Serious talk from comedy stars — also including Pamela Adlon, Minnie Driver, Kathryn Hahn and Issa Rae — about being asked to audition in a two-piece swimsuit ("We want to see how tight your ass is") and male nudity: "Get your balls out, boys!"
Emmy Rossum sat down at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Comedy Actress Roundtable in late April just waiting to be asked about her recent salary standoff. Only four months earlier, the Shameless star, 30, had fought for — and ultimately received — salary parity with co-star William H. Macy, and now she knew her move would be fodder for discussion. "I was wondering how many questions we were going to wait till you were going to bring this up," she said, pointedly, when the issue finally was raised. The discussion that ensued, however, became less about Rossum than about why such parity demands aren't more common. Over the course of the candid hourlong conversation, America Ferrera, 33, acknowledged why she has, in the past, hesitated to ask for more; Pamela Adlon, 50, revealed what has happened when she's tried; and Minnie Driver, 47, pressed everyone at the table — including Kathryn Hahn, 43, and Issa Rae, 32 — to consider what they could do to change the system once and for all. But before they got serious about their financial clout, these comedy stars also talked about sex scenes, male nudity and auditioning (or not) in a bikini.
What's the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you as a performer?
KATHRYN HAHN (I Love Dick, Amazon) I did a sex scene and was wearing one of those modesty patches, which is like …
MINNIE DRIVER (Speechless, ABC) Chafing?
HAHN Chafing. And I could feel that it had shifted significantly to the left. And I could only imagine the POV of my co-star.
EMMY ROSSUM (Shameless, Showtime) That's only happened to me like 35 times [on Shameless]. Like every other week. (Laughs.)
PAMELA ADLON (Better Things, FX) I have a lot of those from Californication. Like, f—ing on the sink and then the sink breaks and then the water shoots out. And I'm in the little thin dress with the G-string, and I feel the dirty studio water going up my pussy. I'm like, "I have hantavirus now!" (Laughter.)
DRIVER This would never happen to you, but on many movies I've done with actors who are mostly short — I mean, most actors are short, certainly the ones I've worked with — they would dig me a ditch to do a kissing scene in. So, you'd be in there down with the mud and the dirt. And I remember just voicing early on, "Wouldn't it be just a bit easier if maybe he stood on a half apple or a whole apple [carton] than dig me a ditch?"
ADLON I have never felt sorry for tall people in my life. Until just this moment.
DRIVER It was really embarrassing, and it happened twice. I remember on both occasions saying to the actor, "Isn't it weird for you?" And they were like, "No. It's great 'cause now we're at the same height."
Minnie, you've said that your role on Speechless was one a lot of other women didn't want to take because of how unlikable the character was. What was the appeal for you?
DRIVER Well, it's one of my strong points: being awful but relatable. (Laughs.) No, I actually have a real problem with women being called unlikable because you never hear that about a man. They're called antiheroes and they're funny and they're strong and they're interesting. She's not likable across the board, and most women or most people aren't, but she has a very heightened set of circumstances. If you're handed a baby who a doctor tells you is never going to lead a typical life — they probably won't walk, they probably won't talk [with cerebral palsy] — the small stuff doesn't really apply anymore. You say whatever you think. So I feel like she has a different set of tenets by which she lives, and some of them are really not likable, but she's human in that way. I think a lot of actresses were worried that that would somehow tarnish them. That's interesting as an actor. I like it.
AMERICA FERRERA (Superstore, NBC) And there's liberation in it, too. My character on Superstore is so different from the one I played for four years on Ugly Betty. Betty was this picture of optimism. You could throw anything at her, you could shit on her, and she would just smile and keep going. And that was easy for me to play, especially as a 20-something who knew that my role as a woman was to make people like me. Amy on Superstore is so different. She's coming from such a different place: She has a job that is just a job, and she doesn't seek her validation in it, and she doesn't need people to like her. Playing that role as I am growing up as a woman, there's liberation in feeling like I don't have to make everyone like me. It's OK if people don't like me. I can just be a person in the world, and it's not the end of the world if somebody doesn't approve.
DRIVER It's very antithetical to being an actress because we are groomed to be people pleasers, and we've got to make everybody like us because we've got to be in competition with every other girl in a way that men really aren't.
Have the rest of you ever had those concerns? Do you consider whether a part is unlikable before taking it?
ROSSUM I run toward it. My character on Shameless — 'cause it has been so many seasons now — has gone through so much. I went to jail for cocaine and overdosed a toddler and still found the humanity in that. I guess there was a moment where I thought, "Oh, God, is everyone going to hate me?" And then I felt like, "Who cares?" Whatever anybody takes away from it is a reflection on them, not you.
