Danai Gurira is being deluged with congratulatory messages when she arrives on a Saturday in late April for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual TV Drama Actress Roundtable. Two nights prior, her latest Marvel film, Avengers: Endgame, rolled into theaters to thunderous results. By Monday, the 41-year-old actress, known to TV fans as Michonne of AMC’s The Walking Dead, will be basking in an opening-weekend haul that exceeds $350 million.
Gurira is hardly the only one with something to celebrate, of course. Christine Baranski, 67, is hot off a fourth-season renewal for her CBS All Access series, The Good Fight, and Emilia Clarke, 32, is watching her HBO series, Game of Thrones, unspool its eighth and final season to record ratings. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette, 51, has just put in her second award-worthy performance of the season with Hulu’s The Act, which follows Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora (for which she’s already won a Golden Globe), and Michelle Williams is shaking things up on Capitol Hill, where the 38-year-old Fosse/Verdon actress’ impassioned plea for pay equality went viral. Rounding out the sextet gathered at Hollywood’s Line 204 Studios is Niecy Nash, 49, whose forthcoming Central Park Five miniseries for Netflix, When They See Us, is already garnering major Emmy buzz.
During the course of an hour, these six stars will show their range — exploring everything from the politics of sex scenes to the parts they’re increasingly unwilling to play.
Let’s start easy. Complete this sentence: I knew I’d made it in Hollywood when …
NIECY NASH Somebody once told me, “You’ll know you made it when you become a Halloween costume,” and then [through my character from Reno 911!] I became one.
DANAI GURIRA The Halloween costume was definitely a “What the heck?” moment for me, too. Then it’s the stuff you end up having to sign. Like, now you’re a Christmas ornament. That’s my face on this thing you hang on your tree? OK, I’ll sign that. (Laughter.)
EMILIA CLARKE I was at a gala event where I’d been asked to auction something, so I was like, “I don’t know, come watch your favorite [Game of Thrones] episode with me and we’ll eat a horse’s heart or something.” I don’t think about what it is until I get there and then I’m sitting in a room with, like, every celebrity on the planet. And I thought it would be a private thing where they wouldn’t say [the item] out loud, but then I have to stand up and it turns into a thing. The room goes completely silent and I’m going to die and then one of my friends puts his paddle up. Suddenly, some other people start to put their paddles up and one of those people was Brad Pitt.
CLARKE I went the color I’m wearing right now [rosy pink]. My friend ultimately won, go figure. I was like, “You can stop [bidding] now.” (Laughter.)
PATRICIA ARQUETTE I was there, and there was a lot of back-and-forth.
CLARKE It was the most ridiculous experience of my entire existence.
ARQUETTE After I did True Romance, I got a message from Bruce Willis. I call back, like, “Shut up, who is this really?” I thought my friend was pranking me. And he’s like, “This is Bruce Willis.” It was surreal. Like, is this how this world works? Do people just call you?
MICHELLE WILLIAMS Mine’s more of a New York moment: when you stop debating the $2.50 for the subway versus the $20 for the cab and you don’t have a whole involved thought process with yourself about if you can or if you should. So, yeah, the moment where I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even think about it, I was just like, ‘Taxi!’ ” (Laughs.)
How would you describe the current phase of your career vis-a-vis the roles coming in? Patricia, I believe you’ve called this your year of complicated women …
ARQUETTE And I didn’t see that coming because I’d always seen women be retired by the business at a certain point. I’m lucky to be coming to this age at a time where people are wanting to produce more material and different kinds of content.
Did you have any hesitation about embracing such dark roles?
ARQUETTE I encountered a little pushback [from my team]. I was lucky enough to have success when I was young, and a lot of that was being an ingenue. And then as I was getting older, there was still this pressure to look a certain way. I had an argument with one of the producers on Medium, who told me I should lose weight. I was like, “This lady is a mother, she’s married, she’s got three kids. No.” But there’s that expectation of being beautiful, of looking a certain way. Like, “OK, you could be 40, but you’ve got to be a 40 who looks 30.” So, when I started to work on Escape at Dannemora and then again with The Act, I definitely felt some pushback.
What were people scared of?
ARQUETTE That I’d lose work. And in fairness, they’ll have those conversations. “What does she look like now?” “Why don’t you send us a picture of what she looks like right now?”
ARQUETTE I just said, “You know what? I’ve had a good run, but it’s always been a little bit of a box.” I never got to do character work, and I wanted to really go for this. It’s freeing, and I trust myself as an artist.
Danai, it would seem that you’re in the “major franchise” phase of your career. Is that fair?
