The Erotic Education of Anna Silk: the Lost Girl star on playing a bisexual succubus
A woman in a leather miniskirt and stilettos staggers down a darkened corridor and rings the buzzer beside a bolted door. The man inside interrupts his bare-chested boxing workout to let her in. “I’m busy,” he grumbles. “Please,” she pants through gritted teeth. Then she jumps him. They square off in a round of violent yet balletic sex. He hoists her off the ground and onto a counter; she retaliates by slamming him into a wall. He paws at her breasts while she claws at the tattoos on his back. Off comes her shirt, and he stealthily peels off her underwear. Soon they’re naked on the bed and she’s straddling him. They growl, groan and grunt like the Williams sisters at Wimbledon. As they arch together in one final thrust, the whites of her eyes turn solid black.
The woman is Anna Silk, star of the Toronto-produced Showcase fantasy series Lost Girl, and her scene partner is the absurdly chiselled Kris Holden-Ried, who plays her wolf-man lover Dyson. Silk’s character, Bo, is a succubus—a supernatural entity that feeds on sexual energy. In this sex scene—the kind of encounter that occurs in almost every episode—an injured Bo visits Dyson for some sexual healing (literally). Before the hour is out, Bo will also have knocked boots with her other love interest, the doctor Lauren (played by Zoie Palmer).
Since it premiered two years ago, Lost Girl has become an international hit. Its debut on Showcase was the most-watched Canadian drama in the channel’s history. It’s now broadcast in the U.K. and Australia, and has fan clubs in Brazil and Russia. Early last year, the NBC-owned Syfy network picked up the series in the U.S., where it dominated its 10 p.m. time slot, netting an audience of 1.5 million viewers—an impressive haul for basic cable. The show has ranked as one of the 10 most pirated TV series in the world, and when TiVo released a list of the programs people watch before bed, Lost Girl was the only scripted drama to crack the top 10.
These aren’t just casual viewers: Lost Girl is the kind of show that inspires obsessive, all-consuming fandom. Devotees have been known to live-tweet episodes scene by scene, then spend hours on message boards and fan fiction sites analyzing what they just saw. They swarm Silk and the rest of the cast at conventions like Comic-Con in San Diego and Fan Expo in Toronto, lining up for hours to get autographs from the cast—some 2,000 fans showed up to the Fan Expo panel discussion and signing last August. The show’s central love triangle—Bo, Dyson and Lauren—has sparked a divisive civil war within the fan community; competing factions rip each other apart online and post hundreds of videos on YouTube, cut together from various scenes that highlight their chosen pairing (often set to songs by Adele).
Lost Girl capitalizes on the contemporary sci-fi/fantasy formula established by Buffy the Vampire Slayer—hardcore heroine, elaborate mythology, monster of the week. Like Buffy, Bo solves mysteries, offs villains and throws out quippy rejoinders, all while doing high-kicks in skintight pants. Although the setting is never established, the show often uses Toronto streets—Queen West, Yorkville, Church Street—for its location shots. It takes place among the Fae, a secret supernatural society, equipped with its own rules and prickly political trappings. Like many cult hits, the series taps into the sweet spots of drama, fantasy, comedy, action and procedural, making for a crowd-pleasing genre mash-up.
Where Lost Girl sets itself apart is the sex, and not just the sheer quantity of it, though Silk fakes more onscreen copulation than any other TV actor not contractually bound to HBO. Rather, it’s the series’ overarching erotic ethos that makes it stand out, a general attitude toward sex that saturates every scene. There are plenty of graphic shows on TV right now—filled with writhing and moaning and creamy nudity—but they all tend to shame their female characters for having sex and condemn them for liking it. On Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, sex is an awkward, humiliating sacrifice the main character endures for the sake of having a boyfriend. When True Blood’s clean-scrubbed Sookie Stackhouse submits to the carnal advances of the vampires Bill or Eric, it signifies a loss of self-control and self-respect. Game of Thrones is in a whole other league of misogynistic degradation, in which almost every woman having sex is being violently raped, paid for her services, or both (in one scene, the teenage King Joffrey forces a prostitute to violate another with a sceptre). In 2013, television is a deceptively puritanical landscape—shored up by an equally judgmental cultural climate in which Rush Limbaugh calls contraception advocates “prostitutes” and U.S. congressmen tout the notion of “legitimate rape.”
