Actress Roundtable: Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, A-Listers on Nudity, Network Fights and the "Diva" Label

Actress Roundtable: Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, A-Listers on Nudity, Network Fights and the "Diva" Label

"I've always been fascinated by how much more well-behaved we have to be than men," says Lopez, as she and Washington join Julianna Margulies, Sarah Paulson, Kirsten Dunst, Regina King and Constance Zimmer.

Jennifer Lopez has been saddled with the reputation of a diva for much of her career. Sarah Paulson has yet to land a leading-lady role without being asked to dye her naturally brown hair blond. And Julianna Margulies likely still would be fighting for acceptance into the Producers Guild had her seven-season drama, The Good Wife, not already concluded its run. Such is the plight of today's working actresses, even those at the top of their game.

In late March, THR gathered seven such women — Margulies, 49; Lopez, 46 (NBC's Shades of Blue); Paulson, 41 (FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, American Horror Story: Hotel); Kirsten Dunst, 34 (FX's Fargo); Regina King, 45 (ABC's American Crime, HBO's The Leftovers); Kerry Washington, 39 (ABC's Scandal, HBO's Confirmation); and Constance Zimmer, 45 (Lifetime's UnREAL) — for a candid conversation about the roles they will (and won't) strip down for, the scenes that required them to call their lawyers and the need to love their characters, even if their audience does not.

On The People v. O.J. Simpson, Sarah plays Marcia Clark, who became a victim of rather grotesque sexism. She's told she has to change her look, dress in more feminine style, smile more, change her hair. As actresses, what have been the most overtly sexist things you've experienced in your careers?

KERRY WASHINGTON I'm in this very surreal environment right now having Shonda Rhimes as my boss, where it's almost the opposite. It is specified in scripts that guys take their shirts off all the time.

JULIANNA MARGULIES Is it really?

WASHINGTON The guys are naked all the time! And she has said to all the women on the show: "You want to do a love scene in a parka? You just let me know." So it's this weird, like, reparations moment where the girls get to do what they want to do and the guys get to do what they want to do, but they know what Shonda wants them to do.

CONSTANCE ZIMMER On UnREAL, we have two female leads, female showrunners and writers, and it's very driven toward us being empowered, which is definitely different. We can treat the men a bit like how we may have been treated earlier in our careers or just as women in general. It's fun to watch the tables be turned and to see the guys on set eating lettuce. (Laughter.)

SARAH PAULSON I've never been asked to play the [romantic] leading lady without having to be a blonde.

Are you naturally a brunette?

PAULSON Yes. I don't mind it, I like the blond — but to be told that in order to be considered a romantic lady opposite some hunky guy, I need to have long blond hair that looked very L.A. Real Housewives? It does do something to your brain. You go, "Gosh, so the way I came into the world is not as appealing as it would be if I were altered in some way?" That's a funny message to extend to a person. And that's the other thing: I did it. I put the extensions in, I blonded it up.

MARGULIES Well, you've got to pay your rent! (Laughs.)

JENNIFER LOPEZ I've always been fascinated by how much more well-behaved we have to be than men.

In what way?

LOPEZ I got a moniker of being "the diva," which I never felt I deserved — which I don't deserve — because I've always been a hard worker, on time, doing what I'm supposed to do, and getting that label because you reach a certain amount of success …

PAULSON And you care about something enough to give your opinion.

LOPEZ Or even sometimes I felt crippled to voice my opinion, especially because certain directors and the boys' club that they form can make you feel like, "Oh, I can't say anything." I was always fascinated by how I could see [a man] being late or being belligerent to a crew and it being totally acceptable; meanwhile, I'd show up 15 minutes late and be berated. And you watch this happen over and over and over again. Like, we're not allowed to have certain opinions or even be passionate about something, or they'll be like, "God, she's really difficult." It's like, "Am I? Am I difficult because I care?"

