Six of TV's leading ladies — including Rachel Bloom, Allison Janney, Niecy Nash and Lily Tomlin — open up about Hollywood's definition of gender, power and those patronizing little "pats" on the back.
Comedy's funniest ladies at a table, and it's all but inevitable that the hourlong conversation will dissolve into gut-busting laughter. On this Sunday afternoon in early April, recollections of barking at Brooklyn-area catcallers (once a go-to move of Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, 31), refusing to walk out of auditions without a job secured (that was Getting On's Niecy Nash, 46) and that one time Allison Janney, 56, of Mom, was mistaken for a "prettier Allison Janney" all got the sextet to that place. Less expected, however, was the candor that these women brought to such topics as taking gigs for money (Grace and Frankie's Lily Tomlin, 76), observing one's own confidence plummet (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom, 29) and, Broad City's Ilana Glazer, 29, recounts, being forced to deal with subtle, though nonetheless infuriating, brushes with Hollywood sexism.
What's the most bizarre or unintentionally funny feedback you've read or heard about yourself?
ALLISON JANNEY I went to a bar one night — this is back in the beginning days of The West Wing — and a bartender said, "I don't mean to insult you, but you look just like Allison Janney." And I said, "Now tell me why would that be an insult, I'm curious." He said, "Well, you're just a lot prettier than she is." And I said, "Well, I am her, and my drinks will be free for the rest of the evening." (Laughter.)
NIECY NASH When I was doing Reno 911!, we got to create the characters we played. They said, "What would you like?" And I said, "Baby hair and a big booty." People who were fond of "a lot down in the dirty South," as we call it, would come up and go, "Heyyy," and then they'd look for it, but I was wearing a prosthetic bottom on the show. So some people were disappointed, some thought I lost weight and some were like, "Hey, what's going on, you look so much smaller in real life — TV makes you look huge!"
GINA RODRIGUEZ And now everybody's injecting cement into their booties …
NASH I was early! (Laughs.)
RODRIGUEZ When I was 16, I had a big booty, and then I grew up, and now everybody is trying to get booties like the Kardashians, and I'm like, "Wait, I had it all along." But hey, I'm glad it's trendy now. (Laughter.) Because I play a virgin on TV, what I get is people desiring to tell me their specific sexual orientation or if they're currently having sex or if they are themselves a virgin.
ILANA GLAZER People go to touch me a lot. They think I want to have sex with them, I guess, because my character is horny. I'm like, "Whaaaat?" (Laughter.)
How do you generally respond to fans?
NASH I fall into the category of being an approachable celebrity; people feel like they know me. I was at a restaurant recently where there was another celebrity, not so approachable, and people were like, "Oh my God, she ate a fry, she ate a fry!" They were in a panic, clutching their pearls, looking from afar. Meanwhile, my table was Grand Central Station. "Hey, Niecy, girl, say hi to my son!" (Laughter.)
RACHEL BLOOM I have boundary issues in that I have none. So sometimes when people recognize me from the show, I geek out over them geeking out about me to the point where they have to walk away.
If you had to pinpoint the moment in which you knew you wanted to be an actress, what would it be?
NASH I was 5 years old. I was watching TV with my grandmother, I think it was The Young and the Restless, and it got preempted by something, and I saw the most gorgeous black woman that I'd ever seen in my five years of living. She had a long, red dress on, and her eyelashes looked like butterflies. My eyes crossed, and I said, "Grandma, who is that?" She said (mimes smoking a cigarette), "Baby, that's Lola Falana." And in that moment, I felt like God stamped on the canvas of my imagination (pounds table) "Destiny!" I looked at my grandmother and said, "I wanna be black and fabulous and on TV."
GLAZER That's incredible.
NASH It's true! And at that point, I refused to answer to my name. "Niecy, get in here! Niecy!" (Pauses.) "Lola!" And I'd go, "Yes, ma'am?"
BLOOM My grandpa was an amateur stand-up comic and involved in community theater. They took me to see Guys and Dolls at the local playhouse, and Adelaide was singing "Bushel and a Peck." And when she went, "I love you!" she pointed right at me. And I was like, "It's on, Adelaide." (Laughs.)
What do you know now about success in Hollywood that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
NASH I didn't know that you had to have an agent and a manager to get an audition. I just called somebody I met at a workshop and was like, "I don't know if you remember me …" My voice sounds like I need to drink lotion, so he recognized it right away. And I said, "Well, this is Niecy Nash. I'm broke, I got a baby and I need a job." He said, "Be down here at 3 o'clock." When I walked in, everybody's going, "Who are you with? Oh, who are you with?" Playing the game of who's got the best agent. And then they asked me, and I said, "Myself!"
