As THR‘s annual Actress Roundtable kicks off, Judy star Renée Zellweger takes a quick swig from her glass of water. “I was grabbing this to set myself up to not be first,” Zellweger, 50, jokes. Sure, there are some nerves among the six actresses as they gather for an hourlong conversation about their standout 2019 performances and the industry as a whole, but there’s also a sense of camaraderie and excitement because, as Laura Dern says, “this is a rare gift that we get to be in community like this.” Dern, 52, who gives a strong supporting performance in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, is reuniting with Scarlett Johansson, with whom she stars in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Johansson, 34, who also makes an impression in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, is joined by Hustlers‘ Jennifer Lopez, 50, Us star Lupita Nyong’o, 36, and The Farewell breakout Awkwafina, 30. Their paths and projects are very different, but during this discussion, the actresses — who talk about navigating Hollywood, the media and the aftermath of the #MeToo movement — find that what they have in common is, underneath it all, a desire to put on a show. “That’s what we do. We perform, we go out there, whether it’s in front of 50,000 people on the stage, or in front of 300 guys on set, we’ve got to perform,” says Lopez. “You’ve got to do it.”
When have you been most afraid or intimidated by a role, and how did you get past that?
RENÉE ZELLWEGER It happens every time before you start. Your impostor syndrome sneaks in —this will be the time that everyone knows you’re a fraud and you’re going to get fired. It becomes less fear and probably more just a sense of responsibility as you get older, and I’ve been doing it a while. But it’s always part of the joy, because if it doesn’t frighten you, then …
JENNIFER LOPEZ It’s the excitement.
ZELLWEGER Yeah, why are you doing it if it doesn’t …
LOPEZ … scare the shit out of you. (Laughter.)
LAURA DERN I did a film, Citizen Ruth , that was, I felt at the time, the most different of anyone I’d [played]. I mean, I’m not addicted to huffing paint, and that was a challenge and at that time felt scary because it was a very dark comedy. Trying to walk this unusual line in the script was so fun and terrifying.
LUPITA NYONG’O I would say that Us terrified me quite a bit.
DERN And us. (Laughter.)
NYONG’O Every time I work, I wonder whether I have what it takes to do that particular role, because we’re in a business where we’re always starting again: You start with ignorance with every role. And the preparation is about moving from that ignorance to hopefully a sense of expertise by the time the film wraps.
But with Us, I had to play two characters in one movie. I had the time it usually takes me to prepare for one. And these two characters are diametrically opposed to each other. They are individual, but they are also two entities that ultimately are one. So that was a challenge, just in terms of how to organize it in my head, and how to make them distinct and yet feel like two parts of one entity.
LOPEZ With Hustlers, this was the first time in a long time that I was actually terrified, really scared, to do that opening [pole dancing] number, which I suggested, of course. (Laughter.) It was my fault that I was there to begin with. It wasn’t written in the script. And I was like, no, she’s the big money-maker at the club — she has to show why. We can’t say it, we have to do it. I have to dance on the pole, I have to show them, I have to go there.
Then when I was there and I had the dental floss on, I’m out there in a way I’ve never been. It was so scary, I was so terrified. I have my robe on and there’s 300 extras, all men. I think that was putting myself out there, in a way, deeper than I had ever done physically and emotionally, and playing a character that was that unapologetic in so many ways. It was so different from who I was.
Scarlett, you had two very different projects this year. Was one more intimidating than the other?
SCARLETT JOHANSSON With Marriage Story, what people don’t necessarily realize is that every hesitation and every unfinished sentence is all scripted — the words are the words, and you have to stick to that. Noah [Baumbach, the writer-director] is a real stickler about that, which is fine. It was challenging at times, just because Noah is relentless and he works to exhaustion. I’ve never really been able to have that experience, just burning film like that.
LOPEZ I’m listening to you, and I’m like, excited. I wish I was there to have seen it. Because the performance is the thing, right? Because that’s what we do, we perform, we go out there, whether it’s in front of 50,000 people on the stage or in front of 300 guys on a set, and we’ve got to perform. You’ve got to do it.
Laura, along with working on Marriage Story with Noah Baumbach, you also worked with Greta Gerwig on Little Women. They are partners in real life. How would you compare their directing styles?
