The Actress Roundtable
It's an annual question during Hollywood's awards season: Why are there so few great roles for women? But this year that query has disappeared. To kick off The Hollywood Reporter's annual Awards Season Roundtable Series, we invited six of the most buzzworthy actresses -- Amy Adams (The Fighter), Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Helena Bonham Carter (Alice in Wonderland, The King's Speech), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Natalie Portman (Black Swan) and Hilary Swank (Conviction) -- for a candid, hourlong discussion of their careers, the roles they wish they'd played and the sacrifices they make for their craft. The conversation took place at Siren Studios in Hollywood and was moderated by THR's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: What is your toughest moment as an actress?
Helena Bonham Carter: It's every time you start a job. "What am I doing here? I can't actually act. Someone employed me again?" I think for me, the most excruciating thing is watching myself. It's like painting a picture blind and then taking the blindfold off, and unfortunately it's nothing at all what you intended.
Amy Adams: My hardest moments have a lot to do with being unemployed, which I'm very familiar with. I was in L.A. for about six or seven years before Junebug.
THR: Is there a time you thought about giving up?
Adams: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's what is great about being an actor; you really do examine every type of life. So I fantasized about, what if I became a teacher? But the good thing is that I get to embody all these different characters and get to experience a different life. So I think I'll stay.
THR: But there must be aspects you don't like about being a full-time actress?
Adams: I feel very vulnerable. I don't like that at all. You're very subject to people's opinions. It's hard to have tough skin and a vulnerable heart. It's a delicate balance.
Hilary Swank: It's so refreshing, isn't it? To sit here and hear someone say what I think we are all probably feeling. As actors, we just lay our heart on the line. It's just part of inhabiting another person, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Like you said, you know when it doesn't.
THR: Do you know when it doesn't? At what point?
Swank: When you're making a film, you can't see it as a whole until it's done. So you're hoping that it's working and it can feel really good, and then when it comes together it might not work. Clint [Eastwood] said something that I love, which is: "You always aim for the bull's-eye, but you don't always hit it."
THR: How involved are you in the filmmaking process? For instance, Annette, for The Kids Are All Right, I read that you had encouraged director Lisa Cholodenko to move the film in a much lighter direction.
Annette Bening: I wouldn't say that. I just didn't want it to be earnest. She's too generous when she talks about me and my contributions. I do remember not wanting it to be too earnest, and that's very hard. It's easier to do that, and that's why we've all made that mistake. I didn't want it to be idealized or the "noble couple" rising against the situation they're in. It's such a serious subject -- and the more serious it is, the more hilarious it can be. And the writing is really good. There are just little things that I kind of knew that maybe we could tweak a little bit. We could take it out of it trying to be noble.
THR: Do you prefer comedy or drama?
Bening: I don't know. I have played scenes that I thought were serious where people laughed. (Laughs.) That's good writing.
Swank: I would love [to do more comedy]. I can't find the scripts; they are few and far between. I don't know about you guys, but I have a really hard time. I think there is a lot of comedy for men.
THR: Natalie, what did you think when you got the script for Black Swan?
Natalie Portman: I was actually committed to the film before the script. Darren [Aronofsky] and I had started talking about it about nine years ago when I was still in college. He had the whole idea for everything, but that was really an instance where the script was very much a blueprint. Nicole actually said something to me when we were doing Cold Mountain, and I totally remember. You said, "Always choose by director because you never know how the movie's going to turn out and you're always guaranteed an interesting experience." I've always had that in my head, and it's so true because even when the script is great, I've had the experience where sometimes someone can really botch it. Really, it does take a visionary, and if your experience is worthwhile, you always have that no matter how it turns out.
THR: When you take on certain roles, do they change you?
Portman: Oh definitely. I definitely see skinny people as sad now. It's so sad to be skinny. (Laughs.)
Bening: I didn't think you were going to say that. (Laughs.)
