The L Word’s Daniela Sea on Being the New Hot L Girl
Photo: Brie Childers
There’s something wickedly sexy about Daniela Sea. Perhaps it’s the fact that she has been a nomadic world traveler, her wanderlust taking her from her Southern California roots to as far away as Kurdistan and India, where she spent eight months passing as a man.
The child of hippie artists and intellectuals, Sea was just 3 years old when her father came out as a gay man. A mere three years later, after her mother remarried, Sea took to the surf under the tutelage of her stepfather, a former Motown exec who moved the family to Hawaii to catch more waves. By the age of 12, Sea had taken a job at a biker bar, serving pitchers of brew and dreaming of getting her own car, and by 16, she had moved to San Francisco to join the punk artist feminist collective Gilman Street Project (which was home to Green Day and Miranda July, among others).
And that’s not the half of it. Long before she hit Hollywood, this L Word hottie was living every bit the cinematic life — playing guitar with The Gr’ups, herding goats in abandoned villages in Italy, hitchhiking through Turkey and Eastern Europe, hiking for a month through India’s Rishekesh while drinking water from the Ganges and collecting wild plants for food. In Poland, she joined a traveling circus and spent years with the same tribe doing performances on the streets of Europe, traveling by foot, living off the earth and cooking over open fires.
Flash forward to 2006, and Sea is the hottest new star of Showtime’s hit lesbian drama The L Word. She’s got a superstar girlfriend (Capital B, the musician formerly known as Bitch), a home in Brooklyn and a plum little role in John Cameron Mitchell’s much talked about new film, Shortbus. We caught up with the performer-turned-actor to find out how it feels to be the L’s new “it” girl.
You have such a richly textured background, it’s almost hard to see you in Hollywood.
I know, it’s funny, right?
Is it surprising to you that you’re at this position?
It’s surprising to a lot of the people I’ve known, but it kind of weirdly makes sense, also. It’s like the next adventure. It’s weird, I would never have expected it in my life a few years ago, and it’s all been a whirlwind, but you know [in a] strange way it seems to be kind of fitting. It’s almost like everything’s coming back to where I started.
Full circle; that makes sense.
Yeah, like right now I’m sitting on the highway up above where I grew up in L.A., where I used to wait for the school bus beside the highway. I just think it’s kind of funny because I left home so young.
Do you have any issues about that? About coming full circle.
Well, what has it brought up for me? I guess a lot of the judgments I would have made when I was younger about show business. … I feel like maybe I made a blanket statement about the whole thing as if it was all, you know, somehow corporate or something like that. And I’m realizing now that … there’s a lot of people with a lot of great things to say and they’re … making their art and making things different in the world, but it’s kind of in the landscape of where I wouldn’t have expected that when I was younger.
Let me take you back, actually, to childhood a little bit. Your father came out as gay when you were 3 years old, and after your mother remarried, I know you tried to have the perfect ’70s household with the whole family living together. After that stopped being the case, did you still see your father while you were growing up?
I did, but soon after we moved to Hawaii for three years. My stepdad was a surfer, and he was in the music business, but he just dropped out of it and he went out there, so I only got to see him on holidays, and I would spend the summer time with him. When we moved back to L.A., I would see him every other weekend.
How did your parents react when you came out?
I guess they weren’t that surprised. They were really supportive, you know, and most of all my grandparents also were really supportive, and they’re a traditional Christian family. But yeah, on that end it was pretty easy. I mean, my mom was a bit worried. … I remember the first time she said, “Well you don’t call yourself a lesbian though, do you?” And I guess we just had to redefine what that meant in her mind because she had been raised with a whole different thing about that. She came to hang out in the women’s community with me up in San Francisco … and she realized that we … had so much substance, and they’re so expressive, and she liked hanging out with them and she was happy for me.
It’s interesting how much cultural baggage can come along with just one word.
Mm hmm. She was fine with me being in love with a girl that she met, but then the idea that I was a lesbian meant something else to her at the time.
Well, I can’t believe you started working in a biker bar at 12.
That is hilarious.
It’s up the highway from where I am. It’s not what people would think of as, you know, Malibu, but Malibu in the ’80s and ’90s was a different place, and it was a good experience for me. Basically what I wanted to do was, I wanted to save up money, buy a car and leave as soon as I could, and go adventure around, so that’s what I did. [It was] a good experience.