GURIRA This is not how I ever imagined my life work would go. I’m a playwright, and I really just expected to stay in the indie play world and step into this area in very specific ways. The thing that drives me is telling stories and [sharing] perspectives we rarely hear from. And we’ve still got work to do.
ARQUETTE We do. Like, I almost never see projects with the elderly, and there are a lot of stories to be told.
CHRISTINE BARANSKI And it shouldn’t just be people who are losing their minds or suffering; you know, movies about people with Alzheimer’s.
BARANSKI I can speak to that. I just finished my 10th year playing the same character of Diane Lockhart, and for seven years I was No. 2, the supporting actress on The Good Wife. And I loved my role, she was the head of the law firm and the authority figure, and she was strong and dignified and well dressed. But with the spinoff, she’s now No. 1, and, honestly, I got the No. 1 position finally and I was in my 60s. It’s like, “All right.” (Laughter.) I like to say that there’s movement forward and these are the best years of my career. I get offered wonderful theater roles. I’m a leading lady after all this time. I was always sitting, waiting, “And the best supporting actress award goes to … somebody else.” And now I’m the [star] in a show where I’m still this strong, authoritative, professional woman who’s well educated. And we’re seeing women like that in our culture who are now running for president and running the House of Representatives. Women this age are powerful, and I love that somehow in this moment I’m on a TV show that reflects that. It’s high time that women of such authority have real airtime. It’s long overdue.
What about the rest of you? Are there new types of characters coming your way?
NASH For me, it’s things that lend themselves to this category, the dramatic category. Because I spent the majority of my career in comedy. That was the whole bit, “You’re funny, that’s what we know you as, and that’s where you shall remain.” It took me many, many years to get someone to give me a chance, and then things started to change because of it.
I have heard you say that you set a meeting with your team to reintroduce yourself. What did that entail and how was it received?
NASH I called a team meeting and got everybody together and they were like, “What’s happening? Why are we here?” And I said, “I just wanted to reintroduce myself to you. Because in the years that we’ve been together, Mother has changed! Things are different. I don’t want today what I wanted back then. Back then, I was just hungry.” (Laughter.)
NASH I wanted to eat. And now the refrigerator is full, and we need some other things. I wanted them to see me like I saw me so that we can go on the path together and not have it feel like we were disconnected.
CLARKE I don’t have the guts to be like, “Yo, guys, this is the new me and I have something to say and it’s not what I said before,” but in the beginning, when it was, “Do you want to do this really big movie?” you’d be like, “Yeah, of course I do. Are you kidding?” Then you do lots of them and suddenly you’re like, “I went to drama school, I care about art, I care about working with auteurs, I care about inhabiting characters that have something to say.” And it takes a minute for those around you to go, “Oh, right, sorry, I thought you just wanted to eat.”
Are there ways in which you are still hoping to be seen?
GURIRA As a buddy cop. I’m kidding … but something goofy. I’ve been doing a lot of these characters who’ve been very “strong,” and that can have its own trap. The idea of, say, putting away strong altogether — like, I have no strength — would be interesting.
BARANSKI Michelle and I were both talking about how liberating it is to sing and dance. Liberating in a terrifying, wonderful way.
WILLIAMS You lose your self-consciousness because that part of your brain can’t be accessed while you’re singing and dancing. When I did Cabaret [on Broadway], I was singing and dancing, and as difficult as those things were, I noticed there was this joy inside of them and I thought, “That’s a place I really want to live more often.” So, when Gwen [Verdon] came up, I was like, “Perfect.”
You can all afford to be picky and say, “Nope, don’t want to do that” or “Don’t want to say that.” What falls into that category?
BARANSKI Don’t want to play a cranky old lady, don’t want to play a bitch — or a powerful woman who, because she’s powerful, is a bitch. You know, all the stereotypes about older women. Nope.
WILLIAMS I don’t want to travel for work. I’ve somehow managed to work out of New York for the past seven years. My daughter has stayed in the same school with the same friends, and that’s a super high priority for me.
NASH I don’t want to be a sassy black anything. I don’t want to be a sassy black mama, a sassy black neighbor or a sassy black friend. There are so many more notes to be played. And listen, broken is a delicious note to play on camera.
NASH The mother that I play in When They See Us is just white-knuckling it and doing the best she can. She wasn’t a sassy anything, and it was absolutely delicious to find her pain and her brokenness. In some places it overlapped with mine, and that’s when you get in that scene — and y’all have experienced it — when them tears start flowing and they ain’t because of the script.
CLARKE One thing I would not like to do is something that would have a sequel. Something that could have, like, “And then two and then three and then four.” I’d like to not do one of those for a minute. (Laughs.)