Portman: I used to be like, "Oh, wow, I want to look like a model too," and now I'm like, "They're sad."
Adams: I don't have the discipline to be skinny, like truly skinny.
Portman: For a few months, it's possible.
Swank: Everyone [reading] this is probably like, "What are you two talking about? You're so thin."
Portman: Yes, we're totally thin. But there's a difference between [thin] and ballet.
THR: What was the hardest thing you did physically for a role?
Nicole Kidman: I got a bad injury when I was doing Moulin Rouge; I tore some cartilage in my knee. But it was that dancing mentality where you keep dancing. It was like 3 a.m., and I was thinking, "I'm so tired and I probably shouldn't do another one in these heels, but yeah, OK, one more take, this will be it." And I just kind of fell and tore my knee up.
Swank: Didn't you also break a rib?
Kidman:I broke a rib on that too, but that was in rehearsal, so I had time to recover. (Laughs.) The knee was bad because it [lasted] the next couple of years.
Bonham Carter: There is a point where you're responsible for yourself. Sometimes there are so many people around and it costs so much to keep a crew going. But there is a point when you should say, "This isn't going to happen." But it takes a lot of courage.
Kidman: Yeah, but when you're in a role, it's almost like a high. Once we started, there was no way I was going to stop.
Adams: I did. I was doing a shoot outside in Ireland.
Bonham Carter: What was the film?
Adams: It was called Leap Year, and it was tons of weather. We were in this ridiculously strong wind all day long, and people were getting eye injuries, and then it started raining. I'm in a sweater and a pencil skirt and high heels, and I kept going, "This isn't good. I'm done." I wasn't like, "I'm going home," or I'm throwing a fit. It was like, "Guys, we're not going to get this shot. It's not going to happen."
THR: Ultimately it's about your relationship with the director. How do you handle set conflicts?
Kidman:I don't think I've had conflict. I just become devoted. It's almost like a love affair for a certain period of time, and then I walk away and say, "What was that? What was I doing?" (Laughs.) And particularly now because my life is so good, I'm much more about, "Hmmm, do I really want to go there and not be as present for my husband and my daughter?" Because when I go there, I'm in a different world. So I don't have conflict with a director unless it's to stimulate and create something.
THR: You mentioned the challenge of balancing family and work. How do each of you reconcile that?
Kidman:I don't have the pull in the way I used to. A lot of my work before was running for my life, which was at times good and at times bad, but it was just what I was doing. My fantasy life was better than my real life. Now I suppose I'm just incredibly careful about the time because time is all we have. That's the one thing we can't make any more of.
Adams: Do you think having a kid changed that?
Kidman: Well, I had children when I was 25. [But] when you're in your 20s, it's very different, your life is very different. In your 40s, you're like, "Hmmm, I've got this amount of time left. How am I going to spend it?" I want to be very careful.
Bening: I remember the first time I was pregnant -- the desire to work went away, and the whole obsession with that went away. I thought, "Oh no, this is very scary." But then I realized it comes back. It's a cyclical thing. I was just so absorbed in being pregnant and having babies. Now I feel incredibly fortunate that I can stop and start in my work. A lot of people can't do that, so I feel very lucky. What you just said was so perfect. Even with a very good life and children and a husband and all of that, there is still something about the process when you're an actor/actress that you love, and that is something that isn't fulfilled by doing the other stuff, which is fabulous and I adore. I love that process. [But] every time I read about somebody going off and doing something, an actress particularly with kids, I think, "Now hmmm, how are they doing that? Isn't that kid in school?"
"Even with a very good life and children and a husband and all that, there is still something about the process when you’re an actor/actress that you love.” -- Annette Bening
THR: Is there a role that you didn't get that you wish you had?
Bening: Oh sure. I was up for the Bertolucci movie, The Sheltering Sky. I was up for it for months, like sometimes happens, and Debra Winger is in the movie, and it's a beautiful movie.
Swank: I like to read things even when they're not offered to me. I just ask my agents to send me material.
