Alex Borstein, Regina Hall, Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph and Phoebe Waller-Bridge also sound off on life as a "female impersonator," when their characters give them a nervous breakdown and the pitfalls of "smug artistic integrity": "If you can't tell why you've got your tits out, you're probably in the wrong scene."
Jane Fonda arrives on a sleepy Sunday morning for The Hollywood Reporter's annual Comedy Actress Roundtable and promptly announces that she's a tad hungover.
The admission, delivered with immaculate timing, lands to big laughs, as the actresses gathered — a group of seven that includes The Last O.G.'s Tiffany Haddish, 39, and Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 33 — begin peppering the 81-year-old Oscar winner and Grace and Frankie star with questions about her previous evening and her illustrious career.
Many of the women seated around the table at Line 204 Studios in late April already know one another. Forever's Maya Rudolph, 46, and Russian Doll's Natasha Lyonne, 40, did a short stint as roommates in the '90s and now share a production company. Rudolph and Haddish famously presented together at the 2018 Oscars, prompting fan petitions to bring them back as co-hosts. (For the record, they are both down.) Haddish and Black Monday's Regina Hall, 48, co-starred in 2017 summer smash Girls Trip, which grossed $141 million worldwide and will purportedly get a sequel. And though Alex Borstein, 46, who lives with her family in Barcelona when she isn't filming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in New York, is meeting everyone for the first time, she did just catch Waller-Bridge's acclaimed stage show, a 65-minute monologue that formed the basis for her similarly acclaimed Amazon series of the same name (the writer-star's two-month New York revival of the show wrapped April 14).
Over the course of an hour and a half, the assembled actresses reflected on the politics of onscreen nudity, their mothers' influence and the parts they were (and weren't) allowed to play.
How much pressure, be it internal or external, do you feel to strike while the iron is hot and line up or say yes to other projects?
TIFFANY HADDISH I've always had other projects lined up. Y'all just didn't know about them because it was stuff I was making up on my own. Now, I just got a little more money and more people know who I am. And my family is asking me for more stuff, which is the part I hate. Everything else I love.
MAYA RUDOLPH That means you are successful.
HADDISH The whole family is like, "Because our blood is the same …" But I don't even have that much money, that's the thing.
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE When I was starting out doing Crashing and Fleabag and then Killing Eve came along, I was like, "I have to do this. I will break myself to do this because I know the impact it could have on my career." I think I'm now at the stage for the first time ever where I'm actually going to take a step back and recharge and think about what I want to write about again. Because when you're writing at that rate for that many years, you forget who you are or what you want to write about.
RUDOLPH It took me until very recently to realize, "Oh, you can get to a place in your career where you can choose more than react." So, I guess if that's the peak then I'll take it 'cause I like choosing. I don't like being told what to do.
When did you reach that point?
RUDOLPH I don't know. I mean, I felt very fortunate because I exited Saturday Night Live with a bit of an army, so I was never really alone if I didn't want to be. I could call upon a friend and write something. And I like playing in groups. I am not a solo artist. But now I feel like it's both quality control and quality of life.
Jane, as someone who's had this wide-ranging, multi-decade career, what have you learned about handling the peaks and the valleys?
JANE FONDA Embrace it all. And it doesn't have to peak and then be all downhill. I am over the hill in a chronological sense, but there is a whole vista out there that I didn't anticipate. So you can reach the peak and then you can go down and it can be just as interesting. It's a good idea not to pay too much attention to what other people think are the peaks and valleys.
ALEX BORSTEIN People forget that on the other side of a peak can also be a really amazing plateau. For me, I don't want to accumulate any other work. I feel done. I've gotten to do the best things I want to do and I'm done. No one is coming to me with any offers either, so it's easy for me to be like, "I'm done." But I feel like it's nice to just exist and I've got kids and I really want to try not to screw them up too much.
FONDA Good luck with that.
BORSTEIN Yeah, I know … (Laughs.)
REGINA HALL When I first started, I thought you got to a place where it was done. You reached a level where people knew you and you were offered films and they were great — and that's true to a point, but it's not in the way that you think. There's always work.
