Saffron Burrows Embraces Lesbian Relationships On-Screen and Off


Burrows in "Deep Blue Sea"Fiona Shaw and Saffron Burrows

Most actresses who are gay or bisexual (or rumored to be) tend to shy away from gay roles on screen for fear of either being typecast or blowing their cover, but this clearly isn’t of concern to Burrows given her roles in Timecode and Frida. Although she has played some archetypal female roles (like Nan in Circle of Friends) she most often plays women who are multi-dimensional, assertive, and hard to pin down. Her character in Deep Blue Sea, for example, is the “villain” of the film as a scientist whose driving ambition puts the others lives at stake, but you can’t help synthesizing with her when you learn the intentions behind that drive.

This may be partly because Burrows herself is hard to categorize. She may be a model and an actress, but she grew up marching in demonstrations with her activist parents, joined an anti-racist group at 11, and is now an active vice-president of the National Civil Rights Movement in England. She earned spending money as a young girl by selling copies of the Socialist Worker newsletter. She admires Maya Angelou and Adrienne Rich, Marx and Galileo.

The characters she plays are rarely “women who hate other women,” as she noted in an interview, and she complained to Warner Bros when her wet suit was digitally unzipped and her breasts were digitally enlarged on the posters for Deep Blue Sea.

As a woman who speaks her mind on both social issues and personal ones, and an actress who consistently plays strong, interesting female characters on-screen, Burrows proves that it is possible to go against the grain and still have a film career. The scarcity of openly bisexual actresses in Hollywood makes Burrows’ apparent success a challenge to conventional wisdom that says you can’t be out and successful.

But the fact that she doesn’t openly discuss her relationship with Shaw may be what’s allowing her to still have a career. Like Portia de Rossi, Burrows has chosen to walk the fine line between neither denying nor confirming speculation about her relationship, while quietly living her life with Shaw.

It’s unfortunate that this kind of careful compromise is required, but it’s still progress from a few years ago, when nothing short of denial would save an actress’ career from these kinds of rumors. Perhaps with more women like Burrows coming out publicly, even this kind of compromise will be no longer be required in a few years.

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