Awards Watch: Actresses Roundtable
In a year when meaty roles for women were hard to find, The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway gathered six top actresses -- Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria"); Patricia Clarkson ("Whatever Works"); Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air"); Mo'Nique ("Precious"); Carey Mulligan ("An Education"); and Robin Wright ("The Private Lives of Pippa Lee") -- who not only landed the parts but delivered awards caliber performances.
The Hollywood Reporter: What is the worst thing and the best thing about being an actress?
Patricia Clarkson: Can we curse in this interview?
Clarkson: Oh good. The best thing about being an actor is the extraordinary people you meet. The worst is some of the people you have to deal with.
THR: Who's the person you've worked with who made the greatest stamp on you?
Clarkson: Woody Allen. He requires so much of you and yet he has such extraordinary confidence and faith in you, so it's rigorous to work with him. You cannot be a lazy actor. He requires that you know the character inside and out because he loves improv. That's what people find surprising.
THR: What was the worst experience you've had?
Emily Blunt: I heard a story about an actor slapping an actress in the face before she had to do an emotional scene. I heard her talking about it afterward and she said, "I think he thought I needed that."
Mo'Nique: Did she slap him back? (Laughs.)
THR: Emily, what is the best and worst part of the job from your point of view?
Blunt: It's funny because I think for a while -- maybe it's the British thing -- I was sort of pooh-poohing it and trying to play it down, saying, "Oh, you know, it's just like any other job." But I've really discovered it's an extraordinary job. Everything you go through in life can come out in what you do for a living, and it's a job that allows for that.
THR: Was there a turning point when you took it more seriously?
Blunt: When people start to come up to you and say they'd had an awful day, it cheered them up, and that a moment in a film has been replaying in their mind -- it makes me realize these films last forever. I went to an event the other night and I saw Kirk Douglas' reel -- and people, their jaws were on the floor. That body of work! The memories that are imprinted on people from that. It was really profound to see someone like that who's been working for decades and decades.
Clarkson: For better or worse, we do imprint on people.
Blunt: If you do a crap performance, that'll stand the test of time. (Laughs.)
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THR: Do you ever think about what you'd be doing if you weren't acting?
Mo'Nique: Here's what's funny: I'm not an actress. I'm a stand-up comedienne and they keep calling me to do these things that say you're an actress. I'm walking in the midst of my dream because my dream was to be famous. I would see these famous people and I fell in love with what being famous was. I didn't understand the money; I didn't understand how you lived; I loved the attention. I loved to see when people would run up to the Jackson 5 and want their autographs and pictures. I said, "One day, they're gonna be coming up to me." When I got out of the car just now, an Asian woman was standing there trying to take my picture and I was like, "My God, I'm in the midst of my dream."
THR: But a lot of actors have mixed feelings about being famous.
Mo'Nique: I love attention and I make no apologies for that. I think that started with my grandmother, because my grandmother would take me to this place called Miss Belle's. It was a second-hand store and I would go into Miss Belle's with my grandmother every Saturday morning and my grandmother would say, "Show Miss Belle, show her the dance that you showed me, isn't she cute Miss Belle?" Well, I never forgot that feeling and at 41 I still feel like I'm performing for Miss Belle. Whenever they say "Action," Miss Belle is somewhere around and I'm showing my grandmother that I'm not shy.
THR: Robin, who influenced you when you were growing up?
Robin Wright: (Acting) was the farthest thing. I was so painfully shy. I was going to be a nurse with the Red Cross in a refugee camp in Africa.
Clarkson: I could see you as a nurse.
Wright: I still might do it. As a child I remember loving being told stories and having somebody do it with an accent -- the different characters in the book. So then it became a part of our family. My brother and I would perform for my mother. When I got into acting, (I said) "Why do I have this pull yet I'm petrified of it?" I just wanted to share stories because I so loved being moved by them. The worst part about that is that you have to feel the obligation to share who you are with the press.
Blunt: It's the toughest part and the best part. You've got to just go "fuck it."
Mo'Nique: And you've got to say it with no apology. Often times, when I deal with the press, I'll say to them, "Tell me what you're looking for because you don't seem to be satisfied with any answers I've given you."
Carey Mulligan: When I decided to do "Wall Street 2" -- because I knew that that would be the biggest thing I'd done and my face would be seen by more people than it had ever been seen by before -- my mum said, "You can try it and if you hate it you can just come back and be a theater actress in London." And I was like, that sounds (great) -- it's difficult to have a consistent theater career in London. That would be brilliant. That's not a compromise or a Plan B.
THR: Did your parents want you to act?
Mulligan: No. We don't have anyone in our world that's an actor. I was very angry at them for being so against it but we just had no example of anyone in our life that -- my parents ran hotels, my brother was very academic and went to Oxford. I think they just thought that I had to get some sort of a degree to have something to fall back on.
THR: Did you?
Mulligan: I got my A-levels. I was supposed to get an A and two Bs to study drama at Royal Holloway, and I got three Bs so I started working in a pub. I was a barmaid. I had just turned 18 and I looked about 12.
Clarkson: You still do! I'm going to play your mother soon. I feel it.
THR: Vera, when did you first think of acting?
Vera Farmiga: Acting was one of those forks in the road for me, where I hung an extreme right in high school. Until then, I imagined my life as either an opthamologist or as a shepherdess. Just sort of roaming about and having my own tranquil lifestyle and aligning my spirit with nature. I think what happened is, I was benched playing varsity soccer in high school and it coincided with a heartbreak and I was sitting there bored and frustrated and bereft of love. So, someone asked me to audition for the school play and I did.
THR: On our producers roundtable, Ivan Reitman said he was against your being cast in "Up in the Air" because you were very pregnant. He was also saying how wrong he was. And I thought, from your point of view, what must that feel like? There's nothing you can do, you're powerless.
