Drama Actress Roundtable
THR listens in as the season’s top contenders tackle nudity, bad auditions, breastfeeding on set and the fear of kissing Brad Pitt.
Ask a drama series actress to name the toughest part of her job, and inevitably the conversation turns to motherhood and the pressure of "doing it all." But this year's contenders are candid about much more: nudity, terrible auditions and "inhuman" hours were mentioned by the six women in our Emmy-season kickoff roundtable panel: Claire Danes, 33 (Showtime's Homeland), Mireille Enos, 36 (AMC's The Killing), January Jones, 34 (AMC's Mad Men), Julianna Margulies, 45 (CBS' The Good Wife), Emmy Rossum, 25 (Showtime's Shameless), and Kyra Sedgwick, 46 (TNT's The Closer).
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What was your scariest moment ever as an actor?
Julianna Margulies: It was my first equity play at Yale Rep, a play by Maria Irene Fornes called Fefu and Her Friends, sort of a lesbian Big Chill set in the 1930s. My character had a five-minute monologue. It was pretty complicated, but I was cocky about how well I knew it. I got onstage and completely blanked. And I couldn't go. It felt like I was up there for an hour. I died inside.
Emmy Rossum: How did you get through it?
Margulies: Suddenly, one of the lines came to me. Apparently, it happened for 30 seconds. It wasn't an hour and a half.
Kyra Sedgwick: It always feels so much longer.
Rossum: Time slows and you feel like, "Oh God, now I can hear them all breathing!"
Claire Danes: I've had more limited experience with theater, but I did Pygmalion a few years ago and lost my voice on a matinee show. That was terrifying. There's nothing scarier than when you're live.
Rossum: I did Romeo and Juliet at Williamstown. You only do it for like 10 days, so every performance feels so precious. And in the second show at the top of Act Two was Juliet's "gallup apace" speech, with a light just on me, and I'm quaking nervous. I start to deliver the speech, and there's a woman in the second row who stands up and starts to recite it with me.
Sedgwick: Oh, my God!
Rossum: Well, it was good because she was like my Teleprompter. She knew it better than I did.
Margulies: You were being heckled, but by a Shakespearean actor.
Rossum: Yeah, exactly! (Laughter.)
Sedgwick: I have a moment that just leaped to mind. I auditioned for Flashdance a million years ago, and my agent told me I was supposed to wear a leotard, heels and no tights. I had such bigger balls back in those days. I thought, "I'm not wearing a leotard. Instead, I'll wear a little miniskirt and high heels." In the middle of my audition, [director] Adrian Lyne's phone rang and he picked it up. I turned to him and said, "You're not going to answer that phone call. I'm auditioning for you."
Margulies: Good for you!
Sedgwick: But today, I don't think I would ever do that!
January Jones: That just reminded me of one of the worst moments in my entire life. It was an audition for Coyote Ugly, my second audition ever. I'd done the reading for the acting part and then Jerry Bruckheimer wanted me to come in and dance … on top of the table.
Margulies: You mean just regular dance?
Jones: Yes. They said, "You're going to dance to Prince's 'Kiss.' You're going to pole dance, but there is no pole." (Laughter.) And I just turned beet red. It was awful, and he said something like, "Honey, you did a great reading, but you've got no rhythm." (Laughter.) I called my agent and said, "I don't want to do this anymore."
THR: Have you seen Bruckheimer since then and recounted this story?
Jones: Oh, he has no recollection of it.
Sedgwick: Of course not. He's said that to so many girls.
Mireille Enos: Is it wrong to admit that having to kiss Brad Pitt was very, very terrifying? It was on World War Z, which I shot last summer and it was the second day of shooting.
Rossum: I feel like that would be the best day. (Laughter.)
Enos: But it's scary, it's Brad! He's totally great, by the way. I mean, it was fine, but the anticipation was terrible.
THR: Getting back to forgetting your lines, how do you prepare for scenes now that's different from when you started acting?
Danes: When I started Homeland, it had been God knows how long since I'd last done an episodic show. I was 14, 15 when I did My So-Called Life. And Homeland is just so dense. The volume of material that you have to commit to memory is overwhelming. So I did develop a strategy, and I realized I just had to become familiar and intimate with the script as soon as it landed in my lap.
Rossum: You're shooting 11 pages a day.
Danes: Yeah, and there's a lot of CIA speak I had to become fluent in. That took a while.