BORSTEIN Yeah, but if we wanted to feel settled, we'd get desk jobs. I think you're a better actor when you are a little bit fucking scared.
At this stage, what are the quick and easy no's?
NATASHA LYONNE I have a fantasy about not working in the summer anymore, but then summer pictures come up and you're like, "What am I doing? I'm looking down the barrel of an empty summer." But in my fantasy, I suddenly say, "No more." I have so much hair and it gets very hot under it. (Laughter.) But, like, a Dr. Zhivago I would do. In case anyone tosses it on the table.
What are the things the rest of you just won't do?
FONDA I think I wouldn't be naked anymore.
RUDOLPH Well, no one has asked me to do nudity.
BORSTEIN Right now, Maya.
RUDOLPH Well, that's different, yes (to Borstein, as Waller-Bridge tugs at Rudolph's sleeve).
HADDISH Take. It. Off. (Laughter.)
RUDOLPH I used to be a lot more passive aggressive about saying yes and then being unhappy and doing things that made me feel embarrassed. Even silly things like when you start to make it, especially as a comedy lady, and you get to do a fashion spread and it's, like, "Now we want you to fall out of a dumpster while putting your face in a birthday cake in a beautiful gown." And you're like, (nervously) "OK." So, I started learning to say no.
LYONNE You're extraordinary at saying no because you have such a deep sense of self.
RUDOLPH That's more recent than you realize as my friend. You've probably thought that all this time but, really, I was faking it.
FONDA Oh, yes.
RUDOLPH But in recent years, I've gotten better at it because it's about self-care and I don't want to feel the anger. It's that simple. And I used to get mad. When I first started, nobody wanted to even touch my hair. They were like, "What is that?" All the other black actresses were like, "Don't you bring your own wigs?" And I'd be like, "No?" My hair was out to here (extends her arms out wide) when I started at SNL. They'd put me under wigs and I'd have this big bump in the back because they had to get all my hair under there. I just had to figure out how to get through the day without wanting to cry or be frustrated or feel like an "other." It was this self-care journey and part of that is saying, "No, that doesn't work for me."
I want to return to nudity briefly. Natasha, I believe you turned down some roles …
LYONNE Several pornos, yes.
Post-Slums of Beverly Hills, you turned down projects like Buffy, Dawson's Creek …
LYONNE Some of the great pornos of our time. (Laughter.)
And you've since said of that period of your career that you regret not taking your clothes off more. Why?
LYONNE I stand by that statement. I remember on Slums of Beverly Hills I was 17 and I was scared to even be in my panties. I had such a warped sense of self and fear of outside opinion that I didn't want to open myself up to judgment. So, I felt like, if I can be this Joe Pesci tough-guy persona, I'd be keeping you at arm's length. There's something inherently vulnerable about "Here is my skin."
HALL That's the tragedy of youth! You don't know how good you look.
LYONNE Right? Maya and I went to Hawaii in the '90s and we are two lanky little tennis-playing …
RUDOLPH We looked amazing.
LYONNE We had visors and big Hunter S. Thompson aviators and we looked so cute.
RUDOLPH Boobies up here (puts her hands to her eyeline).
LYONNE Boobies up to here! (Laughter.)
HALL That's why you should be naked when you are young. You want to have that on film.
LYONNE Yeah. And then you can do these pictures as you are getting older because it becomes about the character you are playing and not about the fear of nudity. You become an actor who is just embodying the role in a way that I affiliated with fear too early on to ever shift it and be like, "Now at 35 is the time for it."
Where do the rest of you stand?
HADDISH I mean, how much they paying me? (Laughter.)
Is money all it is?
HADDISH I mean, I'm just borrowing this flesh suit. I am going to give this back to the Lord anyway. Might as well share it, if I can feed my family and whatnot.
You haven't done any to date.
HADDISH No, because ain't nobody came with the right kind of money. (Laughter.)
HALL I have an adult film for you …
HADDISH Is it me and Michael B. Jordan? I'm a method actress.
