"We Are Hilarious and Filthy and Complicated and Interesting": Tiffany Haddish, Elle Fanning and The Hollywood Reporter Comedy Actress Roundtable
Courtesy of Subjects; Thede: Acacia Thede/Courtesy of Subject; Max Minghella/Courtesy of Subject

"We Are Hilarious and Filthy and Complicated and Interesting": Tiffany Haddish, Elle Fanning and The Hollywood Reporter Comedy Actress Roundtable

Jane Levy, Jameela Jamil, Robin Thede and Amy Sedaris also get (very) candid about the shocking roles they’ve passed on ("I don’t want to just be someone’s f*** toy") the perks of playing ugly ("The uglier the better") and, in this moment, the stories that they’re eager to tell.

Tiffany Haddish has been so desperate for a connection in these trying times, she's started performing stand-up for her plants. And since those plants aren't as responsive as she'd like, she's "been playing YouTube videos of babies laughing and my old comedy tapes [to hear] audiences," the star of Netflix's Black Mitzvah and TBS' The Last O.G. reveals on a mid-June afternoon, as part of The Hollywood Reporter's virtual Comedy Actress Roundtable.

"I'm an addict for laughter," Haddish adds. "It's like I need it to function."

The admission resonated with the other actresses — The Great's Elle Fanning, A Black Lady Sketch Show's Robin Thede, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's Jane Levy, The Good Place's Jameela Jamil and At Home With Amy Sedaris' Amy Sedaris — who have also used this period of reflection to consider the stories that they want to be a part of and the characters they want to play. Over the course of an hour, all six opened up about their desire to surprise, enlighten and entertain their audiences — without needing to disrespect themselves.

For all of you, this is the first time in years that you've had time to stop and reflect. How will this period impact the professional choices you make going forward?

TIFFANY HADDISH Oh, I'm definitely choosing differently. First, I've been napping, and I think naps are magic, so when we get back out there, I'm definitely putting in my contracts that I have to have a one-hour nap. That means nobody talking to me, nobody trying to go, "Hey, can we go over these lines?" I need one hour to shut my eyeballs. And I'm definitely going to be telling different types of stories and my comedy is going to evolve, too. I want to start doing things that represent Black history and not just the slave stuff because we past all that, OK?

ROBIN THEDE Thank you.

HADDISH We've done a lot of really awesome things as people. Like, I'd love to do a movie about Flo-Jo. I've been running every day on my little treadmill, getting my mind right and channeling Flo-Jo. And I want to remake Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That's part of why I've been talking to the plants, I'm preparing myself. (Laughter.)

What about the rest of you? Having had this moment of reflection, will your choices change at all?

JAMEELA JAMIL I think the industry as a whole is going to change, not just the way that we make films, especially in the next couple of years, but also the stories that people want to hear. And because the world has come to a standstill, we're hearing more human stories than we have ever heard before. I'm hoping that for women, the material continues to evolve, because that still needs to be done. A lot of men still write more interesting, informative and nuanced roles for extraterrestrials than they do for women.

So, we need more female writers and more women execs. And we definitely need more representation. We need stories that aren't being told to burst onto the screen. We've heard in so many different ways the public is done waiting for the media to catch up with where the society is at. So, I'm hoping I'll see more interesting scripts at my door.

AMY SEDARIS I agree with everything everyone is saying, but inside I still want to be really silly and I want to laugh at shit and make fun of people. I don't want that to go away and get too serious about stuff.

How about you, Jane?

JANE LEVY I definitely feel changed in this moment. Our show came out during the pandemic and it's a musical, full of joy and silly comedy, but it also has this theme of grief, and a lot of audience members have connected with me on the internet to say that during the pandemic, the show offered them great catharsis and a great distraction. And I feel so proud and humbled by that.

In the past, some of the things that I've done that have made the most money have been horror films. And if [I'd had] a horror film that came out in the past couple of months, I'd feel less like my art had offered something to people in this way that I felt was meaningful. So not to poop on all horror films, because I still like watching them, but I may be veering toward projects that are really full of heart rather than just, I don't know, violence or gore. Obviously, that's part of storytelling, but for me it was a really gratifying thing to hear that our show offered anything to people during such a hard time.