And did you end up working there until you saved enough money for a car at 16?
I worked there for two years over the summer and weekends, and then I got a job at a fancier café where I would make more money. … But yeah, I worked there for years and my parents used to hang out while I worked there.
I guess ’cause they were hippie artist types, they were OK with you working at a biker bar at 12?
Yeah, they were. … I think they liked the idea that I was doing something rather than just swimming and hanging around my brother or something. And I was definitely having that working-class ethic of wanting to make something of myself.
Right. And then, were you a teenager when you quit or a young adult when you quit film study? You left thinking there was no place in film or theater for a queer person, right?
Yeah. I’d been studying improv and theater up at Laney College in Oakland. … I lived up there with my boyfriend and then I came out, and … I think that’s what happened in my mind. I didn’t really realize that’s why I stopped, but in retrospect years later, I looked back and I was like yeah, that’s exactly why, I just figured there was no place for someone strongly genderqueer or, I don’t know, just a tomboy like me.
And do you think that that’s dramatically changed, or have you changed?
I think both. I think I’m willing to take up space and realize I’m a unique person and that there’s probably a place for all kinds of people, you know, in whatever art form. And just following my heart, making the kind of art I want to make, usually pays off anyway. But also, I think definitely there are way more roles in general … so you aren’t playing as much of the stereotype … and there’s way more queer stuff being made also. Between those two, I think it’s made room for someone like me.
Right, right. Well, tell me how you ended up as a series regular on The L Word without even having an agent.
Almost two years ago … I decided I wanted to pursue acting. I was living in New York and I’d been touring with my girlfriend Bitch … and I’d been, living in Europe for a lot of years, traveling and stuff. When I was in New York, I just … had this deep sadness where I got really sick and I didn’t leave the house for like a week and a half or something, … and I talked to my mom and she said, “You know, I think that there’s something you need to hear about yourself that you’re not hearing, and you gotta listen to what it is. Listen to yourself.”
So a couple days later I just had this epiphany. It was really weird. I was doing push-ups in the living room, and I was trying to strengthen up again after being sick, and I realized that I missed acting so much. It was something I really loved, and I had studied with people from all different backgrounds ’cause it was Laney Community College — you know, single moms and old people, senior citizens, you know, teenagers — I guess it was like a collective creating something together … not just music but something with our whole bodies and using language, and I just missed it. And I realized: Why can’t I just pursue this if it’s something that I love so much. There’s got to be a place for someone like me.
So soon after, I kind of spread the word, and I heard about an audition for John Camera Mitchell’s new film, Shortbus, and I auditioned for it and then I got called back … and then finally I got the part and I workshopped it, and during that time … I got a book on iMovie from the library and I made myself a reel. I just had some little vignettes from [when] I’d been in some music videos … and it took me forever ’cause I’m not the most computer adept person yet. But it was pretty fulfilling, and I just figured it out and then I sent it off … [to] someone I knew who was writing for the show who I’d known years before. I just called her and asked her if I could send her this package and would she pass it on to the right people. And she said sure, so she did, and sooner or later I got a call asking for an audition tape, and then I got a call on a Thursday night. I was at my restaurant job and they said, “Can you be here in L.A. tomorrow at noon for this audition?” And I thought to myself, heck yeah, I’ll do it. I used my last money and I borrowed some money from my roommate, and I bought a ticket and I came out, and then within like five days I was in Vancouver shooting the first scene, which happened to be a make-out scene with Mia’s character, and that’s how it happened.
Wow. Both you and Bitch are actually in the John Camera Mitchell film, right?
Yeah, we are both in there.
Are you one of the couples who have sex in the film?
No, we don’t. We could have.
Oh, a lot of crushed lesbian hearts out there now.
I know. Well, you know I was more thinking … of all the people that would say, “Is that trying to say something about lesbians? Like we just sit around and talk.” But he basically gave everyone in the movie an option of whether or not they wanted to. And I didn’t really want to, you know? I didn’t really feel like the character called for it. I mean, it would have been extremist, you know. There’s some good stuff in there anyway.
