Seven A-list contenders — including Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Naomie Harris and Isabelle Huppert — sound off on their biggest fears, bucket-list goals and why questions about equal pay should be directed toward producers: "We are always put on the chopping block to put our opinion out there. ... I don't want to be a headline anymore about pay equality."
A few years back during a THR Actress Roundtable, Taraji P. Henson revealed she had tried acting only after coming to realize that her electrical engineering studies weren't working out. "I failed pre-calc," she told the group in 2008. "Not calculus, pre-calc! The class that preps you for all the math you have to do." It's ironic that the actress (on that roundtable for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) was invited back this year for her performance as a math wiz in Hidden Figures, where she's one of three black women — all based on real-life characters — who helped NASA launch a man-into-space program in the 1960s. Henson, 46, was joined for the Nov. 13 roundtable taping at a Hollywood production studio by Amy Adams, 42, with two films in the awards conversation, Arrival and Nocturnal Animals; Annette Bening, 58, who stars in 20th Century Women; and British actress Naomie Harris, 40, who plays a crack-addicted mother in Moonlight.
Rounding out the group were French legend Isabelle Huppert, 63, who depicts an unusual and provocative rape victim in the Cannes breakout Elle; Natalie Portman, 35 (an Oscar winner for Black Swan), who nails the voice and emotion of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following her husband's assassination in Jackie; and Emma Stone, 28, who sings, dances and romances Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
After a recent drought, 2016 has been an especially strong year for women's roles, though some of the panelists made it clear they disliked being questioned about such things. "Ask the Producer Roundtable," said Adams when queried about gender-based pay equality. But that was just one subject in a freewheeling conversation ranging from the personal (Bening said she used her role as a 1970s mother to reevaluate how she relates to her own children) to the spiritual. Said Henson, "I think God is very funny by giving me this role."
If you could put one great movie performance in a time capsule, what would you choose?
TARAJI P. HENSON Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. It speaks to what's happening today in the world, including health care. And yeah, [AIDS is] still an epidemic. We don't have a handle on that yet.
NAOMIE HARRIS I am obsessed with The Sound of Music. That is my favorite movie.
ANNETTE BENING Me too!
AMY ADAMS Can I use that answer? You and I will go do a sing-along afterward.
BENING I went to the sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl with my children.
ADAMS It handles a really important time in history about what was happening on the precipice of that war.
BENING The first [performance] that popped into my head was Liv Ullmann in Persona. But I think that was because it was one of the first serious movies I saw in the little art house in San Diego where I grew up. I hadn't seen films like that before.
NATALIE PORTMAN One of the performances I think of the most is Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. That relationship with God and with herself and with her sexuality and all of that is so human and strange and beautiful.
ISABELLE HUPPERT Usually I have difficulty answering such a question, and strangely enough, right away I thought of Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running, the Vincente Minnelli film. For me, she is really just the actress.
EMMA STONE John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. I'm serious. Comedy means everything to me. He just breaks your heart and makes you laugh, and he does it all so beautifully.
When you say comedy means everything to you, do you prefer acting in comedies?
STONE Not necessarily, but comedy was what saved me as a kid, because I was so in my head and so tense and anxious. Comedy really changed everything. Seeing Steve Martin in The Jerk or John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, that opened up the world to me.
What made you decide to go into acting?
STONE My teacher putting me in the [class] play. It was all fifth-graders, and I was the only first-grader, which felt so cool because everyone was older. I felt like I had an outlet. And then doing youth theater, I felt the same. I thought that would be what I would do. I wasn't the most excellent singer or dancer in the world, so I realized I couldn't do Broadway. But it's funny to be here talking about a musical.
Who prefers theater to film?
HUPPERT Making movies is a nice ride as opposed to theater; that is climbing a very high mountain. But the view is spectacular once you are on top of the mountain, of course. I [recently did] a very contemporary version of Phaedra directed by a great Polish director called Krzysztof Warlikowski, which combines several texts, including Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane, who was a great English playwright.
BENING Isn't it three and a half hours long?
HUPPERT Yes, it is. It's very long. It might be a big mountain for the audience as well.
BENING That's incredible.
HUPPERT Sometimes people walk away, so apparently they don't climb up the mountain. (Laughter.) They have to stop halfway through. But never mind. We are still there.
Do any of you get stage fright?
BENING Yes. But not paralyzing. I have fear all the time with the work that I do. I don't know if everyone has that. I think most people do.
ADAMS Oh my gosh, yes. Paralyzing.
BENING More than with the camera?
ADAMS I used to have it with the camera. I figured that out, thankfully. But with the stage, I didn't realize how bad it was until I was doing Into the Woods in Central Park, and there would be times where I literally thought I wouldn't be able to walk onstage.
HUPPERT I saw you.
ADAMS The worst stage fright I ever had was singing alone at the Oscars [a song from Enchanted in 2008].
HENSON Very scary.
ADAMS Emma? Maybe this year?
STONE Oh no. I forgot about that.
ADAMS You should do it.