One of the things you famously did not want to do was …
CLARKE Oh, God …
… Fifty Shades of Grey. How much of that decision was about a fear of being pigeonholed?
CLARKE Well, Sam [Taylor-Johnson, the director] is a magician. I love her, and I thought her vision was beautiful. But the last time that I was naked on camera on [Game of Thrones] was a long time ago, and yet it is the only question that I ever get asked because I am a woman. And it’s annoying as hell and I’m sick and tired of it because I did it for the character — I didn’t do it so some guy could check out my tits, for God’s sake. So, that coming up, I was like, “I can’t.” I did a minimal amount and I’m pigeonholed for life, so me saying yes to that, where the entire thing is about sensuality and sex and being naked and all of that stuff, I was just like, “No way am I going to voluntarily walk into that situation and then never be able to look someone in the eye and be like, ‘No, you can’t keep asking me this question.’ “
NASH I had a situation that was a bit of the reverse, and it was only partial things that I had to show. I’m not a size 2, and I was like, “I’m going to go for it for the thick girl out there who needs to see herself represented having sex on her own accord and owning her own body and not just showing up for the pleasure of a man.” So, I was like, “Oh, Lord, let me take a water pill, let me think thin and let me get out there.”
CLARKE Because it’s scary.
NASH Yeah, and after I go through all this, I see the edit, and they just completely took it out. I was like, not so much from a vanity standpoint but just for my emotional piece of mind, “Why’d you make me go through all of that to not use it?” Because I’m at the point in my life now where if I do it, you better put it out there. (Laughter.)
CLARKE Damn straight.
GURIRA When I started to do TV, I was in my 30s, so I got kind of stuck in my ways, in a sense. And I had to know I could wake up in the morning and feel good about what I’d done the day before. I remember having an argument with the director because I was like, “I know you have it written here like this, but this is what you’re getting.” And I wrote it on the script and I handed it to him.
ARQUETTE A love scene?
GURIRA Yeah. I was like, “I’m serious, it’s not happening,” and I had to really get him there. He’s an awesome guy, but he had to adjust his mind around the fact that this was where I was going. And I realized that this is what we have to do as women. We actually have to get the minds of folks there sometimes, that, “I know what your vision is, but I will tell the story for her without that happening.”
CLARKE Is it like, they pull it down (pantomimes pulling down her dress), you pull it up, they pull it down, you pull it up …
GURIRA Oh, I’ve done all types of tricks. I did this scene where I had, like, your skin color (to Arquette) things on my breasts [to cover my nipples], like, “You can’t use that, can you?” (Laughter.)
Christine, when you were filming the pilot of The Good Fight, it was assumed Hillary Clinton would be our next president …
BARANSKI One of the first scenes was me in the boardroom in a fabulous suit saying, “There are no more glass ceilings to break and I’m retiring, gentlemen.” Then we were filming on election night, and the camera was turning around on my close-ups when I checked the phone to find out who the assumed winner of the election was. … So, we changed the pilot considerably.
And with it, the show at large.
BARANSKI Yes. The first scene of the pilot is me looking at the TV set like this (her jaw drops) as I’m watching the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’s provided fertile ground for a woman who’s a passionate, liberal feminist of a certain age who was a Hillary supporter to be the leading lady in a show where now she’s a Trump resister. The story is a lot about her inability to process what’s going on in the country and what’s happening to women, so [reality has] provided a lot of dramatic raw material, as harrowing as it has been for us all.
What kind of emotional toll does that take on you?
BARANSKI Cable news is research for me, and I have to keep my sense of outrage, which isn’t hard.
But is there a release? And if so, what does it look like for you?
BARANSKI It’s called a vacation, and in two weeks I’m taking it. I’m not looking at the news. (Laughs.)
NASH When you talk about taking things home, I did the story of the Central Park Five, and this is the first time I’ve ever done a project where they provided crisis counselors.
NASH At the end of the day, there was a number you could call and somebody could talk to you because the material was so heavy. And there were often times that the real boys — if you don’t know [the story], they’d been accused of raping a woman in Central Park but they were all babies and they got convicted for something they didn’t do — would be on set because it’s their story being told. I’d get off that set and be like, “I’m not going to make it. Bring the funny back!” But you feel so driven to tell the story, so you muscle through because that has to be more important than how you feel.
Patricia, you shot Escape at Dannemora in actual prisons, surrounded by people who were living this life. How did that inform your performance and impact you?
ARQUETTE It was very intense to feel that energy and see all the dynamics. The lack of mental illness support, the alliances that are made, how dangerous it is for everyone involved to be in there and how hopeless it all is. And then there was me gaining weight for the part and wanting her to look a certain way and feeling that that was the right choice to make but then going into the world and seeing people’s reactions. It’s like a science experiment of how your value changes in people’s eyes.
