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“It’s So Hard to Be Right”: The Comedy Actress Roundtable

Seven of TV's top funny ladies — Drew Barrymore, Rachel Brosnahan, Alison Brie, Tracee Ellis Ross, Debra Messing, Molly Shannon and Frankie Shaw — open up about pushing boundaries, demanding fair pay and the long, hard battle to keep their clothes on.

These days, there is a palpable camaraderie when you bring together Hollywood’s highest-profile actresses. At least a few of those who gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Television Comedy Actress Roundtable have spent recent months in war rooms and on email chains mapping out a plan to change the gender politics that have contributed to a culture of #MeToo accusations and glaring pay inequality. The passion that has fueled the Time’s Up movement was on display during this mid-April conversation, which touched on everything from nudity demands to a yanked episode of Black-ish. Over the course of an hour, the septet — Drew Barrymore, 43 (Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet); Alison Brie, 35 (Netflix’s GLOW); Rachel Brosnahan, 27 (Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel); Debra Messing, 49 (NBC’s Will & Grace); Tracee Ellis Ross, 45 (ABC’s Black-ish); Molly Shannon, 53 (HBO’s Divorce); and Frankie Shaw, 36 (Showtime’s SMILF) — got deeply personal, with at least a few tales prompting spontaneous table-banging and plenty of applause.

Let’s start broad: What’s the most amusing or frustrating feedback you’ve received when trying out for a part?

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS I had a casting director say I need to work on my girls, as they [her breasts] were referred to, because they were too low, which is where God put them, so I think they’re in a really good spot. (Laughs.) But she called down the hall for one of her assistants to bring another bra …

ALISON BRIE During an audition?

ROSS Yes, ma’am.


ROSS Yes, ma’am. (Laughter.) She was like, “Does anyone have on a 34B?” They come down, and it was a 32 something or other, and I was like, “That’s not gonna fit.” She was like, “They’ll spill out, it’ll be great.”

FRANKIE SHAW One time I was in an audition for House of Lies, and the casting director said I needed to show more skin. She actually took the shirt off her back and gave me her tank top. I still didn’t get the part.

MOLLY SHANNON I remember going to an audition when I was first starting out, and I bumped into another girl auditioning who, right before I went in, was like, “Oh, my God, have you gained, like, a hundred pounds?”


BARRYMORE That happened to me recently. I’d gained a bunch of weight, and I was in a restaurant, and a woman goes, “God, you have so many kids.” And I was like, “Well, two.” And she goes, “And obviously one on the way.” I looked at her and, for the first time in my life, I go, “No, I’m just fucking fat.” (Everyone claps.)

There’s been lots of discussion lately about whether we can and should be able to separate art from the artist. Where do you stand?

SHAW It depends on how harmful they are.

ROSS And what the harm is.

This has come up in the context of Roseanne Barr and her controversial social media presence, which prompted some to boycott her sitcom [before it was canceled by ABC a month and a half after this interview].

DEBRA MESSING In a perfect world, we take on a different character, one that’s separate from ourselves. The thing that has made Roseanne and Roseanne Barr so …

ROSS Compelling?

MESSING Divisive.

ROSS Better word.

MESSING … is that, in its day, it was one of the greatest shows ever, and it really pushed the boundaries, but she made it clear from the beginning that this was her — she said, “I’m just being me.” That’s very different from saying, “I’m creating a character.” And then when you have someone who is very outspoken on social media and who says things like “Heil Hitler” or that gay people are pedophiles or …


MESSING So, it’s not about having a conversation about health care or about defense of the country, it’s about humanity, racism, sexism.

SHAW And essentially normalizing white supremacy.

BROSNAHAN There’s a difference between being tolerant and tolerating intolerance, and there is no need to tolerate intolerance. So, can we separate an artist from their art? Yes, we do all the time. We have forever. Should we? I think we need to re-evaluate.

ROSS And we’re in different times because of what’s happening in the White House. Things that were not tolerated or not acceptable have been lost, and I think there is a recalibration that needs to occur. It’s the reason it feels so frightening right now.

SHAW What’s the answer? How does it change?

