Six top actresses get real about everything from dismantling systemic racism ("It can't just be, 'We're going to march with you and do a hashtag'") to fighting typecasting ("For the life of me, I could not escape 'Rachel from "Friends"'").
The Hollywood Reporter's Drama Actress Roundtable was set to take place two weeks before it actually did. But as the country hit a boil, erupting in protest following the killing of George Floyd, its early June timing no longer felt right.
The actresses — The Morning Show's Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon (also of Little Fires Everywhere and Big Little Lies), Homecoming's Janelle Monáe, Euphoria's Zendaya, Mrs. America's Rose Byrne and The Crown's Helena Bonham Carter — collectively decided they needed the space and time to properly process what was happening around them. And with it, a chance to listen and learn.
When the sextet ultimately came to the (virtual) table on June 20, they spoke candidly about their own reckonings along with their professional fears and the power that they, as women, have now like never before. As Witherspoon says at one point, "We know that we matter."
We are living through a unique moment in history, both with the pandemic and, more recently, the social unrest. What have you learned about yourselves during this time?
REESE WITHERSPOON A lot, and I'm continuing to learn. I think being an awake, aware, conscious, empathetic, thoughtful human being, if you have even an ounce of any of that, it's pretty exhausting and morally trying. And it's been a time to really dig deep and examine what are you doing in your life and in your business and in your work and really look at those things with new eyes.
JENNIFER ANISTON And having the [space] to be alone and not be distracted has been almost divine timing in terms of the order of how everything has unfolded. I think that's a blessing of this pandemic because there wasn't any chance for people to get distracted going back to work or going out to dinners or whatever. We were all pulled together, and it feels extremely unifying and oddly beautiful. And I've never read more in my life.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER I'm over here in London, and it's extraordinary that there is one thing that has unified us all and yet we are all having very different experiences, depending on your privilege, your situation economically and also your health. I haven't been directly affected or known anyone who's been badly affected by COVID, so it's the luxury of time that we don't [ordinarily] have. It's fascinating that we have to rely on the whole world stopping for us to stop.
BONHAM CARTER And with the Black Lives [Matter] movement, because it's happening now, we have the time to properly consider it and see what everyone can do about it. People have said, "Do you think it would have happened if COVID hadn't happened?" And I feel unfortunately not.
ANISTON I agree with you.
BONHAM CARTER Everyone has the time and the space to actually change society on a profound level. But it's extraordinary living through history. We are very privileged. And I know that this time for me has been utterly precious and I think I'll come away with things that are profoundly changed. Also, as an actor, it's a nice thing because everybody is as unemployed as I am and I don't have to worry about it. You're always looking over your shoulder. (Laughter.)
You all have giant platforms. How much of an obligation do you feel to speak up in this moment? And what is the weight of that?
JANELLE MONÁE This is an interesting time and an important time for all of us to check our perspective. For me and my people, for the Black community, this is not an exciting time. This isn't a time that we get to really reflect. We're dealing with a lot of trauma. We were dealing with COVID-19, which affects us disproportionately — if America sneezes, the Black community gets pneumonia — and now we're having to deal with the very color of our skin making us a target.
For me, I'm trying to figure out how to channel my anger. That's my emotion. Black people make up the essential workers who are making sure that we have our packages and our food, and this is not a time for them to reflect in the ways that we, as artists, have the privilege to do. So, I'm checking my privilege and I'm also mourning with my people. One of the things that I learned about me is that I'm not settling for those who say that they're allies. I'm not settling for lip service. If you want to show me that you're an ally, it's going to have to be rooted in acts of service.
MONÁE In the same ways that we have been marching, we have been screaming that Black Lives Matter, I'm asking of my white friends or those who consider themselves supporters of me and us during this time to have those conversations around white supremacy and around why your ancestors started chattel slavery. Have those tough conversations of why we are even saying Black Lives Matter as though Black people are objects and not subjects to study until the end of time. Have those conversations around how you dismantle systemic racism.