Jones: When Mad Men started, my character had a bunch of monologues because she was in therapy, but the therapist never spoke. I had never done television before, and we get the script a day before we shoot. I had no exercise to try to help me with that. So I recorded myself saying stuff and then listened to it while I slept, hoping that it would stick like a bad song. And it worked!
Sedgwick: I've had so much dialogue and it's dense! I also had somebody helping me every single day. There wasn't a minute that I didn't have the script or the tape recorder in my hand.
Danes: After a while, it got really fun. I would read lines with my husband [actor Hugh Dancy] on the train -- we have a country house, and we'd take the Amtrak back to the city -- and he was like, "How did you do that?" I was so pleased with myself. I had never felt that formidable.
Margulies: I have an aid for all of you. It's called Rehearsal 2, and it's on the iPad. You highlight your lines with your fingers, or black out your lines to see the other person's lines. You can also record their lines and leave space for yours.
Enos: That's awesome.
Margulies: Unlike these lovely ladies, I shoot 23 episodes a year, and it's all legal dialogue. It's so inhuman what they want you to do. Rita Wilson, who was a guest star on our show, saw me just … I was sweating bullets all the time. She's like, "Honey, Rehearsal 2." (Laughter.) And it's changed my life!
Sedgwick: You need someone to help you!
Margulies: Well, I do, but I'll learn lines at 11 o'clock at night and then I show up at 7 in the morning and they've changed again.
Rossum: What's scary about my show is that our showrunner, John Wells, doesn't believe in sides [the specific pages from the script in which an actor's character appears].
Rossum: Because it's like hazing for the actors.
Margulies: We ruined it for her on [Wells'] ER. (Laughter.)
Rossum: Thanks for that.
Margulies: I'm sorry!
Rossum: There are no scripts allowed on set. If you don't know every single line of dialogue, you'd better not walk onto that soundstage.
Sedgwick: How did you do that on ER?
Margulies: We didn't, we had sides. I think not having them is a horrible thing to do to an actor. Things change in the moment.
Rossum: There's so much choreography on my show -- the kitchen, the pots and the pans, the kids and this and that. So not having scripts actually helps. But the first day I walked on set and there were no sides, it was like, "Ha-ha. I hope you're ready!"
THR: Mireille, what's your process on The Killing?
Enos: Just shove it in and show up. When I started season one, my daughter was seven weeks old. I was nursing and had her in the trailer with me all the time. I've always been overly studious, but there's no time, there's no energy, you just do what you can do. People have asked me over and over, "How is working different now that you're a mom?" I don't know how to answer the question because the things were so inextricable. Four in the morning, breastfeeding with a script! Luckily, my character, Sarah, doesn't talk that much. (Laughter.)
THR: On that topic, what are the biggest personal sacrifices you've made for your career?
Sedgwick: That's such a very personal and difficult answer.
Danes: Being away from home, being away from my friends. I'm so lucky, I live in the same neighborhood in New York in which I was raised, and I'm so spoiled in that respect.
Margulies: Two blocks from me!
Danes: Yeah. I'm just always missing somebody. But the joy of this job too is that it slings us around and we form attachments to these people who we wouldn't normally get to meet.
Enos: We're so lucky. But you can never plan your life. My sister will say, "OK, so we're all getting together. Will you be there?" And I'll say, "Ask me two days before." You just never know.
Margulies: I started The Good Wife when my son, Kiernan, was 13 months old, so it was easy to cart him around. But now he's 4, so try and be a good parent and also be good at your job; it's constant anxiety.
Sedgwick: You miss stuff. There's no way around it, you just do. And that doesn't feel good.
Margulies: But also don't you think it's awful that, "Well, you never know when this job's going to end and then when am I going to work again, so I may as well enjoy it?"
Enos: When I'm having a hard day on the set and want to be with my daughter, people say, "It's so much harder on us than on them." I'm like, "You know, I don't know if that's true."
Jones: I started this season of Mad Men eight months pregnant, and I finished it with a 5-month-old. It was bizarre. And I was in seven hours of prosthetics every morning, trying to rip off a fake chest piece so I could breastfeed.
THR: Yes, let's talk about that now. (Laughter.)
Jones: Oh, my gosh.
THR: What was the conversation like when Matt Weiner said, "OK, this is my idea: We put Betty in a fat suit"?
Jones: I loved it. I didn't want to try to hide it, I thought it would become comical and weird. And I also didn't want to have the character become pregnant because it just wouldn't make sense. It was definitely difficult, but I love what he did with the character's story.
Margulies: It was awesome. So brave and great.
THR: Did you see the fat-suit episode before it aired?
