Before shooting to stardom in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts toiled for a decade as a barely employed actress. Helen Hunt initially was told she was “too on-a-sitcom” to play the female lead in 1997’s As Good as It Gets, the movie that won her an Oscar. Perseverance emerged as a theme of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Actress Roundtable, held Oct. 22 at Siren Studios in Hollywood. Awards contenders Watts, 44 (The Impossible); Hunt, 49 (The Sessions); Anne Hathaway, 30 (Les Miserables); Amy Adams, 38 (The Master, Trouble With the Curve); Rachel Weisz, 42 (The Deep Blue Sea); Marion Cotillard, 37 (Rust and Bone); and Sally Field, 66 (Lincoln) sat down for a frank discussion about their biggest fears, their worst auditions, the roles they fought for and the secrets to surviving in Hollywood.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What makes you afraid as an actress?
Anne Hathaway: You start with an easy one!
Naomi Watts: I’m not happy unless I’ve got a little bit of fear going. I’m always trying to pull out. I’m always calling the director and saying, “I don’t know if I can do it.” With Mulholland Drive, I was completely terrified working with David Lynch. I was going on years and years of auditions and being told I was too this, too that, not enough of this, not enough of that, to the point where I was so afraid and diluting myself into absolutely nothing — and then he just looked me in the eye and saw something. He just spoke to me and unveiled all those locked masks.
THR: Do you still have those masks?
Watts: Yeah, I keep them in reserve. (Laughter.)
Amy Adams: I was 30 when I got Junebug, so I had the same thing. Whoever was getting the job, I tried to figure out what they did and do the same thing. I remember hearing about Naomi’s experience. That gave me a lot of faith in times where I was going to quit.
THR: How close did you get to quitting acting?
Adams: Pretty close. Not quitting in the sense that I wasn’t going to be an actress, but maybe move to New York, move back to a smaller market. I just wasn’t happy. If I wasn’t going to be happy, then it wasn’t worth it.
THR: Are you happy now?
Adams: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Rachel Weisz: Fear is like the steam that fires the combustion engine. You need fear to get a performance going.
THR: In real life, as opposed to acting, what makes you afraid?
Weisz: What is real life?
Sally Field: The freeway! It’s terrifying. (Laughter.)
THR: Denzel Washington said something interesting at the Actor Roundtable. He said, “You attract what you fear.” Do you agree?
Anne Hathaway: That would explain some relationships! (Laughter.) Actually, Rachel, I have a question for you. Is it true you have a tattoo on your hip of a ladder because of the theater piece that you did?
Weisz: Um, yeah. I started out very avant-garde [at Cambridge] — I’ve sold out very steadily since then! It was more like performance art. It was me and another girl, and we were at university together. We had this stepladder, and we used to basically hurl each other off this ladder, and often we would bleed. We were 18 years old, and we just thought that was really cool and radical. I’m joking about it, but it’s something I’m extremely proud of, and I had a ladder tattooed on my hip to commemorate this theater company — which isn’t, like, a ladder to my nether regions. It’s the avant-garde theater troupe.
THR: Anne, in Les Miserables you’re playing a part your mother played onstage. Did that make you afraid?
Hathaway: Yeah. My mom was in the first national tour, and she understudied the character [Fantine] whom I wound up playing. It made me nervous to tell her that I was auditioning for it, just because I knew how much it would mean to her, and I was worried that if I didn’t get it, she would be disappointed, and if I did get it, it would be weird. And she was so cool about it. We talked about the character. And when I got the part, no one was happier for me.
THR: Was there a piece of advice you took from her in preparing for the role?
Hathaway: She gave me an image. My mom and I were talking about the idea that Fantine has lit a match, and she’s just watching it burn down. And she needs to blow it out and let in the darkness. It was amazing to have that conversation not with an acting teacher, not with a director, but with your mother. I’m the only one here who’s not a mother. I hope to join the ranks soon.
THR: Helen, were you nervous about the nudity in The Sessions?
Helen Hunt: Sure. But you read something beautiful rarely.
Field: It’s also — Helen, I realized we’re, um, the only ones sort of a certain age, or my age is more certain than yours. It gets harder and harder, girls.
Hunt: My desire to be in something beautiful was bigger than my nerves. I met this woman whom I play [Cheryl Cohen Greene], and she’s in her 60s, cancer survivor, grandmother, still a working sex surrogate who is as enthusiastic about her granddaughter as she is about the orgasm that the man who maybe was never going to have one is going to have. I heard all of that and thought: “Prostitutes. Let’s not dress it up.” But then you meet her, and you really hear what she does. It’s really something, you know?
THR: Marion, is there a role you’ve played that changed your life?