Though Bo is the first bisexual lead character on mainstream television, her orientation is never mentioned on the show. She sleeps with whomever she wants, unrestricted by the shackles of monogamy. Moreover, she likes it (a lot, judging from her vociferous orgasms) and suffers no censure or slut shaming. The show lingers lecherously on the supple, sweaty bodies of its comely cast, but never attaches any moral value to the act itself. Lost Girl seamlessly unifies sex and sexual politics, delighting in the pleasure of the former and taking a stand on the latter. Somehow, a humble, medium-budget fantasy show from Toronto has become the most sexually progressive thing on TV.
Silk, who serves as an ambassador for the show’s sexual philosophy, has been catapulted into stardom. At 38, she’s older than most ingénue characters (“I got in just under the wire,” she says), but her age only makes her sexual confidence feel earned. She luxuriates in how much fun sex can be, exploring the character’s kinks and fetishes. On the Internet, she’s become a supreme lust object: YouTube videos of her sex scenes attract millions of hits, and the popular lesbian-centric website AfterEllen gives each episode a “boobs o’clock” rating based on the amount of cleavage Silk exposes.
The trend toward self-mythologizing on television has produced a spate of TV actors indistinguishable from their characters: Lena Dunham is a doppelganger of the neurotic Hannah on Girls, Zooey Deschanel is as dreamily dopey as Jess, her manic pixie dream girl counterpart on New Girl, and Mindy Kaling didn’t even bother changing her character’s name on The Mindy Project. It’s jarring, then, to be introduced to Anna Silk and discover that she’s the total opposite of her barracuda persona. When we first meet, in early November at a drafty studio in Etobicoke where the cast is shooting a pre-show to promote the upcoming third season, she’s disarmingly sweet. We’ve only had a couple of Skype dates at this point—Silk lives in L.A. when she’s not filming—but she sweeps me into a hug at first sight. Later, over dinner at Senses Bar in the Soho Metropolitan, she nestles conspiratorially close on the couch like we’re two teenagers at a sleepover.
Silk’s infectious personality could be attributed in part to a childhood spent in Fredericton, a town known for its Pleasantville-style friendliness. Her parents, Ilkay, a Turkish-Cyprian-English expat, and Peter, a British academic, met in London in 1966; they moved to Fredericton four years later so he could do post-doctoral work. “When they got there they said, ‘This is such a nice suburb. Let’s take the train into the city,’ ” Silk says. “But they were actually standing in the heart of downtown Fredericton. It was a total culture shock.”
Her parents split when she was six, and Silk was raised by her mother, a drama teacher and town character. “My mom was always inviting people over,” she remembers. Her co-star Kris Holden-Ried told me Silk’s motto on the Lost Girl set is “Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.” When I repeat it back to her, she giggles. “Absolutely,” she says. “I put it on a little to bug Kris—he’s always calling me Pollyanna—but it’s totally the Fredericton way of thinking.”
Silk stayed in New Brunswick for university, majoring in psychology at St. Thomas. After graduating in 1997, she moved to Toronto to pursue acting and spent the next eight years navigating the local film and TV circuit while waiting tables at the Butler’s Pantry on Roncesvalles. She landed bit parts and commercials. If you knew of her at all before Lost Girl, it was probably from her performance in a much-looped NicoDerm commercial as a flight attendant named Deb whose nicotine withdrawal transforms her into a shrieking harpy.
She filmed her first sex scene in a trashy 2003 TV movie called Deception. They shot two versions: one for American audiences (bra on) and one for European audiences (bra off). “I did love scenes back then that felt gratuitous, scenes I wouldn’t do again,” she admits. “I was nervous, but I was just so happy to have a job that I didn’t complain. I wouldn’t be so cavalier about it now. Showing your body is a big deal.” (That said, Silk is more embarrassed by the movie than the sex. “It’s terrible, and I was so bad in it,” she adds with a groan.)
She moved to Los Angeles in 2007 for better acting opportunities. She was 33—Methuselah in actor years. “I never lied about my age,” she tells me. “Well, okay, I did once. I had just signed with a manager and had told him I was 27. But I came in the next day and confessed that I was actually 33.” She was forgiven, and sent to audition for pilots and meet casting directors. Her most successful pre-succubus part was, ironically, back in Canada on the CBC time-travelling series Being Erica, as a love interest for the show’s main character.
Unlike Lost Girl’s Bo, Silk is a devout monogamist and has been since her high school boyfriend, Ryan. When I ask her if he was her first sexual partner (he was) she turns scarlet. “Oh my god, are you going to put that in? My parents are going to read this!” she squeals—proof that even actors who simulate floor-shaking sex for an audience of millions still worry about shocking their parents. “I was probably too young,” she says.