I believe you've said that horror is taxing on your nervous system. Is that right?

LEVY Totally. Screaming and crying and also, like, sorry to be so dark, but every horror film a woman is raped …

THEDE Ugh.

LEVY I'm kind of over that.

HADDISH We've got to start raping men in horror films, we've got to rape some dudes. Let's change it up! (Laughs.)

JAMIL Fuckin' hell, Tiffany.

THEDE What are you drinking? (Laughter.)

How does Hollywood see you, Elle? And is it how you want to be seen?

ELLE FANNING When I was 14, I was cast as Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent, and that phone call definitely changed my life and my trajectory and it differentiated me from my sister [Dakota]. That role is very important to me, but also it's a Disney princess, and I'm this blond and it comes with a certain stigma, right? And that's the biggest movie I've done, so I'm recognized most for it. What was exciting for me about The Great was getting to try out the comedy world. People think of me as doing these serious, dramatic roles or just playing the kid, and I feel like I'm a funny person in real life and I love shocking people and proving that I'm not exactly who they think I am.

When casting directors call all of you, what do they tend to offer?

HADDISH You know what's been coming my way a lot lately? The mama who's been through something, whose kid ends up being hurt in some way and fighting for justice. And the baby's sick or I'm trying to get out of jail. Like, no, I'm not doing that. I know people who live that, I'm not doing it. Unless it's super, super good. The writing has to be impeccable. A lot of times it's telling these stories that could be powerful, but the writing [turns out to be] garbage.

ALL Mm-hmm.

JAMIL I get sent a lot of very sexual roles, lots of [stories of] a woman who has what would be described by the writer as "too much sex." And that tends to be one of the ways in which we show nuance in a woman, how her life is complicated by how much she drinks and how many people she sleeps with. And so that's been something really strange to me. I mean, it's fine, I love sex and stories about it, but I find that overwhelmingly I am either the sexy girlfriend or the annoying girlfriend who derails the male protagonist's life, and I'm so tired of that always being the case.

THEDE Yeah.

JAMIL And I've been watching so many films during lockdown and realizing how often that storyline comes up, that a woman is there to instigate difficulty for a man and she doesn't really get to be the great comedian. I don't want to be someone's sidekick and I don't want to just be someone's fuck toy in a film. I want more complex and nuanced roles, especially within comedy for women. And I think that we are coming into a great moment, but that can't be where we stop. We have so much more to do, so many more stories to tell, because women are amazing and they are hilarious and they are filthy and complicated and interesting. Robin, that's why I love your work so much, because of how many different layers of women you show.

THEDE Thank you, that really means a lot.

Robin, what are the stories that you've historically felt you couldn't tell? And how, in this moment, might that be changing?

THEDE Oh, I've never had a problem writing or doing what I wanted. (Laughs.) The interesting thing for me is that I don't think Hollywood does see me, to be honest. I don't get sent scripts. I don't get random calls. I don't audition. I create shows and I act in them. For me, that has been the way it's been for the many, many years I've been in this business. I was never that girl.

And to what Jameela and Tiffany were saying about getting projects where you're like, "This could be really good, but the writing is so bad, or it's from the wrong point of view," I took charge of that, and luckily I'm able to do that and I have the skill set to do that. I've also worked really hard to be able to create stories that I want to see on TV. It's so cool to be able to take four Black women on this sketch show and do what has never been done in history, have a Black woman director, all Black women writers and an all-Black women cast, and be able to play over 100 characters and have 55 celebrity guest stars in six episodes. Tiffany, we're still waiting on your schedule.

HADDISH Well, it's wide open right now! (Laughter.) If you write a sketch where I play a white woman in history …

THEDE No, no.

HADDISH Like The King and I

SEDARIS I'd see that.

HADDISH … if they had a Russian man playing a Thai king, I could be the white woman in The King and I. Let's do it!