HALL I wouldn't say I wouldn't do it, it would just depend on what it was and who was directing it.
HADDISH Yeah, what's the quality of it? If it's, like, a classy situation, yeah. But if it's some super-raunchy nasty stuff, it better be freakin' hilarious, and I better be getting paid.
BORSTEIN I feel like every day you show up and you're giving so much of yourself to everybody, and the one thing that I have is this little mushy little pasty white form and it's mine. I am a filthy slut with the right person — I'll be walking around with whipped cream on my nipples or whatever — but in terms of outside and anyone else, I feel like you've got to have something that feels like yours and safe and special.
WALLER-BRIDGE I need to know what it's for. If you can't really tell why you've got your tits out, you're probably in the wrong scene.
WALLER-BRIDGE As a young actress, I used to find it really intimidating because you'd see so many actors onstage and screen and they'd all have to do it and so you knew there was a ticking clock — "If I want to be an actress, I am going to have to do that." And then the ones that we'd see were these perfect, gorgeous girls and it distracts me as an audience member. I'm thinking about those actors' bits. But then this play came along [2nd May 1997, in which Waller-Bridge appeared in 2009], and I had to have my top off for 20 minutes but it was really powerful in the scene. My character taking her top off freaks the other guy in the scene out so much that he starts behaving in this terrified way because she is using it as this power game. And I thought, "I know how to play that." So, I'm playing my nudity rather than just [being naked].
RUDOLPH When I saw Fleabag I was like, "I wish I could do that."
LYONNE I felt that way about Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises in the sauna. I was like, "I wish I could do that because that took real cojones."
BORSTEIN Oh, I couldn't watch because that's all I saw.
WALLER-BRIDGE (To Rudolph) I am not nude at any point in the show.
RUDOLPH I thought you showed your tatas. You don't?
WALLER-BRIDGE No, it was really important to me that I never showed anything, but because she is so candid with her language, it feels like I do.
RUDOLPH It's just your back?
WALLER-BRIDGE Just my back and shoulders and arm and face.
LYONNE You do face nudity?
WALLER-BRIDGE I do. (Laughter.)
RUDOLPH You just made me fall more deeply in love with you because I bought the whole picture because of your character. And I thought you had great tatas.
Jane, Grace and Frankie and your recent movie Book Club both portray older female sexuality, which has traditionally been treated either as a joke or ignored in film and TV. Why do you think the subject is being mined for story now?
FONDA [Our] culture doesn't like people with wrinkles to be talking about sex. And kids don't like to think about their parents doing it, either. But the fastest-growing demographic in the world is older women, and a lot of them are doing it very pleasurably. I wrote a book about it and I gave it to the writers. When I was in my 40s, I said before I die I want to be part of giving a cultural face to older women, and I can't tell you how much feedback Lily [Tomlin] and I get from older women who say it's given them hope — and not-so-old women who say, "I now see another way forward."
Is the line different when you are dealing with older women?
FONDA I mean, I wouldn't have been talking about vaginal dryness in Barbarella. (Laughter.)
Natasha, you've described Russian Doll as being about a metaphorical bottoming out that you have a close relationship to.
LYONNE Peaks and valleys. (Laughs.)
What does that mean to you, and why were you ready to tell that story now?
LYONNE The wonderful thing about the valley is there's no risk there. I can remember early on seeing peaks and thinking, "I guess we've arrived?" And then you discover, of course, there's no there there. I have known these two ladies (nods to Rudolph and Hall) from round one and I'm still close with them now in round two. But also, who cares? We live, we die — why not talk about that while we're here and try to make that a human experience? And of course we love jokes because they're funny and they relieve suffering, but I like to be hyper-analytical about what does it all mean? And what's the point? What is ambition? What is a life? I wanted to make a show that addressed all of that in sort of sideways stabs.
You've been open about your past struggle with drugs, but what about the period right after, as you tried to climb back in Hollywood? How did you convince the industry that you deserved another shot?
