The Max factor

Daniela Sea fires up The L Word's third season with her racy role as the new boi in town.

Actor Daniela Sea is no stranger to radicalism. Growing up in Malibu and on Hawaiian beaches with hippie parents and stepparents (including her gay father, who came out when she was 4), she left high school at 16 for Berkeley, where she made music, lived in punk collectives and studied acting. Then came the traveling years, when she and a clutch of friends formed a circus that took them to villages across Europe and India, where Sea spent eight months passing as a man. Now she's lending her revolutionary streak to Showtime's The L Word. The series, which returns this week, is introducing Moira, a young transgender character who is also known as Max.

"I'm coming from a total anarchist, DIY kind of world, where we were skeptical of anything commercial," Sea explains to TONY over tea in her Upper West Side neighborhood. "But I feel Showtime is pretty rad to take this on. I think it's amazing when people are like warriors, when they go into that world and make a space and slowly change things." All the wild journeys she's been on, Sea says, simply prepared her for this one. "It was another adventure—like going to another country again. They had their own rules, that whole world of making a TV show, and for me it was like a six-month intensive," she says. "I feel like all the art I've ever made has been about making the world a more inclusive and tolerant place. I'm not going to be involved with something that I don't believe in."

For Sea, who won't reveal her age but says she "plays 25," the switch from starving artist to bona fide actor came as quick as greased lightning—and started, as many lesbian life changes do, with a new girlfriend. She met Bitch, the dreadlocked, powerhouse of a musician formerly of Bitch and Animal, on a post-India trip to San Francisco.

"We fell in love in a real star-crossed way," Sea recalls. "She was going back to New York, I was going back to Europe—we were never going to see each other again. And here we are still; we've been together for three years. So I got imported to New York." She found herself inspired by the energy here, realized that she wanted to take another stab at acting and soon landed a role—along with Bitch—in John Cameron Mitchell's much-anticipated film Shortbus, set to open this spring. That led to Mitchell using Sea in a couple of music videos he directed, and then came the biggest break of all: a call from an old Berkeley pal, Brooklyn-based comic-book artist Ariel Schrag, who was writing for The L Word's third season.

"Daniela's ex was my high-school art teacher, who was featured in my book Potential," Schrag explains. "There was this new character on the show we had written, and I thought of Daniela. She was always a big presence in my life growing up. She actually came with me to buy my first dildo when I was 18!"

Sea was finishing up Shortbus and working downtown at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame eatery when Schrag called and encouraged her to send her an audition tape. Though Sea had never seen The L Word ("I don't have cable—I don't have a TV!" she says), she went for it, prompting the producers to call Sea at Cowgirl last spring. "They're like, 'Can you be here tomorrow at noon?' The next morning I'm in the room with Mia Kirschner doing this audition. I go back home and get a call from [show producer and Betty guitarist] Elizabeth Ziff. She said, 'Dude, you got the job.' I quit the restaurant and flew out to film in Vancouver, where my first scene was a make-out scene." Sea's character enters the show as the Midwestern, computer-techie love interest of Jenny (Kirschner), teaching the glammy L.A. girls a thing or two about men's suits, "packing" and facial hair. Though Moira is quite different from Sea, says the actor, there are significant connections. "Gender to me," she says, "has always been a pretty fluid thing."

Show creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken, who's been wanting to tackle the trans issue for a while, knew she wanted Sea immediately. "It was her eyes," she recalls, "and just the whole vibe—what she conveys, and the fact that she's the real deal." Working with the relative novice, Chaiken adds, was "delightful. She's one of the most open and dedicated people you'd ever hope for."

The L Word premieres Sun 8 at 10pm on Showtime. See daily listings.