THEDE Sadly, I think that'll have to be on a different show. We don't really cover that kind of material, but … (Laughter.)

HADDISH You don't want to remake white classics?

THEDE I certainly don't. There are plenty of other spaces that can do that. I do stuff that can only be done by Black women, and I think that's what's so cool, you know?

HADDISH OK, let's do Cleopatra. (Laughter.)

THEDE OK, you got it. Perfect.

How about you, Amy? Does Hollywood have you in a lane, and is it the lane you want to be in?

SEDARIS I'm with Robin, I'm not really in a lane and I'm not really on Hollywood's radar, which is what I like. I like to spearhead my own projects, get the people I know involved and put on a show. Sometimes a script will come my way, but it's usually a character, and I'm always like, "Well, does this make me laugh, will I have fun, what am I going to look like, who else is involved, do I really feel like getting on the airplane and flying to go do it?" All these elements play into it.

JAMIL Did anyone else get sent that script that had a woman who's a police officer undercover and the part she's playing is a hypersexualized bimbo as her undercover role and she has to say … you know what? This is actually too filthy to say. (Laughs.)

Oh, you started it, keep going …

JAMIL OK, I got sent this by my agents. One of the lines in the script is when she's telling these two men that she wants to feel both their cocks slapping together inside her mouth. Which [raises] the question: How small are their cocks, and how big is my mouth supposed to be that there's room to come apart and slap?

SEDARIS When do you start shooting it?

THEDE And what was the gross part? (Laughs.)

JAMIL The gross part was when I say, "I want you to cover me in your man milk."

THEDE Oh! (Laughs.)

SEDARIS No, I didn't see that one.

JAMIL This script was written by a very, very famous actor who was producing it, writing it, and a lot of very big names went up for it.

FANNING And you're starring in it, this is your next project?

JAMIL Covered in man milk! (Laughter.)

HADDISH That's a porno, girl, you're making a porno.

THEDE Steven Spielberg has taken a weird turn. (Laughter.)

JAMIL I'll stop talking. I just wondered if anyone else had seen that.

THEDE No, but that's amazing and fascinating. That's the kind of stuff that, honestly, when I was a few years into the business and I wasn't seeing the results that I wanted as a comedian and a performer, I was like, "OK, I'm going to write myself into stuff." Because when you see stuff like that, it's just like, "Come on. We can't make a living this way."

JAMIL It's demoralizing.

THEDE It's totally demoralizing. And honestly, Black women don't even usually get sexualized unless they are a sex worker or a dancer or something like that. Black women are usually the opposite, where they're just not sexualized at all. Like, they never have sex, and they are not attractive. So it's kind of both sides of the coin. And it's tired, those stories and those characters are so tired. And they're not real.

Tiffany, has that been your experience, and is that changing at all?

HADDISH You know, when I first hit the scene, I was offered a lot of roles where they want you to expose your breasts. I remember that movie that Chris Rock did [Top Five] and it's like he meets the two girls and they have a threesome and then Cedric [the Entertainer] gets in there and he's supposed to "blah" all over their faces — just let that baby batter go all up in their face. And it was like, "Tiffany, they're offering you the role." And I was like, "I don't want that role. I'm a stand-up comedian and I don't let people do that in my face in real life, so why would I do it in this movie?" Like, you ought to have a little bit of respect for me, period. God made this face for a reason, and you're not going to disrespect it.

Fair enough.

HADDISH I feel like sometimes my representation tries to get me to go outside my lane, and if it is against my morals — and I do have some, I know I'm a little wild, but I do have standards — then somebody might get fired. It's like, I'm a company, I'm a brand, and if you try to go against the policy of the company, you might not need to be working here anymore. So my people, we have weekly conversations about where I'm at mentally, what I want to do. And right now, almost everything I'm doing, I'm producing.

THEDE That's great.

HADDISH Yeah, and my lane is big. I got a five-lane highway, and I have standards and I'll be damned if anybody makes me sway.

THEDE I want to see you in a loving relationship, whether it's a comedy or a drama. I've known you for decades, I know what you can do. I want to see all the dimensions of you. Do you feel like those things are coming your way?