I’m looking forward to seeing it. So you went from that into being you know part of The L Word, this huge cultural phenomenon.
Have you been —
I’d never even seen the show before.
That’s what I was going to ask. So have you been following the whole, you know, ferocity with which women are attuned to The L Word?
I actually hadn’t realized how intense it was because … I just kind of stay at home and make stuff, or else I go see music or theater. I don’t usually watch TV myself. … So then whenever anyone would bring it up after I got the job, I realized almost everybody I know who is a lesbian or queer watches the show — even my doorman who’s a good straight guy.
It wasn’t that I was opposed to it; I just never found the time, but I [have] definitely watched all the episodes now, and I’m excited to be part of it. It’s something I really, really think is pretty amazing, and I think that it’s really very thoughtful. The people who are doing the writing and creating it are not — it’s not just making a TV show, they are definitely socially responsible and thinking about —
Representing us, yeah.
That’s such a heady task, too.
Yeah, it is. I mean, we are never going to be satisfied, right?
As a people, I mean, I say “we” meaning women, queer, lesbian, trans, whatever, all of us on that spectrum of people who have been women in the past and are politically active, sometimes I feel like we expect a lot, but I think that also makes us really aware … and really struggling for good causes.
Mm hmm. Yeah, sometimes it’s good to be demanding.
Yeah, I’m proud of us in that way. Even if we can be, you know, a little ornery sometimes.
[Laughs.] Well, what can you tell me about your character?
Moira is pretty f-ing cool. I really like her; I have a soft place in my heart for her. She’s a girl from the suburbs outside of Chicago, early 20s, and she’s kind of a computer — not exactly a nerd, but she does computer tech stuff, like a programmer. … I sensed right away when I started learning about her [that] she hasn’t reached her potential yet, like there’s something else waiting and it’s not just the trans thing. There’s more to her than just living in the suburbs she grew up in, you know, and so she meets Jenny Schecter and Jenny says that she’s going back to Los Angeles, and Moira says she wants to come with her, so we get to see them on this journey out to L.A. And then we get to see Moira in L.A. in this environment of pretty well-to-do — well, like all Jenny’s friends are mostly pretty up-scale.
Obviously you see that she sticks out like a sore thumb, and then you get to see the different ways that she deals with it and the way people deal with her and how they react. Sometimes it’s pretty strong, you know. Its just fun to play. I love that because I can relate to that feeling, you know, feeling a little bit outside. She’s very good-hearted like a gentleman, a real gentleman kind of woman. I like her.
How about yourself? How do you see yourself on the genderqueer spectrum? How do you identify?
Well, I guess it depends on who I’m around, because I think that also makes a difference politically. Politically, I like to identify as a woman because I think it’s really important to show that there’s all different kinds of women. But then another side of me says: definitely genderqueer. I see gender as pretty fluid and it’s hard to nail down one side of yourself. I’ve always been a tomboy. I guess I just tell people I’m a tomboy because that’s the first thing that anybody teased me for when I was like 6. … It means I can be sporty and run around and do what I want to do and be outspoken and —
I think that this is one of those things that we see a lot in the queer community or in the lesbian community specifically, that some people will interpret that as “that’s a lesbian experience,” and some people will interpret that as, “that’s a typical trans experience.”
Yeah, and to be honest, I can relate with both. I’m not sure what differentiates me from all my friends who … deal with it in physical ways, you know, get surgery or taking T or using a male pronoun or something. I think really it’s the stubborn, hippie, political side of me that says I’m going to keep what I was given and make space for that as it is.
I don’t totally relate to everything I’ve read and all the research and all my friends who I’ve known for years who are now choosing that.
I didn’t know I was a girl until people started saying I was [and started] treating me that way when I was 13. I just figured I was a boy, you know?
That’s interesting how that’s changing, like I feel like trans is the new butch in our lesbian community.
Sometimes I feel like that, and sometimes I don’t. Wow, now we can finally liberate ourselves and people can be what they’ve always wanted to be, you know?
I think there’s certainly a growing visibility of people within the genderqueer and FTM spectrum. How do you think that will change the lesbian community?