Marion Cotillard: After La Vie en Rose, I started to feel the need to clean up some relationships, which was really weird. Suddenly, I needed to start fresh. Sometimes you go deep inside yourself, and I think it opens things inside of you. I don’t know if you can really identify what it is, but you just need to heal. Did I answer the question? (Laughter.)
THR: How has fame changed your life?
Adams: I am going to get in an altercation with the paparazzi. It’s going to happen. They keep focusing on my child. You guys are mothers. How do you handle it? Because I need to calm down. I have a really bad temper. I need to learn how to control myself.
Hathaway: I’m thinking about that because I really want to have a baby, and my husband and I are like, “Where are we gonna live?”
Cotillard: Come to France! We have laws!
Field: It’s just such a different world. I’ve been here for 50 years, in the business. They had fan magazines, and they would set up young stars on these dates with people you didn’t know, you didn’t like. Recently, I was going through stuff, and I got horrified. I was doing this at 17, 18, 19, 20.
THR: Can you say no to press? Mila Kunis said recently that a studio chief had told her she had to pose for a men’s magazine if she wanted to work for the studio.
Hathaway: At The Princess Diaries 2 premiere, they wanted me to arrive in a carriage, and I said no.
Field: I was doing a series called The Flying Nun [1967-70]. I didn’t want to do [the show] more than life itself; I was so massively depressed, I weighed 40,000 pounds. Then they asked me to appear at the Golden Globes. “We want you to fly across the Cocoanut Grove, and we want you to present an award.” I did not have the guts to say, “Are you out of your God darn mind?” So I said, “I won’t wear the nun outfit.” Now I find myself flying across the Cocoanut Grove into John Wayne’s arms at about 400 miles per hour, wearing pink taffeta. It made no sense whatsoever. I wasn’t even the flying nun. Now I was little porky Sally Field in a pink taffeta outfit flying across the Cocoanut Grove. (Laughter.)
Weisz: But you stood your ground.
THR: Have you ever really fought for a role?
Weisz: I fought for The Constant Gardener. I hounded the director. I called him a lot, and I wrote him a lot of letters. They were quite bold, basically telling him why I thought I was right to play the part. That’s very un-British. But I dropped my British-ness and at the end of the day [director Fernando Meirelles] said that tenacity was right for the character.
Hunt: I’ve had to fight for every part — certainly As Good as It Gets. I was too young, too blond, too on-a-sitcom, too utterly uninteresting for this part. I had spent many, many years where the director would want me but the studio wouldn’t. In this case, I had the reverse. I was suddenly on a big TV show [Mad About You] and I had been in a huge blockbuster [Twister]. The studio was saying, “Read her,” but he [director James L. Brooks] didn’t want to see me. My experience of acting is not this kind of lightning-in-a-bottle thing. It’s like elbow grease: work with someone, work with yourself, find the shoes. You said, “What scares you?” What I thought of is the feeling of being bad. There’s no feeling like acting when you know it’s bad.
Hathaway: I always think I’m terrible. So it’s always a relief when I find out that I wasn’t. I’ve had roles where I realized that I was in way over my head — and that is my biggest fear. My biggest fear is overreaching. I have been in situations where I felt swamped, and it’s turned out really well; and I’ve had other situations where I’ve had to walk off the film after five minutes because I realized I was in way over my head.
THR: You’ve done that?
Hathaway: Yeah. I’ve had a couple of films that I just can’t watch. The experience that I’m thinking of — and I will not say which one — I tried to get out of it because I just knew from a technical standpoint I wasn’t going to have enough time to prep and I just talked myself into it. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up and I thought, “I can get there, I can do this.” And when you don’t feel that you got there, it’s always going to just gnaw at you.
THR: Anne, how was your experience hosting the Oscars?
Hathaway: Oh, scars.
Hunt: You were great!
Hathaway: Thanks. I went into it with a lot of trust and a lot of hope, and I had a blast doing it. And I realized afterwards, I played to the house; it’s a 3,500-seat theater, so I was just shooting energy to the back of it and it was like a party! It was great! And I think it looked slightly manic and “hyper-cheerleadery” onscreen. But I have no regrets about doing it.
THR: Did you watch a tape of the show?
Hathaway: Oh God, no! Whether or not it was an actual failure, it was perceived as a massive failure. [To Amy] By this wonderful media that buys pictures of your daughter! I’ve stopped talking to the paparazzi because there’s no point.
Hunt: When Hillary Clinton was running for president, they were asking Obama about foreign policy and they were asking her, “How do you stay healthy on the road?”
Weisz: Going on with your Hillary Clinton thing, when you do actor roundtables, does age come up as an issue?
Field: Would you ask them about nudity?
THR: We’ve never asked about nudity. But we ask the same questions of the men, except: Do you think Hollywood is tougher for women?