DERN I think they’re both — as Scarlett described with Noah — they’re both exacting about the words because they really, I think as a playwright would, they really hear a rhythm to the language. With Noah it has its own specific nature. And one thing that I was so inspired by, and I think we found in rehearsals: Even when we aren’t in the scenes with the people at hand, when it’s with Adam [Driver] with his attorney or Scarlett and I together, he feels there is a really musicality to the film. I mean literally too — a couple of actual songs in the film. But I think he hears a rhythm, Noah, that he is waiting for everyone to resonate with in a really beautiful way. It was beautiful to surrender to that discipline, to not try to find your own rhythm outside of it and have emotional freedom within the scene but really trust his language. And I would say that Greta has that very much [as well].
In the case of Greta, she was also adapting Little Women, we wanted to honor Louisa May Alcott’s words and another time, seemingly. But she is so brilliantly trusting of how modern the story is, of how modern Louisa’s writing is, and how clear a revolutionary Louisa was through these characters — complicated and beautiful, different female characters — that she wrote. But also that she heard the language in a way that I think is very similar to how she and Noah have worked and collaborated both as co-writers and her as his actress. That there is a rhythm to the language that she brings that is seemingly messy and joyful and complicated and angry and all of those things, but it’s very strategic.
What do you do when you’re working with an actor and you aren’t clicking because there isn’t chemistry?
NYONG’O I was trained in the theater, and so that’s where I feel most at home. What’s interesting about film is that you are at risk more often of having an actor that doesn’t respond, because onstage it is the performers who are in charge of the magic, whereas on film there’s other people in charge of the magic.
Yes, the performers do their thing, but then there’s the editor who ultimately is the one who puts the performance together. Then there’s the camera and these weird things where you can’t look at the person you’re acting with, you have to look at the X or something like that. So all those things get in the way, or make human exchange a little bit more challenging. Therefore I think you are more likely to find moments with an actor where things are not gelling — because there are so many other things to deal with. You have to be a lot more self-reliant in film is what I am realizing — you have to be able to control your performance in a way that it doesn’t necessarily have to rely on the other person.
AWKWAFINA I wonder now if I am that person where [people say], “There just wasn’t a connection there, I don’t know what was going on.” (Laughter.) No, I think for me, if you come on to set and if the other actor is having a bad day, I feel that energy will come off a little bit. And it’s not anyone’s fault. You realize that they’re human as well and they have the same fears. [It’s about] just knowing that empathy and knowing that we’re both here, going through it.
Renée, Was there a certain point in the process where you felt like playing Judy Garland in Judy really clicked into place for you — whether that was when you got into costume or on set?
ZELLWEGER No, that didn’t happen. It was a process that was in constant motion — just little experiments — and we were trying things every day. And it didn’t feel like making a film; it felt like this celebration of her because everybody came to set and was motivated by the same affection or adoration for her. Someone would find a recording or we’d read something in a book, and we were always sharing and adjusting according to what came along, making choices on the day, and just conjuring her essence as truthfully as we could based on those things, that treasure we were mining for every day.
JOHANSSON Was there a time, a couple weeks in or a few weeks in, where you suddenly felt in the pocket of it and you felt like you could be playful and kind of make decisions or act on your instinct because you were Judy then? With all the people around you, whoever it is, whether it’s the camera department trying to figure out how to capture this performance and then your hair and makeup team and all that stuff — and then I feel like sometimes a few weeks in you’re like, “Oh, I can walk on the set as this person and I have this playground and I can do all this stuff.” Did you always have this thing that you’re describing where it felt like you just had to try out all these different things?
ZELLWEGER It was never disconnected. I mean it sounds so crazy but it felt — her essence was palpable on the set because her music was always playing and we were always listening to recordings of her voice.
LOPEZ The music — when I played Selena, one of the things that got me the most in her body was performing. Because you look at her and you’re gonna try to imitate her a little bit and then let that go and just live, right? But the music and the actual performance — that’s what we have that is the real things where you can really watch her, because you didn’t get to talk to her in person, which is the hard part. The music was such a big part of it, I wonder if that was the same for you?
ZELLWEGER Oh yeah, absolutely. Well because there’s a performance language there that’s been developed over so many years.
LOPEZ Yeah, and a body language.
ZELLWEGER Yeah, and when that becomes familiar, and then it becomes a habit, and then you don’t think about it anymore.
LOPEZ Did you like playing a real person?
