Emmy Watch: Actress roundtable

Brooke Shields, Felicity Huffman and 5 other actresses discuss their breakthrough roles

Serious Emmy candidates don't feign nonchalance -- for them, a peer honor is a genuinely exciting prospect, a fact that became clear during a recent candid discussion with seven of TV's top actresses. Four are past Emmy nominees: Kyra Sedgwick of TNT's "The Closer," Minnie Driver of FX's "The Riches," Jenna Fischer of NBC's "The Office" and Calista Flockhart of ABC's "Brothers & Sisters." One is a previous winner: Felicity Huffman of ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Also on hand were contenders Tichina Arnold of the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris" and Brooke Shields of NBC's "Lipstick Jungle." In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond, the group elaborated on everything from receiving Emmy attention, to working in TV vs. film, to the challenge of navigating Hollywood in a youth-fixated culture.

The Hollywood Reporter: Felicity, you're the only one in this room who has won an Emmy. How did it change your life?

Felicity Huffman: Wow. I guess people take my phone calls more.

Minnie Driver: Yes, it helps Felicity when she makes the calls. "Hello? Emmy winner here."

Huffman: In this business, you work a lot, and then you don't work forever. It's feast or famine. You're worth something, and then you're worth absolutely nothing. It comes and goes. And so when it actually does come, the acknowledgment is nice, even though at the same time you know it's very ephemeral.

Tichina Arnold: If I got a nomination, I'd make everyone in my life start calling me "Emmy." All of us in this room work extremely hard. The audience sees the end result: the show. But no one sees the process involved in getting those accolades, that recognition. It's beyond stardom. And it doesn't come often in an actress's lifetime.

Brooke Shields: You have to look at these awards as translating into more opportunity, that there will be another job.

Driver: We actors are so wrapped up in that whole notion of approbation. We base so much on it. We'd like to think that isn't what it's about, but of course it is.

Felicity Huffman and Kyra Sedgwick

THR: You're not too successful and jaded to care about getting an Emmy nomination?

Kyra Sedgwick: I don't think it's cool at all when people get up there and aren't excited about getting their award. People get really angry and disdainful of that. A certain amount of appreciation is important.

Shields: And it's cool that win or lose, your bio still lists you forever as a nominee. No one ever remembers who won that year, anyway.

THR: Kyra and Minnie, you work in cable, which means you get to do fewer episodes and --

Driver: You get to say "shit."

THR: You also don't have to worry about getting canceled at midseason the way networks do.

Sedgwick: The idea of only having to do 15 episodes instead of 22 or 23 was one of the reasons I took the job on "The Closer." But, yeah, being able to say "shit" and being able to make things edgy and truthful and more like real life is also really important to me. You also don't have so many cooks putting their fingers in and diluting it.

THR: Most or all of you have shifted between roles in film and TV. Is that whole stigma of being a TV performer gone?

Driver: There still is this kind of cachet to being a movie star and all of that. But the quality of the product no longer justifies that image, whereas on TV I feel that, particularly with actresses, it's constantly supported. Shields: Television is one of the first places that rolled out the welcome mat for me way back when. To me, it wasn't a stepping stone back into movies but a place to grow as a performer, to have more opportunity and become something. And as for any stigma, I have to believe it's long gone.

THR: There certainly seems to be far more quality roles for women on TV than on the big screen. Agreed?

Driver: Oh God yes. Women are doing more on television than they ever have.

Calista Flockhart: Absolutely, you see women getting more interesting roles, playing more protagonists, more vivid characters.

Sedgwick: We're no longer just the girlfriend or the wife.

Arnold: Personally, I go where the work is and the project I believe in, whatever medium it is. My new motto is, "If my daughter can't watch it, I don't do it."

Tichina Arnold and Minnie Driver

THR: Speaking of which, you all have the rare luxury of being able to pick and choose roles.
But you're also all in your 30s and 40s. Have you come up against any ageism?

Sedgwick: Not per se. But America is so obsessed with youth. You go to Europe, and it's not that way at all. As actresses, we're forced to simply accept that and adjust. We are the age we are. And the irony, of course, is that unquestionably every actor gets better as he or she gets older.