That's where I am now. This is a moment for Black people to stand our ground and ask more of our systems. Because it can't just be, "We're going to march with you and do a hashtag," it has to be rooted in justice as well. Systemic change has to be made. The way that you're hiring folks, who is on your board, how many Black people do you have there, what kind of films are we greenlighting, what kind of depictions of police are we greenlighting. I’m team "Defund the police" — that’s very clear for me — and I want to put that money into our education and into our health care systems. I want to redistribute that money and put it into places that have oppressed us for far too long.
WITHERSPOON That's right.
Do you feel you'll make different choices on the other side, whether it's the stories you choose to tell or the characters you inhabit?
MONÁE I've made it a point in my career to make sure that the world knows we're not monolithic. We can do the math that gets men into space [the basis for Hidden Figures] and we can also be in the ghettos in Moonlight, and it was super important that those were the first roles I took. Even in music, I've tried my best to walk my truth as a queer Black woman growing up in America and what that means. Representation is important. Our voices onscreen, our presence onscreen, it's all super important. I'm also at a point where I want the freedom like all of my favorite actors who get an opportunity to do fantasy, sci-fi, drama, all these things. I want to see more scripts where you're writing for the human, you're not pushing me to be a stereotype of what you think Blackness is.
I want to touch on one of the things Janelle just said, which is that white people have to have the conversations that make them uncomfortable. Reese, this idea of white fragility is at the core of Little Fires Everywhere. What kinds of realizations and conversations did it force you to have, and what from that became part of your show?
WITHERSPOON Examining privilege, as Janelle said, I went through a reckoning probably four or five years ago with the Time's Up movement, realizing that we work and exist inside of systems that are really broken, and trying to get strategic about using my influence and platform to create change. Every time I took a job, I'd call whoever was the head of the studio and ask, "What does your board look like? Where are your female executives? Where are the people of color?" I started to ask more questions about how the money flows through companies, what kind of representation is at my agency, like, "Are there people of color who are agents?"
Were you nervous to do so?
WITHERSPOON Absolutely, because I had never spoken up or asked anything before. I just accepted systems. And at the time, I was 40 or 41, and I was like, "What am I doing? If I don't use this one walk on Earth to create a better reality for the women coming after me, what are we doing?" And I have been very privileged. I've been the beneficiary of a system that valued people who looked like me. I have made a lot of movies and I can make a lot of movies, but I want to make things that matter and work in partnership, in real partnership, with people who are committed to change within our industry. And that means empowering women and getting women paid — pay equity for Black women, Latinx women, LGBTQ women, differently abled women. And it's a life commitment for me.
We could have made a great show that said a lot of things about white privilege and class and race and how we treat immigrants in this country, but it was how we made it that is really valuable to me. Our writers room was made up of the most diverse [group of writers] I've ever seen. People with immigrant parents, LGBTQ representation, adopted children, Black women, there was even a man in there. (Laughs.) After I worked with Ava DuVernay on Wrinkle in Time, it just became a paramount thing in my career to focus on how things are made in our business. So, we are part of those systems and we can ask a lot of questions, and we should and we need to. It's OK to make the people who own these companies feel uncomfortable, because they make money off of us and they get the best of us, right?
ANISTON Yeah, they do.
WITHERSPOON So, why shouldn't we ask questions?
Zendaya, before Euphoria, I've heard you talk about the pressure, almost to the point of paralysis, that you felt about making your next move. What was that pressure, and how much of it was internal versus external?
ZENDAYA I think, like a lot of artists, I'm my biggest critic, so some of it was internal — not wanting to make a mistake or worrying that maybe I didn't have the room to make a mistake and wanting to make the right next move. But I also wanted to prove myself. When Euphoria came along, I was very grateful because all those fears melted away and I felt like it was something that I had to be a part of. So, the fear became just, like, push yourself. If you go to work and you're scared, that's a good thing. You should be worried about whether you can do it.
