Out lesbian actress Ashleigh Sumner is mega-hot and stars as the title character in the new free-wheelin’ lesbian romantic comedy And Then Came Lola alongside Jill Bennett & Cathy DeBuono. This isn’t just another coming out story, it’s a funny guilty pleasure indie flick set in the super gay-ed up streets of San Francisco. And this time, writer/directors of the film went out of their way to cast lead actresses who were all openly gay — amazing, right?
In this time-bending, sexy, lesbian romp, with an irreverent nod to the popular art-house classic “Run, Lola, Run” – a talented, but distracted photographer, Lola (Ashleigh Sumner), on the verge of success in both love and work, could lose it all if she doesn’t make it to a crucial meeting on time. But, as usual, Lola is late. With her job and girlfriend (Jill Bennett) on the line, she has three chances to make it right. In a mad dash through the streets and backrooms of San Francisco, time grows short – will Lola make it? Will she come at all?
Seriously, just look at that poster. You know you want to go to there. Well, guess what — the movie was just released on DVD so you can order that puppy right now! Along with San Francisco, the music in the film is a character unto itself, with songs by Jennifer Corday and Jessy Moss creating an energy that doesn’t let up as Lola runs, bikes and stumbles her way all over the city.
I chatted with Ashleigh about seeing herself on the big screen for the first time, performing her first on-camera sex scenes, gay life in LA versus San Francisco, superheroes, and her other world as a talented painter at sumnerartstudio.com.
Jess: And Then Came Lola screened at festivals all over the world. What’s it like seeing yourself projected on the big screen for the first time?
Ashleigh: It probably took me a good 5 screenings to just enjoy the movie, rather than critiquing my performance throughout. During the first few screenings I’d be going,”ah, that moment was good” or “eh, maybe I would’ve played that differently…” Cause, I’m looking at it two years after we shot it! And, I’d like to think all actors continue to grow the more we work. So yeah, it took me a few screenings to just kinda chill out and watch it as a movie.
Ashleigh: I think it’s about finding love… and being ready for it, which I think oftentimes scares people like it does Lola. She found the right girl at the right time and she had to go through a process of being ready for that, which I think a lot of people sometimes do.
Jess: Random events pop up throughout the three versions of the story dictating the course of Lola getting to Casey [Jill Bennett]. Have you experienced serendipity like this, where random events ultimately had a big impact on your life?
Ashleigh: Oh sure. Absolutely. I’m from North Carolina and about 6 years ago I had an audition for Dawson’s Creek. I met this guy named Steven while waiting in the audition room because we had the same audition time. We started chatting, and he actually became a lifelong friend. We met that day. He moved back to California and we kept in touch, and he convinced me to come to LA. We wound up being roommates when I moved to LA, and he made my transition much easier. If I hadn’t have met Steven I don’t know when – or if — I would have left North Carolina and come out to Los Angeles. So it was kind of serendipitous that I met him that day at that audition at the same time!
Jess: I think a lot of times people just need that sort of divine intervention to push them to where they’re ultimately supposed to be. People sometimes are just looking for that excuse to do what it is they really want to do.
Jess: And Then Came Lola really showcases San Francisco in a loving way. I know the gay scene there is very different from LA.
Ashleigh: The LA and San Francisco gay scenes are very different, and I think that has a lot to do with LA being an industry town. It’s like Detroit, but instead of making cars you’re making movies. With the industry and also the sunny, warm weather comes a sense of “lightness.” We all love to party. [laughing] Some people refer to this aspect of LA as a “superficiality” that I don’t necessarily agree with. I think it’s more of a “lightness.” Whereas in San Francisco, I think it all comes down to the weather. There’s more rain, which I love. There’s more sea winds. I think there’s much more social and political awareness in San Francisco amongst the gay community because the entertainment industry isn’t there. Not to say that there’s not in LA, but you kind of see a bit more “real deal, let’s fucking fight the system” gay crowd in San Francisco versus Los Angeles. The lesbians up there are more hardcore and grittier, but still wonderful and beautiful. Whereas in LA, everybody kind of goes after that L Word image a bit… myself included.
