Canadian actor Leah Renee’s feathery, high-pitched chirp could capture any guy’s attention. But on The Playboy Club, the NBC melodrama filming in Chicago about Bunnies working at Hugh Hefner’s flagship club in the early ’60s, her upbeat demeanor betrays a secret. Renee, 25, plays a Bunny named Alice, a prim and proper girl who hides the fact that she’s a lesbian married to her gay best friend.
On the one hand, it’s Alice’s job to put her sexuality front and center, but on the other she has to repress it. That sounds like a hard role to play.
I like that dichotomy. The thing is, she’s probably the least sexual of all the girls in the club. The extent of her sexuality kind of stops with the Bunny costume. She puts the Bunny suit on, and she’ll definitely give a little giggle and a little smile here and there, but she’s not the most flirtatious of them.
Your costar Amber Heard is a lesbian. Are you ever tempted to lean on her for advice?
The character was originally written quite differently. When I first read the script, she was written, I would say, as sort of a cliché. She wasn’t the cutest bunny. There was a scene where she didn’t have the cutest underwear and was kind of dowdy, and Amber was the one to say to the writers and the producers, “I don’t think that’s how the spectrum should be portrayed; I think it would be great if you cast a very beautiful woman and have her be beautiful,” and that to me made it a lot more fun, too, because there’s definitely two sides to Alice. In the club she’s very sweet and even more girly than everyone. When she’s home with her husband she speaks a little deeper and she’s a lot stronger.
In preparation for this part, how much did you immerse yourself in the Playboy brand?
I did a lot of research online and reading books like by Kathryn Leigh Scott. She used to work in the club and interviewed more than 250 of the Bunnies who worked throughout the clubs in the ’60s and ’70s. To get insight from the women who worked there and what their experiences were truly like and who they were and what they ended up doing with their lives was incredibly helpful.
How did it make you feel?
I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of these women were very strong and very intelligent, and they were working at these clubs and saving a lot of money to put themselves through school. Some of them were supporting families and a lot of them ended up becoming lawyers and real-estate tycoons, and one of them ended up becoming an opera singer.
Did you pick Hefner’s brain?
We weren’t given access to him, [though it] would’ve been lovely, but I watched a documentary called Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, and I found that very helpful in finding out what he was thinking.
What’s it like working on a show that’s already been deemed controversial?
As much as the show is sexy it’s very tame, especially for today’s time. At the end of the day it’s a very fun show, and the sex is such a small part of it. Really, it’s about the girls and their relationships with each other and their lives outside of the club.
Does it make you more aware of how hard it is to put sexuality front and center in this culture?
It’s crazy that we have organizations that are trying to ban our show. They’re more concerned because of the title. When they hear they get very confused and start to think of the magazine and about the nudity, and that’s really a very different thing. But I also feel that as much as sex is a part of our show, it’s a part of a lot of shows. features quite a bit of sex. I remember seeing buns on that show on TV at 9 o’clock at night. You’re not going to see that sort of thing with our show.
If you visited a Playboy Club in the early ’60s, what would you have thought of it?
A lot of the times while we’re filming [the show], it very much feels like you really are just there. So much of the time the performances are really happening and we’re dancing on the floor and mingling and having a good time and it seems to me like that was a very glamorous place to be. I think I would’ve really enjoyed it.
The Playboy Club premieres September 19 at 9pm on NBC.