ZELLWEGER Oh yeah.
LOPEZ I love playing real people. I feel like it’s like you got a blueprint. You’re like, I know exactly what I’m doing. (Laughter.)
ZELLWEGER Yeah, it’s nice to have a point of reference, several points of reference, but the responsibilities are different, too.
LOPEZ Oof. You reminded me of that. They love her. They love Judy so much.
ZELLWEGER And you did too, you had —
LOPEZ No, they loved Selena and she had just died two years before so they were like, “You better not fuck it up!” Luckily I was young and more ignorant. Now if I had to do it I would be so in my head, so much more in my head, it would be much more difficult I think.
AWKWAFINA Man, I own that movie and watch it all the time.
JOHANSSON You didn’t fuck it up. (Laughter.)
Awkwafina, The Farewell was your first dramatic role. What kind of pressure did that add?
AWKWAFINA It added a lot of pressure. I was really, really scared, because you think you know what people think about you, but you don’t know what you can do [about it]. You create all these different scenarios in your head about the worst it can go, and the best it can go, and you want to strive for this kind of invisible best that never will come true. But that striving is what you run on, and without the neuroses, without the self-hatred, without the impostor syndrome, it would’ve been harder. But I think it was the character — I just really related to her.
When have you made choices in your career as a way to shift expectations of you?
JOHANSSON The climate is so different now, there’s so many wonderful opportunities for women of every age to play all different types of people. When I was working in my early 20s and even my late teens, I felt that I got somehow typecast as hypersexualized, which I guess at the time seemed OK to everyone — it was another time — even though it wasn’t part of my own narrative. It was kind of crafted for me by probably a bunch of dudes in the industry.
But it was really difficult for me to try to figure out how to get out of being an ingenue or the “other woman” because it was never anything that I had intended. I had to shake it up a little bit. I remember thinking at the time that maybe I needed a different job in this industry that would be more fulfilling, because it seemed like there was nowhere to go. And so I actually had the opportunity to do an Arthur Miller play on Broadway, and it totally reset my whole way of thinking about how I could work, and what different kinds of opportunities could be available to me.
ZELLWEGER As a young person starting out, I would get the cutoff-shorts jobs and the other woman, the one-night-stand girl, and I did about three or four of those little jobs in Texas while I was still at university. And I thought, “I think I’m going to not do this anymore because I know where that road will go. I don’t know what it’s going to look like ultimately, but I bet it would be really hard to get off that road.” And there is the inevitability of your body changing and you growing older. I want to work in a way where I can portray women who are relatable throughout my life. I don’t want to have to stop at a particular time because I can’t wear the cutoffs anymore because it looks weird.
LOPEZ I bet it still looks good. (Laughter.)
How do you deal with the way you’re covered in the press, especially the more tabloidy coverage?
DERN Not to put anybody in an awkward position, but — and I know we’ve all faced it, the difficulty of trying to keep one’s life private — but I must say you (toward Lopez) carry this other extraordinary gift of being iconic in this larger story. Knowing what it has felt like for me, there are moments when I’ll pass a magazine cover and just feel grief for anybody having to walk through this salacious narrative that’s created.
LOPEZ It’s funny, from the beginning, I’ve been really picked out and plagued with that. Lots of stories, lots of lies, lots of things where you’re trying to figure out, “How did this happen? How did I become that person?” What I’ve learned is that none of it matters. And it doesn’t really bother me anymore. I’ve learned that I know who I am, I know what I do, I know I’m a good person, I know I’m just out here working my ass off and trying to fulfill myself creatively. There was a time in my life when it was such a big part and it was so hurtful and so hard that you think, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to be the person on the cover of the magazine every week for two and a half years, I don’t. This is crazy. Why me?”
I think honestly American Idol helped with that a lot. Of all the things that I’ve done in my career, people actually just seeing me talk about how much I love music and how much I love people and how much of a girl’s girl I am and how much of a crier I am — things shifted.
A couple of filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, have come out against Marvel films recently. Scarlett and Lupita, I’m especially curious what you think about Marvel films being called the theme parks of movies?
