The Actress Roundtable

Robert Erdmann

Seven Emmy contenders open up about fame, family and how to get your way on set (and still be liked).

On a recent Saturday afternoon, seven very different women from seven very different TV shows reached a consensus: Working in television is hard work. But for these actresses, the long hours and sleepless nights have paid off: Connie Britton (DirectTV/NBC's Friday Night Lights), Christina Hendricks (AMC's Mad Men), Regina King (TNT's Southland), Melissa Leo (HBO's Treme), Julianna Margulies (CBS' The Good Wife), Kelly Macdonald (HBO's Boardwalk Empire) and Katey Sagal (FX's Sons of Anarchy) are each poised to contend in the most exciting -- and unpredictable -- lead and supporting drama races in history. The actresses gathered April 30 at Siren Studios in Hollywood to talk about their craft in a conversation moderated by THR's Matthew Belloni and Stacey Wilson.

What's the best career advice you've ever received?

Julianna Margulies The best advice, actually, was from Warren Beatty. I was shooting an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, and he happened to be there. It was the beginning of my ER days, and he said: "Don't do too many publicity things. It makes people know you too well."

Connie Britton And here we are. (Laughter.)

Melissa Leo In college, I had the opportunity to do a Tennessee Williams play. Tennessee came to some of the rehearsals, and as we were parting ways, I asked him to sign my script. He wrote: "Melissa, A great future is assured. I swear." Over the years, I thought, well, this perhaps is the great future that he spoke of: Maybe I'll get a job next week. (Laughs.) And along the way, there you go. Thanks, Tennessee (gesturing toward the ceiling).

Regina King Marla Gibbs. When I was starting on 227, she told me that even if I'm off-camera, my job is just as important as when I'm on. At the time I was like, "Why would it matter?" As a teenager, it's all about you. But I got it, and it's 100 percent right. And then I had wonderful opportunities, like working with Tom Cruise [on Jerry Maguire], and his day is done and over, and he's like, "Regina, let me go run and take off my makeup," and he did off-camera work with me. To know that other actors, even if they are huge, go by the same idea of making the project better …

Katey Sagal The first job I had on TV was a sitcom with Mary Tyler Moore [Mary, 1985-86]. Until that point, I had just been a singer. My goal in life was to be a singer, and somehow I ended up on a sitcom. But she said to me -- I was so overwhelmed by the process -- "It's one page at a time, one beat at a time." And she did this because this is how I was to the camera (looking away shyly). She would come up to me and go (picking Leo's chin up), "Be in the light." I didn't go to school to be an actor, and I learned on the job. So everything people have said to me has been sort of some form of advice, because I was -- sort of -- I was bluffing for so many years.

Britton Some of the best advice was from my high school acting teacher, Mr. Ackley. I have to give him a shout-out. If we were late three times, we were out of the play. He also said to take care of your own props. Two of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten.

Kelly Macdonald Props are a mystery for me. I need to go back to school for props.

Margulies It's like: "Don't lose that; there's only one of them!"

King No pressure!

What's your strategy for learning your lines?

Margulies The Good Wife is a legal show; all I do is learn lines. But the problem for me is I have to get lines out of my head to get new lines in. The challenge is always when to learn the lines. If my character is in the middle of a huge court case, and I have legal dialogue I still don't really understand, I can't learn tomorrow's court case yet. I feel terrible for the actors on my show because I have had to set the bar so high because I'm in every day -- and I have a toddler so my sleep deprivation is so severe that when actors come in unprepared, I literally look at them like [offers a cold stare]. (Laughter.) There is just no room for error. I always think, "My God, the first thing you should know is your lines."

Macdonald I was used to film work, and I put everything into the few scenes I might have in the movie. Because I don't know what's happening really ever on Boardwalk, I've had to loosen up a little bit. I've learned that I don't need three weeks to actually learn this.

Leo The legal jargon is tough. But if you're having a conversation with your daughter …

Margulies The family stuff is always easy to learn.

