A fiesta grandmother. A persecuted jazz icon. A grieving mother. A sexual assault avenger. A pioneering scientist. A girlfriend scorned.
On a mid-December morning, six actresses behind some of the year’s most dynamic performances came together for The Hollywood Reporter‘s Actress Roundtable: Hillbilly Elegy‘s Glenn Close, The United States vs. Billie Holiday‘s Andra Day, Pieces of a Woman‘s Vanessa Kirby, Promising Young Woman‘s Carey Mulligan, Ammonite‘s Kate Winslet and Malcolm & Marie‘s Zendaya. The group, who gathered via video conference from homes and sets in L.A., Montana, Atlanta and the U.K., discussed the business side of acting, their weirdest pandemic habits, the dangerous Hollywood misconception about creative genius — and the fact that “how women’s voices are being received [is] the biggest thing that has shifted.”
Let’s dive in. What’s the most surprising thing you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
VANESSA KIRBY I learned a lot about silence. I hadn’t realized quite how much “doing” I was doing. Somehow I hadn’t quite realized that, when you’re still, it’s just as present, you know what I mean? And I think it’s taught me to do less. I don’t think anything else would have taught me that in the way this year has done.
KATE WINSLET I became, and still am, actually, utterly obsessed with sweeping my kitchen floor. But down to the point where if there’s just even dog hair, and our dog is a golden retriever, so it’s blond hair, but I’ve got this microscopic vision where I can see the dog hair gathering in tiny little cracks, between the dishwasher and the sink, and I’ll be like, “There’s dog hair, somebody, quick, get me the broom.” I’ve just become obsessed. And I didn’t really care about things like that particularly before. Don’t get me wrong, I like to run a nice home, but sweeping the kitchen floor? I mean, who cares about that? So I’ve become a bit strange about the kitchen floor.
ZENDAYA For me, it’s that I never really got to know who I was without work. I’ve always been working. I started working when I was so young, and I’ve always just had a consistent thing happening in my life. I just had never spent that much time with myself. I was like, “What makes me happy? What do I like to do other than work? Do I have any hobbies?” I basically get to do my hobby for a living. So it’s like, “What else do I even like?” Facing that was interesting for sure.
What is something people often get wrong about acting?
WINSLET I’ve been doing this job now for, I realize, 27 years or something. I can’t quite believe that, but I do find myself getting almost agitated when I feel I have to explain just how hard the job truly is … I don’t think people understand that preparation can take up to four, five, sometimes even six months depending on the kind of role you’re playing. And also how absent, I think, you are from your family. Even if they might physically be with you — which, in my case is nine times out of 10, I’m fortunate that they are — but emotionally I know that I’m gone. I’m just not there, I’m not just Mummy, I’m not just Ned [Smith]’s wife — suddenly, I’m this other being. And I do find that part quite upsetting sometimes, and I wish I had more of a balance with that.
CAREY MULLIGAN There’s a bit of an idea, and maybe more even within the industry, that to make something great, people have permission to behave badly, the idea of someone being a creative genius … that they are so inspired, there’s a required level of darkness or unpleasantness that goes along with that, that you need to put up with. And I think people get away with bad behavior because of those reasons. In my experience, some of the most incredible people I’ve worked with have just been also the most delightful. So that’s kind of a common misconception, that there are people who have to behave badly to psych themselves up at work, or that the process is just sort of utterly miserable. I think you can work really hard, but ultimately … the attitude on set should be one of warmth.
ZENDAYA It also is a business, which is something I’ve had to learn as a young person. Because often you get into it just because you love it, and you just want to be creative, and you just want to do the fun stuff, but it is also a business. There are contracts involved and a lot of things that don’t necessarily contribute to the creativity or contribute to this idea of the freedom you think you’ll have. I have been learning that as I grow up that there are bigger entities involved … money people … I often encourage young people who do want to do this to read your contracts, be aware, have those conversations, ask as many questions as you can, try to get advice from people, because it’s easy to get stuck in a bad situation. And having that knowledge is really, really important.
GLENN CLOSE A lot of people think that anyone can do it. And of course, there have been documentaries and even some movies of people who are not trained as actors — I think that can happen in movies. I really take my craft seriously, and I think people don’t know what they’re talking about when they think that anyone could do it. I once had a brain surgeon who was the father of one of my daughter’s middle school friends … He asked if he could come over and pick my brain about something. And so I said, “Sure,” and he came over and he said, “I find being a brain surgeon depressing, I really want to be an actor.”