JOHANSSON There’s certainly a place for all kinds of cinema right now. People absorb content in so many different ways. I actually didn’t totally understand that statement, because I guess I needed some insight as to what it meant exactly. Because to me it seemed a little old-fashioned. But somebody pointed out to me that perhaps what the statement meant was that there’s no room for smaller films, because the cinema is taken up by these enormous blockbusters, and smaller movies don’t have a chance at the theater, which I hadn’t actually considered and think is a valid point.
But I also feel like there’s sort of this shift in how people watch stuff and there’s all these platforms for different kinds of [content]. Now there’s movies and shows and art films and all kinds of stuff getting made that you can watch in all these different ways, and I just feel like it’s changing. It doesn’t mean it’s going away.
Lupita, you’ve worked with Jordan Peele, Steve McQueen, Mira Nair and Ryan Coogler. Are you making these choices specifically to work with directors who were underrepresented in the past?
NYONG’O It’s definitely not a calculated thing. These are all directors who have offered me the most interesting roles. And I’ve taken them. I haven’t really thought about the demographic of the director I’ve been working with. This #MeToo time, this Time’s Up time in the industry, is about allowing for equitable representation. And because I am a black woman, I am a beneficiary of that movement in the work that I’ve been able to do. I’m very grateful to have come into the industry at the time that I have because I am benefiting from the efforts of a lot of other women who have come before me, other black women who have had it a lot rougher than I have. This is a time where there is a concerted effort to consider diversity and inclusion. What I really want is for it to not be a fad, not be a trend. Right now it’s really dope and cool and on trend to work with women and underrepresented groups, but the moment of maturity in the industry is when it is just the norm, you know?
LOPEZ Right. When I first started, one of the things that I wanted to do, because I was Puerto Rican, Latina, was that I wanted to be in romantic comedies because I felt like all the women in romantic comedies always looked the same way, they were always white. And I was like, if I can do it and just show that I’m every girl — because I am the hopeless romantic, I am that — I am the single working woman, I was those things. And I remember thinking, I need to be the lead in a romantic comedy. And that’s one of the things I went for and that’s one of the things me and my agents talked about.
NYONG’O That’s the thing — when the race of the person in the romantic comedy is not the point. There are moments when the cultural group or the religious group or the national group is the subject matter, and there are moments when it’s not, and both are radical, you know?
AWKWAFINA Yeah, for sure.
NYONG’O So like with Jordan in the horror genre, not often do you have black characters in the fore. So he is revolutionizing that genre — that black people don’t die first in his films. And [race] is really not the point. What is the point is that it’s an examination of class and privilege. The family that we are following is representational of the all-American family. And that you can relate to that person just as much as I related to Fräulein Maria in The Sound of Music. That it is possible that we can see ourselves in the people who are different from us, from other cultures, other creeds.
AWKWAFINA There is a genuine urge for audiences to want an industry that represents their life. That’s why I’m very positive about the direction that we’re going in. I don’t think that having people of different cultures or women will be a trend because I think that it’s what people want. We’re changing as a society.
DERN And if I may add to that, I think it’s because money matters and they’re making money.
NYONG’O And the audience is louder. Now with social media, you can no longer just be in your little boardroom and say what the audiences are looking for. That was the folly — “Black films don’t sell. Oh, nobody wants to see a Latina do a comedy.”
DERN Or like, “Women movies don’t make money.”
It’s been about two years since #MeToo and Time’s Up swept the industry. What kind of changes are you seeing now?
ZELLWEGER I hear the conversations and I’ve been in professional partnerships with men who make different choices now, even if it’s just to be clear about what their intentions are.
LOPEZ They’re definitely more careful now.
ZELLWEGER Yeah, they keep the door open. Or I had one gentleman say, “I don’t meet with women alone. I always make sure that there’s somebody else in here because I don’t want anything to be misconstrued or misunderstood and I want her to be comfortable.” So you see that there are different choices being made.
LOPEZ We’ve stood up and said, “Hey, we don’t want this to be going on and it’s been going on a long time and it’s enough.” On a more positive note, we have movies like Hustlers and Little Women and all these other movies where there’s women at the forefront, and we’re producing and we’re directing, we’re writing it, we’re editing it.
AWKWAFINA That’s always very interesting to me when I hear that because when I first started, the first two directors I worked with were women. And when I hear about the industry that existed — that this was really rare — it’s mind-blowing for me. I can’t imagine not working with a woman at the helm of a project, like at all.
Do you feel the culture around nudity and sex scenes in films has changed in the way it’s discussed now? And how has that impacted the choices that you make as actresses?