ISSA RAE (Insecure, HBO) That's so true.
DRIVER And nobody is one thing.
RAE I think it may feel more amplified because TV shows these days are more publicly social, in terms of the conversation. And people tend to be quicker to take sides. The character in my show is named after me and that was purely by accident. It was an untitled show, and I was just like, "Oh, I'll just call the character Issa for now," and then it just aired that way, and I didn't realize the implications of people being like, "F— her, f— Issa, she's trash."
ROSSUM You should know that people do that regardless. (Laughter.)
ADLON Yeah, yeah.
ROSSUM People scream at me like, "F— you, Fiona, you overdosed that baby." They actually think you're that person.
ADLON In the season I'm shooting now, I'm exploring this idea of people who have done f—ed-up things having a redeeming quality. Last season, the guy who is the father of my girls on the show and I have this sit-down in a restaurant, and it's so intense. He's like, "'I'm going to be in town, but I can't see the girls." And I'm like, "Are you saying you want me to manage the girls?"
DRIVER "So you want me to tell them in case you run into them?"
ADLON Yeah. And he was like, "Well, it's very complicated." And I'm like, "I'm sure it is." And he goes, "Thanks for your help." And I go, "Thank you for your help." And I stand up and I walk out. And the note was, "We don't want [the camera] to stay on him because we're feeling a little bit of empathy for him. We want to leave with you." And I said, "No, I'm interested in him sitting there in the fart that we just made in this restaurant and what's going on with this guy. That's the thing that's so great to explore."
America, you've said this role is the first one you've been offered that was not written as a Latina. Is that a coincidence or progress?
FERRERA It's probably a little bit more complicated than that. I've worked in TV and film for years and so my personal success, as much as I wish that that equated to a certain broader success and more opportunities for more Latino characters, that's not always necessarily the case. We came out of the gate with Ugly Betty, and it was years and years after we went off the air that there was another Latino main character on television. So where you would think it's like, "Oh, it works, let's go in this direction," it doesn't always end up that way. Fortunately, for me, I've established myself to a certain degree, so I'm so lucky that I now get considered outside of the box of Latina, but I don't think that's true for everyone. In the way that, like, when Halle Berry gets considered for roles that are not written black, that doesn't apply to everyone. There has been progress, but there is so much more to do. There's so much nuance in the way that we talk about the roles that women are now finally getting to inhabit because we're behind the camera, because we get to write our own stuff and say "This is what feels real to me, this is what I recognize myself in." The same is true for people of color: If we don't get in the positions of power, if we can't tell our stories, if we can't write and direct and produce our stories authentically, then those roles and those opportunities that feel new and fresh aren't going to come.
ROSSUM It's important to raise your hand and say, "I want to do this," because people aren't going to assume that you want to do this or can do this. Sociologically, we're programmed to be a little bit deferential, to be likable.
FERRERA I directed an episode of my show this season, but I found it hard to ask to direct.
ROSSUM I kind of quasi-asked for a while.
ROSSUM It was like, "Oh, I think I'd like to do that. Pick me." And then I actually went to NYU and got a teacher and learned a little bit about cinematography and felt like I knew more of what I was talking about and then said legitimately that that was something I wanted to do. And then I didn't totally f— it up, so I got another opportunity to do it.
Hollywood likes to put actors in certain lanes. What's your lane?
HAHN There was certainly a best-friend chapter of my life. I was constantly the quirky best friend to various blonde stars.
FERRERA And you were always the funniest person in the movie.
HAHN Oh, but those parts are where you can be. Judy Greer and I both had been playing best friends at the same, always neck and neck for the same best-friend parts, and my husband was like, "You guys should do, like, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-type movie where it's the best friends, and every so often you see Kate Hudson running around [in the background]."
DRIVER I hate saying that we're created out of some sort of patriarchal idea, but we sort of are. You're not given that many iterations of what it is to be a woman in film and TV. Or we certainly haven't been up until now, now being the golden age of television where you can do whatever you want. You can write whatever you want, you can direct it how you want, and you can embody it.
Issa, you've tried to flip the script with nudity on your show and push for more men to be naked, too.
HAHN Let's get your balls out, boys. (Laughs.)
RAE Let's see some dicks. No, I've found that a lot of the guys who we've worked with have just been all in, like balls to the wall. (Laughter.) No balls have been on walls! They've been really great about, and generous with, their body parts. I've had some of the actors come up and just be like, "I think it's cool that the women aren't as nude on this show."