How were you received differently?
ARQUETTE People would look at you like, “Oh, I used to love you. Are you still acting?”
BARANSKI Oh, my gosh.
ARQUETTE But more than that was that people perceived me as an invisible person. Like, they would just get in front of you in line or you’d be standing there at the counter, waiting for a long time, and nobody would come to help you. Like, “Oh, you’re just kind of a matronly, dumpy, middle-aged lady, so you don’t exist in the world.” And what Niecy was saying about showing up for the thick girls and doing this love scene, I really wanted to do that for Escape at Dannemora. And I’m uptight. I take baths in the dark. I changed behind a chair as a little girl. But I really wanted to do these love scenes. Like, I’m going to gain a bunch of weight and my boobs are going to be giant, and my stomach. And this is the first love scene where, no, I’m not wearing any body makeup and I don’t care that it’s high def. And, yeah, it’s all a nightmare, but I really wanted to [explore], “Who’s allowed to be sexual now in this culture? What body type do we have to have?”
Michelle, in the creation of Fosse/Verdon, Gwen Verdon’s role became a much bigger piece of the story. Why was that, and what did her initial absence signify?
WILLIAMS When the project was initially developed, it was just about him. That was about two years ago, and maybe a year into developing it [against a backdrop of the Time’s Up movement], they realized they actually wanted to tell both of their stories, which was after meeting their daughter, Nicole Fosse, who said she would be involved in it. But it’s a lot of what we’re talking about: Gwen had aged out. She was primarily a dancer, and they say a dancer dies two deaths: when you actually die and the day that you can’t dance the way that you used to be able to. So, she’d had that creative death and was written out of the story, and the show attempts to rectify that.
Emilia and Danai, you’re on shows where every episode could ostensibly be your character’s last. How much do you know, plot-wise?
CLARKE On our show, you get “the call.” Or, it’d be like, “Oh, my God, [D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, our showrunners] want to take me out for dinner,” and that’s the kiss of death. Literally. Every time they’d ask you out for dinner, they’d have to be like, “We’re not trying to kill you, we just want to get dinner.”
Do you pepper them with questions about where the plot is headed?
CLARKE They really don’t give anything away, and I don’t like to live in anything other than the season I’m in … but we have lots of conversations. And they very quickly started to write for each individual actor, and you start to see it in the stage directions. They’re complete goofballs, so most of the stage directions are very funny …
ARQUETTE Like, Daenerys farts?
CLARKE It’s a lot of in-jokes about like, “And then Jon Snow’s hair glistens in the sun like we know it will.” So they started writing for us, and I think they knew that whatever kind of stoic, cold sensibilities they might be writing down, I was going to try to bring a bit more warmth and humanity to [Daenerys] where I possibly could. That was always a conversation we were having. And every season I’d do something else on hiatus, and I’d come back and be like, “What’s up, yeah, she’s going to sit like this” (slouches down in chair). And every time, they’re like, “That’s really cute, but sit up straight and don’t smile, you’re not funny.” (Laughter.)
Danai, you have the comic books, so there is source material there, but what kinds of questions are you asking, and how is it informing you?
GURIRA Oh, I’m a total pain in the ass because I’m all up in it. I’m the one who — when I really want to know or I really want to collaborate — we get on the phone and I chat it out. I’m like, “So I think it’s trying to do this, but what about …?” I’m not pushing the whole story to another place, but I am trying to, in my pretentious mind, help them accomplish what they’re proposing.
How much of that is the playwright in you who’s used to being in control?
GURIRA Right. But as time goes on, as Emilia’s saying, they understand that you’re living in her and she is living in you, so the collaboration becomes more and more full. But asking questions is crucial, and they’re willing to adjust things. They’re not like, “No, this is law.” And there are things you read on the page, in terms of the action of the show, where you’re like, “You know that the sword doesn’t do that?” Sometimes I have to give them a little information about how my weapon works. (Laughter.)
You’ve done huge film franchises and huge TV franchises. How did the experience and fandom differ?
CLARKE Regardless of what movie I’m on, I only get asked about Game of Thrones. And when you’re in Star Wars, Star Wars [people are] like, “That’s not OK.” I’m like, “I didn’t say anything about dragons.” But Game of Thrones is just a beast unto itself, and I’m indebted to it and bonded with it in a way no other job will ever touch.
GURIRA Okoye [of Black Panther] is leveling with Michonne. When you’re asked to sign things …
CLARKE Which one is it?
