Roundtable: Actresses

For these leading ladies, conquering their fears is the first step to delivering a compelling performance.

The Hollywood Reporter invited some of Hollywood's most talented actresses to a recent roundtable. Joinging the discussion were (pictured above, top row from left): Halle Berry , Tilda Swinton and Amy Ryan; (bottom row) Jodie Foster and Ellen Page -- to talk about how they prepare for roles, what draws them to acting and the particular challenges facing women in their profession, at a recent roundtable moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Elizabeth Guider and Stephen Galloway.


The Hollywood Reporter: What got you into acting?
Amy Ryan: I was good as a child in making my family laugh, being class clown. But when I got into studying acting, I became one of the shyest people in the room.
Halle Berry: It wasn't something I wanted to do as a child. It certainly wasn't how I imagined living my life. But I always had a really vivid imagination, and as I started studying, I realized that through this work of acting I could really become a better person and grow. And now, with every movie, I somehow have a cathartic experience: It helps me become a better me; it helps me grow and learn many things, not just about myself, but about the human condition. It's like air to breathe because I get so much out of it.

THR: How did you imagine your life?
Berry: I was on pace to be a professional gymnast. I wanted to be like Nadia Comaneci. Then I tore some ligaments in my leg, and that's what ended my career. I now had fear. That dream died very hard, so I thought, "I'll just go to college and become a nurse like my mother" -- she was a psych nurse in a hospital for 35 years. But my life took another turn.

THR: Do you also have a fear of acting?
Berry: Oh, yes. I'm scared to death every time I do it. But that's the thrill of it, actually. That's the job: to face that fear -- like a moth to a flame -- to face it, deal with it, conquer it.

THR: When did you decide to become an actress, Tilda?
Tilda Swinton: I still feel like I haven't decided to be an actress. I wanted to be a writer, and I'm a little confused that I'm not one. But I was a film fan; I was much more a film fan than a performer. I had a seminal moment when I was a child, sitting in the train going to boarding school and realizing that nobody aboard the train knew how miserable I was. It occurred to me that you can never know what someone else is really thinking (but you can to some degree in film) -- and that became a whole kind of game for me and made me want to work in the cinema.
Jodie Foster: I didn't think I ever wanted to be an actor when I was growing up. My mom would always say, "So, are you going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher?" My mom wanted to propel me in a different direction, and I got this idea that it was dumb job, that all you did was recite lines that somebody else wrote and "act natural." And then I made "Taxi Driver" (1976) when I was 12. Robert De Niro took me under his wing and spent three to four days with me, kind of creating the character and changing the words, in ways that I didn't really understand initially, and I had this sort of "eureka!" moment when I realized it was my responsibility to bring more to it and to not just "act natural," but to use my mind and heart. Then it became different. (Though) I still can't say, "I want to be an actor when I grow up."

THR: You and Tilda both had a very strong academic training. Does that help?
Foster: Well, everybody uses what they use. You use whatever experiences you have. (But) the thing that's always made me passionate, that's always made me sweat and go crazy inside, is books and literature.

THR: Ellen, how about you?
Ellen Page: I started out when I was 10, 'cause I fell into it and was asked to audition for something. And this neat little experience led to another experience and so on. Then, when I was 15 or 16, I shot a film where there was definitely some emotional depth and maturity. And I felt it. I felt it in my body, and I couldn't explain it -- and I was like, "Oh my God, I want to feel that again!" Now what I have fallen in love with is approaching a character or situation that you can easily judge and just not being able to judge that human being.
Foster: What you're looking for is the humanity, and humanity can be beautiful and it can be monstrous. And I love finding that part, the monstrous part.

THR: Were you troubled by the monstrous aspects of "The Brave One," particularly the violence?
Foster: Oh, no. I've made lots of violent movies. I feel like giving the audience that experience, of living inside a "monster's" experience. That allows people to see inside themselves (and look at) what they really don't understand. There are some myths about violence: that civilization cannot contain it. And the whole point is that civilization does manage, in a healthy way.
Swinton: I remember (being pregnant). The violence of my imagination just exploded, walking down the street in London. I would walk down the street and have these hallucinogenic fantasies.
Foster: There lives inside of you someone that you never knew was there, but once you discover it and lay claim to it, it also demystifies it. Drama (provides audiences) the opportunity to live through the experiences they never knew they could survive and see, "Will I survive intact?"