WINSLET Oh my God.
CLOSE And it was all I could do to not throw him out of my house. He said, “But I have to make a living, so how do I do it?” It was astounding to me that he would have such an ignorant idea of what acting was. So I think, for longevity, it is a craft, and I take great pride. There’s always something new to learn every day, but it is something that really does count. When you task yourself with becoming, looking through the eyes of another person and telling a story that will have emotional impact, that is craft.
Andra, how did you go about finding the voice of Billie Holiday?
ANDRA DAY Well, first she is very familiar to me just because she is my foremost musical inspiration. I worked with this amazing dialect coach, Thom Jones … Through the breath, that was a huge thing. I remember him always talking about, “Where it is coming from? How is she breathing?” And the emotional part of it as well, too. I look at Billie Holiday’s voice as a scroll. And on her voice is written her entire history, every time she had been raped, every time she had been hit, every time she had victoriously sang “Strange Fruit,” every time she smoked a cigarette and every time she slammed heroin or did a speedball. Everything is written onto her voice. It was also important for me not to do an impersonation. And that’s something [director] Lee [Daniels] spoke to me about, too, we don’t want to impersonate her, but sort of bring me through her. … I feel the same way about acting, that not everyone can do it. To be honest with you, I did not think that I could do it, and I’m still a little on the fence about it.
I don’t think after seeing this film anyone will have any question about whether you can do it. Let’s talk a bit about physical transformation for a character. Glenn, in Hillbilly Elegy, you’re physically transformed. How did finding the look of that character help you?
CLOSE I began personally not wanting to be distracted by my own face. I wanted to have very subtle differences so that it was an experience, that you get into the full hair and makeup and costume, and there she is, because she’s very different from who I was. But we started with a portrait of Mamaw and just the glasses, the hair, the ears, I changed my nose a little bit. And it was very, very finessed work to make it subtle enough that it wasn’t me, but not so … I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, there’s Glenn Close with a really bad nose.” That took a lot of wonderful collaboration coming up with that. We had video, we talked to members of her family who were incredibly generous in talking about her. And I asked just very specific questions: “How did she walk, how did she hold her cigarette? How did she sit? What did she wear?” which is basically what you see in the movie. She was very much a larger-than-life character. “What was her atmosphere when she came into a room?” I mean, all those kinds of things that just was a slow buildup [from] the moment you walk on for hair and makeup, and you feel that there she is.
MULLIGAN With Promising Young Woman, [director] Emerald [Fennell] is very intentional about building a world that felt very enticing. You wanted to build a film that you wanted to see, not something you needed to or should see. Part of the way that Emerald first presented the film to me was this Candyland environment that you’re in and that Cassie lived in that in the way that she clothes herself. She’s somebody who is very practiced at living with her rage and her sadness and her grief. She’s figured out that hiding in plain sight and looking like someone who’s functioning, people tend to leave her alone. It’s very deliberate that she has candy-colored nails and blond hair. First of all, she looks very unthreatening, so no one would ever suspect that she’s about to destroy a life, but also she’s someone that you don’t need to check on. You can leave her alone … Her main everyday look was just a way of saying, “I’m absolutely fine. You don’t need to look at me because I’m just generic, and a girl, and you don’t need to take me seriously.” Because we so often trivialize the way girls and women clothe themselves. It was just a very easy way of putting up a boundary between her and the rest of the world.
WINSLET Everything about [Ammonite subject, paleontologist] Mary Anning is so, so held and so internalized. I had to learn how to do quite a lot of acting with my posture, or the back of head, or the backs of my hands, or just sometimes my eyeballs. I had to really find a different rhythm for myself, because I’m a very animated person … The longer that you do this, the more familiar audiences become with your mannerisms and how you are or how you sound. I just try to remove everything of myself, and there were days when I would think, “Well, did I do anything or did I just do nothing today?” And it would be really disconcerting, but just finding a completely quiet, physical stillness and heaviness to Mary came hand in hand with the costuming of her and the look of her and making her hair a little bit gray and having no makeup.