BLOOM But that's the kind of stuff that f—ed me over for so long: thinking I don't deserve to be here. I'd walk into audition rooms and be like, "Hi, sorry, I know I shouldn't be here. Oh, excuse me, I know I'm gonna suck at this." I think that's a female thing in general, apologizing for our presence. When I was in school, I was in a sketch comedy group, and there were these really funny girls I knew, and I'd say to them, "You should audition for my sketch group," and they'd be like, "No, I can't, I can't write, I can't … I'm stupid." And then there would be really unfunny guys who'd come up to me and be like, "Oh, I'm thinking about trying out for your sketch group because I think I could really kill that."
NASH I was standing in that audition, I did my under-five lines, and the director said, "Thank you." I said, "You're welcome." And he said, "Thank you." And I said, "Don't mention it." (Laughter.) "No, thank you, you may leave." And, hand to God, I said, "Well, did y'all pick me? Because I told him I got a baby at home. Did you tell them that I told you I got a baby at home?"
GLAZER Oh my God.
NASH They literally told me I had to leave, and I said, "This is a shame that you would have people come all the way down here and not tell them if you're going to give them a job." And then I said, "My mama told me everybody got a boss. So I'm tellin' on you, I'm tellin' on you and I'm tellin' on you." (Laughter.) How these people booked me for a job …
RODRIGUEZ You got it?!
NASH Yeah. It was Boys on the Side. My scene was with Whoopi Goldberg.
LILY TOMLIN People would always tell me what I could be or I couldn't be, and I'd say, "Who asked you?"
What did they want you to be?
TOMLIN Oh, Lenny Bruce or someone like that. And that was OK for Lenny, but I was Lily. But when I started out, I wanted to get Gidget's part.
JANNEY Did you really?
TOMLIN Yeah, and nobody was going to let me be Gidget. In fact, I was 18 and I went up to see Renee Valente, who was head of casting at Screen Gems, and she said, "You know, Lily, someday there'll be parts for people like you and me."
The industry often gets comfortable seeing an actor in a certain role. How have you gone about convincing people to embrace your range?
NASH Getting On is scripted. I didn't get invited to the part of the industry that had this tone for a very long time. It was like, "Oh no, dear, we know what you do, you do broad. You do big comedy, we got you." And I'm like, "Well, can I try that over there?" "No, no, no, we know what you do." And so getting the invitation to come and play Nurse Didi has definitely changed the conversation about me.
JANNEY I'd been looking for a multicam comedy for a long time because The West Wing days were 18-hour days. Then I did a single-camera comedy with Matthew Perry [Mr. Sunshine], and the hours were the same on that. I was like, "Lord, I've missed a lot of my life acting. Weddings, funerals …" Then Mom came along, and Chuck Lorre and Anna [Faris] were already in, and they asked me to come in and read for it. My agents were like, "We don't want you to read. You don't have to read anymore." But I said, "No, I'd like to read for this because I think it's important that the mother and daughter have good chemistry. And I'd rather read than be given the part because it'll make me more confident as I walk on the set the first day."
Rachel and Ilana, rather than wait for Hollywood to tell you what it wanted you to be, you created vehicles for yourselves. How has that changed the way the industry views you?
GLAZER To me, it's almost scary to not have the control. Because of Broad City, I've gotten other roles, and, man, I'm so used to bossing people around. I love the control of creating the project, but I also like the challenge of showing up and doing an acting assignment.
BLOOM And there's a certain safety in acting characters that you've created …
Lily, what drew you back to series television with Grace and Frankie?
TOMLIN Well, I liked the money first. Truthfully. (Laughter.)
BLOOM When we went to pitch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Netflix, Lily was right ahead of us pitching Grace and Frankie. It was Lily, Jane Fonda and Marta [Kauffman] and then 30 executives. Aline Brosh McKenna, my co-creator, and I were in the lobby, and we were like, "Oh my God, we have to pitch after Lily Tomlin." We went into that room being like, "Look, you're probably not going to give a shit about this because you probably bought whatever that other project was …" (Laughter.)
TOMLIN I didn't think about money in the old days.
At what point and why did that change?
TOMLIN When most of your life has been spent, and you have less of that to look forward to, theoretically you start thinking about, "Well, will I have enough money to live it out or will I have to cut back on my lifestyle?" Lots of practical things come into play. I used to turn down lots of things. I would never do anything for the money before.