Along those lines, Julia Louis-Dreyfus talked recently about fighting to get a producing credit on her television shows, and she wondered whether that fight would have been as great and as long if she were a man. Are those things you felt you had to fight for, and, if so, is gender a factor?

MARGULIES I didn't have to fight to get it from my showrunners; they were thrilled because the writers room was in Los Angeles so I was their eyes on set. It was the Producers Guild that gave me a hard time. To try to prove my job to them in order for them to accept me as a producer? I still don't think I'm in the Producers Guild, and it's been three years.

PAULSON Wow.

MARGULIES And I can't tell you what I do as a producer on that show and the fires I put out. I'll see something happening, and I'll immediately turn off my actor hat and go, "OK, this isn't going to work for you, let's figure it out." But they send you lists to fill out. "Are you a part of the budget? Are you a part of the … ?" And I go, "Well, no, because that was already in place, but I do this, this and this." None of that's on there at all, and so they call it a vanity title, which is incredibly insulting.

WASHINGTON It's something I made a choice not to fight for at Scandal because I really like the dynamics of our cast and the way we interact with the writers and producers as is, and I didn't feel like it was something that I needed there. But Confirmation was a different story because I was part of that from the very beginning, before we had a script. I was on as an executive producer, and I said to my co-producers, "If you want me on as a vanity producer, I'm not interested in doing this project with you. I have real opinions and passionate ideas about how this is supposed to go."

Are there parts you won't play or lines you won't cross as performers?

PAULSON Obviously not. I've done a lot of crazy shit on [American Horror Story]. I've breast-fed a 35-year-old. I've had two heads. So, there's really nowhere you go, "I will not do that … " (Laughter.)

REGINA KING I will not breast-feed a 40-year-old!

ZIMMER But saying no before the opportunity comes means you won't get the opportunity, so I tend to like to say: "Show it to me. If I can figure out a way to make it work, I'll always try." I mean, I'm not necessarily spreading my legs in front of a camera. I guess there's my line.

Has it changed? On last year's roundtable, Maggie Gyllenhaal talked about how nudity became more appealing to her at this stage of her life because it often brought with it an opportunity for "really interesting acting."

LOPEZ It's the opposite for me once I had kids. In videos and things that I do, I'm very sexy and wear little clothes, but the truth is, when it comes to acting, I did it earlier in my career and now I just don't feel sometimes that you have to do it. I've changed in that sense.

MARGULIES It depends on the character you're playing. I've been playing the same character for seven seasons, and all of a sudden this season the girl is taking her clothes off. I'm seven years older than I was when I started it, and I love it. I mean, it's CBS, so there's only so much you can take off, but there's something great about seeing a woman in her 40s having sex with someone and not being inhibited.

WASHINGTON You have a little bit of a safety [on network television].

LOPEZ You're like, "I'll be naked, but you know you'll never see a tit."

MARGULIES But my point is just that when you dive into a character and it's for what they're going through, you don't think about that. I wouldn't have given a second thought if it had been HBO. We had a hilarious moment where they were like, "Actually, you have to pull the sheet over your ass because the camera is up here." I wasn't even aware that my ass was sticking out. I apologized to the crew profusely.

ZIMMER I'm sure they were really offended. (Laughter.)

WASHINGTON Part of it for me is the director and the producers and that trust. There have been times in my career where the nudity wasn't about the story, it wasn't about the character, it was just because that shit sells.

What do you do in that scenario when you're being asked to do something that makes you genuinely uncomfortable?

WASHINGTON That's what lawyers are for! (Laughs.)

MARGULIES You have to discuss it before you take the part.

KING But sometimes you already have the job and the nudity conversation didn't come up until a couple seasons in. And then you get that script and go, "Whoa, oh, hmm …" (Mimics dialing her lawyer). The particular situation that I'm thinking of [on Southland], I didn't feel like [the scene] was honest to the character: If Lydia was going to have sex, I just didn't see her having sex like that. And they got it. They were respectful.

