this world with?
Since having moved to L.A., I’ve had a lot of weird jobs and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of different people who have different kinds of jobs. Expanding the range of what people do is exciting. I lived next to this trans scientist for a really long time when I lived in Franklin Hills. JPL is here, and they are a huge employer. I want to find things that are uniquely L.A. but are super real. We don’t all work in the entertainment industry. There’s way more Latina representation because we’re in L.A. In terms of socioeconomic classes, the original did a pretty good job where like I still have friends that sleep on people’s couches, like Shane did. And I have friends who are adults. That’s just true about our community — there are wanderers and drifters. I don’t want to be afraid of showing some of our messes. And there’s a lot of former athletes in our community. There are a lot of people who have Olympic medals who wandered into Here bar in the early 2000s. There’s a huge and a strange percentage of people who fit that prototype, so I’ve tapped into that. I tapped into what I knew. I’ve got Mormon friends. There’s a lot of us out here that have these very interesting and very specific backgrounds that I think are important ways of informing characters and informing character choices. And the fact that I get to have such a big cast is nice.
How big of a cast?
It will be similar to the original. All series regulars and then to also to be able to have people who come and go is lovely. It’s fun to be able to able to write stuff where you follow this person for a while, you follow that guy, and then they all end up together.
Will Alice’s epic chart be back?
Where will the new take pick up, and how will you handle the events that have transpired? Will Jenny [Mia Kirshner] or Dana’s [Erin Daniels] deaths be ignored?
I would say that nothing is off the table — except I don’t do sci-fi.
So you won’t be bringing characters back from the dead and undoing events from the final season?
No, I don’t think so. I loved her, too. I really did. That was horrible.
We’re talking about Dana, right? Because nobody liked Jenny in the end…
Yes! Nobody liked Jenny! But when Dana died, that affected me, and I thought it was a bold choice because she was not somebody that we hated; she was somebody that we loved — and we all got to feel her death. Even though it was sad to lose her as a viewer, I thought it was a good creative choice. I hope I would have made that choice.
There was a brief time when there was a potential spin-off with Leisha in the works, called The Farm. Will any of that be included, or will you forget that was ever a thing?
I’m happy to say I don’t know anything about it.
Will you explain who really killed Jenny Schecter?
It’s possible! I really am going to pick up like it’s truly ten years later. None of those story points will be any kind of focal points.
Sarah Shahi told reporters that she is going to be involved. Is that accurate, and if so, how much of Carmen can viewers expect to see?
I don’t know. Anything is possible. As a viewer, I loved Carmen.
Have you reached out to any other former stars or recurring players to participate? Who is on your wish list?
I haven’t reached out to anyone. Part of the reason I got the job was because I came in with new characters. I think it’s important to have the world live on in a different space. I hope the audience gives me the opportunity to prove my worth a bit, because I think Jennifer, Kate, and Leisha are the right three. And their lives will be intertwined with the new characters, and it will unfold in an organic way.
What about Tina? Last I recall, Bette and Tina were back together when the original ended.
Anything is possible. I haven’t written the season yet.
As you set up a new world in Silver Lake, will three original stars be in every episode — in every possible season — or will they be phased out once the new characters are established?
There is an eight-episode order and I hope, if schedules allow, that they’ll be in all episodes.
What can you say about how much these three characters have changed in the past ten years? Is Shane still Shane, or is she married with a kid and Bette is now single and dating the field?
No, no, no. I’m not going to do anything crazy. They are still the people that we all love. I do think that hopefully you’ll see that there’s growth, and then we get to fill in the gaps. I really want to honor these characters and honor the original and honor the returning audience. I’m not trying to pull one over on anyone with any gimmicks. I loved the original, and I also love to scream at the TV. I do something called a trash pass. And a trash pass basically makes sure that there’s something compulsively watchable inside each episode. That’s what the original did: it was something that was unapologetically soapy, and it gave you what you wanted. And it gives you that feeling of that good cringe. That’s the tone that I’m striving for. I don’t think we need to be saccharine about how we write to this 16-year-old self that I’m fantasizing about. I think that she has a sense of humor, too.
Tonally, you’re embracing the soapy —
Hell yeah! The tone of season one is what I’m striving for. It’s good, soapy television. It’s something you love to watch. It feels like a really straightforward show to me.
Season one featured a West Hollywood staple — Rosa, the woman who walked around Santa Monica Boulevard selling roses. Her inclusion helped legitimize it—
I know the roses lady! We named my best friend’s car Rosa.
A lot of members of the LGBT community voiced excitement about the revival and expressed an interest in guest starring. Is that something that you want to do?
I don’t want to keep it too far from reality, but I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. There’s definitely room. What I care about more than anything is making it a space where queer creatives can come to cut their teeth or do something fun and actually go out and do something else in the world. I want to do for our community what Ava DuVernay has done with Queen Sugar and with all the writers that came off Starz’s Vida. That’s really important, and Ilene did it in the beginning. Most of the queer directors that we know came through this show, like Angela Robinson and Jamie Babbit. I want to continue that spirit. And if that means that a higher-profile person gets me a higher-profile director, whatever, I want everyone to come play. I really do.
Do you have your writers’ room set yet?
Almost. I’ve spent the past year taking generals with writers. I called, texted and emailed every queer lady out there to give me recommendations. I started with Lena Waithe and went from there and got a bunch of people together and met with young writers and mid-level writers for the past couple years. I had a roster pretty ready of who I wanted to work with, and I think we’re going to have really special team.
How much of that room is from the community itself?
There’s one young woman who I have mentored — who has been my assistant for the past four or five years who is affectionately a straight lady. I think she’s the only one.
Wrapping up, The L Word aired right after Showtime launched and really broke out with Queer as Folk. Have you considered inviting any of the Queer as Folk stars — Peter Paige or Gale Harold — to be involved in any capacity?
I have not considered that. I really just want to be a playground for everyone to come and play.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.