After Desert Hearts, Charbonneau had the experience of doing love scenes with male actors, which she found more grueling. She said even though she is straight, she was much more comfortable in her scene with Shaver.
For one thing, Deitch went to lengths to put her actors at ease. But Charbonneau also said: "There's something about the compassion of women that's just really comfortable to be in. Plus, I'm one of five sisters, so we all grew up sleeping in the same bed and all that kind of stuff."
That doesn't mean doing the scene was effortless.
"That was a long day for me, don't get me wrong," she said, laughing. She recalled feeling especially protective of her body at the time, being newly pregnant.
As if filming that scene weren't difficult enough, Charbonneau has even sat through it next to her father and the "straightest" (according to her) of her five brothers. "I was at this screening, sitting in the middle of the most conservative two in my family, and I thought, 'Am I out of my mind?'"
But she survived, and she said everyone in her family has always been supportive of the film and proud of her role in it.
Looking back, both actors said Desert Hearts has never affected their careers adversely. "It launched my film career; there's no doubt in my mind about that," Charbonneau said.
Shaver recalled a string of offers to play lesbian cops after Desert Hearts — offers she declined — but those weren't the only roles she was offered. "Right after I did it, I auditioned for Martin Scorsese and worked for him for the first time, and then John Schlesinger," she said. "So I think it affected me in a positive way."
The way Charbonneau sees it, the part never cost her anything of worth: "Anybody that I would've liked to work with got it, and there was no issue. Maybe there were some auditions that I couldn't get in on, but maybe I wasn't meant to, anyway."
Both actors still receive Desert Hearts-related fan mail to this day. "You don't know what impact you have," Charbonneau said, "and when someone writes you a letter and says, 'You've given me courage,' it just makes me wish I could do even more. I think it takes a lot of courage just to live, whatever our goals or our passions are. So if there's something along the way that can give you that little extra spark and let you know that it's OK, go for it, that's pretty amazing."
The film is particularly significant to Shaver because it was her first leading role, with the story being told from her character's viewpoint.
Moreover, Deitch was the first female director she had ever worked with, an experience that influenced her own resolve to direct.
And the actors are aware of how influential the film has been for so many viewers. This first became clear to Charbonneau after she agreed to emcee a fundraiser benefiting the homeless in New York. She hadn't thought she was in a position to raise awareness on any issue, but out of five days of events, the one she hosted drew the most money and the biggest crowd.
"It was also the first time that I talked with a lot of women outside the industry who really understood the film and were so taken by it, and felt like their story was being told for the first time the way it should be," Charbonneau recalled. "It was a really extraordinary experience for me."
Shaver recalled being particularly aware of the film's impact when she took to the stage at the GLAAD Woman of the Year award presentation for Deitch: "I'd received standing ovations before, but this one just went on and on and on. I knew it was much bigger than me, and that we had successfully told a story that represented a lot of people in a way they'd never been represented before."
She pointed out that the film not only changed individual lives, but also helped change the filmmaking industry. "It was very much a harbinger of how lesbian relationships could be seen as multi-dimensional and real, seen as they are — not as a caricature or somebody's wet dream," said Shaver.
Since Desert Hearts, Charbonneau has appeared in numerous films and television shows, but she hadn't worked as an actor for several years. Her last role was in the film 100 Feet, starring Famke Janssen.
Charbonneau said she really misses acting these days, but she has been keeping busy teaching 8-to-14-year-olds at a performing arts academy near her home in the northern Catskills. In the summer, she leads a four-week seminar at a nearby performing arts center that brings together a diverse group of students.
"I enjoy that because it's a real mix of city kids that spend the summers up here and local kids, so it's a really great time for these children that are being brought up in very different ways to meet and see how much they really do have in common," she said.
Before teaching, Charbonneau mentored high school students in rural communities near her home, helping them figure out the best colleges for them to pursue their particular interests in the arts.
Shaver hasn't been acting much in the last few years, either, although she is currently appearing in the new independent film Numb, in which she plays the mother of Matthew Perry's character and ages from 40 to 65 over the course of the film. She said she didn't really see herself in the role, but the director, Harris Goldberg (co-writer of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo), persuaded her to take it.
Shaver appeared in many movies before and after Desert Hearts, such as The Color of Money and The Believers. She has also made many TV appearances over the years, most recently on The 4400 and the first season of The L Word as conservative pundit Faye Buckley.
Her main work for the past decade has been directing television. She has worked steadily, directing episodes of more than 20 series. Her upcoming directing projects include episodes of The Unit, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the new series Journeyman and the Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice.
Shaver said she also plans to direct and produce a film adaptation of her sister's best-selling book, The Naked Nun. The screenplay will be written by Shaver's niece, the author's 27-year-old daughter. Shaver will also be working on a new film called Stuck, which is still in development.
She lives in Los Angeles when she's working but also has homes "in other places." She is private about the exact locations, partly because she has had a few obsessive fans over the years.
"There was one woman who would write me every week," Shaver recalled. "She sent me the ticket stub from the 50th time she saw Desert Hearts and was talking about the veins on the back of my hand and a particular mole on my upper arm."
Obsessive fans aside, both Shaver and Charbonneau look back on the experience of making Desert Hearts without regret.
As Shaver puts it: "I just love that I've done a piece of work that so deeply touches people and represents them. You do work for all sorts of reason, but it's a really wonderful occasion when the elements come together to make a piece of work that resonates deeply and lasts so long."