MARGULIES I think gratuitous sex is what we're all talking about. That's not something that's interesting for any of us to play.

DUNST I'm pretty much down for anything if the director is good. (Laughs.)

Kirsten, this is your first regular series role. What drew you to TV?

KIRSTEN DUNST Because [Peggy is] a total nutcase. You don't read roles that are inspiring in that way. I got to do so much more in that TV show than I have in a film in so long. It was the most challenging thing I ever did. I remember my friend Lizzy Caplan, who's on Masters of Sex, being like, "Get B12 shots, you're going to be exhausted."

Sarah, you became so fiercely defensive of Marcia Clark that you had trouble hearing criticism about her, even from Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the book on which the series is based.

PAULSON We were shooting something in the courtroom, and he was very lovely and supportive, but he made a comment about Marcia not being the greatest attorney.

WASHINGTON Oh Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey.

PAULSON And he said something similar to Sterling K. Brown, who plays Chris Darden, and we both were like, "Motherf—er, get out of my face." We have to play this thing, first of all, and I don't agree with that assessment of her at all. It made me very angry, but a lot of the stuff about Marcia Clark makes me very angry. And I was guilty of it myself. I was 19 when the whole thing happened, and I was decidedly self-interested, wanting to be an actress, and I was not focused on the case in the way that some people were and certainly not on changing my opinion or whatever the narrative about Marcia Clark was. I was letting myself believe what was being told to me by the media. I didn't question it. So now when I look back at it, I just wonder why people weren't rallying around her and why she didn't have a support system from other women saying, "Why are we talking about how short her skirt is and her bad hair?" She told me a story about how some of the court reporters would run after her with some concealer and say, "Just please put a little on." And she was like, "I do not care about that. There is a man I believe to be guilty, I would like to see justice done."

Is that type of empathy necessary to take on a character?

WASHINGTON I think it is because you have to embody that. I have to love the person I'm playing — even if you have a hard time loving them, I have to love them. For me, it was tricky because as a producer [on Confirmation], I wanted to produce a film about the hearings that was really complicated and where you felt pulled toward all of the characters. And I wanted all of the actors to feel enormous compassion for their [characters]. This is not a he said, she said; it's a real, complicated portrait of how everybody was doing the best they could with what they had at the time. But as an actor, I was like, "It's all about Anita [Hill]." (Laughs.) So, the developing of the script was where I really tried to lean into the other characters and make sure that the story felt very balanced and that I felt compassion toward all of them; but there was a point about two weeks before shooting where I was like, "Peace out, you're on your own, I got her now and you guys have to protect those other people."

Are there parallels between what women like Anita Hill and Marcia Clark endured years ago versus what women endure today?

WASHINGTON Yes is the short answer. (Laughs.)

What's changed and what hasn't?

PAULSON I think very little has changed. What's maybe changed is the fact that there's more of a conversation happening about it, but I don't know that there's been that much forward motion. I mean, I haven't had a female director on American Horror Story in the six years that I've been on the show.

DUNST That's crazy!

WASHINGTON But the commitment that [Ryan Murphy] just made is amazing. [Murphy has vowed to hire 50 percent women, people of color and members of the LGBT community for the directing slots on each of his TV projects going forward.]

PAULSON Yes, it is.

You're each in heavily serialized shows. How aware are you of where your storylines are headed, and how does that inform your process?

DUNST I'd only read what Peggy was doing. I wouldn't read the whole script because she's so in her own head, and I had so much work to do on her that I was like, "I'm not paying attention to what's happening." I did watch it [when it aired]. With my mom every Monday. (In her mom's voice:) "Just tell me who's gonna die!" I was like, "Just watch it, Mom. Everybody gets shot in this show."

WASHINGTON We never get any broad strokes. It's episode to episode [on Scandal].