LYONNE The simple truth in any conversation about recovery is that things take time. We have such a fantasy about [recovery]. A movie like 28 Days Later is inherently problematic for us as a society — not that it's not a wonderful movie — because it's dangerous to think that things take [28 days]. "Here I am, cover of Us Weekly, I'm better now, let's get back to business." You know?
LYONNE And as a character actor, it didn't mean as much on a box office level that I'd left and now returned, so it was a slow build and you just show up and you do the work. And the truth is that it gave me time to re-assimilate as an adult human being in the arts and figure out who I want to be in the game. What do I want to say? What do I care about?
Alex, you've moved fluidly between writing and acting; what was it like to segue to a project that's very much somebody else's baby and you're hired to read her lines?
BORSTEIN It's freeing. I'm really more of a writer than an actor and the writing is the hardest part of anything. For me, anyway. It's so taxing that to just act is like, "Oh, my God, this is so great to just show up and it's not your problem." The challenge with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is that our scripts are a hundred pages and there is so much dialogue and it has to be exactly word perfect. You can't say "the dog" if it's "that dog." I am so bad at it.
What was the appeal of the role?
BORSTEIN The flat shoes. (Laughs.) And she's not a mom, because I do that already. That's my real life, and I don't think I'd be interesting doing that on camera. Also, I am really uncomfortable with kids on set. I feel terrible that they are working and it makes me really uncomfortable.
Phoebe, how do you make decisions about when to write and act versus just act or just write? And where are you most comfortable?
WALLER-BRIDGE At the beginning, no one was giving me acting roles. I'd get bit parts here and there, but I really wanted to play a character that made me excited and I was moaning about it so much that I was, like, just, "[I need to] write one." And then the play [the original run of Fleabag] came about and it opened loads of doors and then there were other acting opportunities. And early on, you just take the job.
LYONNE Yeah, right?
WALLER-BRIDGE Take the damn job. With Killing Eve, I felt very early on that it just didn't feel right [to be in it] and I don't really know why. I felt like, "I am not in there. I can't see it." And we had a conversation with the producers and I spent about 15 minutes trying to turn one of the characters into something I could play. And the character was going, "Oh, I don't want you anywhere near me." So, there are times when they are having so much fun, all of these amazing actors, and you just want to get involved and have a go with everyone. But it's a different experience with something like Fleabag. That character comes from the depths of me. I was completely convinced and had said with a great amount of smug artistic integrity that I would not come back for a second series. And then I had an idea of how I could play with the form again.
Regina, you've said you were attracted to your role on Black Monday because she isn't the traditional wife or killjoy we too often see. Why was it appealing?
HALL A lot of times when you have a group of men, especially in comedies, the woman always comes in and says, "OK, stop acting silly." And they're …
BORSTEIN The wet blanket?
HALL Yeah. And I wanted to play a character that wasn't auxiliary to a husband or a boss. I love being able to be in a period piece [the show is set in the 1980s] because we can't go back with so many periods because then we turn into slaves. I mean, that's it. So, it was great to be able to be in the '80s and be successful. And then for her to be as cunning and sharp and unapologetic as she is, I liked that because I find that most women I know are like that.
Tiffany, you followed your breakout role in Girls Trip with a part on Tracy Morgan's star vehicle. In what way was that freeing and, conversely, frustrating?
HADDISH I just show up to do my job and be of service, and have a good time. That's how I look at it. Girls Trip hadn't come out yet when I took that job. If I'd known it was going to make all this money, I would have been like, "I'm sorry, guys, I am going to do my own show. I'm going to do Hollywood and Haddish."
And what would that have entailed?
HADDISH A really fun show dealing with the world of female comedians and how to navigate in a man's world.
HADDISH It's such a boys' club and you have to fight your way in and be like, "Yo, I'm just as funny as you. I can be up there just as long as you and I can pack this theater just as well as you." It'd be about that and then trying to have a regular life, but guys are afraid to date you because they think you're going to talk about them onstage. It's like, "Please, you're not that poppin'." (Laughter.) And also about trying to lift up your family. It would be about my life. And it's already written.