THR: You don't have any problem with violence in the movies?
Foster: I have a little problem with cartoon violence. I feel that, in some ways, it is really regressive for the culture, this idea that you make a movie where people lop each other's heads off and we're all supposed to laugh and think it's funny. That to me is destructive. I know that as a person I certainly have no violence in me whatsoever. I have never hit anyone.

THR: You don't have any violence in you? So when you play a violent part, where does it come from?
Foster: Clearly, there is a repressed ... (Laughter.)

THR: Amy, you are relatively new to film. Did you approach film acting differently than theater acting?
Ryan: I didn't approach it differently than theater or TV, except obviously in theater you have a different rehearsal process. Writing is the thing (that counts in both), and good writing makes for better acting. Something does happen physically when I read a script that I like. My adrenaline starts to go, and I get into this kind of denial: "I must be the only one (who can play the part)."

THR: How do figure out how to play the part?
Ryan: There's an old photograph I come across or an Edward Hopper painting. I'm constantly studying people on the train. It's "that laugh" or "that yawn." It's also about taking away your own prejudice, your own politics, trying to just map out the (character's) whole story independent of the movie: Who is this person? What are they doing? What do they want?

THR: Tilda, you come from England, where there's a strong theater tradition. Do you approach acting differently?
Swinton: A traditional English actor generally starts in the theater, and that's not where I'm from. I did work in the theater, but I was always looking for a camera. My cinematic background was a very particular one: It's the art world. I was looking recently at a list of directors I've worked with -- 85% of them are painters, first and foremost. It's only very recently that I've started to work with professionals.

THR: Do you prefer that?
Swinton: I really like not having to go around the world and raise money for (projects).

THR: Is that what happened with (1992's) "Orlando"?
Swinton: (It was) five years of going around the world and people saying, "What's it about?" We would say, "Androgyny and gender." I worked in a completely underground world, principally with Derek Jarman, who died in 1994. But the way of making films, the whole funding structure in the U.K. changed radically, which means that a whole way of making films just stopped.

THR: Was it hard to go from that to a mainstream film like "Michael Clayton?" And how did you do it?
Swinton: The territory of the film is naturalistic, and there is an animal out there that I needed to impersonate. I was not even sure that this animal existed, so it was like detective work, really. I am a soldier's daughter, and I identified her as a soldier. And my first thought about her was that she had to have a body that she was really uncomfortable in.

THR: I was reading a recent review about your physique in the film. Did that hurt you?
Swinton: Well, it wasn't mine.

THR: How much is you in a character?
Berry: When I read a script, I don't know this on a conscious level, but I usually figure it out halfway through. There's something in the characters I'm drawn to at different times in life that allows me to express something that I was needing to express in life. One time, I went back to all my films, and I sat down and spent about a week trying to figure out "Why did I do that?" With "Things We Lost in the Fire," I was so wanting to be a mother. It was my every waking thought. That was why I gravitated toward that woman. It's the first time that I played a woman who was a really good mother. She had other issues she dealt with, but she was a good, caring, loving mother, and I needed to express that. I proved to myself that I was meant to be a mother.

THR: Ellen, did "Juno" have a different meaning for you after you made it?
Page: What surprised me was -- I've been in films that received a lot of polarized responses and made people angry, and I remember literally being in a theater and hearing someone yell, "Kill the bitch!" But then to be in this room and feel a sense of warmth! It was an amazing thing.

THR: How did you prepare for the part?
Page: I wasn't used to doing that kind of comedic thing. To me, it was about finding that really fine line of creating a character who's unique and witty, but obviously making her as genuine and honest as possible.

THR: When you took on the role in "Gone Baby Gone," what was the greatest challenge for you, Amy?
Ryan: That accent. (Director) Ben (Affleck) and I talked a lot about it, and he said: "I want people to think you're from Boston and you've never acted before." We were filming on location there. I was standing next to neighbors who'd come out to watch, and I really found (that they know if you're) the real deal, sitting next to you. That was scary, but thrilling.

THR: Jodie, did directing change your view of the work of the actor?
Foster: Definitely. As a director, I make quirky dramedies, in some ways, that are tapestries, ensemble tapestries. And that's my real voice. But my acting is really about who I'm not.