HADDISH Those things are coming.

THEDE Good.

Elle, there are a lot of sex scenes in The Great, but there's considerably more male nudity than female. How does that change a dynamic on set?

FANNING It's interesting, Catherine the Great, in real life, was kind of the first woman who was slut-shamed. I mean, the whole horse rumor [that she possibly had sex with a horse] was created because she loved sex, she was very open and had multiple lovers. Obviously, our story is not a historical document, but a lot of truths are in it, and that's a big part of Catherine's character, so sex is incorporated into the show a lot. And of course it's a period show, so we're corseted up with multiple layers of skirts and just the logistics of actually getting naked — for the women, it takes a long time. So everyone's just having fully clothed sex. It's like, "All right, girls, we're going to just lift up your skirt, and that's fine." And there was an intimacy coordinator on set, which was new to me.

SEDARIS Wow.

FANNING Yeah, a woman who was there to make sure everyone felt comfortable and also made sure that the sex looked real. There would be times where Nick [Hoult] would be in the wrong position, and she's like, "It doesn't look like you're doing it." Her name was Ita and she made sure all the monitors were off when there were nude scenes, and obviously made sure no one did anything that they didn't feel comfortable with. But it was hard to keep a straight face during those scenes with Nicholas Hoult. He's hilarious, and I'd be biting down on a pillow when he's having to thrust and say these lines. And I'm so happy that I had someone that I felt comfortable with, and we could actually be embarrassed in front of each other. That was something that was new for me.

SEDARIS I could never do anything like that.

THEDE What, sex scenes?

SEDARIS Sex scenes or get naked or pose in your underwear. Never. It just doesn't interest me. It's just not fun to me.

Amy, At Home With Amy Sedaris is the first time you're playing yourself, which is something you long resisted. How did you ultimately get comfortable with the idea?

SEDARIS Because I realized that I was the odd man out. Like, even though I was doing all the characters around me or people would come on, it was like, "Oh, I'm the queer one, I'm the one nobody really likes that much, I'm the straight person." Somehow that gave me a hook to play. But I just had more fun playing characters and being other people and looking completely different.

You've said, "If I'm going to be in the makeup chair, let's get ugly for it, ugly is so much more fun to play."

SEDARIS Yeah, or somebody evil. It's fun playing mean.

A lot of you are nodding, which I presume means you agree?

THEDE Yeah, I love playing hideous. I mean, if anyone has seen my show, you know I never look like myself. I play men, I play 150-year-old people, I play everything. I love just hiding in those characters and being able to don different looks. But yeah, the uglier the better, man.

SEDARIS Plus, it gives hair and makeup a chance to be creative. I did a small part on The Mandalorian and I was like, "OK, just give me a mullet and take my eyebrows away." The guys who were doing it were like, "Most girls come on the show and they want to be pretty, or they want to look exotic." I'm not like that, and everyone had so much fun because they got to make me look ugly.

JAMIL I also hugely object to how much time they make us spend [in hair and makeup] when they're trying to make us look nice or glamorous.

SEDARIS Ohhh God.

JAMIL After season one of The Good Place, I objected. I took the producers aside and I was like, "How ugly do you think I am? An hour and 45 minutes? What is this, Avatar?" So I was like, I'm doing my own makeup.

Did it change as a result?

JAMIL Yeah. I said, "I'm doing my own makeup, I know how to do it, I have had this hairstyle since I was 2." I was like, "I want the same amount of time as the boys. This is a comedy. I need to be funny, and I can't be funny if I'm tired. I'd rather be funny than look perfect or utterly glamorous and glossy." So, I got the same hair and makeup time as the boys ­— 25 minutes in and out — and I got sleep and it infinitely improved my performance. I couldn't remember my lines when I was tired. It's a crazy thing to put on comedians, especially, the idea that our sleep and our memory and our timing and our energy isn't important. I'm a bitch when I'm tired, I'm not funny.