Maya, Forever started as you wanting to do something with Fred Armisen and then you brought in a showrunner and explored ideas. How did you ultimately settle on a show that's about marriage, death and the afterlife?
RUDOLPH I have become so morbidly curious about death. I was a kid when my mom died, and so I had a fear of death for the majority of my younger life. Then as an adult, I realized I had a very large imagination about the afterlife.
For better or worse, how do you wish you were more like these women you play onscreen?
LYONNE I mean, I wish I had nine lives — and it's disconcerting that there is conceivably only one, now that it's finally going pretty OK.
BORSTEIN My favorite thing about your show is that she has these opportunities over and over to make a great choice and she doesn't and I fucking love it. They're just slightly different shitty choices. And that's reality.
LYONNE Yep. (Laughter.)
BORSTEIN [My character] has a line in the first season saying, "I don't mind being alone, I just do not want to be insignificant." And I feel like I'm the opposite. I like to have my kids around me and my family, my parents, my people; I'm no good solo. I start to spin out and get obsessive and a little crazy. So, I wish I could be more of a loner. I mean, I'm an aloof c—, but I don't want to be alone and I wish I could enjoy it more.
And the rest of you?
WALLER-BRIDGE For better or worse, Fleabag says what she thinks in the moment, and I'm still learning how to do that. There are so many things, like fear, in the way. And the more you become in the public sphere, the more you start checking yourself all the time because you can hear how people can fuck with your words. So I write women who don't give a shit because I am teaching myself how to be one.
FONDA It took me a season to come to care for my character. I had to go back into therapy and start Prozac.
HADDISH That's where the vaginal dryness is coming from!
FONDA It took me a long time to figure out [my relationship to this character]. I had a nervous breakdown during the first season and I discovered it's because the very first episode our husbands tell us that they are going to leave us after 40 years and marry each other and that triggered abandonment … oh, this is not a good thing to talk about (chokes up a bit). It was a big trigger, and I didn't realize that a character in a comedy could actually trigger something very profound. And so I love her and I learned to invite her into the room. After the first season, I couldn't have written a backstory for her; and then I wrote 30 pages without ever stopping. But I don't really want to have to be anything like her. We have too much in common as it is.
LYONNE The truth is just such a joy to listen to.
FONDA Especially with women because we aren't supposed to tell our truth, specifically.
RUDOLPH I agree. I learned how to be a woman by watching other women. I grew up without a mom, so I felt like a female impersonator my whole life.
FONDA (Clutches Rudolph's hands) Me too.
RUDOLPH I didn't want to ask for the information, so I'd go into my friends' bathrooms and I'd peek in their cabinets and be like, "Oh, that's facial cream. OK."
BORSTEIN It's interesting, my mom is still with us and we're very close, but she's always been this beautiful Hungarian queen and I never felt like a real female because that spot is already taken in our house. So, I'll be this other thing — this gremliny type.
HALL I'm a tomboy, and all my mother wanted was a girlie girl.
WALLER-BRIDGE Oh, I was a proper tomboy. I was called Alex. I shaved my head. I had boxer shorts.
FONDA They thought I was a boy, too.
WALLER-BRIDGE And did you love it when they did?
FONDA Oh, I thought it was a huge compliment.
RUDOLPH I thought I was tomboy, too, but then I realized that all the characters I was creating were like drag queens — these amazing va-va-vooey ideas of ladies.
What are the things that you all push back on now? I remember hearing Marta Kauffman say that you, Jane, didn't want to say "Jesus Christ" on the show.
FONDA Well, I didn't feel that my character would curse.
What about the rest of you?
HALL There was a joke on our show about drugs and Whitney Houston and I was just like, "I don't want to say that."
LYONNE I don't like that kind of low-hanging fruit, snarky humor. There are so many real jokes out there and so much funny weird shit happening. Like, why that?
RUDOLPH Also, let's not forget that we're working in an age now where even if you don't write the show and you're just simply hired to say the words, if you say that, they're going to come after you, the actor, on social media. People are going to have filthy things to say or they'll hold it against you because you are the face of it.