THR: What makes a great director?
Berry: When the director shows up and he's not drunk. (Laughter.) I want to know that the director has a vision, and I want to trust it. It's OK for me to abandon what I might think and feel because you give it over to the director. Even a performance that makes it to the screen is up to the director. I've gone into (working with) directors that I haven't -- I won't say I regret, because I don't regret very much in life -- but they were learning experiences, and I realized, "OK, I really have to be sure I trust where they're going because I have to dutifully follow." And that's a scary position to be in.

THR: Do the directors communicate what they want verbally, or do you just instinctively pick it up?
Berry: I like to ask them that. I've learned in these conversations that it's OK to ask these kinds of questions. I used to sit in fear of directors, and I thought that I didn't have the right to ask if they knew what they were doing and ask, "What's your vision, and how do you plan on doing that?" But now I've learned that I must do that because I have to protect my own work as much as I can.
Foster: I've worked with directors where I realized, a week or two weeks into the shooting, that he didn't (know what he was doing), and I have four and a half months of having to (do) all of those things that are completely revealing and foolish and beautiful that we love in acting in the service of someone who doesn't know (how to get there). It destroys me. I'll spend a year getting over that movie.

THR: What about when you don't like the actor you're working with?
Foster: You'd be surprised. Acting is a very mysterious thing. A skill's a skill. I was always told that acting is not intellect -- that you have to put your intellect away, that it is all about emotions and physicality. To some extent, that's true. But sometimes you'll sit across from an actor who really doesn't know what the movie's about and who's kind of clueless about the character and who doesn't even know who the president is -- and God, (his work is) just amazing.

THR: How much research comes into it?
Ryan: I like to do as much research as I can. I like to know what the story's about. I like to go in prepared as much as possible, and then you've got to throw it all away.
Page: (Sometimes) you are in the middle of the woods and time doesn't exist anymore; you just feel -- and there are no words, and it's really profound. But, of course, if you're playing a torture victim in the '60s in the Midwest, you have research to do to understand the psychology of that. But if it's a film like "Juno" and people ask, "Oh, did you go out and hang around with young, pregnant teenagers?" it's like, "No, I didn't." She was a girl who had passion; she was really angry, really angry about something.
Swinton: I think we're talking about good casting.

THR: What are the limits of casting? Are there roles you won't or can't play?
Berry: Well, there's many things that I'm not right for, based on just who I am. I could have never been (Queen Elizabeth I).
Swinton: Oh, c'mon!
Berry: I could really try! But that's really frustrating: There are certain limitations that are just part of life.
Foster: That's true for me. When I go to Blockbuster, I don't rent a comedy. I really don't. I rent drama. Strangely, as a director, I make comedy-dramas.

THR: They don't make good comedies for women, do they?
Berry: Let's talk about that. It's been hard for women. We all know the story of the studio executive who, in August, after a few women's movies didn't perform to these blockbuster, staggering numbers, (said) he wouldn't make films for women anymore. I could count five male (movies) that didn't perform, either, but is anybody saying, "No more movies for men"? As women, we get unfairly judged. This unrealistic expectation is put upon us, where, to be considered successful, you have to open to $25 million-plus or you're a failure. The benchmark has been set so high. For adult-themed movies that often star women, it becomes really hard to compete.
Foster: It's an interesting time in the film industry. We do go back and forth, and last year, I think it was one of the most stellar (years) that I can remember. I've been in film for 40, 30 years, and you see the economy change things dramatically: The way independent financing goes in and out changes things dramatically.
Swinton: Is there a way for making interesting films for women on television?
Foster: This has been the finest year for women in television.
Berry: But it is a time when the studios are more risk-averse than perhaps they were. And the second you say, "Risk-aversion," usually women and minorities go down the tubes.

THR: What about risk-taking in acting? Give me one performance that has really fascinated you.
Swinton: I really love it when you can feel the person's biography in the performance; there's something kind of inarticulate struggling there. A performance that really exemplifies that for me is Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield 8" (1960), knowing, as we all do, that she really did not want to make that film. What she's engaging with is so much more than the sum of the parts of the picture.
Page: You can watch a film and an actor can punch you in the stomach -- they're so good -- but when I think of those roles that really stuck, I think of characters that are extremely still, like Sissy Spacek in "Badlands" (1973). That just absolutely blew my mind.
Foster: I go back to "The Deer Hunter" (1978) because I saw it when I was maybe 15. You have this one scene where you are so inside the experience. I keep going back to (the Russian roulette scene) over and over again. That really is what the entire movie is changed by. I'm always looking for a movie where I say, "Where is that one moment that completely personifies the reason why I'm making this film?"

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