MONÁE I just want to say you were brilliant.
WITHERSPOON I agree, and I'd be scared to play that character, too.
ZENDAYA I appreciate that so much.
You just said you didn't feel you had the room to make a mistake. Can you elaborate on that idea and how it impacts your choices?
ZENDAYA It's a constant thing. Being a young Disney actor, that's one level, being a young Black woman is one level, and then being very hard on myself is another level. It's also just a personal fear. I want to do a good job, and sometimes that can cause you to be fearful of things. But I will say that there's something that happens when a special character comes along, for me at least, and those fears melt away. They don't come back until it starts airing, which is when I started to get a little scared again. (Laughter.) But now, I'm excited to go back because the motivation is to work harder and become a better actress. I just want to get better.
Helena, you needed some convincing to join The Crown. Why?
BONHAM CARTER It might not be a relief to Zendaya to know that 30 years later you'll still be carrying the onus of having to prove you can do it to yourself.
ANISTON Oh, that never goes away.
BONHAM CARTER It doesn't. Or maybe other people are fancy free and they're like, "Fuck it, I got it down." (Laughter.) With Margaret, I was very conscious that I was inheriting a hit. I was conscious that Vanessa [Kirby] had just won a BAFTA. At the beginning, the first two weeks, everyone was terrified. Then you relax.
But the other thing was I have to see a script and have to respond to the words. People were shocked that I wouldn't just take it. I think [creator Peter] Morgan thought I was insulting them, and I wasn't. I just needed to know whether I could do it. He sent me the last episode, which is a really good Margaret episode, and I knew instantly, "Yeah, I know how to do this." That was why I took so long — it wasn't a lack of faith in them, it was faith in myself.
And once you did, you threw yourself in. I've heard you even bought the perfume that she wears?
BONHAM CARTER Oh, I do everything and hope that something will stick. It's insane the lengths to which I go, and it comes from insecurity and anxiety. And also, I enjoy that bit. For me, the best part of the job is when I get the part and there are all of these possibilities. And if you're playing somebody who's well known, you get to meet all these people and then have these conversations with them. So, yeah, I went to ridiculous lengths, but I don't know if it pays off because Olivia Colman, who plays the queen, she does nothing. She literally learns the lines and turns up and puts on an accent. And it's kind of galling, like somebody who does no work and gets an A+. She didn't even know when [the queen] was born. (Laughter.)
Unlike Helena, you were playing someone who is very much alive. At any point, even if it was after the fact, did you want to reach out?
BYRNE Yes, of course, but I just sort of know that I can't.
BYRNE I don't want to go into it too much, but it's a tough show for women of that time. Phyllis Schlafly is an incredibly polarizing character and it's told through Phyllis' eyes, so that would be incredibly hard if you were Gloria or whomever to revisit that time from Phyllis' perspective. I mean, I'm assuming, I don't know. But as an artist, the project was incredible to be a part of. There would be no Time's Up movement, no #MeToo without these women. I thought I knew about second-wave feminism, and I quickly realized, "Oh, I don't know anything." And I had a great wig. (Laughter.)
Many of these projects are relevant in ways you wish they weren't. The Morning Show delves into the gray areas of the #MeToo movement. Reese and Jen, as hands-on producers, what kinds of conversations did you have about exploring the complexity of the emotions and the responses to sexual misconduct?
ANISTON For us, it was to really pull the curtain back on how dark and messy and unforgiving the world was and is. And also to say all of the things that are said behind closed doors that no one has the guts to say out loud. That's what was so refreshing about it. And talk about characters to build on. It was extraordinary.
WITHERSPOON She came in ready with that journalist voice and I was like, “Where did you get that journalist voice?” She’s like, “I’ve been preparing it for eight weeks.”
ANISTON It was so much fun. Oh, and their jewelry and the clothes — you just kind of get lost.
Reese, what were the parts of the conversation that weren’t being had out in the open that you wanted to have within the show?
