“Welcome to the industry!” joked Jessica Chastain and Kristen Stewart to their younger cohort Emilia Jones as this year’s six participants on The Hollywood Reporter’s Actress Roundtable commiserated about overlooked labors of love (“Is anybody ever going to watch it?”), the degree to which fear drives their decisions (Jennifer Hudson and Kirsten Dunst say no, Tessa Thompson and Stewart say no longer) and navigating COVID-19 to give some of the year’s most acclaimed performances.
Convening at THR‘s headquarters in late October were: Chastain, star and producer of Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which she resurrects the infamous televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; Dunst, who brings to life a 1920s remarried mother tormented by her brother-in-law in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog; Hudson, who channels Aretha Franklin in Liesl Tommy’s biopic Respect; Jones, who portrays a hearing child of deaf parents in Sian Heder’s CODA; Stewart, who inhabits Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer; and Thompson, who plays a 1920s Harlem housewife reconnecting with an old friend passing as white in Rebecca Hall’s Passing.
At the gathering, old friends Stewart and Dunst embraced while everyone exuded gladness to be communing in person. As Dunst put it, after nearly two years of living and working in a pandemic, it is a time to be appreciative of things more important than movies. “How do you define success? Your grandparents are alive,” she says with a wry laugh. “It’s a weird time.”
We are sitting down at a time when you’re each receiving widespread acclaim for your work, a time that must feel like a professional high point for each of you. Meanwhile, many tuning in to this conversation dream of a moment like this but feel it’s very far away. What, for each of you, was the moment when this seemed furthest away? And did you ever consider not continuing down this path?
JESSICA CHASTAIN No, because I grew up very poor. I think that’s a great thing, because I never had parents who were like, “You need to be a doctor!” It was just kind of like, “Whatever you want to do, go for it.” When I was in high school, I dreamed about being in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, working in the repertory company, so this is beyond! As long as I could pay my rent and had food, I was happy. I never really had a moment of, “I’m going to give it all up.”
JENNIFER HUDSON I still feel like I have moments like that — but I don’t allow that to be the thing to drive me. I do everything because I’m passionate about it, and hopefully it’s received well. To me, the gift is being able to do what we love to do.
KRISTEN STEWART If I hadn’t gotten to this beautiful, luxurious place of choice, I would’ve found my way into production. I want to make movies. I grew up in a film-centric family, and I’m still starving for it. There was one point when I told my mom that she didn’t have to keep driving me to auditions, because it just wasn’t really happening. But then right after that I got my first job, at 9, so I stuck with it.
TESSA THOMPSON I grew up in Los Angeles — my dad is a musician — and we lived in a studio on Yucca and Ivar, so the Hollywood Walk of Fame was like my front yard. I was in some ways so close to the industry, and yet so far. Like, I never understood how people ended up in movies. It didn’t make sense to me. The only thing that made sense was going to New York or being in theater. What you think when you’re young is, how do you get away from where you are, even if the place is lovely. But I came back, and I just love storytelling, so even on the days when I’m like, “I’m going to pack up my stuff and leave,” I still want to be involved in storytelling in some way.
KIRSTEN DUNST I’ve had so many moments like that. But as I grew up, I learned to do what I do differently and make it more exciting for myself, rather than just giving to other people.
EMILIA JONES I’ve been acting since I was really young. It wasn’t really until I had my first lead role in Brimstone, a film that I did when I was 13, that I realized, “OK, I want to do this for the rest of my life.” There were moments where, you know, you’re too young to play certain roles, but you’re too old to play kids, so there was a moment where I wasn’t really working. But I learned a lot from self-tapes, so there was never a point, even when I wasn’t getting work, that was like, “Oh, this is not for me.”
Let’s talk about the roles that everyone is representing. Jennifer, Aretha Franklin has been a presence in your life since the beginning, right? It seems like the stars were aligned for you to play her.
HUDSON I seem to discover everything through music first, and Aretha was one of those people for me — like, I grew up in the church singing in the choir, and she was the ideal thing to be. My American Idol audition song was “Share Your Love With Me” by Miss Aretha — that was my introduction to the world. Crazy, right? Everything prepares you for what’s to come. Two years later, I got Dreamgirls. I won the Oscar. And then right after that, we had our first meeting about me playing her. Her having that faith in me gave me the courage to be able to get through it.
Speaking of somebody else having confidence in you to do something that perhaps you yourself might need some convincing about, Kristen, you’ve talked about Pablo Larraín reaching out and saying, “I see you as Princess Diana,” and how that was not as obvious to you.