I don’t know. I’m definitely sitting on the edge of my seat … I’m definitely keeping a discerning eye on that, ’cause I mean I have to keep positive and think, OK, this is another development, this is another way that we are learning to take up room and express ourselves, whether or not I personally have other feelings about it.
Sometimes I’m uncertain and I get scared because we do live in a very strong patriarchal system and I just don’t — I just want people to be able to make choices from their free will, and I always wonder what choices we are making from free will and if we can make any [at all], because we are in the system so strongly. [There are many] different ways we need to defend ourselves and our identity [to] be seen how we want to be seen. I mean, in a perfect world, I could walk around with out my shirt on. Just today I was running on the beach and then I went for a swim and I was like why do I have to wear this top? Like half the time I’ll take it off but then I’ll be scared. I don’t know if I’m scared, but I just don’t want to deal with some dude —
Like violence or something, yeah.
Yeah. … I don’t understand that but it’s the world we live in, so sometimes I could see wanting to do something about it.
I think if you’ve lived your whole life as a woman, you know when you’re not supposed to be exposed or that there are dangers in being exposed.
I’m a hard-core feminist also, and I feel our ancestor women behind us and I don’t want us to be invisible, but I don’t really think that’s going to happen, you know? I think it’s just a fear, I think we’re just gonna be all different kinds of people unified, that’s what I hope.
That’s the best case scenario.
Yeah, best case scenario. I’m trying not to give in to the worry.
So, how does it feel now to be only the second L Word cast member to be openly gay?
It feels fine. I never questioned doing it any other way. I’ve been out since I knew. I’ve been telling everybody and I think there’s something really powerful in that actually — I don’t think it ghettoizes me, particularly.
You were really visible this summer. I know you were in the San Francisco Pride parade, riding with Ilene, and —
That was fun, yeah.
Do experiences like that change how you look at the queer community?
No, not really. It was cool … to be riding and seeing all these faces looking at me and getting to see glimpses of all different kinds of people who came to the parade — people with their kids, older, younger, all different ethnicities, you know how the Bay area is lucky in that way. … I feel so strong and so part of [the gay community] since I was little, even before I knew I was gay. It’s just part of my everyday life.
So, tell me what made you fall in love with Bitch.
Ha! Well … I’d been living in Europe for a lot of years, so I didn’t know about her and I’d never heard her work or anything, which is crazy because … we have common friends. But I’d just been, you know, not really living under a rock, but just living in another whole reality.
A different world, right.
Yeah. And so I’d been in L.A. for about six months taking care of my cousin who had cancer. I’d been living in India, and then I got this e-mail from her, and so I came back. I hadn’t been back to the U.S. for two years. … And then she went into remission and she’s like, “I’m ready to take my life back,” so I’m [thinking that I’m] going to go back to Europe, but I thought I’d stop through the Bay area, where a lot of my chosen family lives, for a month or so.
When I went there, my friend Sini Anderson was putting on this cool intergenerational series where an older and a younger band of each genre would be playing in the same night. So Sini was like, will you come every night? So I came almost every night and I kept seeing this woman, and Ithere was just something about her. And I could see that she kept seeing me; we kept catching each other’s eyes and we had some different little funny exchanges, but when we finally hooked up … it was just like — I don’t know if I can explain it, but I know you probably know. It was just … like so meant to be, and it still feels like that. It’s been three and a half years, and it still feels just like we have so much to share. We’re actually really creative together; we’re a really good collaborative team with writing and music. We played on Q Television last night; we did this funny last-minute thing where I did some back up harmony with her.
So, its not hard being in love with a performer?
’Cause you guys gel on that creative spirit together?
Exactly. And that traveler spirit. I went on the road pretty soon after with her and Animal, and … we went to Bulgaria to visit some old friends of mine, and we like to travel and cook over the fire and whatever; we’re kind of ’50s in a way.
Does she get to come to Vancouver while you’re filming?
She was there for some of it. She was working on her new record for a lot of it, in New York, so she’d come back and forth. She was definitely there with me for a good part of it, and we had a great summer there. I love Vancouver.
Do you feel like she’s changed your life?
Definitely, definitely. I feel like vice versa, both ways, we’ve definitely helped each other change. In fact, that was one of the first promises we ever made to each other — that we were going to allow each other to change, and the people we knew now might not be who we would be with some years later, but … just to leave it open for change. And that’s made a big difference because we are both really different from when we met, but we’re both really just fulfilling our dreams and helping each other with that.