Vanessa, you have a harrowing, more than 20-minute childbirth sequence in your film. Can you talk about what that was like to shoot and how you prepared for that?
KIRBY It was kind of terrifying, because I haven’t given birth or been pregnant before. We have seen so many deaths onscreen, we’ve rarely seen birth … I ended up writing to a lot of obstetricians asking if they’d let me come in and shadow them. One said yes, so I went to a hospital in North London and was on the labor ward for many days, which was quite unbelievable for me. I learned a lot from the midwives about what the whole birthing experience is like. One afternoon, my very last afternoon at hospital, one of the midwives came round and said, “Oh, a woman’s just come in and she’s 9 centimeters dilated. And I’m going to ask if she’d mind you watching.” I just thought, “There’s no way in hell she’s ever going to agree to have some random person sit in and watch this really sacred moment of her life.” But she did, she said yes, and so I got to sit with her and watch her go through six hours of … I mean, it was just probably the most profound afternoon of my life. I never, ever could have acted it without watching her, because I saw her go on this unbelievable journey, and I saw the animal in her take over. And it was only because of that, really, that I then felt like maybe I had a chance at attempting it. When we came to it … it was so physical and it was such a primal body thing. We did four takes the first day, two the second, and I think the fourth one is the one in the movie. It was a bit like doing a play, really, where once you’re on, you’re on, and you can’t stop. And there was something magic about that, because you couldn’t spend any time doubting yourself, you just have to do it.
Zendaya, when you were making Malcolm & Marie, it was really in the height of the pandemic. Can you talk about how working in that environment shaped how you worked and how the set functioned?
ZENDAYA Obviously, we wanted to do everything as safely as possible, so we created a bubble. I was putting my own money into it, as was everyone else. We were living in a hotel that was empty. It was just us, because everything was shut down. We were in the middle of Carmel, and we shot in this home that was in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t allowed to leave for obvious reasons, and in that time of quarantining together, we were allowed the time to work on the material. When we got there, the script was only about 70 pages, and there wasn’t a third act. Through that process of every day just being together, sometimes in a parking lot, just working through every moment and having these really long discussions about ourselves, our characters, relationships … Being able to have that time, that space with each other to figure it out, was really, really helpful. And really not having any other distraction, just being in it every single day.
We only had two actors, a very small, small crew. So we’re all doing like four different jobs. I’m doing my hair and makeup and using some of my clothes, trying to remember my continuity because we don’t have any ADs or scripties [script supervisors] or anything.
Vanessa, you’ve been shooting the Mission: Impossible sequel. Is there a lot of pressure to maintain safety on these big sets? How does it feel different?
KIRBY My sister’s an AD. She started on a movie in the summer, so I kind of learned from her what the new parameters would be and how to navigate. And I was so hopeful when she went back, actually, because it was a funny feeling, I think, for everybody suddenly seeing cinemas closed. All the people that you love and you work with are unable to work in so many different capacities, including my sister. It gave me a lot of faith. But, I mean, you get used to it. There are obviously many guidelines, there are masks and lots of testing and things like that. But it gives me faith in the resilience, actually. And I feel like we will get through it — I can’t wait for the day when cinemas are going to open again.
I was skeptical when the #MeToo movement began that there would be any kind of lasting change for women in Hollywood. But now we have more female directors, we have intimacy coordinators, Harvey Weinstein is in prison. Some things that I thought I would not see have come to pass. I’m curious, what has been the biggest change for you, personally, since the #MeToo movement started?
WINSLET The thing that is shifting in ways that will absolutely be long lasting is how women’s voices are being received. There is a space that has been created for a younger generation that is going to be safe. My daughter is 20, and she just came into the industry about a year and a half ago. And what’s wonderful for me, as her mum, is just watching her have a courage of conviction and self-belief that is just unwavering, because she’s entering a time when we’re clearing the shit away from them, these girls. These girls are going to change the world, and they’re going to be strong, and they’re going to be powerful, and they’re going to be fucking amazing. And that is because we’re getting all the bad stuff out of the way for them and all they will know is to use their voice in positive, powerful ways, to lead with compassion, to be strong role models and friends. And that, to me, is the biggest thing that has shifted.