She met her future husband, a New York actor and writer named Seth Cooperman, in an L.A. acting workshop in 2007. “She walked in and I was blown away. I always told her that when I first saw her, I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry,’ ” he says, though he later admitted to her that he actually thought, “That girl, I want to fuck her.”
Over the next year and a half, they became close friends. “One night, a bunch of us were out at dinner,” Cooperman recalls, “and one of my married friends was teasing me, saying I could get into any girl’s pants. Then Anna turns to me and says, ‘Oh, do you think you can get in mine?’ I asked myself, did that just happen?” For the next month, Silk gave chase while Cooperman resisted her advances, afraid to ruin their friendship. “It was like an alternate universe, because Anna’s the most beautiful thing in the world and she was pursuing me,” he says. “People never believe that she was going after me.” Eventually, she wore him down. They started dating, and now they’re married.
In late 2008, Silk’s Canadian agent gave her the script for Lost Girl. “When I first heard the plot—about a supernatural seductress who needs sex to survive—I was like, ‘Oh, god, come on,’ ” Silk remembers. “But then I read the script and thought, ‘Wow, it’s actually kind of kickass.’ ”
The series was created by Jay Firestone, the Toronto producer responsible for Relic Hunter and the TV version of La Femme Nikita. He hired Michelle Lovretta, a former Mutant X writer, to write a pilot about a strong female succubus. Showcase gave them development money, and the team started looking for the right actor to play Bo; they almost shut down production when, after three months, they couldn’t find her. The part had been written as a steely, hardened femme fatale, but as soon as they saw Silk’s tape, they re-evaluated the character. Silk tapped into Bo’s difficult past—normal teenage stuff, like running away from home after sex-sucking her boyfriend to death—and played the part as confident and self-reliant yet also socially naïve about love and friendship. “I spent so much of my early career wanting people to like me,” Silk says. “As I grew older, I became more comfortable with interpreting characters my own way, rather than trying to satisfy expectations.”
They brought her to Toronto for a screen test opposite Holden-Ried, who was auditioning for the part of the taciturn shape-shifting police detective Dyson. “We were supposed to kiss in the audition, and he literally picked me up and smashed me into the wall, leaving a big crack in the drywall,” she says. “The chemistry was there between us. There was a spark of a challenge, of secrets, of attraction. Like, in an actor way,” she adds quickly. The team hired the pair and ended up rewriting Bo’s character to fit Silk’s interpretation.
Because Lost Girl doesn’t show nipples or genitals, it can air in prime time—a huge boon in terms of advertising potential. Still, Firestone wishes it were racier. “We’ve had a couple of disagreements about what we show—sex positions, how much nudity, what kind of nudity,” he remarks. “It would be more fun if we didn’t have the restrictions, but we might not reach the same audience as we do.”
Silk signs nudity riders for each scene, authorizing all body shots—the angle from which they shoot the side of her breast, or a camera panning down her back, or a stipulation of how much butt crack they can expose. During the nude scenes, she wears nipple adhesives for some pretense of modesty (“I can’t keep them on too long or I’ll get a rash,” she says), while male actors must stuff their genitals into a sock. The sex is masterfully choreographed, executed with such deft blocking that you’d swear you were seeing everything. Silk raves about the respectfulness of the crew and the sensitivity of the writers—she says the sex on the show always feels character-motivated and never exploitative. “I could probably write a book on sex scenes at this point,” she says.
Her husband isn’t quite so blasé—he squirms when I ask about his wife’s sex scenes. “It’s…all right,” he hedges. “If I think about it too much, it starts to bother me.” One time, for example, he had to leave the room while watching a scene between Silk and Holden-Ried. “Anna was excited, because it meant the chemistry seemed real,” he says. “I was like, that’s not the point. Right now, I just see my wife making out with some dude.”
Or, as is often the case, with some woman.
In the first season of the show, Silk’s scenes with Zoie Palmer were more feminized and tender, full of satiny bedsheets and soft light. They were the total opposite of her barn-burning, animalistic encounters with Holden-Ried; while Bo and Lauren made love, Bo and Dyson screwed. Since then, though, the show has strived to dismantle those stereotypes—the two women are having increasingly aggressive sex. A scene in the upcoming third season is one of their most blatantly carnal yet, a series of extreme close-ups as the two women desperately tongue, grope and grind each other, dripping with enough sweat to fill a bathtub.