ROSSUM I think we should be equal opportunity P and D. (Laughter.) But I only really want to see any nudity if there's a purpose for it. For me, I am OK to be as naked as you want me to be, within reason, if it applies to the story. If it serves the character.
RAE Because I have seen gratuitous breasts and vagina, and it's just like, why?
ROSSUM I don't really have a problem with nudity. I have a problem about people's heads being f—ing bashed in and children watching that. I don't have any problem with children seeing a woman topless. I just don't.
DRIVER My son loves it. (Laughs.)
FERRERA How old is your son?
DRIVER He's 8. "Mom, look, something on the TV." (Laughter.)
HAHN It's tricky to have your child come up to you and be like, "You working on Dick today, Mom?" Like, just so casual.
ROSSUM Yeah, getting that Dick money. It's going to pay for your Little League, baby.
RAE Dick pays the bills!
Emmy, you were part of David Schwimmer's video vignettes, which were designed to fight sexual harassment. What role has that kind of situation played in your career, and how has your response changed with time and experience?
ROSSUM Well, I've never been in a situation where somebody asked me to do something really obviously physical in exchange for [a job], like a pay-to-play kind of situation. But even as recently as a year ago, my agent called me and was like, "I'm so embarrassed to make this call, but there's a big movie and they're going to offer it to you. They really love your work on the show. But the director wants you to come into his office in a bikini. There's no audition. That's all you have to do."
ADLON Wow. But you're already doing Shameless, and we see your body all the time.
ROSSUM He wanted to know if I was fat now. That was basically the question. And I actually had this moment like, "Well, how good is the part?" For a second, I was like, "Would I do it? Send me the script. Maybe the character is in a bikini in the movie."
ROSSUM Not in a bikini in the movie.
ROSSUM Not naked in the movie. "We really love your work, but we just want to see how tight your ass is." Are you f—ing kidding me? Last time I checked, I'm not a f—ing model.
DRIVER There's always going to be someone with a tighter ass and better boobs; there's always going to be that person.
ROSSUM Younger, thinner, blonder, richer, whatever.
DRIVER So until we change that whole narrative … We change it by sitting here and talking about these things. We change it by writing shows, by directing.
ROSSUM But I feel like we're all vulnerable to it. If somebody with my years in the business would think, "Well, I wonder if it's worth it," then what would a girl who doesn't have my success do? She would do it.
ADLON When I was 15, I was doing my second movie, and it was a really independent movie, so we were stealing locations, and we played orphans, so we'd break into somebody's house. We're shooting at one of those houses on Sunset, and you're always supposed to have a guardian on set when you're a minor, but mine was gone, and we did a scene where we broke into a house and then we go swimming in the pool. The scene is over, and I have a towel on, and the director comes over to me and he goes, "Pam, it would be really funny if you dropped the towel and we could just see your butt, like, really fast."
ROSSUM How old are you?
ADLON I was 15.
FERRERA Oh, my God.
ADLON And I was very sheltered. I know it seems crazy, I just didn't know what the f— to do. I was humiliated. And I found some strength of this me, now, where I said, "I don't feel comfortable doing that." I was really upset that he even asked me because this is a grown man. And then I remember I had to kiss one of the other orphan kids in the movie, and I had never kissed a boy. He said to me, "An apple is an apple, a plum is a plum. A kiss isn't a kiss without the tongue." And I was like, "I'm going to die."
DRIVER How about when a guy goes, in a sex scene, "I'm sorry if I do, I'm sorry if I don't."
ROSSUM Oh, my God, they always do that.
DRIVER Do they? I haven't done that many.
ROSSUM I had a fellow who was so nervous that he might get a hard-on that he filled the cock sock with sand, which just ended up really chafing the both of us.
Emmy, one of the things that came up with you in the last year …
ROSSUM I was wondering how many questions we were going to wait till you were going to bring this up.
I'm curious: a) how many other actresses you heard from, and b) if you felt you were fighting for something larger than a paycheck?
ADLON Wait, what did you do?
HAHN Give us some context.
ROSSUM I'll let you explain it and then I'll comment.
In her latest contract negotiation, Emmy fought for salary parity with her male co-lead.
DRIVER Oh, for God's sakes, yes! And it became a big problem?
ROSSUM I wouldn't say it was acrimonious, but after a very, very long kind of stalemate negotiation, it became public.
DRIVER Was that [the other side] trying to shame you?