MESSING I mean (turns to Ross), there was an episode of your show [Black-ish] that was shelved because it had to do with “Take a knee,” right?

SHAW No, it was Trump, right?

ROSS There is an episode that was shelved.

MESSING So, that’s a good question, “OK, why …?”

ROSS It’s a very good question. And is that censorship?

Do you, as a cast, have those conversations?

ROSS We have conversations about the subject matter of our episodes, yes, we do. Very vocal, strong conversations about those things. The details of why the episode was pulled and everything that has surrounded that, I do not have the answers for. To a certain extent, I have purposefully stayed out of those conversations because I have had no power to do something beyond that. So, I have asked for the information and pushed for the information that I felt would be helpful to me and constructive in what I can do with it, because I find it frightening.

Whether we label this the #MeToo era or the Time’s Up era, how have your world and your perspective changed as a result?

ROSS For me, the conversation and the narrative are exactly the same, the thing that’s changed is the connection and the relationship with other women. There is a camaraderie now. If the Golden Globes is one weird example, that red carpet experience was especially different. It wasn’t about, like, (her voice rises several octaves) “Oh, I don’t want to share [what dress I’m wearing] because she might want to wear it.” No, there was a real …

MESSING Purpose.

ROSS Right, and we switched the power relationship on that carpet, we were there as a collective force.

SHAW There has also been a collective release of shame.

ALL Mmm-hmm.

BRIE These conversations used to happen in tiny rooms just with your best girlfriend of like, “I don’t think this is OK.”

ROSS With a little shame involved.

BRIE Totally. “Maybe I read it wrong?”

BARRYMORE I was always a producer. And before that, I was a kid, and unless you were a pedophile you weren’t messing with me and thank God no one was. But I was never an ingenue. And then when I started my production company, men never looked at me that way and I never had an issue because I was always working with them on their side. I think that dynamic saved me from a lot of situations.

Are there examples of conversations that you wouldn’t previously have had or actions you wouldn’t have taken before this movement began?

MESSING At the Golden Globes, when I spoke on live TV about E!, saying, “Why aren’t you paying your women equally?” I never would’ve ever even thought about doing that before. The reason I did was exactly what you were talking about (looks to Ross). It was the community, being connected on a daily basis with groups of women, and saying, “Well, what can we do? How can we use our collective energy and platforms to focus the conversation?” It was actually Amy Schumer. She was like, “Debra, if you can get there first, that would be awesome.” It was her idea. And [I only did it] because I knew that there were tons of women who were like, “I’m with you, there is not gonna be fallout because we are all here standing right beside you.”

SHAW Do you guys have any fear of the fallout?


ROSS I don’t either. I honestly don’t. I can’t go backwards.

MESSING Do you think it’s because we’re older?

ROSS Maybe.

SHAW There was a writer in my room whose dad told her not to put Time’s Up on her Instagram because he’s like, “You don’t know where this movement’s gonna be in four years.”

BROSNAHAN That makes me so mad.

ROSS I’ve had male friends say to me, “OK, you’re going too far with this Time’s Up shit!” And I’m like, “What the fuck does that mean? I’m going too far with this equality thing? Like, what are you talking about? I’m going for equal, buddy.” (Laughter.)

BARRYMORE Maybe what that dad is questioning is: Is it going to be such a male takedown that, as women, we’re going to [regret it]?

SHAW Or just, like, people who think like that are gonna die out?

BRIE Are gonna die out? Women aren’t going anywhere. (Laughter.)

ROSS But the point is not for you to do something you’re not comfortable doing. You’ve got to go as slow as the slowest parts of yourself and everybody has a different way, a different place, a different kind of voice. It’s not about shaming someone for not being able to speak up or put #TimesUp on their platform. I remember when I was campaigning for Obama early in 2007, I was terrified and I also felt annoyed by myself. I was like, “What the fuck? Like, I get that I’m a human being and a citizen and an actor who has a platform but, as an actor, why? Like, why should I be going and doing this?” But my feeling was, “You know what, if the fact that someone watches Girlfriends, which at the time was the show, and comes here to see me because I’m on Girlfriends and I get to turn their attention to something else and shine light somewhere else, then that’s all that matters.”