Leo It's almost better to not know it too well. You sit home for days with five sentences exchanged between two people, and you think of too many great ideas.

Britton And there's a real beauty to that. It gives a real spontaneity to the performance.

Sagal In cable, you have an even quicker, shorter schedule. You still have to do the same amount of film, but you have a shorter time to do it, so it's much more spontaneous.

Leo So much.

You're all on shows with grueling shooting schedules. How do you balance your personal and professional lives?

Sagal I had my two older children, who are 15 and 16, while I was on Married … With Children, and producers were very accommodating. They were there on the set all the time. But that was in a multicamera world. Now, I have a 4-year-old as well, and I don't like to leave town. That's one of the reasons that I've been so grateful to work in television because someone once said to me: "Your life is your life; your work is not your life." It made me a better person. It made me a better actor. It made me better artist to have children. That's just me. My family opened my heart, so my choices are based on them first. But, it's still very hard for me to get to the set at 6 in the morning. Scheduling the nanny or the housekeeper or somebody to drive them to the bus -- it's a juggle.

Macdonald You need a wife, really. I need a wife. (Laughter.)

Margulies I'm married to someone not in the business, and I was schlepped all over the world as a kid; it was very unstable for me. So I wanted to make sure that my kid had a stable home. When The Good Wife came, I was scared to do it because it wasn't cable. It's a really hard grind to do an hour on network, and I was worried. But I loved the script so much and the writers. I felt like it had good movie producers behind it who would keep it on track. I said yes, and they said, "We're going to shoot it in Vancouver." And I was like: "Oh no, I can't go there. Not because I don't like Vancouver, but because my life is in New York." And they moved it to New York. And that was a huge blessing.

Leo My son will be 24 in June, so the need for me to be in a locale for him is no longer. This is a dilemma that female actors face far more strongly than male actors. That's just the way it is. Something happens inside of us that is undeniable. The birth of the child -- "Whoa, that's more important." And you find a way to work it out.

King I was turning down movies because a month here, a month there -- you can't do that. I mean, there are some actresses that do, but …

Margulies But I think they pay a price for it.

King They definitely do.

Margulies I'm always so amazed at how many people say, "Do you bring your son to the set all the time?" I'm like, "He hates coming to the set!" He sees me, and then I tell him to be quiet -- "Mom is working." He has a life, he has friends, he has school. I don't want him to live my life. I want him to live his life.

King I'm a control freak. I've never had a nanny. I don't want someone spending that much time at my house.

What's the hardest part of watching your performances?

Christina Hendricks I don't see dailies; I just watch the show when it's on. I find that I actually learn a lot from watching. I'm critical, of course -- I'll be like "Ugh, that outfit!" -- but then I find it actually quite helpful. I'll think I'm projecting something or that I've done something, and it comes across very differently, and I'm surprised by it. It's a learning tool for me.

Macdonald I don't watch anything. I watched the pilot of our show because they made me. (Laughter.) I would wear earplugs and a blindfold, but … I just am not brave enough for some things. I'm scared I wouldn't turn up for work again if I watched myself. I like to keep my head down and just do it. It's somebody else's job to tell me what to do.

Hendricks I think you'd be pleasantly surprised. (Laughter.) You're really wonderful.

Macdonald Thank you very much!

Britton Do you all have that thing where people stop you on the street and say: "Oh, you're so much younger than you look on TV! You look so much better!"

Margulies I had it last night. I was crossing the street in front of my hotel, and this guy is staring at me from across the street. And I thought, "Uh oh." And he goes, "Oh man, you look so much like Julianna Margulies, but you're way younger." (Laughter.)

Britton Younger, thinner and prettier.

Hendricks I've started to say, "Thank you -- I think." I want to make them aware that they said something slightly foolish. But you also want to be nice because you don't want them to walk away and go, "That girl from Mad Men is an asshole."

Margulies I once said to someone, "I don't know what to do with that information."