HENSON At least you didn't have to sing about pimps and whores [a song from Hustle & Flow with Three 6 Mafia at the 2006 Oscars].
ADAMS You actually did it. That was the first year I was nominated, and I was like, "She is up there, singing at the Oscars."
HENSON It was pretty scary. I had to look over everyone's heads because it's not like what I'm singing about is the most … you know.
You played a real woman in Hidden Figures. Is it scarier playing someone you've met?
HENSON Yes. It's scary when they're so alive and their family is still alive. It's a big pressure, because you want to get it right. And that's all I cared about. Can we just make sure Katherine [Johnson, now 98] is happy? This is her story. We are riding on her shoulders right now. And I owe her the truth and all of me. I got to sit with her and started studying her mannerisms, and I asked her a lot of questions. What I did find that was parallel in our lives was math, which I hated.
HENSON Oh God, yeah. I was not wired that way. And I think it was because as girls we were told math and science was for boys, so I guess I believed that.
Natalie, did you feel an extra historical burden playing Jackie Kennedy?
PORTMAN It's different, because if they're still alive, you have this responsibility to them or you know that they're going to be watching it. So maybe it was freeing, in a way, knowing she wasn't going to watch it.
HENSON It's harder to do what you're doing because that's an iconic character. Everyone knows what she looks like, how she walks, how she sounds.
Annette, you played a character modeled on your director's mother. Did you talk to him about her?
BENING We talked endlessly about her, and we are still talking about her. (Laughter.)
Would any of you want your kids to follow you into acting?
BENING Yes, if they wanted to. If it's something they're passionate about, whatever it is, I would say yes. I also have realized recently there was a part of me that thought I could protect my children from feeling pain, which is so ridiculous. (Laughter.) There's a lot of rejection you have to accept.
Naomie, in Moonlight, you play a character who ages more than 20 years and becomes a crack addict. And you had three days to shoot it.
HARRIS It was never meant to be three days. It was because I had issues with visas because I'm British.
HENSON Really, you're British?!
HARRIS I am! (Laughter.)
HENSON I had no idea. I thought she was from California.
ADAMS You're like, "She is really putting on something for this roundtable." (Laughs.)
BENING Her accent is so believable.
How did you do it in three days?
HARRIS It's so weird, actually, because I never felt like it was three days. I never felt rushed. It's only now that everybody is saying, "Oh my gosh, it was done in three days. That's insane." And I'm like, "Yeah, it is insane!"
How did you research that role?
HARRIS YouTube. It's my first time discovering any of this, but it's an incredible mine of information. You have people with their camera phones who go down into crack dens and record interviews with people — information that you would never be able to get from any other source. Obviously, I don't know anything about Miami in the 1980s, but I felt through these clips that I got real insight into those communities and those people's lives.
Were you reluctant to play a black woman who is a crack addict?
HARRIS I was, because I grew up with very strong, intelligent, powerful women, and I don't feel as though they are reflected enough. So I made it my mission that I was going to make my choices based on portraying positive images of women in general and black women in particular. And I didn't feel a crack addict fit into that. But then [director] Barry Jenkins asked me to play his mum, basically, and I thought, "Here's someone who is emotionally invested in ensuring that this character is given her full complexity and her full humanity."
His mother hasn't seen the film, has she?
HARRIS No, she won't see it at the moment. It's too much. She wouldn't come on set, either.
Do you feel the industry is doing enough for black actors?
HARRIS It's changing hugely.
HENSON It's always hard. I have white friends, blond hair, blue eyes, who ain't worked in five years. Have we seen enough representation of African-American stories? No. But has Hollywood been horrible to me? No. I've worked. Did I get paid what I deserve? That is the question we should be talking about. But I can't take that on because I have worked and I've seen my career do this. So I never wallow in the muck and say, "Oh, it's hard." That's a given. I can't take this skin off. We know what the deal is. You understand? So I'm not going to make it an issue. I'm going to work my ass off and hopefully the work that I'm doing will change things, will make it better for the next one coming behind me. You let me in, give me an inch, I'll take a mile. I've come a long way. I mean, look at me now. I'm on a hit show, I just produced my own variety show for Christmas, and I watch TV and I go, "Wow, they're saying, 'Taraji.' " Not "Taraji P. Henson," but "Taraji's White Hot Holiday." (Laughs.) See, I'm white, really. I'm not black!
In France and England, there seem to be much better roles available for women over 40. Is that true?
HUPPERT Hmm …
You've played some great roles.
HUPPERT Yes, but before 40 and after 40 — but I never felt underemployed because I wasn't 30. In fact, I remember when I was 30, I stopped working for a certain time in France. It happened because it happened. It was regardless of any question of age.
Why did you stop working?
HUPPERT I didn't stop working, but I had less work to do in my country and I did more films out of my country. I'm embarrassed to answer this kind of question because I find it misogynistic.
ADAMS Who you should be asking is the Producer Roundtable: "Do you think minorities are underrepresented? Do you think women are underpaid?" We are always put on the chopping block to put our opinion out there, and that question is never asked. I'm like, "Why don't you ask them and then have their statements be the headlines in the press?" I don't want to be a headline anymore about pay equality.
