The Actress Roundtable
THR kicks off its annual series with six fierce Oscar contenders who come together to dish about playing unlikable characters, learning to love nude scenes and why "The Help" won't help black actresses.
Rare is the Hollywood blockbuster that showcases a single strong female role. This year, The Help featured about a half-dozen fully realized women -- and grossed $167 million domestic, among the biggest female ensemble films ever. For this reason, THR broke with tradition and invited two stars from the same movie -- Viola Davis, 46, and Octavia Spencer, 39 -- to participate in the first awards roundtable of the season. Davis and Spencer, the heart and soul of The Help, joined a diverse group who challenged themselves with performances as varied as a 19th century woman pretending to be a man (Glenn Close, 64, in Albert Nobbs), an out-of-control lounge singer with suicidal tendencies (Carey Mulligan, 26, in Shame; she also played a young mother in Drive), a mean-spirited and possibly ill YA novelist (Charlize Theron, 36, in Young Adult) and perhaps the most iconic woman in Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams, 31, My Week With Marilyn). The roundtable took place Oct. 24 at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood.
Given your success, does a bad review still hurt?
Glenn Close: A bad review can be very hurtful. People don't think that we are as engaged and invested in what we do as we are. So they think they can come up and say anything sometimes, and it's very, very hurtful.
People really come up to you and say nasty things?
Close: They usually don't say nasty things to my face. Well, they do say, "You look much better in life than you do on film."
Viola Davis: I get that all the time.
Close: It's unbelievable. You think to yourself, "Is that a compliment?"
Davis: I'll take it. I'll take whatever I can get. (Laughs.)
What has surprised you most about being an actress?
Davis: I always thought that when you put your heart into it and you're doing a great job, people would acknowledge that. Everyone would say, "Oh, you're great, you're fabulous." But I remember the first time I walked out the stage door and I got nothing. I didn't understand that people would not always be receptive, and that a lot of the times you just have to be happy with your work. People don't tell you there are so many outside elements that invade your love of the work: the jealousy of other people, the reviews, bad ratings for a television show, getting older and the kind of roles that are not out there for you, roles that aren't on the page and you try to make something out of them and you can't. Sometimes you do it for the money because you're broke. All the outside elements that invade the love of the work -- that's been the biggest surprise. Because, hey, I would perform in a parking lot.
Have you done roles that you were disappointed by afterward?
Octavia Spencer: I never watch my work, so I can't say that I'm disappointed.
You haven't seen The Help?
Spencer: I sort of had to. [Davis and I] saw it together.
Did you like it?
Spencer: I did like The Help. I was really scared that I would just hate everything. When you watch yourself, it really does take you out of the purity of that world that you create. I'm thinking? "Really? Does my stomach look like a smiley face? Really? You went with that take? Ugh, there was one that was better."
Michelle Williams: I haven't seen everything I've done.
Michelle, did you have conversations about who Marilyn Monroe was and how to play her before you agreed to the role?
Williams: No, I wouldn't even have known how to have a conversation about how to play her. I do a lot of prep work. A lot of my work is done before I ever get on a set. And it's lonely, lonely work. My director isn't really involved at that point.
What kind of prep work?
Williams: Well, for Marilyn it was unlike anything I've ever done. There was so much material; there was so much you can research -- all the books, all the movies. I feel like I finally learned how to use my computer for good and not evil. It became such a resource. And YouTube -- I have a whole new appreciation for it.
What most surprised you about Marilyn?
Williams: The biggest "aha" moment was that Marilyn Monroe was a character that she played. Marilyn Monroe was like a Groucho Marx or a Charlie Chaplin or something; it was a facade. She was the greatest part she ever played. So that was a big moment.
Carey, I read that Shame originally was set in London, but director Steve McQueen couldn't find people there to talk about sex addiction. True?
Carey Mulligan: Yeah, in England you can't find people that talk about sex. He and [co-writer] Abi Morgan tried to write it in London, but no one was willing to have the conversations.
Charlize Theron: That's because they don't have sex [in Britain]. (Laughter.)
There's full-on nudity in the film. Did that make you uncomfortable?
Mulligan: The notion of it always has. I've never wanted to take my clothes off and be sexy. I'm horribly afraid. [But] it wasn't that at all. Actually, Steve and I spent a lot of time looking at an artist called Francesca Woodman, who was a photographer who started taking nude photos of herself when she was 15 and committed suicide when she was 22, back in the early '80s. She just had sort of a freedom with her body; it was sort of an instrument for her art. And Sissy, the character I had to play, she wants to be loved and she wants to be seen. The nudity felt like exactly who she was. There was one camera and Michael [Fassbender], who's naked throughout.
Theron: The idea of somebody saying, "Take your clothes off" was a little frightening, and then I did it and I was like, "Oh, OK."
Charlize, do you ever worry that the audience might not like you when you play a nasty character?
Theron: Wait, what are you trying to say? (Laughter.)