GURIRA They’re 50-50. I never know. And sometimes it’s both.
Michelle, through your experience on All the Money in the World, you became a face of a cultural movement. What did it feel like for the pay disparity on that project to go from being your story to being the world’s story?
WILLIAMS I went to D.C. recently to speak on pay equality … and something that was interesting that was said to me there was that they were so grateful for me coming to tell this story because when you’re talking about $10 versus $14, people have a hard time hearing the difference. But when you use an example as extreme as mine, it really [drives it home]. So, as far as anything that’s happened in my life publicly, it’s the most exciting and important thing that I’ve ever been involved in. And I’m so moved personally and professionally to have found my place in the conversation and my voice through the conversation and to feel like I’ve grown up inside of the conversation. It’s the thing I’ll feel the closest to, more than any work I’ve ever done.
Have you seen the response change as you walk into rooms now?
WILLIAMS The dynamic on sets has changed. They don’t hug you anymore.
GURIRA Oh, yeah.
WILLIAMS You don’t get a morning grope, you get a handshake now. And I feel like I’m heard in a different way — or that the space has opened up for me to be able to be heard. There wasn’t even a space before. Like the air was so thick you just figured out how to work underneath or around it.
Emilia, you recently wrote a powerful, devastating piece revealing the brain trauma you experienced early in Game of Thrones‘ run. What made you decide to share your experience with the world?
CLARKE Well, two weeks before I did, I was like, “I’m not ready to share this with the world.” But I’ve had two brain hemorrhages and when the second one happened, I was like, “This is silly. The fact that I’ve now been lucky enough to see another day twice, I have to do something.” Then I went through a phase where I was having a tough time doing press. I didn’t think I could be seen. I was drowning. And we were going to do this huge partnership with HBO [for the charity that I’ve been building. Former HBO CEO] Richard Plepler, the dreamboat that he is, was amazing and then suddenly I was like, “I can’t.”
It just felt like too much?
CLARKE Way too much and I wasn’t ready [to talk about it]. I wanted to help people, but I didn’t want anyone to say, “Oh, another celebrity sob story.” So I took some time and we finished the show and then one day I woke up and was like, “I have to say this because I can’t help people if I don’t.”
How much of that experience informed how you not only went through life but also approached your character?
CLARKE I’ve been lying about this for a number of years. Every time anyone was like, “Where do you get your strength?” I’m like, “Heavens, I have no idea.” But [my character] and I grew together and, it’s corny as hell, but she saved my life. The main thing that happens after you’ve had a brain injury — paralysis and all of that aside — is that you have fatigue, which sounds like a fancy way of saying you’re tired, but it’s debilitating to the point of demoralizing. And you can’t look someone in the eye because it brings up shame. Most people don’t have the mother of dragons’ shoes to walk in to help them get out of it, and those are the people I speak to now. But for me, the show must go on, so you get back in those shoes and Khaleesi’s killing all the masters, speaking to 300 people in a language that’s not real and having sex with Kit Harington [who plays Jon Snow]. It literally forced me awake again and to look someone in the eye because I had to. It’s been an unbelievable blessing. And I’m so lucky to have my cognitive skills — there is a bit of my brain that’s died and we don’t know what it is, but it’s probably my taste in men. (Laughter.)
Let’s end on a lighter note: When was the last time you fangirled on somebody, and who was it?
NASH Oprah texted me after she saw When They See Us. I was walking around all day with my phone, like, “I’m just gonna reread that.”
What does a text from Oprah say?
NASH Giiiiiirl! Bravo — with (claps hands). Oprah used clapping emojis! She said, “stripped-down realness,” and then the hand claps. (Laughter.)
What about the rest of you?
WILLIAMS Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Who’s a producer on your show, no?
WILLIAMS Yeah, which is uncomfortable for him. Hamilton is a really big deal in our household and we were seated across from each other at something, and when I saw it was him I just screamed and asked for pictures and videos and if he could come over into another area where it was quieter and if we could talk. It just came over me. When you can get something for the kids in your life, you lose all decorum.
BARANSKI Just the other day I did the Today show and I found out that Sting was in the green room. I turned into a teenager. I’m like, “Hi, my name is Christine and I’m just such a fan.” I felt so stupid … but he’s just so hot.
GURIRA For me, it was meeting Cicely Tyson. I have a condo in Atlanta, and the only thing on the wall is a massive picture of her. She was middle-aged [in the photo], and there is something so beautiful about that time. There’s this idea that that’s something we’re supposed to be frightened of. The longevity idea in this industry is so like, “There is none for women,” and that gets fed to us. So looking at her every day reminds you that my journey as an artist is long.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.