HENSON That's why I changed what I was saying, because they expect it: "Do you think it's hard for African-Americans?" "Oh, yes …" (Laughs.)
ADAMS I agree with you. I think the real question should be asked of the people who make those decisions.
Isabelle, were the rape scenes in Elle difficult for you to play?
HUPPERT No, it was very technical. We rehearsed a lot, and we had a coach.
PORTMAN A rape coach?
HUPPERT A rape coach. (Laughs.) No, a coach to fall down and to get hit and things like this. Not a rape coach. So no, it wasn't difficult. And my partner, Laurent Lafitte, the French actor, was really great. But we all know those scenes might be more difficult to watch for the spectator than to do for the actor.
Natalie, you were very close to Mike Nichols. What did he teach you?
PORTMAN He taught me a lot about life. There are a lot of us here who were influenced by him. One of the things that most surprised me was that when he passed, there were so many people who [thought] he was the most important person in their life. You felt, "If I put that much energy into someone, I could do that for one person," and he did that for 50 people, maybe more. He would take me out to lunch and be like, "You need to get a new money manager." Just out of the blue. Or call me up and say, "What's going on with your boyfriend?" Or, "Do you know this therapist? You should talk to him." (Laughter.) He had infinite energy to give. I hope to pass it on.
ADAMS He really loved you.
PORTMAN Well, he really loved you.
ADAMS He called me Amy A. "Amy A, you must call me when you're in New York." And I never would, and it's a huge regret. This has happened with a couple of relationships. And I'm like, "Oh, get over yourself, Adams, really?" I missed so many wonderful people and moments because of my own self-doubt.
Is there any role that has changed your thinking about life?
HARRIS Paula [in Moonlight] is over — and thankfully. But when I played Winnie Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom, that role stayed with me for months afterward.
STONE What I've been affected by more is just getting to know myself. It's so consuming when I am working. I'm not texting people back in time or calling people, and I'm like, "God, sorry. I'm just consumed." The adult I've become [is] through so much of that work, the relationships I have with the people I'm working with and how to stand firm in what I believe — in the mistakes I've made, how I should have interacted with people, how I should have stood up for parts of a character, or how I should have stood up for myself as an actor or as a woman. Or times I could have gotten closer to people but felt insecure. Those are the things I find from job to job, and it makes it more exciting to work.
HENSON I have had roles be very therapeutic for me. I've had roles that were so close to my life that it made me examine that part of my life. When I did Benjamin Button, I had recently gone through death. I lost my father; two years before that I lost my son's father; and then the year that I was filming, I lost a cousin. And I remember the day that Queenie died in the film, it was Queenie's funeral, and I was so heartbroken because I couldn't go to my cousin's funeral. I was in this casket, and on my left hand the prosthetics kept lifting. So we're done, I get out of the casket, which was kind of morbid, and I call my godmother right away and I'm like, "How was the funeral? Was it beautiful? How did he look?" And she said, "Oh, it was amazing, except that rigor mortis kept setting in his left hand." And so even though I couldn't be there, I was kind of there. And it was my work as an artist that had me there with him during that moment. Acting can be very therapeutic for actors, because if you're missing it in your life, nine times out of 10, you're going to miss it on the page. So I constantly have to deal with my shit. Excuse me. Can I say that?
STONE Shit, shit, shit.
HENSON But Taraji has to deal with her hang-ups and flaws, because if I don't, it will cloud the characters.
You all have accomplished so much. Is there anything you would still like to accomplish that isn't related to acting?
HENSON Right now, a vacation.
ADAMS I'd like to get my house clean.
HARRIS Well, I just played a mother, and I'm not a mother, so I'd love to experience what that is like.
BENING It would probably involve scuba diving. I learned to dive when I was a kid, but I was in San Diego. Guess what? Southern California doesn't have very good diving. (Laughs.) I didn't know that at the time. Maybe on the Great Barrier Reef or somewhere in Mexico.
PORTMAN This is a serious answer, so excuse me for getting very serious.
ADAMS I think I started crying at the table, it's OK.
PORTMAN It feels very urgent right now to make change in local communities. Right now it feels really important to push female leadership. We need to teach girls to be bosses now. Now. Like yesterday.
Isabelle, you're holding your head in your hands. You can't escape.
HUPPERT I was hoping that we were going to skip my turn.
HENSON She tried to become invisible, it didn't work. (Laughter.)
HUPPERT To be invisible. You gave me my answer.
ADAMS Maybe get a degree. Psychology or sociology. I like that.
STONE To have a family. It makes me honestly flush, because it feels like such a vulnerable thing to say. It's such a crazy, incredible thing. How wild to have children and a family, it's just … very much.
HENSON It's cute when they're little. (Laughs.) I wish I had wings and I could fly. I have always had a fascination with wings. I have them tattooed on my lower back. I fly a little different. But those are my wings.
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Jan. 29, 2017.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.