In Young Adult you play a role that's …
Theron: She's a bitch. I don't like sympathy, I like empathy. Sympathy to me is not natural behavior. I don't think it's reasonable to expect people to have sympathy for other people. I never expected people to have sympathy for Aileen Wuornos [in Monster] or for Mavis [in Young Adult]. And I don't aim for that. I just aim for understanding: If you can understand her, you might hate her, but if you can understand her, then I've done my job. That's all I care about.
So you equate sympathy with liking?
Theron: I think sympathy is more like, "I feel sorry for you." I don't want my character to be a victim. We have innately bad human behaviors that sometimes we can explain and justify. It's easy to say someone's an asshole because they had this, this and this happen to them, so we have to forgive them. But what if someone was just an asshole? That's interesting to me.
Do you have to have those nasty qualities somewhere deep inside you in order to play it?
Theron: Yes, I am an asshole. (Laughter.)
Glenn, what do you think?
Theron: Wait, you're going to leave me there on "I am an asshole"? (Laughter.)
Close: I really agree with the sympathy/empathy thing. You have to find a place where you can love your character to do them justice, because if you're judging them, that separation will show. To totally find that connection between you and the character -- that is what will connect you to the audience.
Could you play Hitler?
Theron: You see, that's exactly the problem.
Close: You could, but you would want to know where he came from to be absolutely committed to that character. I don't think Hitler was someone you wanted to empathize with.
Theron: People are so concerned that if you look at a monster, you might find a human being. There was this great story that I came across when I did research for Monster about the guy who originally came up with profiling serial killers. His name is John Douglas, and he had a chapter in his book about writing. He believes that fables and werewolves and Dracula and all these scary characters were created because people don't want to believe human beings are capable of bad things. But we are definitely are capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances. The quintessential character is Hitler. You have to be brave enough to say he's a human being. And on that level, we're all like him. It doesn't mean that you're saying what he did was right, but you've got to admit that he's from the same breed as all of us. It has to make you aware that, given the right circumstances, there are things you might do that you don't want to believe you're capable of doing. And I think that is the work -- that is what's interesting for me in my work: to try and find those things that you can't just kind of go, "Easy, easy, easy." It's the stuff that scares you a little bit that makes you go: "What if I find something about that guy that I can actually have empathy with? F--."
What scares you?
Spencer: The scariest thing for me was growing up without my mother. My mother passed away when I was 18. So who I am as a woman was something I had to figure out. You always want to be able to have those conversations with the quintessential woman -- your mother. But every time I walk onto a stage, that scares the hell out of me until I start doing whatever I'm doing. I'm neurotic, so everything scares me.
When did you decide to be an actress?
Spencer: I was very young, and my mother was very practical and, of course, I wanted to be an actor, and she's like, "You have to be able to provide for yourself." I secretly always wanted to do that and then reached the crossroads. I didn't ever want to look back at my life and have regrets.
Do any of you watch your earlier films? Maybe catch them on TV?
Close: Fatal Attraction seems to be on all the time.
Theron: You know, that's how I learned about the birds and the bees.
Theron: I grew up in a farm community town [in South Africa], and we didn't have movie theaters. My mom loved movies, and every Friday she would drive us out to a drive-in 45 minutes away from our farm. But we didn't know what would play. When the cars started lining up, you would see what was playing and you would see the rating, and my mom would hide me under a blanket if the rating was R. So I was about 8 or 9, and it was Fatal Attraction, and my mom was sitting in the car, and I could feel the panic. And this conversation started, and it ended up being my sex conversation. It screwed me up, so I can't have a healthy relationship. (Laughs.)
Close: Oh, that's great.
Theron: You guys were so graphic about it, I was like, "OK, what's happening?" So that movie is very near and dear to me.
Viola and Octavia, are opportunities better or worse for black actresses now than when you started?
Davis: I would be foolish if I said it wasn't better. It's obviously better. I worked with Gloria Foster, a great black actress from Nothing But a Man; she was in The Matrix also. She said that when she started in the business, there was nothing. Maybe only one or two black actors had an agent. So it's definitely different. I just always feel like it starts and stops. One year you have Precious with Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique, and then you have two years of nothing.
And then you have The Help …
Davis: And then The Help. You know, even listening to the conversations about sympathy and empathy, I remember when I played the character in Doubt, it was a character that not a lot of black people embraced because they didn't like her. I think women face that more than men. Black women really face it. We are always overly sanctified [in movies], overly nurturing and overly sympathetic. And to find that place where you're messy, it's very difficult.
One critic said you brought dignity to that character with restraint. Do you agree?
Davis: (Smiles painfully.) I love and hate the word "dignity." I feel it's overused for black actresses, as with "sassy" and "soulful." I can go on. The same adjectives are pulled out of a magic box. That's who she is in the book. My job was to create her. So yes, she is a quiet character. People always migrate toward the flashy character. They say what they mean, they're out there, you can see it in their behavior. The character that doesn't speak a lot is usually in the background. One of my favorite roles I ever played was a serial killer, which didn't get a good response, either. It was for television, Law & Order. I appreciated killing a whole family with a baseball bat. You know, sometimes one person's junk is another person's treasure.