Britton They seem to have such a disconnect that you are also the person that they're talking about watching on TV.

Macdonald It's like what you were saying about being in people's living rooms. It's just so new for me.

Margulies They can watch you in their housecoat. They don't have to get dressed.

King I have an audience that knows me only from movies and a newer audience with Southland. I'll get the people who are not familiar with Southland, and they'll say, "Oh hey, so you're not working on anything right now?" (Laughter.) Like if I'm at the grocery store, it means I'm not working on anything.

Leo When I'm in New Orleans shooting Treme, I mostly pass through the world quite simply not being noticed. I don't wear makeup in my own life. I just flew up from New Orleans today, and nary a word was said to me to and from the airport.

Even after winning the Oscar?

Leo Even then. There's a little more heightened awareness, but by and large, for the amount of time I've spent in people's living rooms and on the big screen for 25-some years, it's a remarkably small amount of people who come up and say anything at all.

Sagal I think that's wonderful. I have such a problem with celebrity, an uncomfortability with being recognized, being in people's living rooms. It's not my favorite part of our job. I like to go to work and have them put clothes on me and be somebody else. When I have to come somewhere and be myself, I find it so -- still, after all these years -- like, really? It's awkward.

Hendricks I still think that if someone comes up to me that we must have gone to school together. "You're Christina, right?" I'm like, "Yeah! Are you from Idaho?" (Laughter.)

Do you think that's something that all actors struggle with, or are some people just more comfortable with fame?

Sagal I wish I were a little more self-promoting. I don't know, whatever, that's not who I am. But I think some people love it.

Britton There are actors who … that is what drives them. Coming up in New York in the pounding-the-pavement days, you'd see people in acting classes. "Wow, they're really not very talented, but they're going to go far."

Hendricks Often I'll have a mother say to me, "My daughter wants to be an actress." The one thing I do say is, "Make sure she really loves acting."

Margulies I always say: "No, no -- let them be a kid!" And then at 18, let them decide what they want to do. Let them study or take them to great plays or go to museums.

King I think what people don't understand is that it's an art form. That's why I feel disrespected so much. I've had friends say, "Oh, you know, I can do what you do." Bitch, no you can't! (Laughter.)

Leo I love my crew, and I love my set people, but when they've had a hell of a day, and your scene's been pushed for four hours, and you finally get in there, and you're finally working -- the cameras and the lights are all pointed at you -- and they're like: "Who are you, and why are you in the way? We're working here." That can be a funny disrespect.

Margulies We're so lucky as TV actresses because we get an intimate relationship with 150 people -- our crewmembers -- pretty much daily. When you do a movie, you get introduced to so many people, you don't know their names, and then in two months, it's over, and you never see them again. With us, we actually have this family.

Britton In Austin, there was a sense that every single one of those people was integral to what we were creating. That's the beauty of television: Everyone becomes absolutely essential.

Margulies We have a different director for every episode, and the ones who come back are always the directors who spend the time to know the hair and makeup artists' names. The ones who come in and think they can just rule the roost, they're not asked back.

Sagal I had to do this big scene in Season 2 where I was raped. I had never done that before in a film or television. The love and support and silence and respect I got from the crew. … I felt so loved, supported and not afraid.

During the recent Mad Men renewal negotiation, one option discussed was to cut castmembers. I wondered: What goes through the actors' minds in these situations?

Hendricks I was reading all that information along with the general public. A couple people have already been cut out of the show, and that was very emotional for me. So hearing that --  it's not like it can't happen because it's happened before. It scared me. Every single person is such a contributor and … people just love these characters. It does feel disrespectful, but I also know they are trying to do their job and save money, and there is this whole power-play thing, and it all works itself out.

Sagal It's always the balance between art and commerce. … When I hear stuff like that, I'm sure it's disrespectful, but I think it's also not meant to be taken personal.

Britton You can't take anything personal.