Farmiga: It sucked. I was about four months pregnant when I met with Jason (Reitman) and he claimed to have written the role with me in mind, which was great. But it was a difficult decision for him. They were going to shoot maybe a month after I had given birth. But I hadn't worked in awhile and needed a paycheck and it was a great opportunity creatively. I have a very supportive husband and (he's) a really incredible father, so the support system was there for me to take it. I was eight months pregnant and I weighed about 165, 170 -- and yeah, there was a point where it was going to be taken away and I didn't allow that to happen.
THR: What did you do?
Farmiga: It's hard being told, "You have to lose the fat off your face." Normally, I wouldn't allow that (but) I bit my tongue. It was George Clooney, who I heard said something to the effect of, "Who cares if she's chubby? She's the one for the role."
THR: What was the hardest thing about the part?
Farmiga: Treading the fine line. What I love about the role is the portrayal of female desire in such a masculine way. You never see a female midlife crisis, or that a woman can be so demanding and unapologetic and libertine with her sexuality. Usually when they're portrayed that way, they're devoid of dignity. As women, we do want it all -- as mothers, as career women -- and we always cater everybody else's needs -- our children's, our husband's, our family's. And this was a woman who was saying, "These are my needs, these are my desires."
THR: Do you have to approve of your character to play her well?
Mo'Nique: I love Mary Jones (her character in "Precious") because you got to see mental illness up close. Not in a hospital, not in a straightjacket -- you got to see it up close. I loved her because she was human and she needed somebody to love her. And maybe if someone loved her correctly, the outcome wouldn't have been what it was. I sympathize with her and I hurt with her because when you dug into who that woman was, she didn't want to be that way. There's one line in that movie that made me understand her. When she's talking to her mother and she says, "I don't know what you're looking at, because you didn't do any better." That one line made me love this woman because it was a lifetime of hell -- and it's gonna keep going until she dies.
THR: When you took on that part, how did you go about preparing?
Mo'Nique: I knew that character. I was Precious, as I'm sure all of us have been Precious at one time or another. Maybe not to that degree, but growing up, my oldest brother was Mary Jones to me. So when Mr. (Lee) Daniels said, "I need you to be a monster," when he said, "Action," I became (her brother). The moment he said "Cut," we left it on the floor.
THR: Has your brother seen the movie?
Mo'Nique: I have no idea.
THR: When you play a character that is so different from you, does it shift your personality at all?
Clarkson: I think every character you play stays a part of you for the rest of your life. They never ever go away.
Blunt: It's like therapy. But we get paid.
Clarkson: Well, sometimes. (Laughs.)
Mo'Nique: Mary Jones made me not be angry with my brother. Mary Jones made me not judge. Because for a long time I was angry. I was like, "Why? How could you be so cruel?" But in the process of that movie, it made me not be angry anymore because you don't know what (shoes) people are walking in. When we were done, I'm like, "My God, do you know how many Mary Joneses we pass on the street?"
THR: Emily, when you were playing Queen Victoria, did you prepare differently because she's a real person?
Blunt: It's a funny thing when people ask you about your process. I always feel like a bit of a wanker talking about it. I honestly don't really know what I'm going to do until I do it. You try to absorb as much of the world as you can. I steal from moments in my life and it kind of seeps under your skin without you knowing it. With Victoria, I got to read so much about her. I read her diaries and letters to Albert and she was very surprising to me because I, similar to most people with the limited historical knowledge I had of her, thought she was this grizzled old bag with a hanky on her head. (But) she was so vibrant and rebellious and would party all night and was highly sexed as well.
THR: You've done a drama and a comedy this year. Do you have a preference?
Blunt: Not really. People assume that if you're on the set of a comedy, everyone's having a ball. And that's not necessarily the case. For me.
Clarkson: Dying's easy, comedy is harder.
THR: Is Woody Allen funny on the set?
Clarkson: Oh, no. It's a very serious set. It's going to work. You show up, you punch in. People are like, "Didn't you hang with Woody?" No! No, no, no.
Mo'Nique: I haven't worked yet. Since I got to Hollywood. This is play. I'm on a playground. I make that a point. If it's not going to be fun, I don't wanna play. If they say, "Well, this director's crazy," then I don't wanna play. Because it's a dream. The moment (Daniels) said cut, the house music came on, the crab legs came out and we were kids.
Clarkson: That's what Woody needs. Woody needs crab legs. (Laughs.)
Robin, was there a scene in "Pippa Lee" that was particularly challenging for you?
Wright: Orgasming on camera.
Blunt: It's mortifying.
Clarkson: (Mo'Nique) would find it a playground! (Laughs.)
Wright: I'm going to call you to be a body double!
Clarkson: We want you to orgasm right now.
Mo'Nique: Are you ready? All I need is "Action," baby! (Moaning followed by laughs.) When Lee Danies said, "I need Mary Jones to, you know, play with herself," I'm like, "For real?" And he said, "Everybody clear the room." I said, "No! I want every eye in here because millions will see this. If I'm scared to do it in front of 10 people, I'm gonna have a hard time."
Blunt: I wish. There's something so exposing when someone's saying, "Try and be sexy," and everyone's watching and they're like, "Is that what she thinks is sexy?"
Clarkson: Or it's like, "Wait, do I look -- ? Is that a good angle? Where's the camera?" (Laughs.)
THR: Do you all feel self-conscious when you're working? Do you feel like people are judging you?
Clarkson: We hope not to. That's what a great director and a great set creates.
Blunt: The best thing to remember is that people are actually willing you to be good. They're not willing you to fail in any way.
Clarkson: I hate watching myself. There are