STEWART Yeah. I mean, his confidence was contagious and reassuring — but then as soon as I wasn’t on the phone with him and had five minutes to sit in my room alone, I was like, “I don’t know …” I hadn’t read the script yet. He was talking a lot about it being a poetic sort of fever dream that takes place over three days. I approached it like, “Who am I to say no to this?” Like, “You’re an actor. You want to do good stuff. You want to challenge yourself. What are you doing if you retreat?”
Spencer focuses on Diana as she comes out of her 20s having lived in the public eye, under a microscope, and been tormented by it. You also experienced your 20s under a microscope. Did you feel you could connect with her in some way through that?
STEWART It seems like the clearest parallel — there were a lot of cameras in our lives — but the reason they were there is so different. I’m not running from anything; I’m running toward everything. This person wasn’t even allowed to be a person. So I know what it’s like to assume — sometimes wrongly — that everyone’s looking at you when you walk into a room. I can relate to being like, “Oh, I’m going to go to the bathroom right now, and I wonder if anyone’s going to walk in there after me.” But it’s only the small sort of weird stuff that I can relate to.
Kirsten, you first heard from Jane Campion long before The Power of the Dog.
DUNST Yeah. She wrote me in my early 20s about working together. I saved the letter because, you know, it’s Jane Campion — I was like, “Oh, my God.” That project never came to fruition, obviously. But her movies and her heroines in her movies have inspired me in my own career. So when The Power of the Dog came along, I read the script, but, I mean, if she calls, you say, “Yes.”
Tessa, the source material for Passing is Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name. Were you already familiar with it when you were sent the script?
THOMPSON Embarrassingly, no. It’s slim, just 93 pages, and so much happens in it, but I didn’t know about the book — many people don’t, because she was sort of unsung and underappreciated in her time. She wrote one other book called Quicksand, which is also exquisite. But I got a phone call saying, “You should read the book and then you should read the screenplay.” I opened the book and read it in one sitting. When I closed it, I remember just having it in my hand for a long time. I couldn’t move, I was so haunted by it. Then I opened my laptop and read what Rebecca Hall wrote, and it was such a beautiful, dedicated adaptation of this thing that feels unadaptable. I didn’t know how you could communicate that onscreen, but Rebecca did.
Part of what attracted Rebecca to it was that she discovered she may have had a relative who passed, correct?
THOMPSON She would look at her mom and think, “I feel like there’s a there, there,” and her mom would kind of allude that her grandfather was maybe this or maybe that. Thirteen years ago, someone gave [Hall] the book and said, “You should read this.” It was the first time she had this context for what “passing” was. She didn’t have the language around what her grandfather might have done. But he sort of passed this legacy on to her mom and thereby to Rebecca. So she started to adapt the book, not thinking necessarily that she would make the film, but she needed to exorcise all of these feelings and ideas around her own identity.
Emilia, you landed CODA even before starting your Netflix series Locke & Key. Did you immediately realize it was something special?
JONES The minute I read it, I felt, “Whoever gets to play this role is an incredibly lucky actress,” because it’s not every day you get to learn so many skills. I was in a Q&A yesterday and said, “I got to learn three skills,” and someone came up to me after and they were like, “It’s not three, it’s five.” And I was thinking, “Where are you getting five from?” Sign language — I had always wanted to learn it, but I just never had the opportunity. Singing — I’d never had a singing lesson before …
THOMPSON You hadn’t?! You sing so beautifully!
JONES Oh my gosh, thank you. I was so scared, but we kind of shot chronologically, musically-wise, so as my voice was growing, Ruby’s voice was growing, too. Fishing. Gloucester accent. And then interpreting — you have to learn everyone else’s lines in sign language and spoken, because otherwise you don’t know when to come in. So collectively, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
DUNST Wow. (Shakes head in disbelief.) Good on you!
Jessica, your interest in playing Tammy Faye traces to a documentary, right?
CHASTAIN Yeah. I was on the press tour for Zero Dark Thirty, jet-lagged somewhere, and I saw the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye . I felt really guilty because my memory of Tammy Faye was that she was vulgar, a criminal, a bad person, all of these things. But when I saw the documentary, I was like, “Why have we spent so much time talking about the amount of mascara she wore rather than what she did?” In 1985, at a time when the Reagan administration wasn’t even talking about the AIDS epidemic, she brought Steve Pieters, an openly gay minister with AIDS, on to her show, and she looked into the camera and reminded Christians what it means to be Christian — that you love through anything, that’s the way of Jesus. She went up against Jerry Falwell and all of the guys in the televangelist community. It was a radical act of love. And I felt like I needed to right that wrong. Also, Zero Dark Thirty was about a woman who wanted revenge; Tammy’s the opposite. She was a woman who believed in unconditional love and forgiveness, and I think I needed that medicine at that time.