She helps me all the time, and she’s a great actor also. … She studied acting and stuff; she’s been performing for so long. I always have her to ask questions.
Oh, that’s great.
Do you have pet names for each other?
That you can tell me?
Let me think if I could.
She calls me Little Prince, but so do some other people; that’s my fairy name.
She calls me Little Prince and I call her B. I guess that’s not so exciting. There’s other ones I wouldn’t tell you, but commonly I call her B.
OK, let me uh take you back a little bit. Tell me a little bit about moving to Poland and joining a traveling circus. That sounds like such an un-American experience.
You know it really was, and I’m so glad I did it. Ever since I was little, all I wanted to do was travel. I wanted to find fairy land and I don’t know if I exactly found that, but I definitely found magic other worlds. So how did it happen? I was living in San Francisco and I was talking with my brother who was living over in Europe. He was squatting and living in the activist, radical communities there, and we were talking about the circus idea which I’d had for about a year — of traveling by foot or by train and just making music and hopefully finding people who knew how to do circus-y type tricks and performance art. … And so I talked with him and he said, well, you know, I have some friends that I live with right now and … they’re really into this idea, and so when I came over we just started traveling like that. We traveled like that for a few years in different formations, and I lived as a half-man, half-woman for a while, like I had this whole outfit that I would wear all the time with half my face as a man and half as a woman.
I had performance pieces around that. We didn’t have the same language at that time, because it was some years ago … I didn’t identify as transgendered, it wasn’t really in the dialogue in the same way, but … my main thing was basically this thing I’d had all my life, which was “Are you a boy or a girl?” Dealing with that in this real external way was really fun. I just I hitchhiked around a lot and lived in a lot of different countries.
I was going to ask you: What did you learn from hitchhiking in Eastern Europe that you utilize in your daily life now?
Hitchhiking in countries with people who didn’t grow up under capitalism, and living outside, and staying in villages and being a guest of people taught me a lot about human nature. I think what I’ve always believed is our natural propensity is to live for each other and to share things and to be … a really good host. Like if I walked up to a group of kids there … I didn’t have to say who I was or prove any kind of status to be automatically included in whatever they were eating, whatever they were drinking, whatever they were talking about. It was easy to live communally with people who were brought up that way, because you didn’t have the same kinds of ego battles. It was more about what was best for all of us in the moment, and I learned a lot from that.
Now, hitchhiking alone, I learned a lot about trusting people. I luckily didn’t have very many bad experiences and nothing too tragic, but I know a lot of my friends have, so I wouldn’t say you, “Oh, it’s the best thing in the world to do.” But for me personally, to just stand on the side of a road and be able to be in a whole other reality within some hours and meet all kinds of people — it just was really freeing. I had no money for years. … It made me have more faith in people and feel like I belonged in the world, actually, and made me feel proud to be part of the world instead of like when I was younger [and was] this rebellious punk rocker who never felt like I belonged anywhere.
And in Kurdistan specifically, the people I stayed with were risking their lives to be able to play the traditional music [and] speak their traditional language, because it’s illegal there; you can be imprisoned and tortured and all that stuff. We just started hitchhiking in west Turkey and we wanted to go to Kurdistan, and we ended up in different villages and people would bring us into their home, close all the blinds, you know, set a look-out out front, and then just start playing us this music that they wanted us to hear. They wanted us to hear the music of their people and then go back and tell the world what was happening to them. That taught me a lot about the preciousness of art, and how it’s so important for us to speak our truth and our stories. And I think that also related to a lesbian or genderqueer experience … [and for] people who are marginalized.
That really seems to put a lot of things in context, too. You’ve had all these wonderfully nomadic experiences, living in an abandoned village in Greece, herding goats in Italy, hitchhiking through Turkey, the circus — is it hard to settle down now?
Strangely enough, it’s not. Because now I know that nothing is forever, so it’s almost like another concept. … I grew up here [in L.A.] in one way, but it’s like another country, too. … I don’t know, I guess now whenever I am somewhere I know I won’t be there for years and years. I might keep my relationships up and I might have some physical presence there in some way. It won’t be like when I was younger and I was thinking that I had to figure out where I would be forever. I’m still nomadic; I guess that’s what I’m saying. Especially in this acting and filmmaking business — it’s pretty nomadic in its own way.