WITHERSPOON When we talk about systems, [the series] shows you from the top to the very bottom exactly how people are treated and who is listened to and believed and who's not and who's important in an organization and who's not. And media is its own mixed bag. It's a bizarre world that we live in where we don't even know where to get the truth anymore.
Janelle, your Homecoming role was written without an ethnicity. You've said, "I love the fact that I am Black and that I get to bring that to the table." How has your own identity helped to shape the character?
MONÁE Yeah, this was the first script where it didn't specify "urban" or "Black." And I'm obviously very proud of who I am and where I come from, [but] there was just an amount of freedom that I felt like I had in that. I didn't have to live up to some stereotype of what you think [she] represents or what Black people can be.
I'm also thankful for women like Julia Roberts. Her role was not supposed to come back in the second season, but for her to say, "Yes, Janelle Monáe, you come and lead this show," when not a lot of Black women are leading shows, [took some] pressure off. But I was so freaked out, like, "Oh my God, Julia Roberts [starred in] the first season and I'm this young Black girl, I've never led TV before, what are people going to think?" and I don't want another person to have to think like that again. I want the freedom Julia probably felt — maybe she had other pressures, but [it's] different when you know you are that minority showing up.
Helena, you've said, "You're always at the mercy of what others see you as or don't see you as, and you have to fight for what you really want." What has that looked like for you, and what was worth fighting for?
BONHAM CARTER Because we can't give ourselves jobs unless we're dynamic like Reese or Jennifer, who produce the things. I often think I'm going to and then just lose momentum. So, in order to get a job, we're at the mercy of somebody else thinking you're appropriate.
How does the industry see you?
BONHAM CARTER Well, way back 100 years ago when I started in the profession, I was very much an ingenue and appeared in a lot of costume dramas. That was my typecasting. And I remember I came to L.A. in my early 20s, and I just felt like such a freak because I knew I didn't have the legs to survive in L.A. And the parts that were available for women were just so bad. The only dimension was about your body, and I was very small and my legs weren't thin and I just thought, "Jesus."
So when Tim Burton, who I ended up having two children with, phoned me up and wanted me to be a chimpanzee [in 2001's Planet of the Apes], I thought, "Thank Christ, somebody is casting me for not what my envelope is." So even though the script was terrible, I thought, "I've got to play a chimpanzee in a Tim Burton film because I'm getting out of my skin," which is all I want to do. I want to crawl out of this envelope and be somebody else. And I always think I’m doing it and then I watch five minutes and I give up quickly because I’m like, “Damn, I’m still me.” But very early on, when I could, I started just doing everything that was different. Not for the sake of being different, but I always knew that I was, at heart, a character actor and I didn’t want to be the lead. I was in A Room With A View when I was an embryo. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I was learning on the job.
WITHERSPOON So amazing.
BONHAM CARTER But I always found everybody else had the funny lines. It was like, “This is so boring.” (Laughter.) I spent my 20s being bored and ashamed of what I looked like, and I had no idea that 30 years later I'd be like, "Why don't I have plump skin?" The relief of getting older is you get off your own back.
ANISTON It's so true. Youth is wasted on the young.
BONHAM CARTER Yeah, enjoy it while you have it. (Laughter.)
Who here has struggled with wanting to be seen in ways that the industry didn't want to see them?
ANISTON Oh my God, yes.
What do you do?
ANISTON You just exhaust yourself. I mean, I could not get Rachel Green off of my back for the life of me. I could not escape "Rachel from Friends," and it's on all the time and you're like, "Stop playing that fucking show!" (Laughter.) The Good Girl was the first time I got to really shed whatever the Rachel character was, and to be able to disappear into someone who wasn't that was such a relief to me. But I remember the panic that set over me, thinking, "Oh God, I don't know if I can do this. Maybe they're right. Maybe everybody else is seeing something I'm not seeing, which is you are only that girl in the New York apartment with the purple walls." So, I was almost doing it for myself just to see if I could do something other than that. And it was terrifying because you're doing it in front of the world.