AWKWAFINA I once had a masturbation scene in a school bathroom and I remember preparing for it so much, like practicing everywhere I was, just like, “What’s my default face?” And then my grandma watched the movie and the masturbation scene came up and she watched it. I was like, “Grandma, I’m sorry.” She was like, “About what?” I was like, “The scene just now.” She was like, “Oh, why?” And I was like, “Because I was masturbating.” And she was like, “Oh, I didn’t even notice.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s not good. (Sarcastically) I killed that, yeah, super killed it.” Anyway, my palms are fully sweating now, can someone please take the question?
Jennifer, you’ve told a story before about a director asking you to take your top off before shooting a scene.
LOPEZ A director at a fitting asked me to take my top off.
JOHANSSON To see what?
LOPEZ Because I was supposed to do nudity in the movie.
JOHANSSON Oh, they wanted to see your breasts?
LOPEZ He wanted to see my boobs. And I was like, “We’re not on set.”
JOHANSSON That is crazy.
LOPEZ Well, he was crazy. And …
JOHANSSON Oh my God, who was it?! I want to know.
LOPEZ And I said no, I stood up for myself. But it was so funny because I remember being so panicked in the moment. And by the way, there was a costume designer in the room with me. So there was another woman in the room and he says this and I said no. Luckily a little bit of the Bronx came out, and I was like, “I don’t have to show you my — No. On the set, you see them.”
JOHANSSON Thankfully you were like that, because not everybody would feel that way.
LOPEZ That’s the thing, because if you give in, in that moment, all of a sudden that person is off and running, thinking they can do whatever they want. And because I put up a little boundary right there and said no, he laid off and then later on apologized. But the minute he walked out of the room the costume designer was like, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry that just happened.”
JOHANSSON I feel like that could still happen. I don’t think we’re far away from that at all. I was talking to some of our crew from the last film that I did, about inappropriate behavior in general, and they were talking about a particular DP that was doing all kinds of crazy stuff, shooting up skirts, and our first AD had to go over to the actress and say, “Hey, just so you know, maybe you want to check and see, because I think the camera angle is going to maybe not be something that you’re comfortable with.” She had no idea.
NYONG’O The difference now, though, is that because of the conversations that are happening in public, it’s easier to tell when something is inappropriate.
LOPEZ A little more empowered.
NYONG’O Because in that moment, if the costume designer had said something, it could’ve changed. If she had supported you in some way, had spoken up, it would have changed the dynamic. So now we are programming the younger generation to know what’s OK and what’s not. To know that it’s not OK to be in a costume fitting and for a man to ask that of you. Even though those things might happen, our defense would be sharper in those moments.
DERN I started auditioning at 10, 11 years old. I listen to the next generation, saying, “People used to have auditions in hotel rooms?” I’m like, “Yeah, every single time, waiting in the lobby of a hotel and the director is waiting for you in the room to have a chemistry read.”
LOPEZ Yeah, it didn’t seem weird.
AWKWAFINA You had reads and auditions in hotel rooms?
DERN Oh, all the time.
ZELLWEGER Yeah, with a lot of lady casting directors too, by the way, but that was convenient if they were looking out of town or whatever.
LOPEZ Actors’ houses.
ZELLWEGER Oh yeah, there’s that too. I forgot about all that stuff.
LOPEZ And sometimes it was not inappropriate at all. It was totally professional. So it’s not like you can put everybody in that category.
ZELLWEGER No, it just kind of afforded an opportunity to be inappropriate if you were so inclined.
NYONG’O But also now there are intimacy coaches. I have not been asked to do much nudity in my career, but I’ve heard that now they have intimacy coaches on set, which I think is really great. When you have a fight scene, you have a fight coordinator, why not have an intimacy coordinator?
LOPEZ On Hustlers, we had a comfort coach. It was basically somebody who understood that world and said, “These things are OK,” and, “These things are not OK.”
NYONG’O Oh, that’s good.
LOPEZ And made everybody on the set comfortable with what they were doing, because we had a lot of women who were half-dressed or naked, topless.
AWKWAFINA Does that intimacy coach work for just normal people?
DERN I was going to say, can we get them as a wrap present?
AWKWAFINA I’m really bad at eye contact in my personal life, so I’d love to talk to them.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.