Several of you are portraying real people, some of whom died in the past few years or decades. How did you calculate whether to reach out to their survivors? Jessica, Tammy Faye is no longer with us. Her husband Jim is, but I don’t know where …
CHASTAIN He’s selling COVID cures.
Oh my God.
CHASTAIN I reached out to her children, who are incredible and continue her legacy. Her daughter sings her mom’s song in our credits. And her son started his own church, Revolution Church, and officiates gay weddings — he’s incredible. But it was a tough call to make, because you have to earn their trust. These are kids who were traumatized by the media. But once they understood my intention, it was heaven to me. Like, they told me, “She wore this perfume from this year to this year, and then this one.” I asked the daughter, “What was your mom’s favorite color?” And she said, “Pink and leopard.” (Laughs.) So it was scary to reach out, but I’m glad I did.
Kristen, Diana has been gone for 24 years, but plenty of people who knew her are still around.
STEWART But it’s a pretty insulated world. People who want to speak to that period of time or weigh in in any meaningful way have written memoirs, which are available. We absorbed everything we could. We watched all the documentaries and read all the memoirs — you know, the personal protection officer’s memoir and the maid’s memoir. There were so many contradicting things that you could accumulate and put together. But the script is a tone poem, versus something kind of educational, so we kind of couldn’t do anything wrong.
Kirsten, your real-life partner, Jesse Plemons, plays your husband in The Power of the Dog, and Benedict Cumberbatch portrays his toxic brother, who torments your character. How did you interact with them on set?
DUNST In one scene, I kind of linked arms with Jesse, and Jane was like, “That’s a little familiar.” I was like, “Oh, you’re right.” It’s funny to be so proper with someone that you’ve had a child with — it’s not what you do instinctively — but yes, that wasn’t proper for the 1920s. Benedict and I decided not to speak to each other on set. And there were times when I just didn’t talk at all during the day. When you haven’t talked all day and then you speak your first words to somebody, it just gives you that lump in your throat and that feeling of crushing insecurity. It brought up old feelings of being young and overanalyzing things. It was this really painful, sad place to live in. When you’ve overcome all these things as a person, to go back and live in it — it wasn’t fun.
STEWART It’s weird to see you like that.
DUNST Yeah, because you know me. I’m a confident human being, and I’ve worked very hard to just enjoy what we do for myself. So to play someone who feels so terrible and is spinning out of control is really hard.
Is there a coping mechanism that you found to be able to do that?
DUNST Well, thank God I had Jesse on set, to be honest. I thought about that. At least there was a reprieve. We had lunch together in the trailer, and we’d ride home together and I could say whatever.
Tessa, you’ve also talked about the challenge of playing a character who has a lot of pent-up feelings and doesn’t get to have a release.
THOMPSON It was pretty uncomfortable. I can relate, hearing you speak, Kirsten, and actually, when I watched your film, I thought about the threads between our characters. Irene [Thompson’s character in Passing] is someone who lives pretty squarely in her head, and her head is a pretty treacherous place, so there’s discomfort with that. As an actor, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to play that. Does anyone see it? Does anyone understand? You have the challenge of both not showing it, because the character doesn’t, but showing it, because you have to let the audience in. That felt tricky. I remember one day finishing a scene and — I’m sure some of you have felt this — I felt really horrified that anyone would see it. Not because I worried it was bad — maybe it is bad, I don’t know — but more to do with a level of privacy and intimacy. (Chastain nods in agreement.)
It’s interesting to note that both of these characters, Kirsten and Tessa’s, exist in the 1920s, albeit in very different places, one out in the West and the other in Harlem, but dealing with similar things.
DUNST They’d be friends. They’d help each other.
THOMPSON Oh, yes. They’d go to therapy together. (Laughs.)
Given the weird times we’re living in, I have to ask how, if at all, COVID-19 impacted your shoots.
CHASTAIN We finished before COVID. Our postproduction was during quarantine. And the first time we saw the film with an audience was in Toronto. It’s an interesting thing, meeting with editors and postproduction people on Zoom — it’s complicated.
STEWART It’s so frustrating — oh my God! You just want to get closer to the person and talk to them. It’s such a persnickety process already.
CHASTAIN Like (describing what it’s like as a producer trying to give directions to an editor via Zoom), “Can you go to this take? No! No!”