BONHAM CARTER Yeah.
ANISTON So, I just fought with myself and who I was in this industry forever, and it was constantly about trying to prove that I was more than that person. But there is such a freedom in getting older because you just stop giving a crap. (Laughter.)
Can anyone else relate?
WITHERSPOON I mean, all of us.
BYRNE Yeah, you're constantly trying to do that. I found a lot more freedom once I started doing comedy because I had been doing serious things. But then once you start doing more comedy, people don't think you can do serious. It's this ongoing reinvention and people have preconceived ideas about you and you're always trying to shake that up.
ANISTON That's right. Once you play comedy, they don't think you can do the drama; and if you're only seen as a dramatic actor, they don't think you can do comedy. They forget that we're actors and we actually have it all in there. It's just about finding it and accessing it and getting the material.
BYRNE Right. And I, too, find as I get older I'm less concerned about all the noise and I'm just trying to figure out what is the project that I think is either saying something or is in some way exceptional.
WITHERSPOON But it used to be that we were reliant on a bunch of people who worked at a studio to tell us what movies worked and we just blindly accepted it — or they'd say comedies don't travel overseas or Black films don't play well in other countries. It's just not true, and now we have empirical data that other stories need to be heard and there is a huge audience for them. You see that with Zendaya, she has 400 billion followers. (Laughs.) I mean, she has her own data stream, she knows more what her audience wants to see her do than any studio head.
WITHERSPOON So, we have a sense of control and the ability to steer our careers that we never had before. I couldn't connect to my audience before; now I know exactly where they live. I know what they like on Apple or on Hulu, or I know if they like Amazon better. It's empowering. This information age has brought on a lot of yucky stuff, but it's also brought on this liberation that we are able to connect and we know that we matter.
Zendaya, you took to Instagram before Euphoria's premiere to warn your fans, many of whom are young, about what they'd see. How much do you grapple with what your fan base can handle? And how does it impact your choices?
ZENDAYA I have a heavy responsibility on my shoulders, but I'm appreciative for that because with that there's a lot of good that I can do and I know who is watching. Now, more than ever, specifically with Black Lives Matter and everything, I feel an obligation to make sure that I'm aware and putting out the right things and in line with organizers and people who are on the ground.
BYRNE Can I ask how old are you?
ZENDAYA I'm 23.
BYRNE That's extraordinary. I mean, at 23, I was a depressive weirdo. (Laughter.) You are so composed and erudite.
ZENDAYA Thank you, I'm just figuring it out as I go, trying to do the best I can. And when it came to Euphoria, I just wanted to make sure that my fans knew, even the ones who were my age or older than me, that I still felt their support even if they felt that the material was too triggering for them or if they didn't feel ready or comfortable watching. [At the same time,] I didn't want to limit [myself] as an artist. I want to be able to do the things that I want to do and play the roles that I want to play.
In the past, you've told your reps, "Even if the part calls for a white girl, put me up for it, get me in the room." Is that still the case?
ZENDAYA Absolutely. I also think it's important being a light-skinned woman to recognize my privilege in that sense as well and make sure that I'm not taking up space where I don't need to.
I think that's been a choice for myself. Our creator [Sam Levinson] wrote Rue based off his own experiences with addiction and he is a white man, so Rue could have been that. Rue had no description. So, I'm very grateful and hopefully I'll be in a space like these ladies where I can create things and make space for women who look like me and women who don't look like me. That's the ultimate goal, to make room, [because] for a lot of Black creatives, it's not a lack of talent but a lack of opportunity.
You're all playing complicated characters. Curious, are you able to leave them at work? Or do these women come home with you?
BYRNE I'm pretty church and state. I regret things and I'm hard on myself, but I don't drag it home. Particularly with little kids, because they don't give a shit if I've had a hard day. (Laughter.)
WITHERSPOON Yeah, I don't get to bring it home. And when I do, my whole family lets me know.