Ashleigh: [laughing] Well, I’m actually a pretty shy girl, so I was a little bit nervous about it! But, it comes down to trust, and I really trusted Megan and Ellen [the writer/directors]. I’ve realized shooting a love scene is like shooting a dance scene — everything is choreographed. From every turn, to every whatever you’re doing, it’s all planned and choreographed, so it wasn’t as nerve wracking at all, as I thought it would be. Jill had done a few love scenes in previous work, and she was really wonderful with me.
Jess: Did you do anything to prepare for those scenes?
Ashleigh: Umm… yea, I went to the gym! [laughing] Besides that, I think you prepare for it in a way kind of like you would any other scene. There’s still a story that’s being told… If you look at the first love scene between Lola and Casey and then the one at the end, after they’ve gone through their whole arc and they’ve decided that they want to be together — it’s a different kind of love scene. So I think you prepare for it, you treat it mentally, the same way you would any other scene. What circumstances happened before this scene, and how is it different from the previous one.
Ashleigh: Well, it was a little bit of a concern because obviously they had a lot of chemistry, that’s very evident especially now, but it was a concern for me because — in terms of the story, you did not want Casey’s character to have more chemistry with Danielle’s than she did with Lola because then the story wouldn’t work. I made sure that talking with Jill, we found our own chemistry. I actually think it worked out quite well, it’s a very different kind of chemistry with Lola than with Danielle. I really tried to tap into that. That was kind of foremost to make sure it could still work to benefit the story.
Jess: The movie’s obviously notable because you guys are all out actresses and this is the first time that’s been done in a movie. Did you make a conscious decision to be out from the start and did you ever have any agents or managers suggest that you keep your personal life private or be closeted?
Ashleigh: Yes. Oh, I have a lot to say on this! When I first moved to LA, one of the first things I did was the lead in a short film called Mother. It did very well and wound up going to Cannes. At the time I had a manager and invited him to a screening at the AFI (American Film Institute) out here. It was such a small screening at that point — really just friends and family of the filmmakers and the cast, and… I brought my girlfriend. The next day my manager said, “you should not bring your partner to anything.” This was a small, short film. And I really hadn’t come across that yet, and it really upset me. At that moment, I really had to do a lot of soul searching, and 24 hours later I fired my manager. Because if somebody doesn’t support me in that way, I don’t want to be working with them. And if you’re that homophobic… I just didn’t want that energy in my life. So, I let him go.
Now, there’s a lot of discussion about this. I do not fault anyone who chooses to stay in the closet. Would it be better for all of us if every gay actor came out? Yes. But it is a personal choice. It’s a deeply personal choice, and I respect that. Now with Lola, I had not done anything that was gay… I hadn’t even thought about it. When the movie did come up, it was like “okay, well these means I’m out”, not that I was in, but it definitely means I’m out if I do this movie. If I were straight I wouldn’t have any hesitancy to do the film at all, so I thought about that. Ultimately, I did do the film, and I knew I would be out, which I was okay with based on how I’ve been trained as an actor, and my own personal feeling is that acting is constantly seeking truth. That’s what you want to go for. And, if you’re living a lie or you portray a lie in your personal life, that can come out into your work. So, I try to live my life as truthfully as possible, and if somebody is making more out of my sexuality than my performance, if that’s the bigger deal than my work on screen, then I need to get back into acting classes, ’cause I think there’s a problem. I think the strong actresses who are out and who are gay, like Cherry Jones for instance, nobody sits there and says, “Cherry Jones… that lesbian.” [laughing] They usually say, “she should win an Emmy” or “she should win another Tony, she’s brilliant.” So, my approach is that you just have to be so good that it doesn’t matter, and you just have to work so hard that they can’t say anything about it. Now, I’m saying that from a point of view of an actress who doesn’t go in for every romantic lead — that’s not me. I’m not going in for every X, Y and Z’s girlfriend. So maybe that’s easier for me to say, But that’s my experience, and that’s how I look at it.
Jess: What is your favorite gay-themed movie?
Ashleigh: High Art is probably my favorite. It’s just beautifully directed and acted, and I just thought it was so well done. I also remember seeing it during my coming out process as well, so it just has a special place in my heart. Radha Mitchell with Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy… I just loved it. A close second to that is probably Aimée & Jaguar.