It’s giving the audience what it wants: on YouTube, one compilation of exchanges between Bo and Lauren (a pairing known to fans as Doccubus) has attracted 18 million hits. “Fans just watch them on a loop,” Silk says.
Silk is unfazed by her fans’ obsession with her sexuality—it comes with the gig. I experienced the diehard fandom first-hand one November evening when I drove to Hamilton for a Lost Girl event, organized by Curt Bennett (Twitter handle Faenonymous), a 34-year-old software developer from Burlington. It was ostensibly in honour of La Shoshain, a Fae holiday mentioned on the show, and took place at Sláinte, an Irish pub where scenes from the pilot episode were shot. I found Bennett upstairs at the bar: a bald, stocky guy with gentle eyes and a goatee, he wore a self-made Lost Girl T-shirt screened with a photo of Vex, one of the show’s main villains. Bennett has established himself as Lost Girl’s ultimate fan, acquiring thousands of Twitter followers, organizing events and even camping out at the set to catch a glimpse of the actors. When I ask him whether he wants Silk’s character to end up with Dyson or Lauren, he says he’s Switzerland. Not everyone is so level-headed. “At its worst, I’ve seen a Team Lauren fan wish that Kris Holden-Ried were unable to continue on the show. They wished ill on the actor, not the character,” he said. “That crossed a line as far as I’m concerned.”
Fans filed in for the event, introducing themselves first by Twitter handle, then by their real names. The crowd, mostly women, settled around the long communal tables, expounding on the show’s mythology and speculating about the upcoming season. One of the first arrivals was Raven, a bisexual fan from Niagara Falls whose dark brown bob, iridescent amulet necklace and horn-rimmed glasses embody the goth-new-age-geek look endemic to the Internet age. “I’m really thrilled to have a canonical bisexual character on mainstream television. It’s huge,” she says. “Plus, I got my wife to watch the show for Dyson. We call him ‘Hip Bones.’ ” (Holden-Ried is up there with Channing Tatum in terms of ab definition and supremely sculpted pelvis.)
It’s not enough for Silk and Palmer’s fans to watch them on the show—in fan fiction, favourite characters act out elaborate erotic fantasies. On Doccubus.com, the message forum lists over 16,000 posts, including an Anna Silk appreciation thread and a section devoted to “Fan Creations”—fan fiction, anime drawings of the characters, photo collages. The fan fiction is especially intense: there are over 450 submissions on FanFiction.net, one clocking in at 150,000 words (that would translate to about 600 pages in small-format paperback). Many pieces are X-rated, filled with pornographic interactions between the characters. One such story reimagines Bo and Lauren’s first sexual encounter: “[Bo] reached down with her hand, between Lauren’s legs, until she reached her wetness, the touch of which forced Bo to moan softly as she continued to kiss Lauren’s mouth. Bo couldn’t believe how excited Lauren was. She rubbed her gently with her fingers, and slowly glided them inside.”
Silk responds to her followers on Twitter and even arranges for international superfans to visit the set when they’re in Toronto. Most of the time they’re respectful, she says. “I’ve had a few letters from fans who think they know me and that we could be together,” she admits. “It’s a little alarming. I’m available to them as Bo, and to a degree as Anna, but they don’t know me. They can’t presume to know what I like and what I don’t like and that one day we’ll meet.”
At the beginning of Lost Girl’s third season, which recently began airing on Showcase, Bo takes a detour to the dark side—the result of a hex. She goes on a crime spree, her eyes narrowed into steely slits. She grabs a random stranger by the collar, sucks him dry and leaves him for dead. Then she walks away, her mouth upturned into the kind of pernicious grin that, in the universal language of television, signifies a good girl gone bad.
It’s a new challenge for Silk, who has become an expert at adapting. While she still signs her emails with smiley faces and xox’s, she isn’t the same person she was three years ago. She’s gone from struggling actor in no-name bit parts to TV headliner whose face stares down from billboards, and it’s changed her accordingly. She knows how to gird herself against media potshots—the TV critics who say she’s “more stolid than steamy,” the Internet commenters who say she’s too old to be a “girl.”
Such criticism might have destroyed her a few years ago. But embodying the sexually lubricious Bo has brought out the self-assured succubus within. Sometimes Silk will catch an old episode playing late at night and be shocked by how often she’s naked and writhing in bed with Bo’s many conquests. And she’ll say to herself: Damn, I’m hot.