STEWART “Shave three frames off — no, go back!” It’s horrible.
JONES We finished shooting a while before the pandemic started. But there was a moment when we didn’t have Apple yet [as a distributor] and I thought, “God, is anyone going to see this movie?” I trained so long and I worked so hard on it and I poured my heart and soul into it, and I was like, “Is anybody ever going to watch it?”
STEWART Welcome! (Laughs.)
CHASTAIN Welcome to our industry! (Laughs.)
DUNST We had finished our exteriors and then got to Auckland, in New Zealand, and the whole world shut down. We quarantined for about a month in New Zealand because we didn’t know whether to take a kid on a plane. Eventually, we went home, back to L.A. But then, pretty quickly, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, got the whole country under control.
THOMPSON She’s so cool.
CHASTAIN Yeah, she’s kind of a badass.
STEWART I was going to say, if you’re going to be anywhere …
DUNST Yeah, it was the place. But we were still wiping down our groceries and taking showers right afterward. We quarantined in a hotel room with a 2-year-old for two weeks, which was really fun. (Laughs.) But to be able to finish the movie was … I thought we’d never come back and finish the film, so it invigorated us all creatively, and we just felt so lucky to be working and also that we could just live our lives for a little bit before we went home.
HUDSON Well, we were blessed because we literally wrapped the day before everything shut down. We kept hearing things about it on the set, but who would have known what was to come?
THOMPSON We finished well before the pandemic, and then we were in the edit, which was remote, but it was mostly just Rebecca and the editor in a room in New York City. And then, like Emilia’s film, we went to “virtual” Sundance — and by the way, I saw your film there, Emilia, which was so lovely, on my little computer. We were all longing for cuddles, and your film felt like a cuddle, so thank you.
JONES Oh, good, I’m glad! Yeah, it was weird. You’re just living your life normally, and then suddenly you hear this knock at the door, and then there’s a Sundance award sitting on your doorstep and you’re like, “Wait, what?”
STEWART We shot at the height of lockdown. It was OK. I was expecting the whole shoot to have this larger-scale feel; I was expecting it to be a bit more theatrical-feeling, just because the space is huge, and I imagined that there was going to be a larger crew, but it was so small. We didn’t feel isolated from each other, or at least I didn’t notice — I was so, like, somewhere else, anyway. And I didn’t have to wear a mask because, you know, I was on camera. (Laughs.) But I saw our DP at the London premiere and I was like, “Oh my gosh! I just know you from here [nose-level] up.”
Another COVID-related question: In some ways it feels like the world is opening back up. But at the same time, there are many places where things are progressing slower. Movie theaters are still struggling. And even a James Bond movie is underperforming at the box office compared to pre-pandemic times. In this climate, what metric do you use to evaluate success? Is it a box office figure? A Rotten Tomatoes score? Something else?
CHASTAIN I love going back to the movie theaters — I feel safe doing it — but a lot of people are nervous to. So I wouldn’t say, “James Bond is underperforming”; I’m like, “Thank goodness there’s product that these theater owners can show, and then everyone can make their choice if they feel safe or not.” I don’t even think we understand how traumatic the past two years have been.
DUNST How do you define success? Your grandparents are alive. (Laughs.) It’s a weird time.
CHASTAIN I don’t think we can really look at each product and say, “OK, add up all of these factors and this equals a success.” And I’d like to offer up that in this industry, if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re going to have a lot of difficulty. You have to live and work for the experience of working. It’s got to be something that fulfills you and offers you something and helps you grow as a human being. If you’re like, “I need to check this box and this box and this box,” all you’re going to be is unhappy.
STEWART Yeah. I mean, when is your experience and how people consumed it completely congruent? Like, it’s pretty rare. It’s thrilling when it is. It’s really nice when you do a movie and you’re like, “I think that’s a good movie, and I had a good time making it and people seem to like it.” But, like, that is a miracle. (Laughs.)
CHASTAIN And some movies are made before their time, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it came out, someone at The New York Times said it was immensely boring. It’s a classic!
STEWART Look at the Rotten Tomatoes percentage on your favorite movies. Some of them are, like, 10 percent, and you’re like, “But that’s a masterpiece!”
DUNST I definitely don’t judge movies by Rotten Tomatoes.
THOMPSON It’s definitely a measure of success for me, which is probably not a good thing. But I also love the idea of being underappreciated in your time.
HUDSON To me, success is about creating your own value and your own goal. Box office? I don’t care. I did my job. I got to do what I wanted to do. I got to do what I love. That’s winning.