Ashleigh: Well, I knew something was up when I was much younger, in my childhood. I was always drawn to superheroes and I had this strange thing about Agent Scully on The X-Files [laughing]. But, I didn’t feel safe to explore those feelings until I moved from North Carolina to California at 23 or 24. I was a bit of a late bloomer.
Jess: Speaking of superheroes, there’s a lot of animation in the film. Why do you think so many gay kids are drawn to comics and superheroes?
Ashleigh: Wow, that’s a really good question, because I was a huge comic fan. I think if you look at superheroes, ultimately, in the beginning the superhero realizes they’re different. Usually at those moments they really have a struggle with that. They’re different from their peers in some way. They have a superpower. I think that gay kids relate to that on a level. We all have a moment where, we go, “oh shit, I’m different.” And, later there comes this moment of embracing that, and you’re empowered by that, and I think that journey of a superhero is very similar to what we go through.
Jess: What were your favorite comics growing up?
Ashleigh: Oh my god. I was a huge Spiderman fan, for sure. When I was really young I was a big Superman fan. I was also a really big fan of the artwork in Spawn, by Todd McFarlane. My brother was really into X-Men. I never got completely into X-Men, ’cause I couldn’t like the same things he liked. I loved Batman, and now I’m a real big fan of course of Batwoman, who is a lesbian comic book character now. Which, I gotta give kudos to DC for that! They’re actually going to have a whole series because of the response to that character! I think it’s so great.
Jess: I was checking out your website where you have some of the artwork featured. What medium do you use?
Ashleigh: I usually use acrylic paint on wood panel. Sometimes it’s bamboo or canvas, sometimes it’s just wood. Then I use a self-leveling resin. And I use a palette knife, I don’t really use brushes, and I scrape on with layers.
Jess: What’s the inspiration behind your art work?
Ashleigh: Urban cityscapes are the inspiration. I want to try and capture that rhythm and energy and density and grittiness that urban areas have. From an emotional standpoint, it’s very similar to acting, in the fact that it feels the same, it comes from the same place. You just try to hook into that, and I just put it on the canvas. I didn’t go to art school, so I can’t pontificate [laughing], but I think it’s similar to the abstract expressionists during the ’50s and ’60s in that they put emotional expression on a canvas. It didn’t have to be anything. It was just what emotionally came out and that’s kind of where I try to work from.
Jess: Did you listen to music to get psyched for all the running/biking in the movie or painting?
Ashleigh: Yeah! That’s exactly what I did. Especially when you’re running for 14 days, and you have to tap into an energy — what can get you pumped up. It’s the same thing for people when they work out, they listen to something that pumps them up. For Lola, to get ready to run, I’d listen to Eminem, 50 Cent, Miike Snow, Brandi Carlile, etc. For Lola, I’d have to fine something that would energize me when I had no energy left. With painting, it completely depends. I will listen to something like Radiohead from their new In Rainbows album. I’m also a big hip-hop fan. Invincible. Brother Ali. With the artwork it totally depends on the color and mood…. I swear to God, I can tell the difference between a painting where I was listening to Bob Dylan versus listening to Pink. I see a difference in the work.
Jess: Do you have any upcoming art shows?
Ashleigh: I just finished a play called The Ice-Breaker, written by David Rambo who is writer/producer on CSI. Which, by the way, brings up the difference between theatre and film. With theatre, it’s like you spend all this time on this beautiful ice sculpture, and it melts away. It’s gone. And in a film, you always have it.
I’m having an art show at The Advocate & Gochis Galleries at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center on July 8. I’m also showing with Roche-Bobois, the art store. They’re showing my stuff in San Francisco right now and in San Diego soon. It’s a beautiful, contemporary furniture and interior design store.
Ashleigh: Janis Joplin.
Jess: Wasn’t Pink supposed to play her in a movie?
Ashleigh: You know, it was supposed to be Pink and then Renee Zelleweger… I mean, they can’t get it made! It’s like it’s cursed or something! They’ve tried to make it several times, and it just can’t go through.
Jess: Maybe they gotta do the indie version and then you can play her.
Ashleigh: I would love it, believe me.