ROSSUM I don't pretend to know anybody else's motivations, nor do I really care, because in the end, [everything turned] out just fine. But when we started the show, obviously Bill Macy was the green light for the show. It's Bill Macy. He's an Oscar nominee, and I was 22 years old. And then as the show started to really have legs …
ADLON It became you.
ROSSUM It felt a little bit more weighted in Fiona's direction. And I started to take on a directing hat and take a leadership role. So something that at one time felt OK that it was unbalanced started to feel not as good.
ROSSUM But it was difficult for me to say, "This is what I think I deserve." You do want to be liked.
ADLON How do you bring it up …
HAHN And not make waves …
ROSSUM Well, when your contract is up ... I waited for it to be up and then I said, "I've loved my experience and I'm so happy and so proud and everything, but I just want this to be right if we're going to keep going."
ADLON I went through that with Californication.
What was the feedback you got?
ROSSUM It wasn't public for a long time when it was going on. And when it was finally public, it kind of took me aback. But as it was happening, I'll tell you the person who supported me the most was William H. Macy. To have the man counterpart on my show be like, "Yes, she does deserve this and more" was so validating. And after it became public, it was a quick resolution.
RAE We need everyone to feel that this is unfair so we don't have to couch it in a polite, "I deserve …"
HAHN It shouldn't be a fight. That's what drives me crazy!
ADLON Suzanne Somers went through this with Three's Company, and they got rid of her. She was a huge star on that show. And I know everybody thinks it's fluffy, stupid '80s, but she was on the cover of every magazine. She was massive. She's a fascinating woman. They made a documentary about this. And basically, she asked for equal pay, and they not only said no, they said, "You're fired." And she had to come and do one final scene where they let her in the back of the set, they made a fake Hawaii porch for her, and she calls Jack and Janet, and she's like, "I'm in Hawaii. I'm never coming back. Bye."
DRIVER Oh, my God.
ADLON They escorted her out, not to see anybody, and that was it.
What message does that send to women in Hollywood?
RAE Don't even try.
DRIVER OK, so let me ask you this: What do we do? Do we do the Steinbeck thing where you all go, "Well, I'm not going to work for that," and they go, "Well, there are 20 other women who will." Do you take a stand and go, "I'm not taking that role because there is no parity, it's insane"? What do you do?
ROSSUM It's not just Hollywood. You look at the people in the medical industry. People in government … But my thing was just, "I need to do something to make it right for me, so that I can feel good about doing this job." And then it became such a big thing, I was at a health food store in Canada, and this little girl who worked there came up to me and was like, "What you did for gender equality really meant so much to me." And just the fact that I touched a real person meant something to me.
DRIVER So, are we supposed to say no? What do you think?
FERRERA I don't know that that's the solution. Each of us, we find ourselves in different places with different platforms and kinds of access, and we have to get it right with ourselves, the way you did, Emmy — saying "This used to feel OK to me; it doesn't now," and coming to terms with that. And then having the conversation with the entire system built around you to keep you from asking for more. I feel like most of the times that I have had to ask for something, I had to convince my agents to ask with me. Having to ask your agents, "I want this thing," and having them say, "We don't think you should ask for that."
Because they're afraid of the no and what would happen?
FERRERA That, or just the idea of, like, "We don't think you're going to get that. You know, this is a really good opportunity."
ROSSUM Uh, "You're fired!"
DRIVER But what if you're looking at what the men are getting paid in a movie, for example, and they're getting paid not just twice, but maybe four or five times [as much], and it's a three-hander piece and a woman is getting paid so significantly less, but the part is great and it's the same screen time, and you've got a mortgage to pay and you want to be a good actor and you want opportunities? What are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to take the part or are you supposed to go, "No"?
FERRERA It's different for everyone is the thing. Even though we can get inspiration from one another and feel like when any of us wins, we all win, we can't shame each other because we all have different situations.
HAHN Yes, absolutely.
ADLON But every single time, it's this dance. And people always tell you not to ask.
FERRERA That's what I'm saying. Because even if you come up with the confidence to ask for this thing, there's a system in place around you to really make you question whether that's the right thing for you to do. Like, you'll make people mad.
DRIVER Exactly. Or people won't want to work with you again. That's always the threat.
FERRERA Or they'll resent you because you're asking for more than they think you're worth.
HAHN America for president, you guys!
ROSSUM But I don't think that's true. I think when they start paying you more, they actually respect you more.
FERRERA Sure, but those are the things and those are the conversations that keep us from asking.
ROSSUM You have to have negotiators who are negotiating on your behalf in an unemotional business way, because at the end of the day, it is a business.
ADLON That's right.
ROSSUM And you're asking for what you deserve.
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.