LEVY For me, at least, the most fun part about acting and making TV shows and movies is the fantastical element. I'm not interested in watching shows or movies about people who look like me and sound like me and just go about life the way that I do. I want to see something greater. And I think comedy fits into that, at least on our show because it's about people who break into song and dance. Blowing things out bigger, and these fantastical realties are more interesting to me as a performer.

Robin, after spending years working on late night shows where you'd have to consume news 24/7 and then find ways to joke about it, you've segued to a project that is not at all topical ­— and I assume that's not a coincidence. How much did the task of having to find humor in what was often and increasingly bleak news weigh on you?

THEDE It weighs on you a lot. I was doing it for five, six years straight and consuming news 24/7. Everything from Ferguson to the Charleston shooting to Trump being elected. We got canceled on The Nightly Show [with Larry Wilmore] right before that happened, and then my late night show [The Rundown With Robin Thede, on BET] came on right after he took office. I hadn't let up in many years and those years are like dog years, they feel much longer for people who have to live it every day. So for me, I knew my next project after my late night show got canceled was to go back to my roots in sketch and to effect change differently. It wasn't going to be me coming on TV every night talking about my opinions about politics and pop culture, but it was going to be making a revolutionary statement. We never mention politics on the show because we think that the political act is existing.

Tiffany, you've called yourself an "administrator of joy" — how challenging is it to play that role in this moment? And if you had a gig this weekend, could you be funny?

HADDISH It is very difficult to be funny in this moment. But I'm going to be honest with you, if I had a show this weekend I would light that stage up.

THEDE Yeah, you would.

HADDISH I'm here to administer the joy.

SEDARIS That's a good way to put it.

What would you say?

HADDISH If I had a show this weekend, I'd just talk my truth. Like, people have asked me, "Tiffany, how can we solve this? What do you think we could do?" And to be honest, I don't know. But I know when I have problems and I want them solved, I just stop having sex and everything's solved. (Laughter.) So, if everybody just stopped having sex, especially if you are in an interracial relationship and your man is white, stop having sex with your white man. Things will change. If you are a white woman and you've got a white man, stop having sex with that white man. When a white man ain't gettin' no sex, things change, that I know. These are the things I would talk about.

JAMIL I actually thought it was because no one is having enough sex and that's what's making everyone so cunty?

HADDISH That ain't why. See, sex is power. Now, you take the power away and he wants that power. Now he's walking around with blue balls, you know what I'm saying? If a Black man ain't gettin' no sex, he's going to team up with the white man, "Look, brother, we've got to figure this out. OK? The women ain't having sex with us and I don't want to have sex with a man. So we've got to figure this out. We've got to make it right." I'm telling you, things would change. (Laughter.)

Jameela, your background isn't as an actress, per se. Was there a period early in The Good Place where you began to think of yourself as one?

JAMIL The Good Place was my first-ever audition for anything. I had never, ever acted.

SEDARIS Wow.

JAMIL When I was 6, I played Oliver's mother onstage at school, so when I was asked by the casting director if I had any acting experience, I was like, "I did theater in England," and I was referencing my pre-9-year-old school plays.

But I guess it was probably sometime through season two. Season one was really hard. I think generally as a woman you have a tendency toward imposter syndrome, so when you are literally an imposter, someone who has never acted, surrounded by veterans and people like Ted [Danson] and Kristen [Bell], and even my supporting cast had all been working for about two decades, I felt so unworthy of being there and so stressed that I used to comfort-eat my way through the entire season one. I was almost concentrating on how much gas I had rather than how nervous I was having to act face-to-face with Kristen. I would avoid eye contact with her for the first seven episodes. I used to try to look at someone else while delivering all my lines to her because I felt guilty for being there. But I think over the course of spending 16 hours a day with Ted Danson and all these great actors, just studying them day and night, by season two I had started to find my confidence.

I still have so much to learn, but the joy of [creator] Mike Schur is that he is someone who writes those interesting, complicated, nuanced, different roles, especially for women and for people from other ethnicities. I wasn't the typical South Asian like (with an accent), "Hello, I drive taxi cab, I am your doctor," the only kind of roles that we South Asians were ever given historically. He just wrote me as a human — a complicated, tricky human who is playing out her childhood trauma in her adult life, which is all of us.

