Mia Kirshner is naive in the best possible way.
Perhaps best known for her role as Jenny Schecter on television series The L Word, the actor says that when she wants something, she makes it happen, regardless of the obstacles that might be in her path. Not knowing what it’ll take to make her goals happen means she’ll go for something even if most people might perceive them as a huge undertaking,
Her goals are impressive – she wants to change the laws in Malawi so that education is mandatory for every child who has been imprisoned in Kachere Juvenile Prison. The kids, who have been jailed for committing crimes as a result of their extreme poverty, are ones who would otherwise miss out on education, and thus would not have the chance to get back into society once released.
“These kids had really slipped through the cracks,” she said, explaining that she found out about them when she travelled to Malawi to research for the book she co-wrote, I Live Here, a visually stunning book detailing the struggles of people in Ingushetia, Burma, Cijdad Juárez, and Malawi. “The conditions were so bad that I decided I just wanted to start a school.”
And build a school, she did. A school for imprisoned boys opened in 2009, and she’s working on opening another for imprisoned girls.
It’s an ongoing process, she said. “Is it a perfect school? No way. It’s overcrowded, it has a lot of problems, but it’s nonetheless a school structure, and the kids are getting an education… We’ve made many great strides.”
Kirshner has finally returned home to Toronto after spending many years in the United States filming movies and TV shows. Her newest show, Defiance, which is shot in Toronto, premièred this spring on Showcase TV.
It’s a space western, detailing the reconstruction of Earth after the arrival of seven alien races. Kirshner plays Kenya, the owner of a sex club. She described the character as “tricky.”
“You don’t exactly know what she’s thinking and why she’s doing things. She’s extremely complicated,” she said. “Though [the show is] set in the future… it’s still not accepted for a woman to be sexually promiscuous. [Kenya] is proud she’s living the life she wants to lead, with no shame.”
Although she said her views on sexuality don’t quite line up with Kenya’s, the two are similar in some ways.
“If I believe in something, I’m going to stick to my guns,” she said, giving the example of correcting reporters who, based on the show’s press release, refer to her character as the madam of a brothel.
She’s seen what brothels are like and has met madams on her travels, she said, and Kenya is not a madam.
A madam is somebody who makes money off the backs of women who are, 98 per cent of the time, absolutely exploited, tortured and abused in sexual servitude, she said, “whereas my character in Defiance is [the owner of] a sex club, a place of sexual exploration and freedom.
“I know it’s an innocent oversight, but I don’t want to stand by something I don’t believe in.”
The show intrigued Kirshner because of its innovative integration with a video game of the same name. Viewers can play the game, including controlling some of the main characters, though not as Kenya, and learn more about the highly developed Defiance world.
Although the concept intrigued Kirshner, the fact that the show was being shot in her hometown sealed the deal for her.
“I hadn’t worked in Toronto in ages, and I just realized how much I had missed home and missed being near my family,” she said.
It’s taken some adjustments to get back into the swing of Toronto life, she said. She left the city in her late teenage years to chase her acting career, and she joked about how her parents, including CJN reporter Sheldon Kirshner, still perceive her as that teenager.
“They remind me to turn off the stove, don’t forget to lock my door,” she said. “I think they forget I’ve lived an adult life more than half my life away.”
Now that she’s home, she’s finally getting the chance to set down her roots in Toronto, including recently purchasing a house. She said she hopes to stay in the city for as long as she can, and the fact that Defiance has already been renewed for another season means she’ll be there at least a little while longer.
Being away for years has taught her not only the importance of a family connection but also the value of a community connection. That why, she said, she was saddened to hear about The CJN’s likely closure.
“A community loses its way without a centrepiece,” she said. “Part of the function [of The CJN] was to gather stories that might disappear… and out of respect to those stories, as a Jew, we need this.
“You can live anywhere, but without your community I think you’re rootless and aimless.”
Kirshner is hoping her next project will help her I Live Here Project organization to further its philanthropic outreach through the creation of an online, interactive book. Having it online will allow it to exist and constantly grow, she said, and will help her make a greater impact on the world.
“I feel like, as a Jew… I have a responsibility,” she said. “If you see an injustice, you have to say something and you have to do something about it.”
To find out more about the I Live Here Project, visit i-live-here.com. Defiance airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Showcase.