BRIE It’s also what a lot of our shows are doing. Early on in shooting GLOW, [my co-star] Betty Gilpin described our show as a Trojan horse to get these real stories about women into men’s homes who expect to see girls in tiny clothes wrestling each other — but actually we’re smuggling in the truth and dynamic female friendships and heart.

BROSNAHAN I can’t stop thinking about all of you in your leotards jumping out of the horse, meanwhile Alison’s talking about female friendship. (Laughter.)

Debra, Will & Grace is back after more than a decade off the air. In that time, has the bar for what you can and cannot do changed?

MESSING I think Will & Grace was provocative from the get-go. It addressed what was happening in pop culture and in politics, and because that was in its DNA, coming back 11 and a half years later, everyone knew the voice of the show and we didn’t have to ask permission or apologize because we’re just doing what we always did. Obviously now, with the state of the world, there’s a lot more to comment on and it feels like there is a lot more at stake than when we began.

Do the rest of you feel a responsibility to comment on what’s going on in the world, whether it’s through your shows or as actresses?

ROSS As a human being, I do. Not necessarily commenting on it but being an active participant and moving the needle in the direction that I think it needs to be going, whether that’s through my work or on the platform that my work has offered me.

BARRYMORE And you have to have a big, daring spine in a show or you’ve lost the audience now. 1950s-style shows wouldn’t work. We’ve just come too far, it’s all been put out there and we can’t go back to Leave It to Beaver. I mean, they could make a show called Leave It to Beaver today, but it would be very different. (Laughter.) But it’s a tricky, slippery slope to put yourself out there. It’s so hard to be right, and you’re possibly wrong, and then you feel bad and you pull back, so I like doing it through my show.

SHAW Yeah, I have a much harder time exposing myself politically as me than I do through the show. And this show definitely would never have been able to exist in any other time. Our first season was essentially about sexual assault and sexual trauma. So I’m grateful that the tides are changing.

BRIE In the past, I’ve felt much more timid about expressing [my opinions]. I’d be like, “I’m just an actress working on a comedy show and like, I don’t know, do I want to ostracize people who disagree?” But there are such glaring issues now.

BARRYMORE It’s a business decision. I have other companies outside of film. I sell a lot [of beauty and fashion products] at Walmart, Amazon, Ulta, all these different companies, and I don’t want to alienate people.

Rachel, you couldn’t have predicted how timely The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would feel when it ultimately landed in a post-Weinstein world. Frankie and Alison, the same could be said for your shows. Has it changed your approach to season two?

BROSNAHAN No, I think people are viewing the show through a different lens, but it actually was created exactly as it was intended to be, this theme and idea of a woman discovering a voice that she didn’t know she had, it just resonates in a new way now.

BRIE Right. I think our show could’ve been made any time, but the meaning has changed. When we started, our showrunners thought we were making this show in a time where we were going to have our first female president and that’s where we’re leading this story. And then the election happened while we were shooting season one and obviously the tone of the world changed and it gave the show a different meaning and a different importance.

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Debra referenced pay parity earlier, which is another important discussion to come out of this movement. Has it changed the conversations you’ve had in your own workplace?

BROSNAHAN Yes. Again, the shame has gone away — out of this idea of asking for what you’re worth and asking to be paid equally. The biggest thing that I have noticed is that [there are] men in my life, who are progressive and who love women, who just don’t realize [the pay inequities between men and women]. It’s the same with the #MeToo movement. So, all of these women having honest conversations with the men in our lives as well has emboldened them to take action toward pay equality, too, which I’ve found really encouraging.

BRIE People are so uncomfortable talking about money, it’s so taboo, so you’re never on set talking to another actor about how much they’re getting paid on the project that you’re doing, and that’s why it’s been able to run rampant for so long, and the gap has been able to get wider because you’ve had no idea.

ROSS Agents know.

BRIE That’s right.

