CHICAGO — After spending her teen years doing cartoon voice work on shows like Franklin, Toronto native Leah Renee has landed a very grown-up role on the new NBC/Citytv drama The Playboy Club.
The red-haired actress, who voiced Franklin’s friend Beaver on the popular animated series, says she got her latest gig just weeks after she moved to Los Angeles last winter.
“I was the luckiest girl on Earth because this was my first (U.S.) audition,” says the 25-year-old, who has also appeared (under the name Leah Cudmore) in such Canadian shows as Degrassi: The Next Generation, My Babysitter’s a Vampire and M.V.P.
It helped, she thinks, that Playboy Club executive producer Chad Hodge already had her on his radar. The two worked together years before on the short-lived Toronto-based CW series Runaway.
The Playboy Club production is housed in a gigantic converted steel factory in Chicago’s west end. Shooting an hour-long TV drama means long days, especially at the beginning.
On this visit to the set, work starts in the evening and goes through the night. Toronto-born director Holly Dale (Durham County, Flashpoint) is motioning for more smoke to be blown onto the set, giving it a hazy look.
Renee is out of her usual bunny ears, cuffs and tail and in more elegant cocktail attire for a scene in the upstairs Bunny Lounge.
The former art school student says it’s not so glamorous getting into the famed bunny suit.
“There’s a dresser who dresses us with lots of sucking everything in and lots of regretting the chips I ate the night before followed by lots of wiggling and then you’re in,” she says.
Renee and others in the cast are sensitive to suggestions that the mini-trend of shows set in the 1960s (Pan Am is the other new series set in the Mad Men era) is based on some male longing for a time when women knew their place.
“I understand people’s interest in the bunnies on every possible level,” says Laura Benanti, who plays top club bunny Carol-Lynne.
“But I do think it’s interesting in this day and age when sex is used to sell toothpaste that there’s all these questions about how we feel as actresses portraying these women. Would you ask Johnny Depp if he thinks he’s promoting bank robbery because he’s playing (John) Dillinger?”
Besides, say the actresses, the original club bunnies they’ve spoken with all loved their jobs, made great money and felt a real sense of empowerment.
“They have such positive stories about being a bunny,” says Jenna Dewan Tatum, who plays Janie.
These women were calling the shots and making their own choices, she says.
“Most people think they were centrefolds or that they were nude or compromised in any way, but really, they were wearing more clothing than a woman today in a bathing suit.”
Benanti thinks Playboy founder Hugh Hefner deserves some credit for integrating the clubs, both in terms of the talent performing there (music is a big part of the series) and the women hired as bunnies.
“They weren’t all your typical blue-eyed blonds,” says raven-haired Benanti.
Naturi Naughton, a New Jersey-native who played a Playboy Bunny on Mad Men six months before landing this job, is thrilled to be playing an ambitious black woman in the ’60s.
“She’s not going to let discrimination stop her from achieving her goals,” says Naughton, who learned that the first black centrefold arrived in 1965. That put Hefner ahead of the curve, she feels. Her own parents have stories of the discrimination they felt in the ’60s.
The cast had an opportunity to meet Hefner when the 85-year-old hosted a screening of the pilot at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills.
“He welcomed us in his robe and slippers,” says Dewan Tatum.
Hefner can be heard narrating the series.
Eddie Cibrian (Third Watch) plays Nick Dalton, the manager of the Chicago Playboy Club. He says Hefner told him the period depicted in the series “was one of the fondest times he ever had.”
The Playboy Club airs Monday nights at 10 p.m.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Chicago, he was a guest of Citytv.