Earlier in this conversation, Elle referenced the horse-sex rumor that followed Catherine the Great. I'm curious if you all have ever felt compelled to clear up a misconception about yourself or if you've ever felt genuinely misunderstood?

HADDISH Oh, people come up with crazy stuff to say about you. They look at you and I feel like they put their own little crazy thoughts on you and then they create these stories. And I'm not perfect, I make mistakes, but when I make them, I claim them. "Yes, this is the dumb shit I did" or "This is the stupid thing I said." But if they make up stuff, that's when I use my fake [social media] account and I attack. And I attack viciously. I reach out to my little unicorns and I'm like, "Get 'em y'all, get 'em!" (Laughter.)

JAMIL I've had quite an interesting experience because I choose to use my platform to be very vocal and a bit loud and a bit much about certain social and political issues that I take issue with. And I think a lot of people think I'm Tahani in real life and that The Good Place is a fucking documentary. So they think I grew up with loads of money and that I had this really privileged, perfect upbringing, which couldn't be further from the truth. And also because she loves philanthropy but she does it for show, people assume I'm in philanthropy just for show. And it's like speaking out about things that are stigmatized doesn't help your career. It doesn't make people think that you are easier to work with — it doesn't make people think that you are not a liability, it costs you working relationships. I attack giant power structures. Like, who would do this for fun? It's not fun, but it's something that I personally choose to do with my career.

HADDISH Mm-hmm.

JAMIL But people tend to start rumors when there isn't enough controversy, especially with women. We see this in this industry, where a woman is given a year and a half of grace when everyone loves her. We saw it with Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway, all these different famous women where you get a year and a half when everyone loves you and then you get overexposed to death and this perfect cycle of the drag begins, and we see it one after another. And so I'm definitely experiencing that cycle; thankfully, I knew it was always coming. But people start to tell really vicious rumors, especially about women. And because they're not allowed to take us out and kill us anymore, they discredit us. Discredit is the new death. I think if they feel like too many people are listening to a woman or she is breaking too many glass ceilings, people think you're dangerous. And because they can't get rid of you, they just destroy people's opinion of you.

Do you feel that you've lost roles because you've spoken up?

JAMIL I don't know if I've lost roles. I think some networks where I've gotten involved in HR have definitely become a little bit afraid of working with me because I'm a sort of a professional tattletale and whistleblower. But I don't think it has affected me, careerwise, when it comes to Hollywood. I mostly think it's impacted the sort of brand relationships because I'm trying as hard as I can to stick to my principles and not work with problematic people. But as we are seeing, everyone has got some sort of blood on their hands, everyone is problematic, everyone is difficult to work with. I do wonder what the state of things will be after the pandemic now that everyone's shown their ass.

As we wrap up, what have you all learned about yourselves during the pandemic?

LEVY I've learned about resiliency, people's collective resilience.

SEDARIS I've learned not to be so set in my ways. And the Girl Scout in me, she was prepared for this. I had everything. I wasn't out desperately trying to buy stuff. The only thing I hoarded was hay for my 7-pound rabbit. Thirty pounds of hay. (Laughter.)

HADDISH I learned I'm way more emotional than I thought I was. To be told to stop and sit and be still, it's left me with my thoughts, and my thoughts are off the chain. And I start to get all in my feelings and then I'm like, "Why am I crying?"

THEDE I haven't learned this, but it's been confirmed that I'm incredibly lucky and grateful for the friends and family that I have.

JAMIL I think gratitude is a big thing for all of us. I also think I'm never going to shake hands with anyone ever again as long as I live. I can't believe we've been doing that. The amount of times a hand has just been on some sort of dick and then we've touched it? I've been alive for 34 years and I've just allowed this on my hands?

THEDE Oh, I'm always thinking about shit — people that don't wipe. (Laughs.)

JAMIL All those in favor of handshaking being canceled, say aye.

ALL Aye.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.