HALL Yes, but I also like comedy that pushes it, and I feel like with social media people feel afraid to push. Sometimes I'm like, "Y'all just gonna have to be mad. Sometimes a joke is a joke."
Maya, you've said of your SNL tenure that, "There were times I was frustrated, like, 'Why can't I just play that role?' But obviously the person next to me that's white is going to play that white character." What did you learn from that experience?
RUDOLPH There's an element of reality. If we were doing a political sketch, there are so many people that can play Michelle Obama and there are so many people that can't. So I really was relegated to racial roles as opposed to what I was normally doing on the show because I'm a rainbow in here (points to her head). And that's the way I write and those were the characters that I chose. Then every once in a while, I'd get reminded, "Well, you can't play Hillary Clinton." But it wasn't just that. I just want to be a wife sometimes and not have [race] be the story. But that's not just SNL, that's the world.
RUDOLPH When my partner, Paul [Thomas Anderson], was writing There Will Be Blood, Chris Rock asked him, "What are you writing?" He said, "It's a period piece." And Chris was like, "I don't want to hear anybody, like you or Scorsese, say 'a period piece' because I don't want to play anybody pre-Jackson 5." Because [if you're black] it means that you're going to be playing a slave. And it's always been my dream to be in a period piece with the hair and the costumes, but we are so limited, and that's the reality.
Looking back, what was the "pinch me, I've made it" moment for each of you?
HADDISH When I did The Arsenio Hall Show. He picked me up and I licked his face. It was delicious.
FONDA Do you do that often?
HADDISH Nope. (Laughter.)
RUDOLPH They made a New Yorker cartoon out of us presenting at the Oscars, and that was really exciting for me. I had it framed.
LYONNE On the first season of Orange Is the New Black, they did a Mad magazine spread of us. I was like, "This is some big-boy shit right here."
FONDA I can't answer it, and I don't know why. Maybe it's because I was the daughter of Henry Fonda? I don't know. I'm wracking my brain. Was it when I won my first Oscar? And I don't think it was. I always thought it was a mistake.
Final question: What's the most amusing or frustrating feedback you've gotten going up for a part, and what did you learn from it?
FONDA I wanted to play a hooker in The Chapman Report when I auditioned for George Cukor, and he cast me as the frigid widow.
You weren't hooker material?
FONDA I was later in life. (Laughter.) Not at that stage.
RUDOLPH I don't remember getting any feedback.
HALL Your agents shield you. Early on, I'd be like, "Well, what did they say?" Because you don't yet realize what they are saying is, "We don't want you."
BORSTEIN "We're going in a different direction." That's what they all say.
HADDISH You know what I'd do? I'd put my phone on voice memo and put it in my bag, I'd do the audition, walk out and leave my bag.
RUDOLPH Oh, you're nasty.
HADDISH Then I'd come back and be like, "Oh, I forgot my purse."
So what would you hear?
HADDISH "She is not as urban as I thought she'd be." Or, "She is so ghetto." "Her boobs aren't big enough." "I really think we should just go with a white girl."
RUDOLPH Wait, how many rooms did you leave it in?
HADDISH A lot. (Laughs.) I'm sneaky!
FONDA I'm the opposite. Have you ever gone to your own movie in a theater and then you go to the restroom and people are talking about the movie? Well, I've always been so scared of what they'd say. And I want to let them know, "I am in here. Don't say anything bad." Because I wouldn't want to hear.
HADDISH I want to hear so that I can write jokes about it. That and also so that I use it to my advantage and grow. Like all this, "Jeez, she can't read. She said every word wrong." And I'm like, "They're right." So, I start reading out loud more and practicing and it helps me in the long run. So, sure, they hurt my feelings and sometimes I'm like, "Damn, what a bitch. I'm never going back in there," but …
RUDOLPH But you did.
HADDISH But I did.
RUDOLPH And then you left your bag.
HADDISH Mm-hmm. (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.