That’s true. Another thing I thought was interesting was that you lived in India for eight months? And during that time you actually were passing as a man?
I was, uh huh.
How do you think that that shaped your experience there?
I think it gave me a lot of access. … I didn’t consciously say …“I’m going to India as a man.” It just kind of morphed into that. I mean, if you’re the kind of person who … looks like a boy — I mean all my life people thought I was a boy. … So when I was there, you had to choose, in a way — especially in the traditional areas — if you were going to wear traditional clothes, which when I was in Pakistan we had to. You kind of had to choose really strongly which gender you were going to be. So I actually chose the girls’ gender clothing first … and I watched as my girlfriend at the time was in the boys’ gender clothing, and the different kind of access she had. … For example, men aren’t supposed to catch eye contact with women who are strangers. And I watched how she had this different kind of mobility.
And then as we passed into India, we ended up in the hospital right away and then I think I just slowly morphed. Then I got my haircut ’cause it was already kind of short, and then one day people thought I was a boy, and I just kind of went with that. So I chose clothes actually more close to what I would wear here. And then I just started referring to myself as “he,” and slowly it just started morphing into this thing that I was living as a man. I never corrected anyone. I’d done that in other villages too, ’cause especially in rural places — I love spending time with villagers — I feel like it just makes things easier if in a group there’s some men and some women. Because then you’re safe in a different way, and people can just relax and be your friend instead of trying to make out with you or do something crazy. And also, they could be like, “Hey, let me show you the field we’re working,” or “Hey, will you help us push this cart,” — taking part instead of being coddled.
That makes sense. And you fell in love with another woman while you were there?
I did. I met a woman there in India who I became friends with and fell in love with.
Does she know you as a biological woman?
Yeah, she did. She was lesbian identified, which was intense for there.
Sure, absolutely. Such a different experience.
Strong person. Amazing person.
Your life has been so different … it’s sort of like this big free-form narrative about your life in these really broad strokes. And I think that that’s so fascinating. I’m wondering, what do you look forward to in the future?
Well that’s what I love about a magazine like CURVE, which I read all the time. And I do feel like it’s a reflection of our community that we see people’s lives maybe as pieces of art. Which is, to be honest, how I’ve always — before, you know, someone asked me when I first got this L Word job, [if] I never had ambitions before, and I thought that was interesting because I’ve actually always been really ambitious, but not for things that you could write down as credits, although I tried my best at that bullet-points thing. But what I want — I made an exerted effort all my life to make my life my art. I wasn’t even necessarily going to make much that I could leave behind, you know. I’d written some poems and poetry and books and I played in bands. But I had this feeling, which reflected my hippie upbringing, which was that the greatest art is actually all around us everyday, and I wanted to just meld into that and tread lightly. And then I realized that I don’t know if [I] really want to tread lightly in that way. I feel like I can make a big impact, maybe, in the world. At least I can just share who I am and could be inspiring to somebody or something, and I see in my future just continuing with that.
I would love to make more films ’cause it’s something I really love being part of, and I would love to act in all different kinds of things, and then I would love to keep going to these other pursuits of exploring the world and bringing back the tales that I learned in other places, and mostly just keep being an open-hearted and free person. I believe that we can totally change the world and that social change is all about loving ourselves and our neighbors, and that’s why I think one great way to love people is to make your art and to be as big as you can be. You don’t have to tread lightly by hiding in this cave of our country. You can still make a big difference by being kind or generous or loving.
And that can be your art.
OK, one last question. This article is actually going in our annual sex issue, so tell me something sexy. Tell me something about sex every woman should know.
I think … OK, give me just a minute. [Pauses.] For me, the sexiest kind of woman is a really outspoken, liberated, feminist woman. And that’s what I find really sexy: somebody’s mind. Not just their mind, but their expression of themselves. That’s what I think is sexy. I mean, there are different physical things, but that all depends on the person.
Great. Super. Which probably explains why you fell in love with Bitch. [Laughs.]