Sagal It's hard. It's what we do, and we have to also be businesspeople -- which is kind of odd, but we're all strong enough and have been doing this long enough now. We're not stupid.

Margulies It's just a shame that when actors become businesspeople, we're thought of as "difficult." As an actress, I've been doing this, this and this, and now you have to pay me blah, blah, blah, blah, and suddenly you're asking for too much and you're difficult.

Macdonald And "crazy." All those "crazy" actresses.

Do you all feel more able to practice your craft in television than in film? Are you more engaged in your roles?

Britton It's a great example: In Friday Night Lights the movie, my role was small to begin with, and then by the time it made it up onscreen, it was almost nonexistent. It was really cut to smithereens. In film, it's much more difficult to find really, fully wrought female roles. When Peter Berg, who had directed the movie, decided to make it into a TV show, he almost felt like he owed it to me.

Sagal I watch the film actors on our show, and it's difficult for them -- not knowing where that beginning, middle and end is. They struggle with that, but I find it very freeing.

Margulies I always ask them not to tell me. I don't want to know what's going to happen to my character. I have to do this every day, so I have to be in the moment; and if you're not in the moment, then it's not going to be truthful. I don't know what my day's going to be, so why would I know what her day's going to be?

Leo On TV, we know what's behind us. We do not know what's in front of us.

Margulies I remember on ER, there wasn't much for me in the pilot; I was on maybe seven minutes of screen time in a two-hour pilot, and I was supposed to die. I didn't. (Laughter.) But I did all this research on nurses who commit suicide, and following how they were making this character, I was like, "Oh, of course -- she's an only child." So I started studying only children. Four years down the line, I have a line that said, "I shared a bathroom with seven sisters." (Laughs.) I can't say that! They're like, "Well, we need to bring the characters on the show." I said: "No. I had a wedding; where were my sisters at my wedding the first year?"

Sagal It probably wasn't even the same writers.

Margulies It wasn't. All the writers had gone on to new shows. All this craft that I've been trying to put into this character that I wasn't telling anyone.

That brings up an interesting issue. How do you resolve conflict with writers or the showrunner?

Sagal Oh, I just sleep with him. [Sagal's husband is Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter.] (Laughter.)

Macdonald Me too.

Britton Me too.

Hendricks We all agree! (Laughter.)

Sagal Actually, it's just the opposite in my situation. We try not to talk about it so much when we get home because could you imagine 24 hours working on it?

Margulies I think it takes a very special kind of relationship. Nothing makes me happier than being like, "Bye, honey, have a good day at work!" I think it's healthy and good.

Sagal We had to learn how to do it. I just really respect him, thank God, so I trust him. I pretty much know he has the final say.

Leo I work on a show where the writers are the show. It's how the thing operates. I'll fight tooth and nail for something that I feel is not jibing with something we laid down already, but if they want it another way, then it goes the other way. If a director is guiding me in a direction and insisting on a reading that I just think is ludicrous, I will then go to the writing producers on the set, and I will say, "Don't let them ruin your script, please," and they'll sort it out.

Margulies I did an arc on The Sopranos where I really didn't need to change an "if," "and" or a "but." Whenever I mess up a line, and the script supervisor will tell me what the right line is, I always say, "Oh, of course, that's so much better." And that's so rare to get that; usually you're like: "How do I get this to work? How can I make this human?"

Hendricks I've never had an issue with my character. I'm just there to deliver and tell their story.

King This is being recorded. They don't need to know what I do to resolve conflicts. (Laughter.)

Britton On Friday Night Lights, it was an unusual scenario because we were in Austin and our writers were all in L.A. I would be on the phone with showrunner Jason Katims almost every week. But they also wrote wanting us to take it and run with it, and that was just the style of our show. What was beautiful about it, is that it actually worked, which I think is a rarity, particularly in television.

Has what you look for in a role changed since you started acting?