Bonham Carter: Isn't that self-flagellation?
Swank: For me, finding really compelling, original work is few and far between, and instead of just waiting for something to come my way, I ask them to send me the material. I want to know the writers that are out there. I have a production company, so it's part of that. I don't want to ever rest on my laurels and sit back and see what comes my way. I want to fight for things that I believe in and that I want to be a part of. You know, there was a script I fell in love with back in August that was sent to me. It's a first-time director but a well-known writer, and I read the script and I said, "I want to meet you." And he was like, "OK, great." I went in and I didn't get it.
Bening: Who did?
Swank: Do you really want to know? It's Alex Kurtzman. He did all these big movies, Star Trekand Transformers, and you wouldn't think this was his movie. I'm not a real big science fiction fan, but this script (Welcome to People) is a beautiful story about a brother and a sister. (Silence.)
Bening: Amy, you got it, didn't you? (Laughter.)
Swank (to Adams): Did you read it? Did you like it?
Adams: I'm not getting into this! (Thunderous laughter.)
Swank: Amy got the role! Amy will be playing the role that I wanted! (Laughs.)
Adams: Let me just say, I'm not doing it. We don't normally talk about this!
Bening: Don't say anything you don't want to say. However, we want to know the dirt. (Laughs.)
Adams: I felt at this time with my daughter being a baby, I couldn't go there emotionally and still be there for her in the way I felt like an infant deserves.
Bening: You mean, like, sobbing and screaming and then going home?
Adams: I felt like this was my first career/mom decision, where if I went to work every day and played this girl and came home, she's not going to have me -- I'm not going to have the experience. I will miss this first year, and I can't have that back. If I'm lucky, there will be a beautiful script that will come to me at some point in my career, but I'm never getting that time back with my infant daughter.
THR: Nicole, did you worry about the emotional impact of Rabbit Hole, which is about a mother who loses her son?
Kidman:I started developing Rabbit Holeway before I was pregnant, and then I didn't want to do it when I had [daughter] Sunday. I was like, "I'm not going to make that." And then it just kept coming back, orbiting around, and we kept working on the script. Somehow I was there doing it.
THR: Natalie, have you had to fight for any particular role?
Portman: I've fought for things that I didn't get, but I feel like a director usually knows what they want. If you're fighting for something, if they're really vacillating for a long time, they usually don't know what they want, which is not a good sign. I'm such a nerdy school person. I've found documents and done research and written notes in diaries, and I never got [the part] when I did that, so that's not a good thing.
THR: What's the biggest regret of your careers?
Swank: Maybe when we didn't want to be a part of something but we were kind of forced into it. I think we've probably all done that. All we really have is our instincts and we have to live with it, and the person who may have coerced us into it, you know, may not even be in your life when the movie comes out. What I regret is when I don't trust my instincts in any part of my life, but especially in that creative process.
Adams: I regret not knowing how close a close-up is going to be. (Laughs.)
Bonham Carter: Once you are over 40, there's a certain perspective you get that I'm so grateful to have now. Because I think there's a lot of baggage you carry around with you. I just have more confidence as an actor. I'm certainly not confident with my sexuality. It took me ages to get a handle on that. And it's still kind of questionable. (Laughs.) I just want to be comfy and be happy to be a woman. I've always been a late developer, so there were lots of parts that I just was not ready for because I was a slow starter.
THR: Helena, you've made films with Tim Burton, your partner. How is the filmmaking dynamic different being together privately as well as professionally?
Bonham Carter: It's very different. I did do a film with him before I slept with him, and it's very different. We went through a really bad time on Sweeney Todd.
Kidman: Which you were amazing in.