Jones: I didn't. I saw it on the air, paused it and went screaming into the other room.(Laughter.) I got used to it.
THR: Speaking of body image, Emmy, you've done quite a bit of nudity on your show. How did you decide that it was OK?
Rossum: I thought it suited the character. This is a very low-income family, they have very thin walls, they don't have money for entertainment, and this girl likes to have sex. For me to glamify her would be not realistic. I have a lot of control over what I want to show, when I want to show it and when I don't want to show it.
THR: Are you in a constant negotiation with John Wells about this stuff?
Rossum: Not at all. But originally, when they made the contract it was like, "You will show partial side boob, you will show two cheeks …"
Margulies: Those contracts are always so funny.
Rossum: When I got on set -- I'd never done nudity before -- I was like, "Oh, everyone here is human." Some days you feel like, "Oh, God. I wish we were shooting this last week, I felt so skinny." So you get comfortable, and your crew is your family. At this point, the camera guy is like, "Oh, God, not again."
Margulies: Believe me, they're not thinking that. (Laughter.)
Sedgwick: I've been naked in some movies. I mean, it's awful. Come on! But like Emmy said, I think that if it's right for the character and the moment, it feels more right than not doing it.
Danes: I don't love stripping down, but I also don't love the idea of being kind of coy or prudish for the sake of it.
THR: On another topic, what's the strangest or most interesting fan interaction you've ever had?
Enos: Last season, there was an episode where my son goes missing, and it was the most cracked-open Sarah has been. A couple of days after that episode aired, I was in my grocery store and an ex-hippie grandma walked over and gave me a hug.
Margulies: People also forget that you're playing a part. They'll be like, "Oh, my God, so when Alicia went and told Peter that," they think they're telling you something about your character. "I really think you should stay with Peter; he's really good for the kids." You know, they're not my kids. (Laughter.) That's not my life!
Danes: I haven't had many odd encounters with fans, but I saw a psychic recently in New York. When she was starting to read me, it became clear that she was reading my character. She said, "I have this problem all the time. Soap actors are the worst." (Laughter.)
Rossum: When we shoot in Chicago, there are women who come up to me like, "You take such good care of those kids, and you keep doing what you're doing." I'm like, "Thank you." And then there are some little boys who probably shouldn't be watching Showtime at night who are like, "Fiona!!!" (Laughter.)
THR: Who's been the most helpful or most formative in helping you make decisions about your career?
Sedgwick: For me, it's my husband [actor Kevin Bacon]. He was the one who supported my doing The Closer. It was a huge commitment and life-changing thing for both of us. We always read each other's scripts; he often follows my advice, and sometimes I'm wrong, but he's not. (Laughter.) And I'm so grateful we have that, I really am. I trust my agents to a certain extent, but that can be a little tricky. You need to have your own instincts.
Danes: I met my manager, Michael Aglion, when I was 14 and did a short film and he was the producer. In college, I would call him before I wrote a paper to just brainstorm, and I realized that there are very few people I could collaborate this freely with. I asked, "Do you want to be my manager?" and ever since then we've had a very unorthodox style of working together. We're about to start filming the next season of Homeland -- a lot of it takes place in Lebanon -- so he put together a little syllabus for me and a tutorial on the Middle East. I'm really, really indebted to him for that.
Margulies: I think it would be my dad. He loves theater and saw me at Yale Rep or in Florida doing regional theater. His line was always, "Don't do crap." I've had to pay the mortgage a couple of times with some crap, but it was always fun, kitschy crap, and those were the movies I begged him not to see.
Enos: For me, the seed of all of it was planted by my mom, who wanted desperately to be a ballerina but was not allowed to dance. She swore whatever her kids wanted to do, she would bend over backward, up all night with me working monologues. This season, she came out to stay with the baby when my husband was going to be away. She'd send me update e-mails throughout the day, "These are the games we're playing!" And at the bottom she would say, "And, of course, you are doing a beautiful job."
Rossum: Family is really important for that. To know that no matter whether this movie or this TV show sucks, or you blow this character or whatever, [your family knows] that you're giving 150 percent and doing your absolute best to make it great. Knowing that is a really good feeling.
Jones: My family has always said, "Just in case, you can always come back and live at home." (Laughter.) It was very sweet, but it's almost like a threat. I will make this work! But they are very supportive and always 100 percent behind me, no matter what it is. Even if it has been a crap piece of work, they will find …
Margulies: They'll find the beauty.