Adams: I think women’s concerns are different. Our priorities sometimes are different. And there is a reality: You’re told constantly that you have a “shelf life,” and I don’t know that men are told that by the media, by other actors and other actresses, you’re just told that.
Field: I’m almost 66 and I have a lot of awards, but I fought like holy hell to get Lincoln. Steven [Spielberg] had asked me to do it a long time ago, like in 2005. By the time it was going to be made, the original person [Liam Neeson] had dropped out and Daniel Day-Lewis came on board, and from the time that he first asked me, a little voice inside me said, “You’ll never do it, Field. You’ll never do it.” And I have a problem with that little voice, because that little voice sometimes becomes my self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of my life and career has been about huge compromise, about selling out. I had no choice: I had children to raise, there are my priorities. And I also know that I’m 10 years older than Daniel and 20 older than Mary Todd Lincoln, and I thought, “This is going to be a problem.” And Steven said, “Yes, I don’t see you with Daniel. Sorry.” But I said, “Steven, test me! I’m not walking away!” And Daniel out of the graciousness of his heart flew in from Ireland and we did some bizarre improv; but I became Mary and he became Mr. Lincoln for about an hour! When I got home the phone was ringing, and Steven and Daniel were on the phone saying, “Will you be Mary?” (Applause.)
Weisz: It’s interesting: I often get told, “Don’t go and read.” And last year I read the prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and this one character is really evil, the Wicked Witch of the East, and I thought, “I really love this role,” and no one wanted me and [director] Sam Raimi didn’t want me and I said, “I want to go and audition. That’s my job. I’m an actor.” It was one meeting, we sat and talked for a couple of hours, and he asked me a lot of interesting questions about my parents and my childhood. And the casting director read them with me and Sam kind of operated the camera.
Hathaway: Do you feel more confident if you’ve auditioned and gotten a role going into it?
Hathaway: I do too.
Hunt: Well, otherwise the first day of shooting is the audition.
Watts: Oh, it’s horrible! I have such bad memories of auditioning that I just get clammy. I mean, I did 10 years of driving around Los Angeles just to get two bits of paper to go and line up for two hours the next day — they couldn’t even fax you those pages. I have such haunting memories of auditioning and have literally been in a room where a director has been sleeping — a very fancy director.
THR: Feel free to say who —
Watts: No, no, I won’t. Although it’s —
Watts: I’m partly English and partly Australian, and I’m not good when I have to prove myself. I’m really not.
Weisz: I’m sure you can do anything! You went from there to here.
Watts: Well, I can’t apparently do comedy.
Cotillard: I fought for a project and I fought for the director and then I spent two months in the middle of the desert wanting to kill him and wanting to beat myself because I fought for him and he was so bad. He had no idea what we were doing, he had no idea what he wanted to do. I wanted to choke everybody in the desert. Then I realized that if I don’t trust the director, if I don’t like him, I’m going to be bad. I got my French version of the Razzie nomination [for worst performance] and I really wanted to have it! I didn’t want to be mean, but I had my acceptance speech: “Without this director, none of this would have been possible!”
THR: Is there any one role that you would love to play?
Hathaway: I want to play Catherine the Great. I’m reading a biography on her life right now, and it’s such a great story. It involves sex and the denial of sex, and she was so brilliant and there’s just so much vastness. I’d love a crack at it.
Hunt: I have this Lady Macbeth fantasy.
Field: We were in a Shakespeare class together!
Hunt: We were!
Watts: I would just like to do a comedy at some point before I die.
Field: You know what? Honestly, truly, it really is hard even in literature to find older women, because if there is an older woman in a great piece of literature, usually she’s very much in the background.
Cotillard: I would like to play a monster, like Gollum or something totally that you have to create almost everything.
Weisz: I tried for years to develop a true story about this woman named Julia Butterfly Hill, an activist who lived up a Redwood tree in Sonoma County for two years and four days, on a platform. She was trying to stop the trees from being knocked down. I spent a lot of time with her and I visited the tree, and I found it really moving. And it was an impossible movie to get made. It was hard enough to make a female-driven drama, but they were like, “She’s just up a tree!”
Adams: I would really love to produce stuff for other actresses. Everyone talks about producing stuff for yourself, but I’d actually love to do it for other actresses.
Hathaway: [To Field] You don’t know this, but I tried to write a movie for you, about a spy. And I thought Sally would be amazing, because who would ever think she was a spy? I think women are starting to take more care of each other. I feel like we’re moving into a place in the world where we’re going to be able to apply it. At least that’s my hope.
Weisz: Maybe we can do the female version of The Hangover — all of us on a 24-hour bender.
Hunt: I’m ready to do that, even if we don’t film it!