This is the decade of women championing and supporting other women without judgment. This is happening right now, and that has come as a result of the mass united swell that has emerged from #MeToo. We’ve all come together, everyone is holding hands and walking in the same direction. And, for me, that is the single most exciting thing that is coming out of the awfulness of the past five years and those extraordinary women coming forward and sharing their painful, awful stories, and the horrendous Harvey Weinstein. The time now is about leading in a different way. Young women being able to lead with courage — in a way that I feel I certainly didn’t have, that sense of courage and companionship with my peers, in a way that I think #MeToo has done for this generation of women.
This year, we saw the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement globally. And at the time it happened, a lot of media companies were issuing statements, making large donations. Do you think there will be lasting changes from that movement as well? Three years from now, will we be talking the way we’re talking now about #MeToo in terms of concrete things changing?
DAY My hope is yes. And I hope that it spawns lasting change that moves faster than it has moved in the past. I’m hoping that this is an uprooting of this idea of, “OK, pace yourself, we need to make sure we make people comfortable.” That’s really not how you achieve lasting change. We can’t survive like this, we will not survive. It ends in what? Our destruction, it ends in war, it ends in just unrest.
That was one of the things even on set, there were a few moments that were really quite disturbing, for the cast and me. We were shooting a movie that takes place in the ’40s and in the ’50s. And there were moments on set that we realized, “Oh, wow, that has not changed.” It may have transformed, it may look a little different, lynching looks different, but it’s not changed. Truth is going to be a huge, huge, huge factor in seeing lasting change, and sustaining, and transforming, and changing a generation.
As Kate talked about, with the younger generation, I think they have such a need for transparency that will actually be very helpful. Part of doing the movie, the Billie Holiday story, was that the truth of her story had never been told, because the truth of her story was intentionally kept from the public. The respinning of narratives for people of color, or for marginalized people, or for women, has been a constant technique of oppression. And I think that’s going to be hugely important moving forward: We have to pop the top off of these things. And we have to tell the truth about them, and understand the scope of certain groups of people, people of color, why the scope of their pain has been minimized or retold.
The retelling of these stories also has to do with telling the truth, some of the gritty, ugly truth about maybe some of our heroes. We have to say, “OK, this isn’t for the purpose of destroying people, but we need to know these truths so we can actually move forward and not repeat them.”
CLOSE I just have to say I’m sitting here and I’m so inspired by what everyone has been saying. It’s quite overwhelming, it’s so articulate and so beautiful what everyone has said.
WINSLET Well, we’ve got you to look up to, Glenn.
CLOSE I can’t tell you, it’s very moving to me to hear all this. I’ve been an actress for 46 years, and when I think of the change, the monumental changes that in my short time that I have witnessed, the expectation is going to be phenomenal when we finally can get back to doing what we are here to do. I think there’s going to be an overwhelming amount of stories and new ways of telling stories.
What will you do differently in 2021?
MULLIGAN The first thing that came into my mind was that I’m going to go to the theater as much as I can, and the cinema. As soon as we can, I’m going to sit around people and watch something together with them. It just shocked me how much I missed that. I watched a medley of musical theater on television a couple of weeks ago, and it just made me cry. I just want to be a part of that. So it sounds quite trivial, but I think that is something I’m looking most forward to.
WINSLET You know, I never give time to myself at all, really, I don’t. People will so often say to me, “Oh, you need to get a massage.” And I think, “What? Don’t got time for that.” So actually, I just have enjoyed, quite honestly, just going really easy on myself. If I had a week where I think, “Oh, I’ve probably had too much toast. Oh, well.” Or, “Oh, well, maybe I should do some more exercise. Oh, maybe I’ll do that next week.” I’m just kind of learning to go, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” It doesn’t matter. Life’s too short, just enjoy this time, and it doesn’t matter about all that crap. I think I’d like to hang on to a bit of that, actually. Because it’s easy in this job to have to live by certain disciplines, whether it’s just sleep patterns or times that you eat, for example. And actually just letting go of all of that has been really such a joy. Not enforcing any degree of sort of stress or structure on stuff. I’ve loved all that. So I hopefully I’ll carry that on.
CLOSE I came here where I live now [Montana] because my three siblings are here, and I had spent my whole adult life away from them. And we’re now in the same town. So, for me, work is so I can come back home. It’s kind of changed things, it’s not like I’m waiting at home until I go to work. It’s really, really valuing the work, because it means that I’ll be able to come home.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.