Driver: I hate the idea of reaching a certain age and being put in this box that forces actresses to become these battle-axes who speak out against youth culture. F*** you! Every woman gets stronger and progressively more beautiful as she ages, and I swear that television is representing that as a direct countermovement to magazines and movies. On the other extreme, young women get squashed into hideous roles showing most of their bodies and become infantalized. We need to start celebrating who we are and where we're at instead of loading up on plastic surgery to survive.

Shields: As someone who was one of those infantalized people when I was still a child, I became mentally almost separated from my body. It was surreal to watch that whole pubescent obsession from the inside. I realize now how profoundly it fuels our society and our industry. This is a business that doesn't want young actresses to improve their craft, but remain pretty and dumb.

THR: Is there a specific age at which actresses tend to get rejected as too old?

Sedgwick: I had an agent who told me I was I too old at 28.

Arnold: I was on soap operas at 18 and graduated to starring on "Martin." But then after that I didn't work consistently for 10 years.

Driver: The crap that's waiting for you as a 25-year-old starlet convinces me I wouldn't want to be 25 anymore. It's just bollocks. I'll take my show on FX any day. It's the best part I've ever had in my life.

Shields: There are so many reasons they give for tossing you out as an actress: too tall, too short, too blonde, not blonde enough, too pretty, not pretty enough, too fat, too thin, too old. There's always something you aren't going to be.

Callista Flockhart (left), Huffman and Shields during the discussion

THR: Do all of you have the clout at this point to approach your show's writers to alter dialogue?

Driver: They trust us when we go in with a valid challenge. It's only about making the ultimate outcome better, not pulling rank. So it feels good to have that respect. I don't take it for granted.

Flockhart: We as actors are given the chance to ask questions at the script roundtable. We read it out loud and try to find the balance between when you have to buckle down and make it work and when you feel the need to kind of get in there and ask why a certain scene is in a script. If the justification is there, you just have to go in and do your work and make the scene as good as you can. That's how it is on "Brothers & Sisters." I was also once on a show for a very long time where there was very little collaboration, but we also had one incredibly talented writer in charge.

THR: I imagine having secure jobs on TV series is not taken for granted. But now you have to be concerned that your union may go on strike. How worried are you?

Sedgwick: This industry was so crushed by the writers strike that I just don't think we'll let it happen.

Fischer: The thing that really scares me is, I think there is no public goodwill left in this town to support another strike. But we would still be striking for the same very important things that the writers did. I just hope we aren't pushed to where we have to make that choice.

Jenna Fischer and Brooke Shields

THR: What's the best part about the whole fame thing? Does it have a horrible downside?

Arnold: Oh man! I love the free gifts! I love 'em! Look here, I got this watch for free! Check out these diamonds!

Sedgwick: It's really about freedom. As an actor you feel so tenuous and on tenterhooks all the time. What fame gives you in the best sense is the freedom to choose.

Shields: I've generally found fame to be this unbelievably fascinating, precarious concept. It provides opportunity and opens doors. But on the flip side, it deteriorates your soul.

Fischer: You become an actor because you have this little need to be loved or seen or whatever. And fame has given me the exact opposite of that. Connecting with people becomes very hard. On the other hand, fame has granted me amazing access to experiences I wouldn't otherwise have had. I was able to take my mom to a White House reception.

THR: While we're on the fame subject, what's the most outrageous tabloid story you've ever read about yourself?

Driver: That my brother is the father of my child. I had never told anyone who the father of my child is because it's nobody's fucking business. Then one of these shitty, revolting magazines ran a pic of me and my brother walking the streets of New York, and they identified him as the father. It's just insane.

Fischer: I just had it happen to me, a total and complete lie. They said I was getting a divorce -- which is true -- but also that I'd gone out on a date with David Spade. I've never even met him! I'd just gotten separated and told my ex-in-laws at brunch that I wasn't seeing anyone else. That planted a seed of doubt, and it hurt me a lot.

Shields: The tabloids once wrote that I'd smuggled drugs into Cannes. My parents were tracking me all over Europe convinced that I'd finally stumbled onto the wrong path.

THR: So you're telling us that you didn't smuggle drugs into Cannes?

Shields: (Laughs.) Well, not that time.