OK, let’s do some rapid-fire questions and answers. What’s the best movie of 2021 not represented on this panel?
CHASTAIN My favorite, and I’ve seen it twice, is The Hand of God, by [Paolo] Sorrentino. It’s incredible. It’s so special. He showed it to me and then I saw it in Venice, and I just sobbed like a baby. It was more emotional the second time. Oh, and The Lost Daughter, too!
THOMPSON I loved a film called El Planeta that premiered at Sundance virtually. It’s made by a young filmmaker, Amalia Ulman; it stars herself and her mother; and it’s also in black-and-white, like our film. I also loved some docs, which are always my favorite, especially one called Flee, which is incredible.
Which living actor who you’ve not worked with do you most want to work with?
DUNST I have such a girl crush on Penélope Cruz.
HUDSON Denzel Washington.
JONES Viola Davis.
THOMPSON Tilda Swinton.
STEWART I’ve always wanted to work with Kirsten. We were in a movie together [2012’s On the Road], but we weren’t in one scene together.
DUNST Oh, you’re going to make me cry.
STEWART We’re friends and I love Kirsten. She’s fucking incredible.
CHASTAIN For me, it was Liv Ullmann and Isabelle Huppert, but I got to work with them, so I’m going to say Cate Blanchett.
Which of the roles played by these other women here would you have been most interested to play?
STEWART I think I could probably do Aretha! (Laughs.) Could have killed that.
THOMPSON Diana, with that dancing sequence and the running and the physical freedom that Kristen has in that is so beautiful — it’s like poetry. And Tammy Faye — I’ve never done anything with prosthetics like that, and that level of charisma is insane.
CHASTAIN You’d be such a good Tammy Faye!
HUDSON Any time I watch something, I always imagine, “If I had to do it, how would I approach that?”
CHASTAIN The reality is, I can’t imagine myself playing any of these other characters. When I watch something, maybe I don’t have the confidence to imagine myself in it.
For anyone who dreams of one day being where you are today, what was the most useful piece of advice you received en route to this moment?
JONES I guess to never give up. You hear “no” so much more than you hear “yes” — I mean, maybe it’s me, but I hear “no” a lot. And also, challenge yourself. If you read a script and it scares you, do it; it’s the most rewarding thing when you conquer it.
DUNST Stay creatively true to yourself. You’re your own career. Like, it’s up to you. The choices you make lead to other choices. Also, to say “no” is more powerful than “yes” a lot of the time. And also, study acting really hard from every angle and find what works for you, to make you feel the most free and confident.
HUDSON Nothing is “just.” Also, if you keep at it, it has no choice but to give in. And do it because you love it, and it will make room for you. Don’t worry about the success, the accolades, the attention. We’re all here because we simply love what we do. There is no set formula for success — it’s your own idea of what that is.
CHASTAIN Mine would be to not be comfortable in your work. It’s an industry that creates a lot of difficulty and a lot of rejection, so we seek comfort, we seek to feel like, “OK, I feel safe in this part.” And that’s not a great thing for curiosity and creativity. I know with myself, the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been has grown me the most as a person and as an actor.
THOMPSON Specifically speaking to people that, like myself, have struggled with bouts of stage fright, and also just fright with being in these sort of spaces [the Roundtable conversation], something that really changed my perception was to understand that whatever nerves I was feeling were relative to how much I cared about the thing. When I could recontextualize that — like, get out of my head and just focus on the people across from me, which is what our job asks us to do — that was really paramount for me.
STEWART I definitely lean toward what feels scary and uncomfortable. When I was younger, I figured that was the only way — but it also sometimes feels good to actually, with ease, approach something in a more thoughtful way. My advice when I was younger would have been, “Lean into that fear! Use it!” Like, I would have said what you said, Emilia. But now I’m actually better when I’m more comfortable.
DUNST I’m totally with you. I’m so much better when I’m not working from any sense of fear.
STEWART Yeah. And I think, very basically, like, learn your lines. (Laughs.) I used to be like, “If I don’t know it, it will feel, like, more mine!” (Laughs.) Now I’m like, “No. Try. Try hard. Take credit for it. Be there. Learn. Process. Work with people.” I worked with a coach for Spencer — a dialect coach, but also a beautiful acting coach. When I was younger, I would have been like, “No, that’s weird. It’s just me and the director!” But the truth is, it’s such a fun job to chew on and lean into. It’s not a magic trick. It’s a process. And it’s such a fun one. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming more of a “thespian” every day! (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.