Bonham Carter: Thank you, but I didn't get one compliment [from Burton]. He really had this whole thing, like he didn't want to seem as if he was favoring me. So he'd go in the opposite direction. And Tim and Johnny [Depp], they have their lovely relationship, you know, they get on so well. So that was a difficult one. I was pregnant, too, so I wasn't on my caffeine I usually need to act with; I felt pretty sick. It was a nightmare. I was going to sing, too, and he had never directed a musical, and in fact he hates musicals but he liked that one. So there was a lot going on. I just remembered that I couldn't irritate the hell out of him. I couldn't just walk on and assume we have the same relationship we have in the house. Basically, at home, I'm chief. On set, obviously he is. So I just had to be more sensitive. I really didn't think he'd ever want to work with me again. On Alice, I said there were going to be rules. And that's what I did. I listed Ten Commandments of how to work together.
THR: Which were?
Bonham Carter: I have to think before I speak, which would help with every area my life. He has to compliment me. He can't take me for granted. He's got to give me a good compliment, which isn't, "Oh, that was good, that was fine." I need to have a bit of a compliment like he does to everyone. He's really wonderful to work with if you don't have two children with him. (Laughs.) He's very respectful.
THR: Helena said she's more confident now as an actress than she was earlier in her career. Is that true for all of you?
Portman: Oh yeah, definitely. You just start feeling happier in your own skin. And also I think that takes away a lot of the competition because you know you can only do what you do and you can't do what anyone else does. It allows you to enjoy everyone else a lot more, too.
Bening: I feel more confident, but it's funny because all the fear is still there and the insecurity and wondering how the moments are going to go. For a long time, though, when I was doing movies, I felt like I was a stage actress pretending to be a movie actress.
THR: Has anybody given you advice you cling to?
Bening: I did a picture early on with Milos Forman [Valmont]. I learned a lot from him. There's a kind of Western training of directors, which is very positive and supportive, and he came from a different school.
Portman: I worked with Milos a couple years ago [on Goya's Ghosts], and he gave me the best direction. He said [in accent]: "You're acting like this is a bad movie! This is not a bad movie, this is a good movie!" (Laughs.)
Bening: I love that.
Kidman: I worked when I was young in Australia with people like Baz [Luhrmann] and Jane Campion. I remember her writing me a little postcard saying, "Protect your talent." She thought I could get corrupted, which I probably can, probably at the time. I've had a push and pull with my whole career, where I have done things spontaneously and then gone, "Ugh, why did I do that?" My absolute pure core is, I just love working with actors. I'll probably love that until I'm an old, old woman.
THR: What about working in Hollywood has most surprised you?
Adams: I didn't know I'd have to be a model. I focus so much on the work, and then all of a sudden I'm in front of a camera and they're picking my neck apart, and I'm like, "I'm 5'4"!" I'm not going to look tall; there's nothing we can really do about that.
Swank: Meryl [Streep] said she used to just take something out of her closet and go to a premiere. And now we're expected to be a model and wear something that no one else has worn.
Bonham Carter: You don't have to, though. I just think we are expected to, but we don't have to. You'll get criticized for it, but it doesn't matter because at the end of the day, when we die they aren't going to be like, "Oh, you were on the worst-dressed list seven times in a row." When I started, people didn't ask and they weren't interested in what you were wearing. You didn't even have to wear makeup.
Portman: It has changed a lot. I mean, I've been doing this for like 20 years now.
Swank: And you're like 25!
Portman:The thing that has definitely changed the most is private life. It used to be that if you just lived a certain way you could really be out of the public eye. I was lucky enough to go to high school before the explosion of the Internet, so I was already safely out of that realm. I can't even imagine people that are well-known and in high school now, what having to live through that in public is like.
THR: Knowing what stardom entails, if you were back at the beginning, would you still choose this path?
Kidman: I'd choose to be a director. But I think to be a director you have to have the camera in your hand [at a young age] and you've got to be looking at the world in a particular way. I didn't have that upbringing. Someone like Jane [Campion], my friend, her father put a camera in her hand when she was about 5 and taught her how to view the world through a frame and write stories, and that's it. But I'm very, very thrilled to be an actress as well.
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