ZIMMER It's been fascinating for me because the first season we had no idea what we were doing. It was episode to episode. And I would read episodes and say, "I'm sorry, what? But how is that …?" And then I was like, "OK, just do it and don't think about it." And now this season, they gave us all of the arcs of what was going to happen to all the characters, and what I found is that I don't think I like that because it's giving you information that in real life you wouldn't have. And so a lot of times you don't want to play the end. You have it in your brain, and you're looking at an actor, and you're like, "Oh, I know what happens to you in five episodes, so I'm going to be really nice to you right now because it's not going to be good."

Julianna, you were brought into the discussions about ending The Good Wife. What did those conversations entail?

MARGULIES Robert and Michelle King always said they had seven seasons in them, and they came to me at the beginning of season seven — I had a seven-year contract, a lot of the other actors had eight-year contracts — and they said, "We're not going to continue, we don't want to continue, we're done, and we want to write the show how we see it ending. But we don't know what CBS wants. It's up to you." And I was like, "You can't do that to me." I said, "I want to do what your vision of the show is; it's your show, I'm just an actor in your show." What, am I going to continue with the show without my showrunners and against their wishes? And they never said, "It's against our wishes"; they said, "You're going to have to do what you want to do, but we're letting you know we're out."

WASHINGTON It's hard enough to sustain a story over 22 episodes, so the idea of pushing them past that point for another season … I think about that with Shonda. I don't know when Shonda wants to end the show, but she has said she sees the ending in her mind, she knows when it happens, and I would never want to push her beyond that.

MARGULIES I mean, it's enough at a certain point. I met with [CBS TV Studios president] David Stapf and [CBS Corp. chairman and CEO] Les Moonves, and we all talked about it and said, "Wouldn't it be horrible to go an eighth season and then have everyone say, 'Remember when it was great?' "

How are you thinking about what you want — or don't want — to do next?

MARGULIES I would never be the lead of a 22-episode show again, ever.

WASHINGTON I don't know how many of those are going to exist, even on network TV. You think about How to Get Away With Murder, which was a few years after Scandal, only [has 15 episodes].

MARGULIES And Kevin Bacon would only do 15 [on Fox's The Following].

WASHINGTON (To Lopez) How many is yours?

LOPEZ Thirteen. I mean, NBC would love 17 or 22.

WASHINGTON But oh well!

LOPEZ I'm such a diva. (Laughter.)

What have these roles taught you about yourselves?

MARGULIES I've learned to listen more and to not talk so much from Alicia. She's able to see both sides of a coin before forming an opinion, and I'm an actress, so I'm always immediate with my opinion.

KING Every project I've worked on, as a whole I've learned something — not so much that the character that I'm playing has taught me something, but the people whom I'm working with or the story that's being told has taught me something about people. With American Crime, it was that so many people think that black people can't be elitist, that a black elitist doesn't exist. I'm just surprised how many people are so shocked that Terri [the well-to-do, strict mom to basketball player Kevin, played by Trevor Jackson] actually exists. I'm like, you don't know a Terri? I could show you three. (Laughter.)

Regina, in addition to two dramas, you're also directing. At this stage of your career, how are you deciding what to and what not to take on?

KING I've been working for quite some time, and I've been lucky enough and confident enough that I've been able to say: "I'm not signing any multiyear deals. We'll take it season by season." It worked out perfectly with The Leftovers and American Crime, and HBO and ABC both responded well, surprisingly. My agents were like, "You're sure you want us to go this route?"

MARGULIES That must be very freeing.

KING It is, especially because there are so many things that I want to do and that I'm developing. Look, I love to work, but I don't want to keep putting off the things that I want to do because I'm tied down.

MARGULIES That's the power, isn't it? Creating your own stuff. More and more women of every shape, size, color and age need to just start creating their own [stuff] — to make a door for ourselves to walk through.

More roundtables featuring comedy actresses, comedy and drama actors and reality hosts and producers will roll out throughout June in print and online. 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 starting May 16, with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.

This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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