Do you like the book The Help? Do you think the portrayal is accurate?
Davis: I thought it was a very good book. And I think one of the things I loved about the book is that Kathryn Stockett, who is a white woman, her main objective was to find out who her maid Demetrie was. That's a great place to start. Now, because I grew up in abject poverty, there were certain things about the book that struck me as disingenuous, like the fact that everybody had a phone. That's the first thing that goes when you don't have money. Minnie had a phone, and Minnie could barely afford to feed her family. The phone would be gone.
Spencer: We have to remember that it's a work of fiction. It's accurate; it's sentimental; it's a work of fiction. It takes you on an emotional journey, and good art does that.
Is it necessary to enjoy art? I was thinking of Michelle's Blue Valentine. Every second was torture for me to watch, but no film has stayed with me like that. It was so painful.
Williams: Painful like you hated it because it was painful to watch? Or you just hated it? (Laughter.)
This is what was interesting: I hated it because it was painful to watch, but I thought it was the best film of that entire year.
Theron: Me too.
Williams: Wow, thanks, guys.
Theron: For me, as an actor, watching you do the scene when you're driving in your car and you see your dead dog on the side of the street -- for me, driving scenes are the hardest. I was like, "Oh, I hate her, I love her."
Is it harder to do those scenes when you're acting with someone whom you don't find authentic?
Close: That's when you really act!
Williams: I erase their face and put someone else there.
Close: There are a couple of actors I've worked with who let you in this far (indicates a big space between them). There's a way to let people know that, "If you let me in, I'm not going to take advantage of that. You're going to be safe with me."
Carey, after An Education, you said you were afraid of the camera, especially when it's close. Do you still feel that way?
Mulligan: Yeah. I didn't have it so much in Shame. But now I'm doing The Great Gatsby, and these 3D cameras are here (points to the sides of her face), and it takes me, like, 15 takes. And sometimes I catch my reflection in the camera and then -- I don't know.
Do you like to rehearse?
Mulligan: No. I force myself into rehearsing when I don't really want to.
Williams: I've really had to learn not to "spend" things, because it can happen once and it needs to happen when there's a camera to catch it. I learned on Blue Valentine, there's something about the first time that's magical.
What's the biggest difference between stage and film acting?
Close: It's where you put your energy. My first film [1982's The World According to Garp], I thought I was going to blow the camera out. I didn't know what to do with my energy.
Davis: I always go back to David Mamet, who says: "If there's an actor on the stage with a cat, who are you going to watch, the actor or the cat? You're going to watch the cat because the cat's just being a cat." It's the power of doing nothing. It's the power of just being. It's like what Glenn said, just trusting what's going on behind your eyes is enough. The only thing I would like to add: The worst part of the camera for me is watching myself. I just hate looking at myself. I mean, I've got big lips. And I'm looking at the screen, and I'm like, "The lips!"
On stage, do you get distracted by people? Have you stopped to address the audience?
Close: I did in Sunset Boulevard. The big entrance down the stairway, I was coming down the stairs, and I heard all these flash cameras going off from up in the balcony, and as I was singing the song, I thought, "Do I stop?" It was so distracting. I just stopped, and I walked to the edge of the stage, and I said, "We can either have a photo shoot or we can do a play."
Theron: Oh, that's incredible! And did people applaud?
Close: The trick was getting back into the play.
Carey, how has your life changed since An Education two years ago?
Mulligan: In terms of this [promotional] stuff, I was so freaked out, and I just have learned to enjoy it -- being in a room with people that I've watched and admired. Before, I was a rabbit in the headlights, and I sort of felt like I really shouldn't be invited to the party. And now I feel like someone accidentally sent me an invite, but f-- it, I'm going to have a really good time, and I do!
Is there any role or character you would love to play?
Davis: Oh, so many. Lady Macbeth.
Close: I knew you were going to say that!
Very last question: What's your biggest regret?
Theron: I don't have one. Are you kidding me? I don't work in construction, I have a job that I love.
Davis: They're princess problems, like, "Gosh, I took that for the money." I was able to pay my mortgage -- but God, I took it for the money!
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Close has been Oscar-nominated four times since her first nom for The World According to Garp but has yet to win.
Viola Davis, The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Davis burst into the public's awareness with her Oscar-nominated role in 2008's Doubt.
Carey Mulligan, Drive and Shame
Nominated for her first movie lead in 2009's An Education, Mulligan this year has two acclaimed supporting roles.
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Spencer was among the first cast in this ensemble drama, having worked on director Tate Taylor's 2003 short Chicken Party.
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
An Oscar winner for 2003's Monster, Theron was also nominated in 2006 for North Country.
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Williams is a two-time Oscar nominee for her roles in 2005's Brokeback Mountain and last year's Blue Valentine.
ABOUT THR'S ROUNDTABLE SERIES: They're back! This issue of the magazine brings the first of THR's annual series of exclusive discussions among the year's most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for roundtables with actors, writers, directors, producers and animation filmmakers, and go to The Reporter's awards-season blog The Race at THR.com to watch videos of the full discussions.
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