ROSS Mmm-hmm. I’ve found I have more freedom to have transparency. I’ve actually had real dollar conversations with girlfriends of mine in this industry and said, “OK, here’s what it is.” And as a black woman in this industry, it is staggering the difference — what I’m fighting for versus what you might be fighting for. I am fighting to get where you start.

BARRYMORE I think I’m just so [nervous] to ever go back to having no career. I know what it’s like to be told, “You’re done for a while, sit on ice in the black-list corner.” And I revived my career — I started producing and having success with films for, like, 20 years and then I had kids and I stepped back. But when I [found myself] all of a sudden a single mom, I kind of had to go back to work and I didn’t know how to do that with kids and I was in a freak spiral. So when I got this show, I was like, “I’ll take whatever you can give me.” Then on season two and three, I was like, “Maybe I’m of value to this show.”

Molly Ringwald wrote an essay in The New Yorker where she revisited some of her early work in John Hughes’ movies and, through a modern-day lens, some of it made her uncomfortable. Have you gone back and thought about any of the things that you were asked to do or the parts that you played through the lens of today?

MESSING Oh my God! Are you kidding? How much time do you have? (Laughter.)

SHANNON I have a story. When I was a struggling actress — I was working at Cravings Restaurant as a hostess, living check to check — I got a job on The John Larroquette Show. I was supposed to be a topless protester, but it’s a sitcom so they were gonna shoot us from behind. It was a bunch of girls but I had to speak, I was the lead protester, and [I got there and] the director said, “You’re all gonna have to take your tops off because it’s too weird from the back. It shows, it’s not good.” And I said, “Hmm, then I have to leave,” and my body walked me out.

ALL (Applause.)

SHANNON I was so scared. But I started to walk out to my car and they came and got me and they said, “Wait a minute, hold on. We think maybe you could wear pasties.”

ROSS Can you think back and articulate what it was in you that said no?

SHANNON I was like, “You’re full of shit. You want all these girls to have their tops off. And how dare you?” I was furious. And I also felt embarrassed.

MESSING The revelation for me was that it wasn’t until we started having these conversations that I realized I had been sexually harassed.

ROSS The amount of things that you hide away in a place …

MESSING I had said, “Oh, that’s the business.” And then all of a sudden, I was like, “Wait a minute, no, that’s not the business. I was sexually harassed.” It was my very first movie out of graduate school, A Walk in the Clouds. I was tricked into signing a nudity waiver by the producers [who] basically said, “Oh, the director just has a big ego, it’s PG-13, we cannot show anything, so if you sign it, nothing’s gonna happen.” And then the day I showed up, they said, “OK, this is your lingerie for the first part and this is your nude scene.” And I said, “Nude scene?” They’re like, “Oh, yeah.” And the producers were there and I went in and I was like, “Wait a minute, we talked on the phone, you said that it wasn’t gonna happen, it’s PG-13.” And they’re like, “Not in international.”

ROSS Oh my God.

MESSING It got worse. Before we shot, I’m like, “You know, I like to be prepared, can you tell me where the angles are?” And [the director, Alfonso Arau] literally said, “How dare you ask me to tell you what my shot is going to be? You are an actress, it’s your job to get naked.” [Arau has publicly dismissed Messing’s claim, saying previously that it “had nothing to do with reality.”]

BROSNAHAN I’m so sad that happened to you.

MESSING And I didn’t have the strength that Molly had. You call your agent and they’re like, “OK, well, you could say no but you’ll be fired.” And I was getting paid nothing but it was my big break and so I was like, “Just close your eyes and get though it.”

BARRYMORE Women are afraid to rock the boat.

BROSNAHAN One of the most interesting parts of all of this has been speaking with other women [whom] I disagree with, women of different ages, of different backgrounds, [with whom I] don’t align and it is uncomfortable and it sometimes doesn’t go so well but that, to me, also feels like one of the most important parts of this, that women begin to understand each other’s experiences and how they differ and why we feel the way we do.

ROSS I also have to say that I think it’s OK for men to be uncomfortable. I don’t agree with tearing anybody down, but it’s OK for people to be uncomfortable and for things to be brought to people’s attention because part of the systemic issue is that, as women, we are trained to worry so much about other people’s feelings that we put ours aside.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.