Jones: Yes, the Pollyanna in them is amazing. "You know, the sets were great! You can't dull your shining light!" But I'm very instinctual about my process and about when I first read something and how I feel. If I get excited or nervous, it's usually a good sign, and then if I need a second opinion, I usually go to my sister. She has the same thought process as I do, that's why I like it.
Danes: I was going to say my husband, too. He's a big, big influence. A good litmus test.
Margulies: In what we do with episodic work, it's a nonstop train. I mean, there are days when, I was saying this to Kyra before, I had worked until midnight and then I had to go and shoot something else at five in the morning. I looked at my husband and I was like, "This is why Judy Garland was on pills." I can't keep this up. I need a pill!
Danes: Green tea is not going to do it. (Laughter.)
Margulies: There's only so much green tea I can drink. And you want to be kind and generous to people and be a good example, but you're also performing. They want you to look a certain way but expect you to work 16 hours a day. You start to unravel. You need that voice saying, "Baby, you're going to do it. You're OK." I always say to actors who ask me for advice, "Pick the right partner." No matter how hard my day is, I can't wait to get home and I know I'll be safe. You need the right person to hold your hand through it.
Enos: I think that's the key to doing your best work -- keeping it all in perspective.
THR: What's the biggest dispute you've had on your show?
Margulies: As much as I'd like to pretend it's an ensemble, it's not. It's The Good Wife, and if the good wife goes down, there's no show! (Laughter.) My problem is, I'm not a squeaky wheel. I'm a worker; I can wait tables. So I have this idea that I'm one of the crew. But I have to be there two hours before the crew gets there and then work two hours when everyone goes home.
Sedgwick: And be in front of the camera and look good.
Margulies: Yes. So my biggest challenge has been to say, "Guys, guess what? I can't be in the background of so-and-so's scene." That would give me two hours with my kid. Or, how about an hour to sleep, go to the gym. Or learn a line or two. I have to prepare and have a life. Sitting in a court scene for 14 hours without a line … is craziness. So they're going to work on that.
THR: Have your Good Wife showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, been receptive?
Margulies: They're incredibly receptive. At one point this year, I was in all these court scenes and I hadn't gotten the next script. I looked at the schedule and I was in every single scene. It was 11 o'clock at night and I just e-mailed everyone and I said, "How about we call an insurance day because … this is inhuman." And then Robert was like, "We're going to write you out of this scene and that."
Danes: It is hugely about communication. I think they just don't know.
Sedgwick: And if you keep doing it, then they start thinking, "Oh, you can do it, and it's easy."
Enos: That's right.
Danes: But you have to recognize what a valuable challenge is. You're indulging your neurosis about being a "good girl" or something.
Margulies: I think that's exactly it. And I hate to say it turns into a [gender] issue, but being a female …
Sedgwick: Do it! I'm right there with you, girl.
Margulies: Do you know what I mean though? Being female and asking for what you need.
Danes: We are very accommodating, typically.
Margulies: Because we don't want to be thought of as bitches or as incapable. "No I can do this! I can be a mother!" Then you show up and you start to …
Danes: And they're not doing it to punish you, they're doing it out of ignorance. You need to make a case. "If you give me this extra time, I will perform that much better when you really need me."
Margulies: I think television writers have the hardest job in the business.
THR: Each season, writers give certain actors more or less screen time. Do you make suggestions to them on how to use you?
Jones: We don't ask Matt for anything. He's extremely good at what he does, and it would be foolish of me to suggest anything. This season, I was lucky to be in four episodes because I was happy that he wrote a storyline for my character where I didn't need to be there every day. I was struggling as a single mom with a new baby; I didn't know what I was doing. He likes to give everyone sort of an arc, and you might not be there. He also likes to mess with the audience a bit. There's only been one time where I've ever questioned anything he's ever done.
THR: When was that?
Jones: Betty, at the end of season two, goes to a bar and winds up sleeping with a random guy. I didn't disagree with it; I just wanted to understand the motivation. Is it revenge? And he explained to me that I needed to stop thinking. Betty is a sexual person -- she gets drunk and she gets laid. That's it. When it was explained that way, I was like, "OK." That's one of the beautiful things about Mad Men; we're not given any time to think.
THR: Kyra, The Closer is wrapping up this summer. What are you most looking forward to in this next phase of your career?
Sedgwick: I really want to do more films. I would like to do other characters for a shorter amount of time. But the TV experience was amazing, and it afforded me the experience of delving into a character and growing with her. There's no other venue that you can experience that as an actor. It's deep and cathartic. But I would like to do shorter runs and do a play if the right one came along.
Danes: There are so many different ways to get naked! (Laughter.)
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