BYRNE Me too. Bobby [Cannavale, Byrne's husband] is like, "Snap out of it. What's wrong with you? Babe, come on." And I'm like, "Oh sorry, sorry." (Laughter.)
How about you, Janelle? You've said that your upcoming film, Antebellum — a horror film where you play a present-day author who, after speaking out about systemic racism, suddenly finds herself living as a slave — took a real toll on you.
MONÁE Oh, I brought all of my ancestors home with me. This is a project that is so of the times, and it was not going to be a yes for me because I knew the responsibility and the weight of it and I knew what this character was going to have to go through physically and emotionally. And we were filming most of the stuff at night on a plantation, and I felt everything. There were just certain conversations even at craft services that if I heard would be triggering for me. I couldn't even talk to my family sometimes. It was kind of unhealthy when I think back. But, also, this past year, I filmed Antebellum, I went on tour and then I started Homecoming, so I didn't have a break mentally.
ANISTON Oh God.
MONÁE And on top of that, I was dealing with mercury poisoning [which she contracted from consuming too much fish]. I used it for Homecoming — I didn't know I had it in Antebellum, but looking back at the footage, I used the disorientation and unraveling in my personal life onscreen.
BONHAM CARTER I'm wondering what were the symptoms? Just to see if I have it.
BYRNE Helena, are you OK?
BONHAM CARTER Well, this might just solve my problem … (Laughs.)
MONÁE It might not be the same for everybody, but memory loss. I lost a lot of hair. What else? Coordination, high anxiety, shyness. I didn't want to talk to people. People would reach out, and I apologize now if you were one of those people last year who reached out to me and wanted to talk or engage in business or whatever. I just didn't have it in me. I became kind of a recluse.
BONHAM CARTER Well, you were poisoned. Thank you, this has been very educational.
I’d love to end on a considerably lighter note. When was the last time you six were generally star struck? Jen, I believe I watched you get star struck on The Graham Norton Show.
ANISTON Oh my god, Julie Andrews! I was star struck there, 100 percent.
BYRNE I met Julia Roberts on the set of Homecoming because my husband was in it and I had my baby strapped to my chest, and I had never met her before and I had a Pretty Woman poster on my wall in Sydney, Australia, and there she was and I just couldn’t talk. Like, I am bright red even thinking about it. (Laughter.)
MONÁE Same. She showed up second season and I didn’t know she was going to be on set. Stephan James, who is an incredible actor, we [were doing] a scene and all of a sudden we heard, “Aaaaaah!” And we were like, “Who is that?” One of the guys from production leaned in and said, “I think she loves it, that’s Julia Roberts.” So, I got an opportunity to hug her and tell her how big of a cinema hero she is to me.
ZENDAYA I mean, this is exciting. I’m proud of myself for speaking at all because I was very nervous. (Laughter.) But when I met Beyoncé, that was the only time I’ve ever acted like, real not cool. I just lost my cool. My dad even said it because I was with him at the time and he was like, “Dude, you nerded out just then.” And I was like, “I know, I’m being weird.” Usually I can keep it together. (Laughter)
MONÁE Having conversations with her is always like [her eyes widen]. She’s so down to earth and humble though.
How about the rest of you? Reese, you’re in position now where you can call your heroes and say, “Let’s do something together,” which is a unique power.
WITHERSPOON I’ve called a few of you! (Laughter.) We have to stick together. The guys have been sticking together forever and they’ve all made seven to 10 movies together and we haven’t done enough with each other. But it’s a new day and a new landscape for all of us to collaborate and amplify each other and just celebrate each other.
CARTER I have many. Meryl Streep, she was amazing. And then I did this film, Ocean's 8 and every single person was remarkable. There was Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, one after the other. And then Rihanna came in and she just out-starred everybody. She’s just extraordinary in her magnetism. She’s a goddess. But Reese is absolutely right and I hope she asks for my number and gives me a part in something. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.