THR's Actress Roundtable: Six A-Listers Sound Off on Bad Reviews, Nudity and Playing Hitler
In the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine, Charlize Theron, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Close and Carey Mulligan kick off THR's annual awards season series with an exclusive discussion on their regrets, the mean things people say to them and why Davis hates it when a black actress' performance is called "dignified."
THR: 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.
THR: 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.
BEING BAD CAN BE GOOD
THR: 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.)
THR: 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.
THR: 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 a--hole because they had this, this and this happen to them, so we have to forgive them. But what if someone was just an a--hole? That's interesting to me.
THR: Do you have to have those nasty qualities somewhere deep inside you in order to play it?
Theron: Yes, I am an a--hole. (Laughter.)
THR: Glenn, what do you think?
Theron: Wait, you're going to leave me there on "I am an a--hole"? (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.
THR: 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--."
THR: 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!