Rapid Round: Anna Gunn on Wall Street Women, Money in Hollywood and Matching Walter White in 'Equity' (Q&A)

Equity Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The star of the female-centric corporate thriller talks learning from investment bankers, returning to her comedy roots and intimidating others while injured: "They shot me from the knees up for ten days."

In Equity, Anna Gunn is the one who knocks.

The Breaking Bad alum stars in Meera Menon’s corporate thriller as Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker whose buzzy tech IPO deal gets complicated by politics and deception. Featuring James PurefoyAlysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas (the latter two also produced), the Sony Pictures Classics release is touted as the first Wall Street drama to center on a female protagonist.

Ahead of its special Tuesday screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Gunn – fresh from shooting the comedy pilot Chunk & Bean, and seen next in Clint Eastwood’s Sully with Tom Hanks – discusses the invaluable Hollywood lesson she’s learned from female investment bankers, why money isn’t a “dirty word” for women, and how she shot that delicious onscreen moment that would make Walter White shudder.

Describe your character Naomi in three words.

Tenacious, vulnerable, fighter.

It’s a rarity for a Wall Street drama to center on a woman. What do you admire most about her?

I love her struggle, actually. She’s the top woman in her field who has won and won, and we meet her at her apex. She’s had her first big failure, and she’s gotta start dealing with that. And what that means is she’s gotta start dealing with the rest of her life, which she’s been putting on hold in order to follow this driving ambition.

What was your best moment while shooting Equity?

Boxing is how Naomi lets out her aggression and anger. I love the scene toward the end when she’s doesn’t know what she’s gonna do, and she looks at that punching bag – it’s not an outlet, it becomes a different thing. She hits that bag once, and it’s the hit to open her future.

What was the toughest moment while shooting Equity?

A week into shooting, I turned my ankle all the way over – a very bad sprain. They shot me from the knees up for ten days. The hardest moment was the first day after, when I had scenes where I pitch the IPO that I want to take public. I’ve got to be at my most commanding and strong, and I was just in amazing pain and wearing this big boot underneath my dress. We just took it as one of Naomi’s challenges.

What Wall Street skill do you take to Hollywood?

These women basically tutored me about what it takes to climb the ladder to the top. I learned the psychology of what they do – reading their clients and figuring out what they need, strategizing for these pitch meetings. How do I best utilize the strengths of this person or company? It was very illuminating in terms of women in business. They’re straightforward, honest and diplomatic, so well-spoken and clear. And I could see they were watching me while I was watching them, if not more so.

What’s something you didn’t expect in the financial world?

Some of these investors said being a woman can be a great advantage. For instance, if men have any doubts about something in their company, sometimes they have an easier time talking to a woman than a man.

Do you find that as a woman, it’s tough to talk about money?

I do. It’s certainly a problem not just in Hollywood, in terms of pay equality. It’s harder for women to talk openly about, and like the line that bookends the film, it’s OK to want that. Naomi says, “I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I only do what I do to benefit my family. I do help my family and I did grow up poor, and yes, those are reasons that propelled me into what I did. But I also like to know that I can do it, I can make it. It’s mine, I control it; it’s from my sweat and hard work. And it’s not a bad thing to strive for it.” It’s traditionally been considered more of a male pursuit, and more okay to talk about as a male.

Erin reads an article called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Do you think they can? Does it matter?

Women can have it all, but it’s still a real challenge. From talking to various investors who are married, unmarried, with children and without children, those are very real considerations when you’re rising in the ranks and you have that ambition and aspirations. It’s a more difficult balancing act when you have children, but with proper support and a good relationship and all of that, it certainly can be done. I see more and more women doing it, and I’m inspired by fellow actresses I see who are balancing it all and doing it gracefully, and being successful as mothers, businesswomen, actresses, wives, all of it. It’s doable, and it’s becoming more evident that we can.

What was the best piece of advice anyone gave you?

Get out of your own way. We often think we’re meeting with outside adversity, but it’s actually internal doubt that we’re experiencing.

What do you love the most about Hollywood?

I love getting into the skin of other people – the process of taking a role, doing the research and finding out about experiences and personalities and ways of life that I’d never known anything about had I not played a cop or Naomi or the housewife who meets with quite a bizarre situation in Breaking Bad. That fascinates me.

What do you hate the most about Hollywood?

You do meet with a lot of no’s. The difficulties in my 20s and 30s: going after roles, I was either too tall or too short, that kind of thing. I tried to turn it around as a good challenge rather than something that was stressful. How do you make yourself stronger? How do you learn to make an audition a learning process just for you and not for anyone else? That was the hardest thing to get used to.

Naomi lacks confidence after a bad deal. Has that happened to you, and how did you recover?

Absorb the loss, learn from it and move on. I’m from New Mexico, so the outdoors helps a lot – taking a hike, puttering around in my garden. The physical stuff is important. Just singing in the car can even be a way of letting go of a bad meeting.

You’re a banker in this film. What profession would you do if not acting?

I thought about that during the early hunger days, if there was somewhere else I could be of better service. I was a psychology minor at Northwestern – psychology and acting are strangely close. You’re finding out about what makes people tick.

This movie is intense, one of your many dramatic projects.

I’ve been on the dramatic path for so long, but then I did an episode of Portlandia and Mindy Kaling’s show, and I started getting my feet back in comedy, because that’s actually where I started when I first moved here. I just shot a pilot for a single-camera, half-hour comedy [Chunk & Bean], and I said on the third day of filming, “It’s so refreshing to come to work and laugh every day!” Finally, after all the crying and the grief that Skyler White had to go through for all those years, this is a good time.

That line about counting chocolate chips matches Walter White -- did it bring you back to your Breaking Bad days?

It did. And that was a real story that one of the fantastic Wall Street women that was told verbatim. Knowing that was unbelievably great, it just propelled me. The metaphor of it – the absolute frustration, anger, everything she pours into a moment. You think, it’s just a chocolate chip cookie, but it represents the whole thing that she’s dealing with, and the thing women have to deal with, where you feel, “Why do you guys get this chocolate chip cookies with 15 chocolate chips and I get this cookie?” But yeah, I didn’t think about it at the time that much – it’s like the answer to that. It’s like, say MY name!