Macdonald Well, I would be a nightmare if it weren't for my agent. I kind of don't want to work. He tries to talk to me about other projects. I'm like, "No, I'm doing this now; I'm doing Boardwalk, and I'm committed to it." There might be a couple of things I can do in animation, like a voice on the Pixar thing [2012's Brave], and that's quite fun because it doesn't take too much out of Boardwalk.

Hendricks It's the first time in my career I've had choices, had options. I get to read really lovely scripts now and audition for really great parts. I didn't have that before, so Mad Men has really changed my entire career. I'm just like giddy and excited.

Christina, how important for you is it to do non-Mad Men work -- to distance yourself from such an iconic character?

Hendricks I think Joan is a bunch of different things, and I'm not particularly concerned about typecasting. Before I played Joan, I oftentimes played the sort of quirky, goofy best friend, sort of nerdy …

Sagal Really?

Hendricks Yeah, always. And everyone would say, "You're not strong enough or tough enough; I can't imagine you playing this." So Joan has opened up all these doors to characters people always doubted that I could play before.

King I wish I had more options. I wouldn't say I'm looking for a specific type of role; I just know when I'm reading a script that if it moves me, if the woman seems real -- sometimes you get a script and the person is not even a real person. So that's always what I'm looking for in a character: the truth.

Sagal First, I want them to want me. It's funny, people think you get to a certain point in your career and then … just loads of options. More times than not, the phone's not ringing. I think the biggest change was I had done comedy for so long, and I really, really was loving that, but I wanted to just break out. I was on Married … With Children, people thought I had big red hair, walked around in high heels all the time, so it took a minute to get other kind of work. I had to go in and really prove myself and knock down doors and show them. You know, when I was on Lost, it was this long audition process for this kind of small arc, really, but it was just getting past that, "Oh, you're a dramatic actress as well?"

Melissa, how has the Oscar changed the material you're seeing?

Leo I think it's a little too early to answer that. I've just taken anything they've given me for 30 years. But what I was thinking is that many years ago, a very close friend of mine noticed that the last couple of parts I had gotten -- I was probably, maybe 23 years old at the time -- were victims. I said, "Well, that doesn't sound like a very good idea." I knew in my mind that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to play too many more victims.

Margulies I love the role I play, and I work 10 months out of the year, so the 10 weeks I have off -- it's just not worth it to me to do another project. There's been some interesting offers this year because I said, "Well, if I do anything, it should be really opposite of what I do" -- and I got offered a porn movie!

All (Gasps.) Nooo!

Margulies It's not a porn. James Franco is doing it and attracting all these people. But I was like, ultimately: "I'm a lesbian porn star going down on women? I can't. I have a child. That's what's being offered to me? I think I'll just keep my day job."

Hendricks I'd watch that. (Laughter.)

Margulies It wasn't that I was insulted by it. I was actually incredibly thrilled by it. But time is so precious, and if it's not great, I haven't seen that many roles in film that even can put a light up to the roles I see for women on television.

Leo And when you can, as you've talked about, guide how that character grows over the course of a series, that's golden.

Britton I have a sense of responsibility after playing Tami Taylor because people loved the show and looked up to the character. So it's like, "Gosh, I don't want to let anybody down." Therefore, I'm going to go off and play a porn star.

Margulies You should! I'm not woman enough to play that role.             


About THR's Roundtable Series: Now in its fifth year, The Hollywood Reporter's Emmy Season Roundtable Series has emerged as the television industry's premier showcase for no-holds-barred discussions with the town's top talent. An offshoot of THR's popular Oscar series, the Emmy roundtables also have become predictors of academy winners: In fact, many of last year's participants claimed Emmy gold, including Glee's Jane Lynch, Modern Family showrunner Steve Levitan, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston and Temple Grandin lead Claire Danes. This year, the series expands to include an executives panel.

Upcoming Roundtables: Check out THR during Emmy season for exclusive panels with drama showrunners, comedy showrunners, drama actors, comedy actors, comedy actresses, reality talent and executives.