RODRIGUEZ I definitely don't, either. I was nowhere to turn down projects before Jane, and I did. I grew up poor, and money is only good for one thing, and that's spending. It doesn't fill my integrity. So I feel you on that.
TOMLIN Yeah, OK, all right.
RODRIGUEZ I do, Lily, I do.
TOMLIN I'll take your word for it. (Laughter.)
Gender pay disparity has been a hot-button topic in Hollywood, with fans of Grace and Frankie outraged to hear from Lily and Jane that their supporting male actors were being paid the same as they were. Have the rest of you had to fight to be paid equally?
GLAZER First of all, Lily bringing up the money is hysterical. Love it. But also, it's important that you make as much as you f—ing can, and Fonda, too.
JANNEY Anna and I are upset that there's not a man on our show whom we can get upset about. (Laughs.)
GLAZER … who you can't demand make a quarter of what you make!
What's the most overtly sexist thing that's happened to you in this business?
BLOOM It's the type of roles you're auditioning for, and you see the difference between the way female characters and male characters are written. I think it takes a woman to write a woman well, and I know that's a gross generalization.
GLAZER Because Abbi [Jacobson] and I are women and we're young, there's some subtle sexism. Especially [from] crew guys. Recently, this guy was calling us "ladybugs" and "love bugs." We're like, "We have a show — you are helping run the promo for the show that we created!"
TOMLIN I was a big hit on Laugh-In. Everywhere you go, people are putting napkins on their heads and blowing raspberries. So naturally, my next step was to get TV specials. My first special got a huge rating, but the network didn't like the show. They just thought I was oddball. And I said, "Well, I'll do another show, but I don't want a partner." They said, "Well, you've got to have somebody who we can talk to." That's how bad it was. I talked with every top producer in the variety business, from Norman Lear to Grant Tinker, and I finally decided Grant Tinker would be the most open. And I was going along, doing the show and preparing sketches, and I was going to sit and watch something I wasn't in and comment on it and Grant said to me, bless his heart (patting the THR moderator's hand), "You go on home, we'll take care of things."
GLAZER The pat! So bad.
BLOOM It's like when someone gives you pity eyes. Just that air of, "Oh honey, you're so cute." Ahh.
What's the worst professional advice you've received?
RODRIGUEZ I turned down a project because morally I couldn't do it; I couldn't live my life doing something that I wasn't going to be proud of. And I was told, "Don't be a sacrificial lamb. You don't have to save the Latino community."
BLOOM Here's the thing, it seems like being female, women creating their things, having your own voice, diversity — that's becoming very trendy and in vogue. So I think that I've had way more positive experiences than negative ones, especially recently. It's very cool now. (Laughs.)
GLAZER Because old white guys want to be cool, so they're like (flashes a thumbs-up), "Girl power." (Laughter.)
How about the best?
BLOOM I got the best advice from Ilana. We lived together in Brooklyn, and when you live in Brooklyn, there's a lot of catcalling. Her advice for it was to go, "Suck my dick!" Because here's what it does: The guy is having a mental image of you, like, naked, and then when you go, "Suck my dick" or "Lick my balls," it throws them for a loop. They're like, "Wait, she has balls? What am I picturing now?" (Laughs.)
RODRIGUEZ After NYU, I lived deep, deep in Brooklyn, and you'd get the catcalling, and I'd just turn and bark. (Makes barking noises.) And they were like, "This bitch is crazy." And I'd be like, "Yeah, g'bye." (Laughs.)
JANNEY The only piece of advice that I remember, and it was fun, was from [famed acting coach] Sanford Meisner, who was talking out of his voice box then, whispering to me, "Don't let anyone tell you you're too tall to act."
NASH As actresses, we're often asked to take pictures. I remember getting ready to take one with the lovely Maya Angelou, and she couldn't stand, so I leaned down into the picture. She turned her head to me and said: "Straighten your back. You bow to no one. They'll get you." I've never to this day bent down to take a picture.
Any advice you recall, Lily?
TOMLIN I've looked back on my life, and I don't remember a lot of it. (Laughter.) But I rarely took advice anyway. I was always a little on the arrogant side. Not arrogant, I was …
TOMLIN I don't know what it was. I lived in another world. I am living in a different world right now. Sort of floating above this table.
GLAZER That makes sense to me.
TOMLIN Yeah, looking down on all of you. (Laughter.)
BLOOM How's my cleavage?
More roundtables featuring drama and comedy actors as well as showrunners and reality hosts and producers have been rolling out since mid-May. For more, tune in to new episodes of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 26 on SundanceTV. And look for clips at THR.com/roundtables, with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.