Mia Kirshner created I Live Here “to provide information about ‘secret’ lives being led all over the world.”
February 19, 2009
Seated at a local cafe, Mia Kirshner seems nothing like Jenny Schecter, the narcissistic diva she portrays on the Showtime lipstick lesbian drama, The L Word. When the sixth and final season premiered recently, Schecter was found dead in a swimming pool, possibly offed as a result of her sexual or other improprieties. The role is the latest in a series of provocative characters the 34-year-old actress has played in film and on television since she was a teenager. But in person Kirshner comes off less as a femme fatale than as a waif in her baggy black dress, long ponytail, and tiny, gold star of David necklace.
In a demure voice, she said she has been grateful for the chance to play Schecter, in part because the salary has allowed her to pursue a more personal project: I Live Here, a four-volume anthology about the lives of refugees in the Russian republic of Ingushetia; Burma; Juarez, Mexico; and Malawi. Kirshner said she spent $200,000 to travel to these regions to collect testimonies from people rendered stateless or without a home. Collaborating with three coauthors and top comic artists such as Joe Sacco, she aspired to tell their stories through photos, collages, paintings, and journal entries, including her own.
In a brothel on the Thai-Burmese border, Kirshner said, she spoke with prostitutes who appeared to be under 15: “There are no beds, only plastic mats with faded flowered bedding,” the book says. “A girl climbs out of the closet and into the room. She was hiding from a potential customer.” Kirshner met with child soldiers, mothers dying of AIDS in Malawi, and a Chechnyan mother and children living in a rank “shed the length and width of a throw rug, with a water spigot out back.”
The inspiration for I Live Here was deeply personal for Kirshner. “I come from a family of displaced persons,” she said. Her mother, Etti, was the daughter of Bulgarians who immigrated to Israel after World War II and relocated to Toronto after marrying Mia’s father, Sheldon Kirshner, a Middle East analyst with the Canadian Jewish News.
“The winter was not the only thing in Canada that made [my mother] feel like a foreign body,” the actress writes in I Live Here. “The house where my mother grew up was a salon of languages: French, Hebrew, and Bulgarian; visitors who brought Turkish coffee, bourekas, olives, conversation. Here in Canada it is so often silent. Joy replaced the blankness when an aerogram would arrive…. My mother would read them over and over, as though each word were a small boat taking her back across the sea to her parents’ home in Jaffa.”
Meanwhile, the actress’s paternal grandparents had survived the Holocaust but had lost a nine-year-old son, Izhou; when Mia was nine, she perused myriad books on the Shoa in her father’s study to try to find a photo of her dead uncle. At Shabbat dinners at her grandparents’ house, she writes, “I would watch my grandfather vanish. His eyes dark slits, mouth open in mute horror. Sometimes, he would stop talking for days…. Now my father likes to travel; they never want him to leave. Hysteria accompanies his departures, my father repeating his itinerary over and over again.”
By the time Kirshner was 15, she, too, was on the road, living out of hotels as she took acting roles in a series of art-house films.
Among her roles, Kirshner has played a stripper in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and a seductive assassin in TV’s 24; in 2001, she landed the role of Jenny Schecter in The L Word. In the series’ pilot, Jenny arrives in Los Angeles and immerses herself in the lipstick lesbian scene; eventually the character emerges as perhaps the most scandalous Jewish woman on prime time.
After 9/11, Kirshner said, she felt “dead inside creatively. I was able to support myself as an actress, which is a very lucky thing, but I was not living a life I was proud of. I wondered, ‘What am I contributing? It’s time to make a change.’”
She envisioned I Live Here as a way to provide information about “‘secret’ lives being led all over the world, in brothels, in prisons — stories that aren’t accessible to the media.”
“I think it’s a very creative project,” her father said in a phone interview. “I think it’s very well researched. Obviously, I was worried about Mia’s safety in some of these places. But I do believe the project shows that she is interested in the outside world, in things that transcend acting.”
Kirshner intends to continue the project through her I Live Here Foundation. “It’s as much on a personal level a journey of exposing some of the very selfish ways in which I live, and the great ignorance in which I had been living,” she said.
Naomi Pfefferman is arts and entertainment editor for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.