Man oh man, is it good to be The Hollywood Reporter this year. That is, they’re doing what they always do - including the actresses who are most likely to get an Emmy nomination or to be discussed if they don’t get an Emmy nomination – but these women are the most interesting we’ve had in years.
Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lizzy Caplan and Ruth Wilson and Jessica Lange are not, collectively, the A List. They’re the ones who are called after they’ve called other, more ‘traditionally attractive’ or traditionally successful ‘marquee’ people, or after the people from other, more traditional Emmy Roundtables in years past, like Julianna Margulies or Claire Danes or Kerry Washington.
This means these actresses have been passed over for being too old, too big, too ugly, too nondescript, sometimes dozens of times.
It makes them SO MUCH MORE interesting to read and to listen to.
As you’ve probably learned from everyone on your Facebook feed, Viola Davis dominates this discussion. Not in terms of bulldozing, but in the sense that everything she says makes total sense and feels fresh and new. But she also doesn’t come off as someone who knows it all. One of the most interesting quotes in the interview comes after she tells a story of second-guessing herself:
“When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode [of HTGAWM], I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, "Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?" And then I thought: "OK, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who's smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.”
She admits here that she was in the process of getting in her own way. And that the ideas she subscribed to about who could be sexual or beautiful and also real were not hers, necessarily, but she was reinforcing something that she didn’t have to.
In fact, most of these women – with the possible exceptions of Wilson or Lange – talk about how their success is in spite of being told they were not traditionally attractive, or having to go over, around, and through to get to the places they want to be. They relish not having been immediately successful, even if it didn’t seem like a good thing in the beginning.
DAVIS I think a lot of emerging actors now are going for the roles they think they "deserve." They're not out there falling down, doing a regional theater gig or some bad after-school special and then, only after years of experience, developing a way of working. That's all taken off the table because they want to be Denzel Washington and Jessica Lange.
HENSON But who is really able to do that?
CAPLAN There are those stories: "She came straight from acting school, and look, now she's like the star of this movie!" I certainly had that. I thought, "That's going to happen to me, obviously." And it didn't happen. For a while, that was tough to swallow. But I'm grateful I had to scrape my way up.
The same lessons we’re hearing over and over again from the people we watch and then love and want to be friends with – it’s about the work. It’s about ‘scraping your way up’, a phrase I’m going to use over and over again. Lainey always talks about how you remain the age you are when you first get famous. These women are also explaining that you take all the experience with you that you gain before then, and carry it with you. Oh, and they don’t stop learning once they get success, either.
Here the roundtable is talking about how to put yourself into a role, and Henson – Henson whose career has been such that, as she explains, you can go from being an Oscar nominee to #10 on the callsheet (actors are on the callsheet in order of importance to the production) – gives an example of a breakthrough she had:
HENSON I recently learned how to just leave a scene alone. I did this Lifetime movie where there was a scene that was incredibly weighty. My [character's] husband has taken my son to Korea without my knowing and disappeared. I'm going to the FBI to try to get some help and going through all this f—ing red tape. I didn't know the f—ing lines and I panicked: "Oh my God, I'm going to blow it."
Did you see that? She said ‘recently’, not ‘a long time ago’. She got an Oscar nomination, but she’s still as worried about her performance in a Lifetime movie as in anything else. She sees the value in it and wanted to make sure she did as good a job in it as anything else. This is what makes you a professional. This is what makes you someone that people want to work with over and over. Treat everything with the same degree or seriousness and professionalism, and it pays off. (Henson points out they got an Emmy nod for that film when she got out of her own way.)
The interview is filled with these little gems, and lots of bon mots about sex scenes and nudity, and the very narrow way that they’re seen and shot. As Maggie Gyllenhaal points out:
GYLLENHAAL Isn't it so much hotter to see a woman on TV who looks like an actual woman, someone whose arms aren't perfect?
LANGE (To Davis) Except your arms are perfect!
GYLLENHAAL I was talking about mine! (Laughter.)
They discuss the growing opportunities for women’s pleasure onscreen to be for women, and not merely the gratification of men. For the orgasms to be the way they really would be and not always the same ‘Oh, oh, oh’ that we’ve been conditioned to see:
WILSON I had only done one sex scene before The Affair. Dominic [West] and I are really insistent that those scenes in the show have a narrative. It can't just be a normal generic sex scene. "What are we saying here?" There are assumptions that women are always the focus of titillation. And I wanted my contract to say: "For every female orgasm, there had to be a male orgasm."
CAPLAN Also, the woman-masturbating-in-front-of-a-man scene is often so easily like this theatrical sort of, "ohhh" moaning thing — but that's so for him. Here, it was the opposite. It was supposed to be for her.
The other best part about this interview is that they all acknowledge that they’re coming from a different place than an actress who has only ever been #1 on the callsheet, and also different places from each other…but that doesn’t negate what they have in common.
Davis talks about how she’s not going to drink smoothies all the time to be a size 2. Caplan (and probably Wilson and Gyllenhaal, come to think of it) probably is a 2, or smaller. But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t get to feel pressure about her own body, nor does Davis saying that negate anything about Caplan’s body or anyone else’s.
Like, yes, of course we shouldn’t have such stringent body standards for what constitutes ‘beauty’. Of course it’s great that Davis or Gyllenhaal or anyone bucks against them and can be seen as sexual and beautiful despite being outside those standards. But they sort of shut down the internet rabble of comments before it starts, in that Davis saying she won’t subscribe to those standards doesn’t mean that someone who falls within those standards by an accident of birth or genetics is bad or unworthy of participating in the discussion. Too often when there are strides made in one area someone says ‘yeah but what about this other problem?’ That if everything isn’t perfect, none of the good things matter?
I’m so delighted that this is not that. That these women know better than that.
Let’s just remember this. People who struggle? Intrinsically more interesting than those who haven’t had to. People whose success comes later? Probably more staying power than that which comes early. Failure? Probably a path to success.
Now read it six more times.
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